A member of the U.S. military that chased Chief Joseph and his people off their land in 1877 is being described as a war hero and equality champion who helped the oppressed fight for their rights.
Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman has the story of Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood, which is being told in Missoula, Mont., this week as a part of a month-long Nez Perce National Historic Trail “Voices of 1877” series.
By and large the heroes of the Nez Perce War of 1877 came from the losing side, chief among them Chief Joseph.
Jim Zimmerman and the Nez Perce National Trail, headquartered in Missoula, would like you to meet another.
The aide-de-camp to Oliver O. Howard, the Army general who chased after the Indians in Idaho but never caught them, was a young lieutenant by the name of Charles Erskine Scott Wood.
Long name, great story.
And Zimmerman, a former state legislator in Kentucky, comes to Fort Missoula on Wednesday night to tell it from a first person point of view.
Wood, said Zimmerman, was “very much against the action of the army with the Nez Perce, because he recognized the treaty had been broken by the United States government and the Nez Perce had legal right claim to the land.”
Wood cleaned up after the initial battle at White Bird Pass in Idaho and was in on the Battle of the Clearwater south of Kooskia. (He was presumably far back on the trail 135 years ago Wednesday when Maj. Charles Rawn and men from Fort Missoula built breastworks in the Lolo Canyon to block the path of the fleeing Indians. It became known forever as Fort Fizzle, when the Nez Perce slipped over a ridge three nights later and escaped to the Bitterroot Valley.)
Wood and Howard were the only two men who made it all the way from the Idaho battlegrounds in June to the scene of the climactic Battle of the Bear Paws near Chinook in October.
Zimmerman will open his talk Wednesday with Chief Joseph’s “Fight No More Forever” surrender speech.
“It was Charles Erskine Scott Wood who was credited for recording that speech,” Zimmerman said. “He was a writer and he was an artist. In fact, he did a lot of drawings for Harpers Weekly that depicted many of the battles.”
Wood’s character in the Nez Perce War was played by Sam Elliott in the 1975 TV movie “I Will Fight No More Forever.”
The man from West Point who chafed at being an officer left military service in 1884 after he was admitted to the Oregon bar. He became an attorney in Portland, Ore., and established a practice that spanned 35 years.
In that role, Zimmerman said, “he took up the cause of everybody that was oppressed.”
At one point Wood resigned from the bar when a black man was denied the right to join it.
“When it came to women, he was an attorney for women engaged in the suffrage movement. When it came to Native Americans he thought their culture was just as good as anyone else’s culture. He didn’t feel like anybody’s culture was better than any other,” Zimmerman said.
Indeed, Wood sent his son, Erskine Wood, to live with Chief Joseph on the reservation at Colville, Wash., for two summers when the boy was 11 and 12.
Wood was also a poet and a friend of Ansel Adams, Clarence Darrow and John Steinbeck. His daughter, Nan Wood Honeyman, was elected Oregon’s first U.S. congresswoman in 1936.
Today, Wood would be “quite a liberal,” Zimmerman said. “I as an ex-state legislator and Republican find that I agree with him in many areas. A lot of people can’t understand. They say, Jim, how come you’re in favor of this guy? But I looked for what was right.”
Scott died in California in 1944. His legacy was recently captured in an Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary. Scott’s great-granddaughter, Mary Christina Wood, told of bringing her 9-year-old son to testify at the Oregon Legislature the year before against a resort development in the Metolius River basin in Central Oregon.
Mary Wood read from her great-grandfather’s will and testament that he wrote in verse form on the banks of the Metolius in 1921.
To his son Erskine, Wood wrote in part: “I give all trout in the Metolius … I give him mornings on the river-bank, song of the river when the new sun shines … and the solemn discourse of the pines at evening when the melting shadows fall … The river is for his delight.”