The Epic of the Nez Percé

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Xenophon has chronicled the retreat of the ten thousand; De Quinces has romanced about the migration of the Tartars; a thousand pens have recorded the annihilation of the Grand Army of Napoleon: the story of Joseph and his Nez Pierces is my theme – the story of the bitterest injustice toward a weak but independent people to which the United States ever set its hand. And at the outset let me confess that I am the advocates do the friend of the Indian, at least in this instance!

In 1855, Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory negotiated an equitable, even a liberal treaty by which the Nez Pierces were confirmed in their undoubted title by immemorial occupancy to the vast region in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, including the valleys of the Snake, the Salmon, the Clearwater, and the Grande Ronde Rivers.

The scope of the Steve’s treaty was so extensive and its provisions so fair, that it is probable no question would ever have arisen had not the convention been abrogated in 1863 by a new treaty which materially diminished the Nez Pierce Reservation. This treaty was signed by a majority of the Indian tribes and has been loyally kept by them to this day. Old Joseph and other chiefs declined to sign it, refused to live on the proposed reservation, and continued to occupy the fertile valleys of the Wallowa and Imnaha, tributaries of the Grande Ronde and the Snake respectively. They also refused even to stay on the lands they claimed except when it suited them.

As the majority of the Nez Perces had signed the treaty, the United States, pressed thereto by the settlers, took the position that the action of the majority was binding upon the minority. The Nez Perce Nation was made up of a number of small tribes more or less independent of one another. The lower Nez Perces of whom Old Joseph was the recognized head, who had refused to sign the treaty, recognized no power in the majority to constrain them to acquiescence. To the non-treaty Nez Perces their position was absolutely impregnable. They were the original owners of the land. From time immemorial they had been absolutely free men, as free to go where they pleased as any people on earth.

Old Joseph died in 1872, bequeathing to his son and successor, Young Joseph, called in his own language Im-mut-too-yah-lat-lat,1 which means Thunder-rolling-the-mountains, the policy of ignoring the treaty and retaining the land. Young Joseph thus records the eloquent dying speech of his aged father:

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.

In 1873, further to complicate matters, the United States gave the Indians temporary permission to remain in the Wallowa Valley. This valley is admirably adapted for grazing and agricultural purposes. Settlers, pouring into the Northwest, recognizing no right of proprietorship among the Indians, occupied it.

The white man and the Indian have never lived together in peace. Among other Indians less forbearing there would have been instant outbreak. As it was there was a growing friction. A commission, appointed in 1876, decided – in defiance of right – that the non-treaty Nez Percés had no standing and that they must go upon the reservation of 1863. Maj.-Gen. O. O. Howard, commanding the Military Department, was ordered to carry out the decision. In May, 1877, several councils were held in quick succession at Fort Lapwai, Idaho. Joseph, attended by his young brother Ollicut, White Bird, Hush-hush-cute and Looking Glass, sub-chiefs, and by Too-hul-hul-sote, the priest, or too-at, of a peculiar religious organization called the “Dreamers” to which Joseph and the others belonged, which had evidently risen out of the disputes in connection with the land, were present.

“Joseph at this time must have been about thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old. He is tall, straight and handsome, with a mouth and chin not unlike that of Napoleon I. He was, in council, at first probably not so influential as White Bird and the group of chiefs that sustained him, but from first to last he was preeminently their `war chief.’ Such was the testimony of his followers after his surrender, and such seems to be the evidence of the campaign itself.2

The proceedings were dramatic but not happy. Old Too-hul-hul-sote, the Indian orator, who was remarkable for the inveteracy of his hatred of the white men, was summarily placed under arrest to keep him quiet. Joseph secured his release and the council adjourned on May 7th, Joseph agreeing for himself and the rest to obey the order of the commission and go upon the reservation. He did this most reluctantly, and only because he felt that it would be better to submit to injustice rather than to provoke a war in which he was wise enough to see that he and his people would be the chief sufferers.

