The Great War Chief Joseph of the Nez PercÚ
and his lieutenants, White Bird and
Far in the Northwest of
our country live the Chopunnish or Nez Perce Indians, a powerful tribe.
Chopunnish is an Indian word, but Nez Perce is French and means pierced noses. The name
comes from the fact that these Indians used to pierce their noses and wear rings in them,
just as some ladies we know pierce their ears and wear fine earrings.
The men of the tribe are large and tall and strong, and they are
very proud and warlike. Every year they went far away, even one thousand miles, to hunt
buffalo, while the women planted little patches of Indian corn and the boys rode ponies or
fished for salmon in the rivers. Now and then the Nez Perces fought, as all Indians do,
and their enemies were especially the Blackfeet and Snakes, but they never killed a white
man. Governor Stevens, one of the first white governors, gave these Indians a large tract
of land bigger than New York State, where they lived and were very happy. After a while
some missionaries came to live among them and started a big school where many Indian
children studied and learned the white men's ways. Among these Indian children were two
boys, the sons of a powerful chief called Old Joseph. Young Joseph and Ollicut went to the
school for a short time, but while they were still very small their father became angry
with another chief and moved off to Wallowa, a place far away on the Nez Perce
Then the white people began to see that this country was a good
place to live in, and they asked Uncle Sam to give them some of it. Most of the Indians
agreed to sell part of their big reservation and live on a part called the Lapwai lands,
or reservation, but after this was arranged it was found that several bands of Nez Perces
lived outside of this smaller reservation the White Birds under their leader, White Bird;
other Indians under a chief called Looking-Glass; several other bands, and some Indians
led by Young Joseph, who had become their chief after Old Joseph died. These many bands of
Nez Perces came together and made Young Joseph their chief. They said that the other Nez
Perces had no right to sell their land, and that they did not wish to leave their homes.
In April, 1877, I took some soldiers and went to a fort near
Walla Walla, Washington, many miles south of Fort Lapwai. Here I met Ollicut, who came to
represent his brother, who was sick. At his request I agreed to meet Joseph and his
friends or Tillicums in twelve days at Lapwai, Idaho, and we all hoped that the meeting
would result in a good peace. When I arrived at Fort Lapwai twelve days later an immense
tent was ready for the council. Joseph, with about fifty Indians, had spent the night near
by in handsome Indian lodges. His many ponies, watched by Indian lads, were feeding on the
banks of Lapwai Creek. All was excitement, as with some officers I waited for the Indians
to come that sunny morning to the "big talk." At last they came, riding slowly
up the grassy valley, a long rank of men, all on ponies, followed by the women and
children. Joseph and Ollicut rode side by side. The faces of all the Indians were painted
bright red, the paint covering the partings of the hair, the braids of the warriors' hair
tied with strips of white and scarlet. No weapons were in sight except tomahawk-pipes and sheath-knives
in their belts. Everything was ornamented with beads. The women wore bright-colored shawls
and skirts of cotton to the top of their moccasins.
They all came up and formed a line facing our square inclosure; then
they began a song. The song was wild and shrill and fierce, yet so plaintive at times it
was almost like weeping, and made us sorry for them, although we could not but be glad
that there were not five hundred instead of fifty.
They turned off to the right and swept around outside our fence,
keeping up the strange song all the way around the fort, where it broke up into irregular
bubblings like mountain streams tumbling over stones.
Then the women and children rode away at a gallop and the braves,
leaving their ponies, came in all in a single file with Joseph ahead. They passed us each
one formally shaking hands, and then we all sat down in the big tent. After a prayer I
spoke to Joseph and told him that his brother Ollicut had said to me twelve days ago in
Walla Walla that he wished to see me now I was ready to listen to what he wished to say. Joseph then said
that White Bird's Indians were coming; they were to be here soon and we must not be in a
hurry, but wait for them. So we put off the "big talk" till the next day.
