Chief Joseph, Nez Perce Chief
The Nez Perce 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 the country.
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 greedy grafters. General O. O. Howard, the
Christian soldier, was sent to do the work.
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 Perces 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 goof his free will but from compulsion, and this was his excuse.
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 Sioux, Cheyennes, and Utes, 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 Cheyennes under Sitting Bull.
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 unfaithful.
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 wounded.
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 upon them.
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 Perces next crossed the river, made a detour and recrossed 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 along 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 abroad
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
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 Perces. 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 Perce scouts who were directed to talk to Joseph in his own
language. He decided that there was nothing to do but surrender.
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.
by Charles A. Eastman