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Chief Joseph belonged to a Native American nation who identified themselves as Nee-Me-Poo, “The People.” He was a member of the Wallamotkin, or Wallowa Band of the Nez Percé. The traditional territory of the Nez Percé stretched from Washington and Oregon past the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho. The Nez Percé nation and the whites knew each other well by the time Joseph was born. From their first encounter with white men, the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805, the Nez Percé enjoyed good relations with the whites.
The Nez Percé culture permitted outsiders to marry into a different band, which formed a strong relationship with the new band or its leader. Joseph’s father was the product of such an accommodation.
Birth and childhood
Deep in the bosom of the Wallowa Valley is Joseph Creek, a tributary of the Grand Ronde River in present-day northeastern Oregon. Near the creek, in a warm, dry cave, Joseph was born in 1840. He was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain.” His people knew him as In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat, “Thunder coming up over the land from the water.” His father, Tuekakas, also known as Old Joseph, was a Cayuse-Umatilla-Nez Percé; his mother was a Nez Percé woman by the name of Khap-khap-on-imi, or “Strong leader of women.”
Joseph's father was a well-respected leader of his people. Reared as a traditional Nez Percé child, Hinmahtoo-yahlatkekht (young Joseph) and his brothers and sisters flourished in their father's village, In-nan-toe-e-in. Joseph had six brothers and sisters. His elder brother, Sousouquee, his younger brother, Ollokot, and his sisters were dear to Joseph.
When Joseph was a child, the population of his band numbered in the hundreds. They lived a nearly idyllic life in peace: hunting, fishing, food gathering, and animal husbandry. The children grew up striving to grasp the new ideas and stresses affecting their people as white settlers moved in and played an ever-increasing role in their lives.
Joseph’s father was one of the first to show interest in Christianity, introduced by missionaries. The family moved between the Wallowa Valley and the Clearwater River country, where the Reverend Henry Spalding built a mission on Lapwai Creek. After he had grown, Joseph remembered enjoying his experience as a student of Mrs. Spalding. However, the more Spalding tried to mold the Nez Percé into the white man’s image, the more they resisted. Many Nez Percé stayed away and few converted to Christianity, owing to the Spaldings’ parochial viewpoint and failure to understand Nez Percé customs and religion.
Greed, betrayal, and the foundations of war
The Walla-Walla Treaty. The 1855 Walla-Walla Treaty called for the Nez Percé to sell a great deal of their lands to the government. The treaty instructed the Nez Percé to abandon their ancestral country and relocate to Oregon's Umatilla Reservation with the Walla-Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla tribes.
The Lapwai Treaty. Following the discovery of gold on Nez Percé treaty land in 1860, thousands of miners and settlers invaded the Nez Percé homeland. In the beginning, the government tried to protect the Nez Percé treaty lands, even as far as to send in cavalry and erect a fort in the Lapwai Valley, but finally gave up under the pressure of the growing wave of miners and settlers. Through the 1863 Lapwai Treaty, often called the “Thieves Treaty,” the U.S. government acquired approximately six million acres of Nez Percé treaty land. The government ordered the Nez Percé to a reservation in Idaho that was only 10 percent the size of the original reservation.
Joseph's younger brother, Ollokot, was a hunter and warrior. However, Joseph was a man of peace and acquired a reputation for his wisdom. Joseph’s father died in 1871, and the people elected Joseph to succeed his father. He not only gained the name and inherited the responsibility to parley with the American authorities for his tribe, but also the situation made progressively more explosive as white settlers continued to invade the Wallowa Valley.
Joseph rejected the idea that the Nez Percé should give up the Wallowa Valley and live on the Lapwai Indian reservation in Idaho. Along with other non-treaty chiefs, including Looking Glass, White Bird, Tuhulhulzote, and Hahtalekin, they controlled about 200 warriors.
Joseph continued to argue for peace, and at a war council called by the Sioux in 1874, he refused to take part in raids on white settlers. At the same time, however, Joseph faithfully resisted all efforts to force his band onto the small Idaho reservation. In 1873, a federal order mandated the removal of white settlers and let his people remain in the Wallowa Valley. However, the government soon overturned itself.
In 1877, General Oliver Howard threatened military action to force Joseph's band and other holdouts to relocate. Worried about the safety of his people, and not wanting to provoke the military into conflict, Joseph and his brother, Ollokot, agreed to move the entire Wallowa Band of Nez Percé to the Lapwai Indian reservation in Idaho.
Enraged at the loss of their homeland, about 20 young Nez Percé warriors interrupted the forced relocation when they attacked nearby settlements, killing several whites. Owing to that unfortunate action, General Howard began to chase Joseph's band and the others who had not yet relocated to the smaller reservation. Although he had deplored war, Joseph cast his lot with the war leaders.
