Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Nez Perce War & Chief Joseph

The Pacific Northwest tribe of Shahaptin Indians was dubbed the "Nez Perce" by French-Canadian trappers. It is believed that the name came into existence because some of the natives sported nose rings and other nose ornaments.

The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery encountered them in 1805. At that time, the Nez Perce tribe had a population of about 6,000 people. The 1855 Walla-Walla Treaty called for the Nez Perce to sell a lot of their lands to the U.S. government. 

The treaty instructed the Nez Perce to abandon their ancestral country and relocate to Oregon's Umatilla Reservation with the Walla-Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla tribes. Things weren't too bad until gold was discovered on Nez Perce's treaty land in 1860. After that thousands of miners and settlers invaded the Nez Perce homeland. 

In the beginning, the government tried to protect the Nez Perce's treaty lands, even as far as to send in cavalry and erect a fort in the Lapwai Valley. But because of the tidal wave of miners and settlers, it became apparent that enforcing the treaty and keeping settlers off of their lands became almost impossible. Soon, the U.S. Army finally gave up trying.

Through the 1863 Lapwai Treaty, often called the "Thieves Treaty," the federal government acquired approximately six million acres of Nez Perce treaty land. Then to add insult to injury, the federal government ordered the Nez Perce to a Reservation in Idaho that was only 10 percent the size of the original Reservation.

By 1877, President Ulysses S. Grant opened the Nez Perce homeland, the beautiful Wallowa Valley of Eastern Oregon, for settlement. In addition, the federal government demanded that all roaming Nez Perce bands immediately move onto the Lapwai Reservation located in present-day Idaho.

While Chief Joseph's younger brother, Ollokot, was a hunter and warrior, Joseph was a man of peace and acquired a reputation for his wisdom. When Chief Old Joseph, their father, died in 1871, the tribe elected Joseph to succeed his father. Besides inheriting his father's name, Joseph, he inherited the responsibility to meet with the U.S. Government representatives on behalf of his tribe.

The situation made progressively more explosive as settlers continued to pour into the Wallowa Valley. Chief Joseph rejected the idea that the Nez Perce give up the Wallowa Valley and live on the Lapwai Indian Reservation in Idaho. 

Other non-treaty Nez Perce Chiefs, including Looking Glass, White Bird, Tuhulhulzote, and Hahtalekin, controlled about 200 warriors. At the same time that Chief Joseph continued to argue for peace in 1874, the Sioux called a war council. Chief Joseph refused to take part in Sioux raids on American settlers. Of course, while he was resistant to join the Sioux, he resisted all efforts by the U.S. Government to force his band onto the small Idaho reservation.

In 1873, a Federal Court order mandated the removal of American settlers and let his people remain in the Wallowa Valley. But soon, the federal government actually overruled its own ordered mandate. Imagine that!

Then in 1877, General Oliver Howard threatened military action to force Joseph's band and other holdouts to relocate. It's true, when Joseph met to discuss the demand with one-armed Civil War veteran Brigadier General Oliver Howard, there was little discussion because Howard delivered a 30-day ultimatum with a threat to comply or else.

Worried about the safety of his people and not wanting to provoke the military into conflict, Chief Joseph and his brother, Ollokot, agreed to move the entire Wallowa Band of Nez Perce to the Lapwai Indian reservation in Idaho. The bands reluctantly began to move on June 15th, 1877.

Just when everything started to get underway, tensions began when a group of young Nez Perce warriors staged raids on settlers. The young warriors killed settlers along the Salmon River, and the Army was notified. As for the Nez Perce? In response to the raid, initially, Chief Joseph and the elders hid the young warriors. But Joseph knew that retribution would shortly follow, and he reluctantly prepared for war. 

Before this all took place, the U.S. Army had only non-violent contact with the Nez Perce. In fact, there was a history of cooperation going back to when the Nez Perce resupplied and helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to such an extent that it is believed that their help saved the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition from certain failure. Then in the 1830s, the Nez Perce also aided in the expedition of Captain Benjamin Bonneville, who took a leave of absence from the Army to proceed with his western expedition.

The hostilities that had been developing during the 1870s between settlers and the Nez Perce turned into violent conflict during mid-June 1877.  On June 17th, 1877, the Army assembled its forces to march on the main Nez Perce village. They were met by a force of about 300 Nez Perce warriors who forced the Army to retreat at White Bird Canyon in Idaho.

While the Army was beaten off from their initial attack, knowing that they could not win in an engagement against General Howard's full army, the Nez Perce fled. Yes, they didn't hold their ground. 
Chief Joseph, Looking Glass, White Bird, Ollokot, Lean Elk aka Poker Joe, and Tuhulhulzote lead the entire tribe of 2,900 men, women, and children East to attempt to reach a peaceful sanctuary in Canada.

It's said that they intended to seek shelter with their allies, the Crow Indians, but the Crow refused to offer help, so the Nez Perce decided to reach Canada and maybe join the village of Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull had taken his tribe into Canada after he decisively defeated Col. Custer and the U.S. Army in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Canada looked like a sanctuary to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce with or without the Lakota, so they headed there. Of course, as we all know, wanting to be somewhere and actually getting there doesn't always happen as easily as we'd want. That first engagement between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce at White Bird Canyon in the Idaho Territory was a major victory for the tribe. Throughout that summer and early fall of 1877, the fighting skills of the Nez Perce and the military tactics of Nez Perce leaders enabled the tribe to evade almost certain defeat by superior U.S. Army forces.

The Nez Perce waged a war of hit and run, where they proved that they were an effective fighting force similar to our patriots who fought the same style of warfare against the British during our Revolutionary War less than a hundred years earlier. But right or wrong, with every move, Generals Oliver Howard and Nelson Miles relentlessly pursued the Nez Perce. Their mission was to cut off the tribe's escape to Canada.

That summer, Chief Joseph, Chief Ollokot, and others led their people on a remarkable escape attempt southeast through Montana, then back north across present-day Yellowstone Park. The Indians traveled more than 1,700 miles while outmaneuvering 10 units of pursuing U.S. soldiers.

Interestingly, the Nez Perce had no formal military training and traveled with their wives and children. In contrast, they were holding off the U.S. Army made up of thousands of American soldiers during the 1877 Nez Perce campaign. Those American soldiers were commanded by veterans of the Civil War, men with many years of military training and experience.

The Nez Perce and the Army would engage several times as the Nez Perce traveled from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley into and through the Montana and Idaho Territories. All the while, their goal was to reach Canada. 

By October of 1877, with winter weather coming on, the Nez Perce lacked food and supplies. But more importantly, the effects of moving an entire tribe over more than 1,700 miles of rough western terrain had begun to take their toll on the tribe. Thinking they had finally shaken off their pursuers, the Nez Perce stopped for badly needed food and rest near the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana Territory.

Believe it to not, the Nez Perce tribe was roughly 40 miles from the Canadian border. To them, their dream of safety was in sight. Crossing the border meant safety. Their problem, their obstacle to crossing into Canada, was General Miles, who had led his troops on a 160-mile force march to catch the Nez Perce.

So now, why did this all take place?

Before we go on with what happened next, let's ponder a question that my wife asked when I read this to her. She asked since the U.S. Army wanted the Nez Perce off their traditional homelands, and the whole Nez Perce tribe did, in fact, do just that and left, why did the Army pursue them?

Instead of confinement on a reservation, the Nez Perce chose to head for Canada and freedom. So why did the Army bother stopping them? So really, why did the Army bother pursuing them as far as they did? Why didn't they just allow them to leave and enter Canada?

Honestly, I can't find the answer to those questions. I honestly don't know the answers other than speculating that the Army's goal was to put the Nez Perce on a reservation, and they were not going to allow anything else to take place. While I hate speculating, I believe that the Army saw it as a matter of "losing face" if the Nez Perce made it to Canada and defied the U.S. Government order to confine them in what was no better than a Concentration Camp of the time.

The Nez Perce War started over the tribe's refusal to leave their land, but in the end, they did. The U.S. Army pressed the issue over their refusal to relocate to the Reservation. Why was the U.S. Army so determined to put the tribe on a Reservation instead of allowing them to simply leave the country and enter Canada is a mystery that I have not found the answer to.

Their Last Battle

The last battle of the Nez Perce War started on September 30th and would last until October 5th, 1877. After a five-day battle, the tribe's horses were stampeded, and General Howard's reinforcements were closing in fast.

While Chief White Bird refused to surrender and found a way to escape to Canada with some of the band, it became obvious to Chief Joseph that continuing to fight was futile. It was then that Chief Joseph surrendered his remaining band of weary Indians to Generals Miles and Howard.

The famous 1877 fighting retreat led by Chief Joseph and Chief White Bird, and others became the final and most extended Indian War in the region. Effectively ending the Nez Perce War of 1877, Chief Joseph's famous surrender speech was recorded and translated as follows:

"I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed... The old men are all killed... 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 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."

As a matter of interest, the U.S. Army awarded the Medal of Honor to Captains Edward S. Godfrey and Myles Moylan for their actions against the Nez Perce at Bear Paw Mountain. It is believed that less than 800 Nez Perce warriors defeated or held off the thousands of pursuing American troops during the 18 battles, skirmishes, and engagements. And yes, it is believed that more than 300 American soldiers and 1,000 Nez Perce men, women, and children were killed in what can only be described as insanity.

General Miles promised the Nez Perce a safe return to the Wallowa Valley. But in fact, General Miles was overruled, and the Nez Perce were instead sent to Kansas and Oklahoma -- where the survivors of 1877 endured many more years of hardship.

The Nez Perce War would not be the last conflict where the decisions and promises of battlefield commanders would be negated and disregarded by political forces and a physically distant command structure. During his people's brutal confinement at Fort Leavenworth and then in Oklahoma, Chief Joseph relentlessly appealed to the U.S military and the federal government for help to return them to their land.

In 1879, Chief Joseph and another leader, Chief Yellow Bull, went to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes to plead their case. They asked that their people be able to return to their homeland in the Pacific Northwest. Then something that was never heard of took place. Chief Joseph presented his case to the American people in which he provided his account of Nez Perce's history and their treatment at the hands of their jailers. He did so in an interview with Reverend W.H. Hare. And yes, that interview was published in the North American Review in April 1879.

For the remainder of his life, Chief Joseph tried unsuccessfully to convince the federal government that he and his tribe should regain a place in the valley "where most of my relatives and friends are sleeping their last sleep." He attempted to win congressional support, but Senators from the West were not about to lend aid to Indians. No, not in those days. They knew it would have been political suicide to do so. As with today, they were not about to take a stand that would possibly mean losing their constituents' support.

However, Chief Joseph made such a favorable impression that the Indian Rights Association that several wealthy Eastern philanthropists began to speak out on his behalf. Chief Joseph actually made several trips to Washington, D.C., and to New York City on behalf of his people to argue for their return. Of course, it would not be until 1885 that some of the Nez Perce were allowed to move onto the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph and others were sent to the Colville Reservation in Washington. That just shows how little his pleading did in Washington, D.C. 

On September 21, 1904, at age 64, Chief Joseph died alone in his teepee after serving his people for most of his adult life. The doctor listed his cause of death as "a broken heart." His remains were interred in the cemetery on the Colville Reservation. 

He was a Nez Perce Chief, a man of his people who lived most of his later life separated from the people and land he dearly loved. In the Wallowa Valley is Joseph Creek, a tributary of the Grande Ronde River in present-day Northeastern Oregon. Joseph was born in a dry cave near that creek in 1840.

It should be noted that Chief Joseph's Indian name was "Heinmot Tooyalakekt," which means "Thunder Rising To Higher Mountainsides." It's said that, as a youth, Joseph gained a great deal of his knowledge of the American military by just watching U.S. soldiers during their training. 

Chief Joseph was a great Chief, a natural leader, and more. What made him a great Chief is that he fought for his people at every turn. That alone is something that is more than I can say for many of those in leadership positions in Washington, D.C. today. Because I believe many of our leaders today are more interested in their own self-interest than working for us, I believe many of them can learn a great deal from Chief Joseph.

In a time of war and hardship, during the Nez Perce War and beyond, Chief Joseph always made the needs of his tribe his foremost priority. He did not put the cares and concerns of their enemies ahead of those of his tribe. Yes, many in Washington, D.C. today would do well to emulate that great Chief.  

Tom Correa


  1. Apparently politicians don't seem to have changed for the better.

  2. I feel bad for all the Native Americans who have to put up with the bullcrap they call the "white man's government". I am part Irish, part Italian, and part Cherokee. Due to having pride for my Cherokee ancestry, I found it very upsetting that the white man does not care about the American Indian's way of life. They think it's inferior to theirs and wish to "Americanize the savage" as they put it. This means no speaking your native tongue. No using your native name. Taking the white man's name. Speaking when spoken to. You almost feel like a slave. And in a way, you are. I just hope it's not too late for the white man to realize that the red man is still hurting and still angry. They should do what Waylon Jennings said in his song "America". Promise and then follow through. Because the red man is right to expect a little from you.


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