The Nez Percé tribe of Indians, like other tribes too large to be united under
one chief, was composed of several bands, each distinct in sovereignty. It was a
loose confederacy. Joseph and his people occupied the Imnaha or Grande Ronde
valley in Oregon, which was considered perhaps the finest land in that part of
When the last treaty was entered into by some of the bands of the Nez Perce,
Joseph's band was at Lapwai, Idaho, and had nothing to do with the agreement.
The elder chief in dying had counseled his son, then not more than twenty-two or
twenty-three years of age, never to part with their home, assuring him that he
had signed no papers. These peaceful non-treaty Indians did not even know what
land had been ceded until the agent read them the government order to leave. Of
course they refused. You and I would have done the same.
When the agent failed to move them, he and the would-be
settlers called upon the army to force them to be good, namely,
without a murmur to leave their pleasant
|inheritance in the hands of a crowd of
General O. O. Howard, the Christian soldier, was sent to do
He had a long council with Joseph and his leading men, telling them they must
obey the order or be driven out by force. We may be sure that he presented this
hard alternative reluctantly. Joseph was a mere youth without experience in war
or public affairs. He had been well brought up in obedience to parental wisdom
and with his brother Ollicut had attended Missionary Spaulding's school where
they had listened to the story of Christ and his religion of brotherhood. He now
replied in his simple way that neither he nor his father had ever made any
treaty disposing of their country, that no other band of the Nez Percé was
authorized to speak for them, and it would seem a mighty injustice and
unkindness to dispossess a friendly band.
General Howard told them in effect that they had no rights, no voice in the
matter: they had only to obey. Although some of the lesser chiefs counseled
revolt then and there, Joseph maintained his self-control, seeking to calm his
people, and still groping for a peaceful settlement of their difficulties. He
finally asked for thirty days' time in which to find and dispose of their stock,
and this was granted.
Joseph steadfastly held his immediate followers to their promise, but the
land-grabbers were impatient, and did everything in their power to bring about
an immediate crisis so as to hasten the eviction of the Indians. Depredations
were committed, and finally the Indians, or some of them, retaliated, which was
just what their enemies had been looking for. There might be a score of white
men murdered among themselves on the frontier and no outsider would ever hear
about it, but if one were injured by an Indian "Down with the bloodthirsty
savages!" was the cry.
Joseph told me himself that during all of those thirty days a tremendous
pressure was brought upon him by his own people to resist the government order.
"The worst of it was," said he, "that everything they said was true; besides" --
he paused for a moment -- "it seemed very soon for me to forget my father's
dying words, 'Do not give up our home!'" Knowing as I do just what this would
mean to an Indian, I felt for him deeply.
Among the opposition leaders were Too-hul-hul-sote, White Bird, and Looking
Glass, all of them strong men and respected by the Indians; while on the other
side were men built up by emissaries of the government for their own purposes
and advertised as "great friendly chiefs." As a rule such men are unworthy, and
this is so well known to the Indians that it makes them distrustful of the
government's sincerity at the start. Moreover, while Indians unqualifiedly say
what they mean, the whites have a hundred ways of saying what they do not mean.
The center of the storm was this simple young man, who so far as I can learn had
never been upon the warpath, and he stood firm for peace and obedience. As for
his father's sacred dying charge, he told himself that he would not sign any
papers, he would not go of his free will but from compulsion, and this was his
However, the whites were unduly impatient to clear the coveted valley, and by
their insolence they aggravated to the danger point an already strained
situation. The murder of an Indian was the climax and this happened in the
absence of the young chief. He returned to find the leaders determined to die
fighting. The nature of the country was in their favor and at least they could
give the army a chase, but how long they could hold out they did not know. Even
Joseph's younger brother Ollicut was won over. There was nothing for him to do
but fight; and then and there began the peaceful Joseph's career as a general of
unsurpassed strategy in conducting one of the most masterly retreats in history.
This is not my judgment, but the unbiased opinion of men whose knowledge and
experience fit them to render it. Bear in mind that these people were not scalp
hunters like the
Ute, but peaceful hunters and fishermen.
The first council of war was a strange business to Joseph. He had only this to
say to his people:
"I have tried to save you from suffering and sorrow. Resistance means all of
that. We are few. They are many. You can see all we have at a glance. They have
food and ammunition in abundance. We must suffer great hardship and loss." After
this speech, he quietly began his plans for the defense.
The main plan of campaign was to engineer a successful retreat into Montana and
there form a junction with the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne under
There was a relay scouting system, one set of scouts leaving the main body at
evening and the second a little before daybreak, passing the first set on some
commanding hill top. There were also decoy scouts set to trap Indian scouts of
the army. I notice that General Howard charges his Crow scouts with being
Their greatest difficulty was in meeting an unencumbered army, while carrying
their women, children, and old men, with supplies and such household effects as
were absolutely necessary. Joseph formed an auxiliary corps that was to effect a
retreat at each engagement, upon a definite plan and in definite order, while
the unencumbered women were made into an ambulance corps to take care of the
It was decided that the main rear guard should meet General Howard's command in
White Bird Canyon, and every detail was planned in advance, yet left flexible
according to Indian custom, giving each leader freedom to act according to
circumstances. Perhaps no better ambush was ever planned than the one Chief
Joseph set for the shrewd and experienced General Howard. He expected to be
hotly pursued, but he calculated that the pursuing force would consist of not
more than two hundred and fifty soldiers. He prepared false trails to mislead
them into thinking that he was about to cross or had crossed the Salmon River,
which he had no thought of doing at that time. Some of the tents were pitched in
plain sight, while the women and children were hidden on the inaccessible
ridges, and the men concealed in the canyon ready to fire upon the soldiers with
deadly effect with scarcely any danger to themselves. They could even roll rocks
In a very few minutes the troops had learned a lesson. The soldiers showed some
fight, but a large body of frontiersmen who accompanied them were soon in
disorder. The warriors chased them nearly ten miles, securing rifles and much
ammunition, and killing and wounding many.
The Nez Percé next crossed the river, made a detour and re-crossed it at another
point, then took their way eastward. All this was by way of delaying pursuit.
Joseph told me that he estimated it would take six or seven days to get a
sufficient force in the field to take up their trail, and the correctness of his
reasoning is apparent from the facts as detailed in General Howard's book. He
tells us that he waited six days for the arrival of men from various forts in
his department, then followed Joseph with six hundred soldiers, beside a large
number of citizen volunteers and his Indian scouts. As it was evident they had a
long chase over trackless wilderness in prospect, he discarded his supply wagons
and took pack mules instead. But by this time the Indians had a good start.
Meanwhile General Howard had sent a dispatch to Colonel Gibbons, with orders to
head Joseph off, which he undertook to do at the Montana end of the Lolo Trail.
The wily commander had no knowledge of this move, but he was not to be
surprised. He was too brainy for his pursuers, whom he constantly outwitted, and
only gave battle when he was ready. There at the Big Hole Pass he met Colonel
Gibbons' fresh troops and pressed them close. He sent a party under his brother
Ollicut to harass Gibbons' rear and rout the pack mules, thus throwing him on
the defensive and causing him to send for help, while Joseph continued his
masterly retreat toward the Yellowstone Park, then a wilderness. However, this
was but little advantage to him, since he must necessarily leave a broad trail,
and the army was augmenting its columns day by day with celebrated scouts, both
white and Indian. The two commands came together, and although General Howard
says their horses were by this time worn out, and by inference the men as well,
they persisted on the trail of a party encumbered by women and children, the
old, sick, and wounded.
It was decided to send a detachment of cavalry under Bacon, to Tash Pass, the
gateway of the National Park, which Joseph would have to pass, with orders to
detain him there until the rest could come up with them. Here is what General
Howard says of the affair. "Bacon got into position soon enough but he did not
have the heart to fight the Indians on account of their number." Meanwhile
another incident had occurred. Right under the eyes of the chosen scouts and
vigilant sentinels, Joseph's warriors fired upon the army camp at night and ran
off their mules. He went straight on toward the park, where Lieutenant Bacon let
him get by and pass through the narrow gateway without firing a shot.
Here again it was demonstrated that General Howard could not depend upon the
volunteers, many of whom had joined him in the chase, and were going to show the
soldiers how to fight Indians. In this night attack at Camas Meadow, they were
demoralized, and while crossing the river next day many lost their guns in the
water, whereupon all packed up and went home, leaving the army to be guided by
the Indian scouts.
However, this succession of defeats did not discourage General Howard, who kept
on with as many of his men as were able to carry a gun, meanwhile sending
dispatches to all the frontier posts with orders to intercept Joseph if
possible. Sturgis tried to stop him as the Indians entered the Park, but they
did not meet until he was about to come out, when there was another fight, with
Joseph again victorious. General Howard came upon the battle field soon
afterward and saw that the Indians were off again, and from here he sent fresh
messages to General Miles, asking for reinforcements.