The legendary retreat
Even as the combined bands of non-treaty Nez Percé led by Joseph made their way to the Lapwai Indian reservation in Idaho, they were attacked by Howard’s troops. When they had reached Idaho, yet were still coming under fire from the army, the chiefs held counsel and decided that their best recourse was to flee and join their allies, the Mountain Crow to the East. The chiefs selected Looking Glass to be the war chief and trail boss, whose responsibility was to defend and guide the people as they traveled.
Many army officers could not help but admire the Indians' retreat and their 1,700-mile march, admitting that "the Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that deserved universal praise. They fought with a highly honed and almost precise military skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field defenses." The Indians won a decisive victory in what became the opening battle of the Nez Percé War.
Over the following three months, the band of about 700 souls, of which fewer than 200 were warriors — encumbered by what goods they could carry and hundreds of horses — fought 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous skirmishes.
After they began their illustrious journey, they made their way through the mountainous terrain of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The Nez Percé outmaneuvered and frustrated the efforts of General Howard to capture them. Determined to capture the renegade Indian bands, Howard sent word to army commands ahead of the Indians and order them to intercept the fugitives, while continuing his pursuit. Joseph’s people crossed the Snake River, which was high with spring rains. They lost numerous horses and some cattle. The Nez Percé forded the river and continued toward the Idaho reservation. They arrived at Tolo Lake and rested.
The Nez Percé then sought refuge in White Bird Canyon. Colonel John Gibbon at Fort Shaw had received news of the hostiles from General Howard. Gibbon quickly assembled soldiers of the 7th Infantry and civilians, and set out to intercept them. With 200 men, he arrived and prepared a surprise attack, which commenced on June 17. At day’s end, the Nez Percé suffered only two wounded and no deaths. The cavalry, however, suffered 34 deaths. Despite the attack, the Nez Percé continued their effort to reach the new reservation. Three more combat encounters on the trail to the reservation and two battles within reservation borders persuaded the Nez Percé leadership that there was no peace for them in Idaho.
By now, the Nez Percé refugees consisted of 200 men and approximately 550 women and children. They now fled in the direction of the buffalo country of Montana, determined to reach friends among the Mountain Crow people.
While resting at the Big Hole River camp, war chief Looking Glass believed that they were safe from attack — and neglected to set night sentries. A surprise attack by the 7th Infantry on the Nez Percé Big Hole River camp on August 9, left about 100, dead, most of them women and children. Every family suffered the loss of at least one member. In a brave covering firefight, 60 Nez Percé sharpshooters held off the soldiers while Joseph led survivors out of danger. By the end of the battle, 30 Nez Percé warriors lay dead. Twenty-five soldiers and five civilian volunteers died, and another thirty eight were wounded.
Although war chief Looking Glass survived the battle, faith in his leadership fell sharply. From that point on, the survivors placed more authority and responsibility on Chief Hototo (Lean Elk) and in the administrative chief, Joseph. Owing to the casualties inflicted upon the troops, the U.S. Army was not able to pursue the Nez Percé immediately.
Joseph organized the surviving women, children, and elderly men while the warriors regrouped under Hototo, who had friends among the Crow in Montana and Wyoming. Thinking that the Crow Tribe would give them aid, the survivors crossed Horse Prairie and Bannock Pass and reentered Idaho, turning east toward Yellowstone National Park. Along the way, more Nez Percé warriors, as well as several women and children who had been wounded at the Big Hole, died, adding to the grief and frustration among the remaining people. Chief Joseph and other leaders attempted to restrain those seeking revenge on civilian targets, but three ranches were raided for horses and five white ranchers, as well as another five civilian freight-teamsters were killed en route. The attacks threw the whites throughout the region into a “siege mentality,” taking up arms in stockades.
General Howard continued his pursuit and almost cornered the Nez Percé, but a party of warriors led by Ollokot, Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote, held them off and ran off the army’s mule herd, temporarily immobilizing them. By late August, the Nez Percé had entered West Yellowstone and began to move up the Madison and Firehole rivers. They understood their plight and decided to head north out of the area. They ascended Pelican Creek, headed on to the Lamar River, and eventually threaded the Absaroka Range to Clark Fork River and on to the Yellowstone itself — a difficult trek. A rearguard of warriors encountered parties of Yellowstone tourists, killed two of them, and burned a ranch, adding to the charges leveled against the Nez Percé for not moving peaceably onto the reservation back in Idaho.
Once in Crow country, the Nez Percés' hopes of living among their buffalo-hunting friends were shattered when the Crow denied help, fearing the U.S. Army would turn against them as well. Therefore, they pressed on. After crossing the Musselshell River, they passed through the Judith Basin and finally reached the Missouri River.