Again the Indians went through the same performance and again we
were ready. White Bird had arrived and with a white eagle wing in his hand sat beside
Joseph. .Joseph introduced him to me, saying: "This is White Bird; it is the first
time he has seen you." There was also an old chief, Too-hulI-hul-sote, who hated
white men. When they were seated again I told them that the President wanted them all to
come up to Lapwai, to the part where nobody lived, and take up the vacant reservation, for
the other lands had been given to the white men.
Joseph said: " Too-hul-hul-sote will speak."
The old man was very angry and said, "What person pretends
to divide the land and put me on it?" I answered: "I am the man."
Then among the Indians all about me signs of anger began to appear. Looking Glass dropped
his gentle style and made rough answers; White Bird, hiding his face behind that eagle
wing, said he had not been brought up to be governed by white men, and Joseph began to
finger his tomahawk and his eyes flashed. Too-hul-hul-rote said fiercely
"The Indians may do as they like, I am not going on that land."
Then I spoke to them. I told them I was going to look at the
vacant land and they should come with me. The old man, Too-hul-hul-sote, should stay at
the fort with the colonel till we came back. He arose and cried "Do you want to
frighten me about my body?" But I said: "I will leave you with the
colonel," and at a word a soldier led the brave old fellow out of the tent and gave
him to a guard.
Then Joseph quieted the Indians and agreed to go with me. We did
not hasten our ride, but started after a few days. We then mode over forty miles together.
Once Joseph said to me: "If we come and live here what will you give us-schools,
teachers, houses, churches, and gardens?" I said, "Yes." "Well!"
said Joseph, "those are just the things we do not want. The earth is our mother, and
do you think we want to dig and break it? No, indeed! We want to hunt buffalo and fish for
salmon, not plow and use the hoe."
"Yours is a strange answer," I said. After riding all
over the country the Indians called it a good country, and they agreed to come and live
there. The land was staked out, and Too-hul-hul-rote set free, and it was arranged that in
thirty days all the outside Indians should be on the reservation, and we parted the best
Now, about this time Joseph's wife was taken sick, so he left his
band and stayed away some distance with her in his lodge. While he was away some of the
young warriors came to a farm house and began to talk with two white men. For some reason
they did not agree, and a young Indian tried to take a gun out of the farmer's hand. At
once the farmer was frightened and called to the other white man for help. That white man
ran up and began to shoot, killing the Indian. Now began all sorts of trouble. The Indians
stole horses, burned houses, robbed travelers, and the whole country was wild with terror.
Joseph at first did not know what to do, but at last he broke his
agreement with me and all the outside Indians went on the war-path. For many months there
were battles-battles -battles! Joseph was a splendid warrior, and with many of Uncle Sam's
good soldiers he fought. I followed him for over fourteen hundred miles, over mountains
and valleys, always trying to make him give up. At the last I sent two Nez Perce friends,
"Captain John" and "Indian George" to Chief Joseph's strong place in
the Little Rockies with a white flag to ask him to give up.
Joseph sent back word: "I have done all I can; I now trust
my people and myself to your mercy."
So the surrender was arranged, and just before night on October 5, 1877,
Joseph, followed by his people, many of whom were lame and wounded, came up to me and
offered his rifle.
Beside me stood General N. A. Miles, who had helped me and fought
the last battle, and so I told Joseph that he, General Miles, would take the rifle for me.
Thus ended the great Nez Perce War, and Joseph went after a time
to live with Moses, another chief of whom I will tell you some day.
Twenty-seven years later I met Chief Joseph, the greatest Indian
warrior I ever fought with, at the Carlisle Indian School, and there he made a speech:
"For a long time," he said, "I did want to kill General Howard, but now I
am glad to meet him and we are friends!"
- Additional Nez PercÚ
Famous Indian Chiefs
Source: Famous Indian Chiefs I have Known,
by Major-General O.O. Howard, US Army, 1908
includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes
reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These
items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be
interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes