|Thunder Rolling Down the Valley--Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.|
On October 5, 1877 Hinmuuttu-yalatlat—Thunder Rolling Down the Valley—surrendered the battered and exhausted survivors of his Willowa band to U.S. Army troops under the command of General Nelson A. Miles in the Bear Paw Mountains of the Montana Territory, less than 40 miles south of the Canadian border. Known to his pursuers as Chief Joseph, the 37 year old had helped lead his band on an epic 1,600 mile fighting retreat across modern Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana in hopes of finding refuge and safety in the land of “The Grandmother Queen.”
Young Joseph, as he would come to be called was born in 1840 in the lush Willowa Valley in what is now the north east corner of Oregon. His father, Tuekakas, was a hereditary civil, or peace chief, of his people and had taken the name Joseph when baptized by Christian missionaries.
The Niimíipu, as they called themselves, were a tribe of fishing and hunting people who were among the first northern tribes west of the Rocky Mountains, to adopt the horse and elements of the Plains horse culture. They were encountered by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. The party entrusted the band with their horses when they had to proceed by canoe and were able to retrieve them as agreed on the way back from the Pacific. Confusing them with the Chinook people, who did practice nose piercing, William Clark called them Chopunnish which was rendered in French as Nez Percé, people of the pierced noses.
The thirty or so principle villages and bands of the Nez Percé were spread over a wide areas with the Willowa Valley at its heart. The tribe was peaceful and had generally good relations with Whites as they began to move into Oregon.
|The Wallowa Valley in north eastern Oregon, the cherishted home of Chief Jopeph's Band|
As settling accelerated, Joseph the Elder and other chiefs agreed on a treaty in 1855 establishing a Nez Percé reservation of 7.7 million acres in present-day Idaho, Washington, and Oregon and maintained most of the traditional tribal lands, including Wallowa Valley. In 1863 the government demanded more concessions. Lawyer, who the Whites identified as head chief of the Nez Percé and one other tribal leader signed a new treaty agreeing to move to a 780,000 acres reservation centered around the village of Lapwai in Idaho which did not include the Willowa Valley. Joseph the Elder and the other chiefs refused to sign and the tribe split between treaty and anti-treaty bands.
Despite the refusal to sign the treaty, the government did not immediately move against the non-treaty bands, who continued to live in their relatively remote homelands for several years. They did face provocations and incursions by whites, but Joseph the Elder and the other chiefs maintained a strict peace policy and did not allow retaliations for fear of encouraging an Army assault.
In 1871 the Elder Joseph died, leaving leadership of his band to his son, who he instructed, “Never give up the bones of your Father and Mother.” Beginning in 1873 Joseph began long negotiations with the government in hopes of getting the Willowa Valley included in a new reservation. In 1877 the government cut off negotiations and gave Joseph a hard deadline to begin relocating his people to the Lapwai reservation. To avoid war, Joseph reluctantly agreed. But he was only offered land on the Idaho reservation that was already occupied by other Nez Percé bands and by squatting Whites. Although the Army offered to clear these people out to make way for his band, Joseph refused because it was not their tribal tradition to take what did not belong to them.
General Oliver Howard gave the band thirty days to move with their livestock or be considered renegades and attacked. Joseph called a council where he advised acceding to the demands to avoid war. Another prominent leader, Too-hul-hul-sote advocated war. During a second council, the chiefs received word that impatient young warriors had acted on their own, killing four Whites and taking their horses. Realizing that war was inevitable, but unwinnable, Joseph determined to lead his people to safety among their traditional friends the Crow or, failing that, to refuge from the Army in Canada.
Eight hundred men women and children began to move, pursued by 2,000 troops. Joseph was not a war leader and was not responsible for the brilliant tactical retreat that stymied the Cavalry at every hand while trying to avoid pitch battles or even molesting white settlers when they were encountered. War leaders used rear-guard actions, field fortifications, and a tactic of bands falling back, leapfrogging fresh warriors, and then setting up new defense lines. They also employed advance scouts and guards to avoid being encircled or flanked. General Howard was so impressed with the conduct of the retreat that he compared it to campaigns of classical antiquity.
|Chief Joseph later posed with General John Gibbon whose troops were defeated by the Nez Perce at the Big Hole Fight.|
After escaping east through the narrow Lolo Pass, the band turned to the south. There was a sharp fight at Big Hole and another at Camas Meadows. Both times the band escaped capture.
Tourists in Yellowstone Park were startled to encounter the retreating band as it crossed from west to east but were unmolested by the fleeing Indians.
But no matter how skillfully conducted, each clash cost the lives of irreplaceable warriors and the long trek without fresh supplies or time to stop for hunting caused widespread hunger and hardship among the people.
After the Crow, a tribe who had firmly allied themselves with the Army and whose braves served as the most reliable of cavalry scouts, betrayed their old friends, the band turned north for a final dash for the border.
General Miles’s fresh troops caught them at the Bear Paw Mountains. After a five day fight with most of his war chiefs and warriors dead, and his people too exhausted to make a final three or four day dash to the border, Joseph offered his surrender.
|Chief Joseph surrenders to General Oliver Howard. Painting by Mort Kunstler|
Joseph’s famous surrender speech was recorded by Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who would later achieve some recognition as a poet. Modern scholars believe that Wood may have embellished Joseph’s words, although all witnesses reported being moved by his dignity and eloquence. As Wood recorded it, Joseph said:
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, Too-hul-hul-sote 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.
The story of the plight of the Nez Percé and of Chief Joseph stirred up considerable sympathy in the eastern press. But sympathy did them little good. Despite promises of at least being reunited with their fellow Nez Percé on the Idaho reservation, Joseph and 400 survivors were taken to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas in unheated cattle cars. They were interred there for eight months and then sent to the totally alien environment of a reservation in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) where disease continued to take its toll.
In 1879 Joseph went to Washington to appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes. But it was not until 1885 that his band was finally allowed to return to the Northwest. They were assigned to a reservation at the Colville Indian Reservation with 11 other tribes. This was far from both the Willowa and the other Nez Percé in Idaho. Joseph remained the chief of his people until he died in 1904.