Chief Joseph

“Let me be a free man-free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade, where I choose, free to chose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk and think and act for myself-and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.”

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Joseph was born in a cave on Joseph Creek sometime in 1840. He was the son of Tuekakas, commonly known as Old Chief Joseph or Joseph the Elder, and wife Etoweenonmy. Young Joseph was the eventual successor to his father, as the leader of the Wallowa (Wel’ewa) band, which occupied the Wallowa-Imnaha areas.

Joseph the Younger succeeded his father as leader of the Wallowa band in 1871. Before his death, the latter counseled his son:

“My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

Joseph commented:

“I clasped my father’s hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father’s grave is worse than a wild beast.”

Young Joseph was a prominent figure in the negotiations that led up to the Nez Perce War of 1877. Although, not being present at the 1863 treaty negotiations when other “chiefs” sold his land without his consent, Joseph did take part in the tumultuous negotiations on May 3, 1877 at Fort Lapwai in Idaho.

It was during these proceedings, which resulted in chief Toohoolhoolzote (Tuu hul hul cuut) being jailed by Howard and the Non-treaty bands given 30 days to gather their possessions and move to the new reservation or else be moved there by force.

In May, 1877 Chief Joseph gathered his band on Nez Perce Indians from their winter villages along the Imnaha. Instead of heading for their customary summering country in the Wallowa Valley, they began their famous fighting retreat from General O.O. Howard. They could not accept his ultimatum to abandon their homes and migrate to the Lapwai Indian Reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph’s running fight toward sanctuary in Canada was nearly successful. After three months of outsmarting and outfighting his pursuers, Chief Joseph was captured within thirty miles of Canada at Snake Creek near the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana.The Last Roundup

The remnants of the Non-treaty bands were then removed to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and then finally to “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma. After several trips to Washington D.C., Joseph and his followers were sent back to the Northwest in 1885, some going to the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho and others to the Colville Reservation at Nespelem, Washington. Joseph died at 5:45 P.M. September 14, 1904 at Nespelem, Washington.

For over three months, the Nez Perce outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers, traveling 1,170 miles (1,880 km) across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

Flight of the Nez Perce Map

Flight of the Nez Perce Map

General Howard, leading the opposing cavalry, was impressed with the skill with which the Nez Perce fought, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications. Finally, after a devastating five-day battle during freezing weather conditions with no food or blankets, with the major war leaders dead, Joseph formally surrendered to General Nelson Appleton Miles on October 5, 1877 in the Bear Paw Mountains of the Montana Territory, less than 40 miles (60 km) south of Canada in a place close to the present-day Chinook, in Blaine County.

The battle is remembered in popular history by the words attributed to Joseph at the formal surrender:

“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, to see how many 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.”

His speech brought attention – and therefore credit – his way. He earned the praise of General William Tecumseh Sherman and became known in the press as “The Red Napoleon”.

Joseph’s fame did him little good. By the time he surrendered, 150 of his followers had been killed or wounded. Their plight, however, did not end. Although Joseph had negotiated a safe return home for his people, General Sherman forced him and 400 followers to be taken on unheated rail cars to Fort Leavenworth, in eastern Kansas, to be held in a prisoner of war campsite for eight months. Toward the end of the following summer, the surviving Nez Perce were taken by rail to a reservation in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) for seven years. Many of them died of epidemic diseases while there.

In 1879, Chief Joseph went to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead his people’s case. Although Joseph was respected as a spokesman, opposition in Idaho prevented the U.S. government from granting his petition to return to the Pacific Northwest. Finally, in 1885, Chief Joseph and his followers were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest to settle on the reservation around Kooskia, Idaho. Instead, Joseph and others were taken to the Colville Indian Reservation far from both their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and the rest of their people in Idaho.

Nez Perce group known as "Chief Joseph's Band", Lapwai, Idaho, spring, 1877 A large group of men on horseback with mountains in the background. In the front center of the group can be seen Chief Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass. (Number: L94-7.105; Collection: Roy Berk; Contributor: University of Washington Libraries; Repository: Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.)

Nez Perce group known as “Chief Joseph’s Band”, Lapwai, Idaho, spring, 1877
A large group of men on horseback with mountains in the background. In the front center of the group can be seen Chief Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass. (Number: L94-7.105; Collection: Roy Berk; Contributor: University of Washington Libraries; Repository: Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.)

Joseph continued to lead his Wallowa band on the Colville Reservation, at times coming into conflict with the leaders of 11 other tribes living on the reservation. Chief Moses of the Sinkiuse-Columbia, in particular, resented having to cede a portion of his people’s lands to Joseph’s people, who had “made war on the Great Father”.

In his last years Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United States policy toward his people and held out the hope that America’s promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. In 1897, he visited Washington again to plead his case. He rode in a parade honoring former President Ulysses Grant in New York City, with Buffalo Bill Cody, but he was a topic of conversation for his headdress more than his mission.