Fighting several skirmishes against the better armed and more numerous soldiers, the Nez Percé crossed the Missouri River in northern Montana on September 23. They decided to make a run for Canada to live among the Sioux under Chief Sitting Bull, who had been there since the end of the Battle of the Little Big Horn the year before. By late September, a weary group of survivors struggled to reach the Canadian border, only 40 miles away. They hoped to find refuge there with Sitting Bull’s exiles, which had been given temporary sanctuary by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police following the Little Big Horn battle.
Soon afterward, thinking they had outlasted and outwitted their pursuers, the Nez Percé stopped to rest near Bear Paw Mountain. With no bluecoats in sight and suffering from exposure, hunger, and exhaustion, they prepared for the final push into Canada.
However, General Nelson Miles and his force surprised them on September 30. During a final devastating five-day battle in freezing weather conditions with no food or blankets, the Nez Percé warriors valiantly held off the U.S. troops just long enough to support the evacuation of some of their people to escape into Canada. Under the leadership of Chief White Bird, 103 men, 60 women, and eight children evaded detection and slipped across the border. Chief Joseph formally surrendered to General Miles, ending what had already become a famous flight.
On October 5, with war chiefs Ollokot and Looking Glass dead, only Chief Joseph remained in the main leadership position. He surrendered himself, 86 other men, 184 women, and 147 children, with a pledge from U.S. officials that his people could spend the winter on Tongue River and return to Idaho in the spring to live on their reservation in peace. By the time Joseph surrendered, more than 200 Nez Percé had died. Joseph formally surrendered to Miles on October 5, 1877, then uttered his famous speech:
“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta-Hool-Hool-Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Joseph’s plight did not end and his fame did him little good. Political pressure from the Northwest dictated their fate. They were to be exiled to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Joseph and all of the Nez Percé were taken into custody, held as prisoners of war, and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Their imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth was brutal, but their circumstances worsened when they were finally transported to the hellhole called “Indian Territory,” there to die and be forgotten. For the following eight years, Joseph and most of his people remained prisoners of war in Indian Territory, where many died of diseases and hopeless depression. During that time, many of the tribe's women and children died of malaria.
Back to the Northwest
On April 29, 1885, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the tribe's guardians to move the Nez Percé back to the Northwest. On May 22, 1885, the Nez Percé boarded railroad cars in Arkansas City to travel to the reservation. Those who had converted to Christianity were allowed to move to Idaho. The Nez Percé in Oklahoma were allowed to return to the Northwest. Some 268 Nez Percé of the non-treaty bands who survived the captivity in Fort Leavenworth and the Indian Territory were allowed to move to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, not far from the Wallowa Valley.
Even in defeat, Joseph did not lose heart, but continued to defend and support those entrusted to his care with every tool at his disposal. During his people's brutal confinement at Fort Leavenworth and in Oklahoma, he appealed to military and civil officials. In 1879, Chief Joseph and another leader, Chief Yellow Bull, went to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead the case of his people and for their return to their homeland, the Pacific Northwest.
Joseph presented his case to the public at large, providing his account of Nez Percé history and their treatment at the hands of the Americans to the Reverend W.H. Hare in an interview published in the North American Review in April 1879. For the remainder of his life, Joseph tried unsuccessfully to convince federal authorities that he and others from his tribe should regain a place in the valley "where most of my relatives and friends are sleeping their last sleep." They made an attempt to win congressional support, but western senators were not about to lend aid to the Indians, with the possibility of losing their constituents' support, and all that they had created since the government started its war of armed pacification.
Chief Joseph made such a favorable impression, however, that the Indian Rights Association and several eastern philanthropists began to speak out on his behalf. Joseph made several trips back to Washington, D.C., and to New York City on behalf of his people. He dictated his own account of the Nez Percé War, hoping to draw sympathy and support from those in power, but the government did not move quickly on his appeals.
In 1885, Chief Joseph and his followers were allowed to move to a reservation in the Pacific Northwest, still far from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley. Those who continued to practice the old ways were to be exiled to the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington. Joseph and 150 of his non-Christian band were sent to the Colville Reservation, where the chief lived out the remainder of his life traveling and speaking on behalf of his people. At Colville, Joseph had a log cabin, but he preferred the old way of living in teepees and mat lodges. There he sought to live in the traditional manner and follow his Dreamer beliefs. He and his band became permanent residents of the Colville Reservation.
Death of a Native American hero
On September 21, 1904, at age 64, a great statesman for his people, a man who had lived most of his later life separated from the people and land that he dearly loved and protected, died in exile on the Colville Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington State.
Chief Joseph had died alone in his teepee after serving his people for most of his adult life. The doctor listed cause of death as a broken heart. His remains were interred in the cemetery on the Colville Reservation.
To honor him, a monument was erected at Nespelem on the reservation in 1905. In celebration of his life and death, his friend Chief Yellow Bull rode Joseph's horse and delivered his eulogy while on horseback. "Joseph is dead," the old chief said, "but his words will live forever."
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