Joseph had now turned northeastward toward the Upper Missouri. He told me that
when he got into that part of the country he knew he was very near the Canadian
line and could not be far from Sitting Bull, with whom he desired to form an
alliance. He also believed that he had cleared all the forts. Therefore he went
more slowly and tried to give his people some rest. Some of their best men had
been killed or wounded in battle, and the wounded were a great burden to him;
nevertheless they were carried and tended patiently all during this wonderful
flight. Not one was ever left behind.
It is the general belief that Indians are cruel and revengeful, and surely these
people had reason to hate the race who had driven them from their homes if any
people ever had. Yet it is a fact that when Joseph met visitors and travelers in
the Park, some of whom were women, he allowed them to pass unharmed, and in at
least one instance let them have horses. He told me that he gave strict orders
to his men not to kill any women or children. He wished to meet his adversaries
according to their own standards of warfare, but he afterward learned that in
spite of professions of humanity, white soldiers have not seldom been known to
kill women and children indiscriminately.
Another remarkable thing about this noted retreat is that Joseph's people stood
behind him to a man, and even the women and little boys did each his part. The
latter were used as scouts in the immediate vicinity of the camp.
The Bittersweet valley, which they had now entered, was full of game, and the
Indians hunted for food, while resting their worn-out ponies. One morning they
had a council to which Joseph rode over bareback, as they had camped in two
divisions a little apart. His fifteen-year-old daughter went with him. They
discussed sending runners to Sitting Bull to ascertain his exact whereabouts and
whether it would be agreeable to him to join forces with the Nez Percé. In the
midst of the council, a force of United States cavalry charged down the hill
between the two camps. This once Joseph was surprised. He had seen no trace of
the soldiers and had somewhat relaxed his vigilance.
He told his little daughter to stay where she was, and himself cut right through
the cavalry and rode up to his own teepee, where his wife met him at the door
with his rifle, crying: "Here is your gun, husband!" The warriors quickly
gathered and pressed the soldiers so hard that they had to withdraw. Meanwhile
one set of the people fled while Joseph's own band entrenched themselves in a
very favorable position from which they could not easily be dislodged.
General Miles had received and acted on General Howard's message, and he now
sent one of his officers with some Indian scouts into Joseph's camp to negotiate
with the chief. Meantime Howard and Sturgis came up with the encampment, and
Howard had with him two friendly Nez Percé scouts who were directed to talk to
Joseph in his own language. He decided that there was nothing to do but
He had believed that his escape was all but secure: then at the last moment he
was surprised and caught at a disadvantage. His army was shattered; he had lost
most of the leaders in these various fights; his people, including children,
women, and the wounded, had traveled thirteen hundred miles in about fifty days,
and he himself a young man who had never before taken any important
responsibility! Even now he was not actually conquered. He was well entrenched;
his people were willing to die fighting; but the army of the United States
offered peace and he agreed, as he said, out of pity for his suffering people.
Some of his warriors still refused to surrender and slipped out of the camp at
night and through the lines. Joseph had, as he told me, between three and four
hundred fighting men in the beginning, which means over one thousand persons,
and of these several hundred surrendered with him.
His own story of the conditions he made was prepared by himself with my help in
1897, when he came to Washington to present his grievances. I sat up with him
nearly all of one night; and I may add here that we took the document to General
Miles who was then stationed in Washington, before presenting it to the
Department. The General said that every word of it was true.
In the first place, his people were to be kept at Fort Keogh, Montana, over the
winter and then returned to their reservation. Instead they were taken to Fort
Leavenworth, Kansas, and placed between a lagoon and the Missouri River, where
the sanitary conditions made havoc with them. Those who did not die were then
taken to the Indian Territory, where the health situation was even worse. Joseph
appealed to the government again and again, and at last by the help of Bishops
Whipple and Hare he was moved to the Colville reservation in Washington. Here
the land was very poor, unlike their own fertile valley. General Miles said to
the chief that he had recommended and urged that their agreement be kept, but
the politicians and the people who occupied the Indians' land declared they were
afraid if he returned he would break out again and murder innocent white
settlers! What irony!
The great Chief Joseph died broken-spirited and broken-hearted. He did not hate
the whites, for there was nothing small about him, and when he laid down his
weapons he would not fight on with his mind. But he was profoundly disappointed
in the claims of a Christian civilization. I call him great because he was
simple and honest. Without education or special training he demonstrated his
ability to lead and to fight when justice demanded. He outgeneraled the best and
most experienced commanders in the army of the United States, although their
troops were well provisioned, well armed, and above all unencumbered. He was
great finally, because he never boasted of his remarkable feat. I am proud of
him, because he was a true American.
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Nez Percé Indian Tribe
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