Chief Joseph and His Family

Chief Joseph and His Family




In 1903, Chief Joseph visited Seattle, a booming young town, where he stayed in the Lincoln Hotel as guest to Edmond Meany, a history professor at the University of Washington. It was there that he also befriended Edward Curtis, the photographer, who took one of his most memorable and well-known photographs. Joseph also visited President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington that year. Everywhere he went, it was to make a plea for what remained of his people to be returned to their home in the Wallowa Valley. But it would never happen.

An indomitable voice of conscience for the West, in September 1904, still in exile from his homeland, he died – according to his doctor – “of a broken heart” Meany and Curtis helped Joseph’s family bury their chief near the village of Nespelem, Washington, where many of his tribe’s members still live.


White Bird

White Bird (Peo peo Hix hiix, sometimes referred to as "White Pelican")

White Bird (Peo peo Hix hiix, sometimes referred to as “White Pelican”)

White Bird was the head man of the Lam’atta band, located on Whitebird Creek. White bird was one of the most adamant against selling lands on which the Nez Perce resided during the 1863 Treaty proceedings. He was also a prominent, experienced leader among the Non-treaty bands who were involved in the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was the men from the Lam’atta band that killed several settlers in the Salmon River area, which ignited the Nez Perce War of 1877. White Bird was one of the elder men who helped organize and rally the young warriors, which enabled them to retake the encampment that had been overtaken by the devastating initial assault of Gibbon and his forces. The scores of women, children, and fighting men who died as a result of this attack infuriated this proud leader and demanded that the “young men” who wanted to fight so bad to respond. White Bird led a small group of followers from the Snake Creek Battle to the camp of Sitting Bull in the Cypress Hill, then moved west, as talks of returning to Idaho commenced, eventually settling at Pincher Creek with the Northern Piegan. In the evening of March 6, 1892, while still in Alberta a fellow tribesman named Charley Hasenahamahkikt killed him with an axe not far from his house, supposedly for suspicion of sorcery. White Bird’s body was buried near the town of Pincher Creek, Alberta Canada on the Piegan Reserve.


Looking Glass

Looking Glass (Ala' limya Takaniin, Cyclone Traveler)

Looking Glass (Ala’ limya Takaniin, Cyclone Traveler)

“Young” Looking Glass was born sometimes around 1830, the son of “Old” Looking Glass or Apus weyheyqt. Looking Glass was the recognized leader of the Kam’ nakka Band (Clear Creek) at the time of the Nez Perce War of 1877. Looking Glass and his band, like many of the upper-Nez Perce bands, spent much of their time in “Buffalo Country,” where they contended for the right to hunt buffalo with the various Plains tribes.

Often times, Looking Glass associated with the Mountain Crow while on these excursions. In 1873, Looking Glass led a group of Nez Perce warriors to assist the Crows in defending themselves from an enormous contingent of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe at the famous battle at Arrow Creek, which is located just east of Billings, Montana.

During the Nez Perce War of 1877, Looking Glass was forced in armed conflict with the United Sates when Captain Whipple attacked his peaceful band at Clear Creek on July 1, 1877. Because of his previous experience in intertribal warfare on the Plains of Montana, Looking Glass stood out as one of the most prominent leaders during the Nez Perce War of 1877. Looking Glass was killed in his rifle pit at the final battle at Snake Creek, which is near the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains on October 5, 1877.


Yellow Wolf

Yellow Wolf

Yellow Wolf

Yellow Wolf (Paxaat Tamkikeechet, Five Times Looking Through; (boyhood name), Ineechekoostin (inherited name, adolescent name) Hemene Maqs maqs, Heinmot Hix hix or White Thunder

Yellow Wolf was born in 1856 in the Wallowa Valley to Sikemse Kunnin (Sikem Ciicqan ?) meaning “Horse Blanket” and Yiyik Wasumwahm (Swans Lighting on Water) or Chicamapoo, also “Old Jean,” who was a sister (first cousin) to Young Joseph. Yellow Wolf spent most of his early years around the Wallowa Valley, but also spent some time just east of Lapwai, Idaho.

Yellow Wolf took a prominent role in the Nez Perce War of 1877, taking part in every battle during the campaign. He chose not to surrender with Young Joseph at Snake Creek, but instead chose to escape to Sitting Bull’s camp of exiled Hunkpapa Sioux in Canada.

He eventually returned to Idaho, where he was arrested and sent to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Yellow Wolf was then relocated permanently to the Colville Reservation, upon returning from Oklahoma in 1885. To supplement their gathering activities, many went to the hop picking grounds in the Yakama Valley; it was during one of these visits that Yellow Wolf became acquainted with L.V. McWhorter. Together, with the help of other important informants on Nez Perce culture and history they documented the Nez Perce War of 1877 , as well as other events and practices from the aboriginal perspective. Yellow Wolf died on August 21, 1935 at Nespelem, Washington.



Nez Perce Conflict of 1877 — 1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I am a descendent of Eastern Oregon pioneers, and though we cannot re do our history, we can empathize with what the Native American has endured.

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