Trip to Joseph

By Margie Bailey Rose


My friend Jonnie is interested in genealogy and traces her family back to the thirteenth century.  When she grows weary of success she helps me with mine.  Family lore says my mother was descended from Old Joseph of the Nez Perce, but my search for proof has been one dead-end after another.  Non-treaty Indians have very few records, as they were not on tribal roles kept by Indian agents.  (American Indians were not citizens of the US until 1923.)  Census records were very spotty in the Oregon Territory.  As the territory divided into states, boundary lines of counties (and even state lines) moved back and forth.  Trying to find records is frustrating.


I found a land grant record on the Internet for my great-great-grandfather in eastern Oregon.  Due to budget cuts, the local courthouse staff could not look for additional information for me.  I would have to go there to look through their files myself.  Jonnie said it sounded like fun, so we made plans to visit Joseph, Oregon, and walk the land of my ancestors. 


News reports alerted me to a planned Pow Wow by the Nez Perce that summer in Joseph.  They were having ground-breaking ceremonies for a community center on land given back to them by the US Park Service.  Joseph's band were non-treaty, so all of their homeland was taken by the US Army and given to farmers for homesteads– one of whom may have been my great-great grandfather.  If I could find something that gave the name and/or ethnicity of his wife I would be a very happy little Indian.


Speaking of the Internet– I looked up accommodations and found all of the local hotels full, as they were having their annual rodeo that weekend.  There was one place with a room and it sounded OK even though it was 20 miles out of town.  Hunting cabins at the base of the mountains with a river out back–we could live with that.  I called the number and spoke to a woman who kept repeating what I said.  I finally got her to say she would book a reservation for us to stay four nights.  After driving all day we arrived exhausted to find the most primitive motel left in America.  They were not expecting us, as the woman I had spoken to was the owner's senile mother.  In fact they were looking for Mom as she seemed to have wandered away into the woods, or perhaps drowned in the raging river.  (I can still hear the river roaring in my ears as it, along with the huge mosquitoes, kept us awake most of the night.)  Next morning we took stock of the cabin.  It was a time capsule from 1950; chrome waste basket with step-on foot peddle complete with garbage, ancient refrigerator with partly-eaten petrified food, the ever-present mosquitoes.  I continued a practice started the night before of smashing mosquitoes on the walls making a pattern of splattered blood.  We headed for town to beg for better housing and to visit the courthouse.  We stopped at two hotels hoping for a last minute cancellation but had no luck.


We should have visited before we begged, because when we got to the courthouse it was closed.  A sign on the door read, "Closed half day Thursday and all day Friday."  I was livid– yelling and pounding on the door.  We had traveled across two states and slept with blood-sucking insects to be thwarted by budget cuts.  Crying in public is not an option for Jonnie and me so we started asking people on the street if anyone had a room to rent and if there was a historical society or museum in the surrounding area.  We hit pay dirt in both areas. 


Some years earlier a lovely couple from Seattle bought the local radio station and the old hotel where it was housed.  They planned to remodel the hotel as time and money became available, and someday open it to guests.  So far only friends and relatives had used the rooms, but we begged so they showed us around.  Words can't describe the glory before us.  A suite of rooms with living, dining, and bedroom (with two king-size beds.)  A large screen TV with movies a-plenty, and a party-size hot tub completed the dream.  We begged her to take our money– all of it, and headed back to the mountains to get our stuff and check out of the "Bates Motel.Ó  I never saw a charge on my credit card for the one night of torture, and I don't really believe they were open for business.  How could anyone charge for a place like that?  I think they let us stay to be nice, and because I insisted that we had a reservation.


We spent time at the Nez Perce pow wow and at the official grave site of Old Joseph.  (My relatives insist the bones in the grave are not his.)  A trip to the local history museum was helpful, but still no hot arrow.  I suggested a trip across the Columbia River into Idaho to the Nez Pierce reservation.  They had the records of Henry Spalding the first Presbyterian Missionary to live with the Nez Pierce in Idaho.  I knew Spalding mentioned daughters of Old Joseph in pieces of his writing and thought I might find a name or two in the complete works.  We set out early Sunday morning in the heat of July and decided to stop at the Safeway to stock our cooler with drinks and fruit.  Jonnie was going to stay in the car and at the last minute decided to come in with me.  We did our shopping and returned to the car to find itÉ. locked– with the keys inside.  I left the keys so Jonnie could listen to the radio and well, you know  This was the same woman who survived being locked out of my car, at night, in downtown LA.  She was not a happy camper.


I have blanked from my memory all she had to say about my carelessness and immediate ancestry, but I do remember that the heat had something to do with her calming down enough to help me figure a way out of our mess.  She stayed at the car to ask perfect strangers if they carried breaking-and-entering tools in their cars, and I went into the store to look for a phone to call a locksmith.  What was I thinking, a locksmith in the wilderness where no one but tourists ever lock anything?  Everyone must have been at church because I couldn't even get a gas station to answer the phone.  About this time the cashier asked me what was wrong and I told her the sad tale.  She said no problem, the locksmith from the next county just left and I bet the sheriff can catch him.  The guy standing next in line to pay for his doughnut was the sheriff– wearing jeans and a western shirt.  (I suppose there was a badge somewhere but I didn't see it.)  He loped outside (without paying for the doughnut) and across the parking lot with me running to keep up.  The locksmith was just getting in his truck and agreed to take a look at my car.  Jonnie and I as well as our drinks and food (forget the ice!) were melting in the 100ˇ+ heat.  In a few minutes we were in the car and on our way to Idaho with the air conditioning on full blast.  How could it only have been half an hour?  The locksmith would not take a penny for his help, nor would the sheriff let me pay for his doughnut. 


I didn't find my great-great grandmother's name in the Spalding records but we loved the trip to Oregon and Idaho and we talked about moving to the outskirts of no-where-land when we retire, where everyone puts themselves out for strangers.