A confrontation between Nez Perce refugees and white miners near Rock Creek more than 100 years ago has two groups of Philipsburg residents up in arms today.
The heart of the issue is whether the town council should approve putting a life-size diorama of the event on display in the town square. The proposed artwork would include three statues—a wounded miner clutching his arm and fleeing while being pursued by two Nez Perce warriors armed with rifles.
The patrons of the project, who have offered it to the town, are Dennis and Helen Darling of Smithville, Texas. The Darlings spend the summers at their Philipsburg residence and believe the statues would prove to be a major tourist attraction.
Opposing their efforts is Liz Applegate, longtime Philipsburg resident, who serves on the local arts council and museum board. She believes the statues would depict a racial incident better left relegated to the pages of history.
Applegate’s son is an archivist with the National Park Service who serves as the research center manager of the Nez Perce National Park in Spaulding, Idaho. Through her son, Applegate contacted the Nez Perce tribe when she learned what the Darlings were proposing to put on display.
Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce tribe, responded with a letter that said, in part: “We urge you to reconsider this portrayal of a stereotypical scene which includes a ‘savage’ Indian. This type of stereotyping has hurt many generations and, therefore, we cannot support it.”
According to the stories and newspaper accounts of the incident, a group of Nez Perce, who had escaped into Canada when the main band surrendered to Gen. O.O. Howard, was trying to return to Idaho. Somewhere on Rock Creek, about 25 miles from Philipsburg, they met a group of placer miners. There was a confrontation, shots were exchanged, and three miners died. J.H. Jones, another miner, ran for a number of miles, despite a shoulder wound, found a ranch and got a horse and went on to warn the people in Philipsburg of an impending Indian attack.
That attack never happened. The Indians continued across the mountains to Idaho where they were arrested and sent to a reservation in Oklahoma. Jones became known as “Nez Perce” Jones and retold the story often during the remaining years of his long life. He added embellishments, and the story grew over the years, as most stories do.
The Darlings consider the story to be an accurate, well-documented piece of local history. In a letter to the Philipsburg town council, they argued that the statue was worthwhile. “History is not always nice and neat and to everyone’s liking. Nearly any part of any history can be construed as negative and alienating to part of history. … However, you cannot just sweep legitimate history under the rug because someone might take offense to part of history. … To ignore Jones’ feat does this community and its history a great disservice.”
The Darlings host an annual writers’ festival in Philipsburg each summer and planned to use proceeds from those events to pay for the artwork for the town square.
Applegate says her main objection is that the Darlings decided what the subject of their donated artwork should be and then announced their willingness to give it. The community had no input into the decision. Fundraising had begun under the tax-exempt status of the local arts council, which returned the Darlings’ money and said it did not want to be associated with the project. The Darlings are now working with the Granite County Historical Society as their sponsoring agency.
Applegate said the arts council has proposed that the space in the town square be used to erect a gazebo, a replica of a bandstand that graced the square at the end of the 19th century. The original was dismantled in 1910. Historical events important to the town could be depicted on the gazebo’s ceiling, she adds.
“One of the only original photos of the bandstand shows it in the background behind two men who were hung in the town square,” Applegate says. “Maybe we should create a statue of that hanging. No one thinks that is a good idea, do they?”
Applegate is seeking to publicize the proposal every way she can. She has written to the governor’s Consensus Council, the University of Montana’s Native American Studies program, to the Peoples’ Center of the Salish-Kootenai tribe, to newspapers and to former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams. To date she has gotten a handwritten note back from Williams, telling her he agrees the proposed subject matter of the statues is “inappropriate.”
She has taken her arguments to the town council. The six council members and Mayor Jo Marker discussed the statues versus the gazebo at the last council meeting and then tabled any decision. The subject will be discussed again on Tuesday, May 2, at the next council meeting. “We have not made a decision yet,” Marker said. “We will do one or the other, not both.”
“None of us were there in 1878. None of us really know what happened,” Applegate says. “This could give such a wrong impression of our town. I’ve just been quietly trying to make everyone aware of that.”