A certain time was given him to collect his people and move to the reservation. His pacific intentions were not shared by his younger warriors. Among them were three whose fathers or brothers had been killed by white settlers some time before; a fourth had been beaten by a white man. Some perfunctory investigations had been made; but as they were carried on by the white men, nothing was done to punish the offenders and pacify the enraged Indians. It is certain that the first act of aggression was committed and the first blood was shed by the white men.

Joseph and White Bird had withdrawn to the Salmon River and were engaged in preparing for the removal. The three young Nez Percés mentioned, with a few other reckless braves, resolved to take matters in their hands and, if they could, force the issue. On June 13th, they assumed the offensive. On that and the next day several settlers were murdered. Other warriors joined the first aggressors. The alarm spread through the surrounding ranches and little settlements. From the Norton House at Cottonwood Falls, half-way between Fort Lapwai and the little town of Mount Idaho, the settlers started for the latter place to escape the savages. The party was pursued and overcome. Two men and some children were killed, two others mortally wounded, the women outrageously treated, although Joseph afterward denied this. It is a matter of record that Joseph had no personal knowledge of this affair. He was not there, he had not ordered it, he could not have prevented it. The young men rode into the camp of White Bird waving scalps and other booty, and succeeded in stampeding the camp.

Too-hul-hul-sote welcomed the diversion and incited the men with all the power he possessed. Every voice was for war, resistance to unjust decree, vengeance upon the white men. When Joseph reached his camp he found his band was committed to war against the United States. Hostilities had begun. He protested, but in vain. Matters had gone too far. From his point of view there was nothing left for him but to cast in his lot with the rest. Joseph had not provoked the outbreak. He had done his best to keep the peace: but now the outbreak had come he would do his part to make it formidable.

Joseph was at this time about thirty-seven years old. The Nez Percés had been at peace with everybody for years. Joseph had done no fighting whatsoever. What his capacities as a soldier were no one knew. The first test came quickly. Messengers from Mount Idaho were sent speeding to Fort Lapwai with the news of the murder of the settlers and piteous appeals for help. General Howard acted with commendable promptness. There were two skeleton troops of the First Cavalry at the post. The garrison numbered a little over one hundred and twenty men. Ninety of them, under Captains Perry and Trimble, with Lieutenant Parnell of the First Cavalry and Lieutenant Theller of the Twenty-first Infantry, were dispatched to protect the settlers. Nobody believed that the Indians would fight and it was expected that Perry’s force would be adequate to secure the criminals and bring the rest to the reservation. Nevertheless, to be prepared for any contingency, Howard ordered an immediate concentration of the available troops in his Department at Fort Lapwai. It was well that he did so.

Perry marched rapidly, making eighty miles in about thirty hours over execrable country for the most part. He was joined by ten volunteers from Grangeville, and on the r 7th of June, very early in the morning, came in contact with Joseph in White Bird Canon. So soon as Joseph recognized that hostilities were inevitable, he had concentrated his and White Bird’s bands on the banks of the Salmon River, a tortuous torrential stream, just where White Bird Creek empties into it.

The country is mountainous and broken. Some distance back from the river there is a high rugged tableland. The tributaries of the river take their rise in this table-land and run through precipitous and gloomy canons until they reach the valley. The canon, at first very narrow, grew wider as it approached the river several miles below. Between the entrance of the canon and the bank of the river was a stretch of rolling ground several hundred yards in width. The entrance was covered by buttes and rocky ravines, forming a natural defense. At intervals on either side of the canon extended lateral canons, short and steep, but through which the soldiers, if hard pressed, might escape to the upper levels. The banks of the rushing brook, the White Bird, were slightly timbered, the valley of the Salmon bare of trees.

Arriving while it was yet dark at the source of White Bird Creek, Perry waited until dawn, giving his men and horses a much-needed rest. In the gray of the morning, when he could see the gleam of the river far below him, he took up the march down through the wild gap in the mountains.

In the open valley with his back to the Salmon River, his front toward White Bird Canon, Joseph had pitched his camp. It was concealed from Perry by the inequalities of the ground. Only the smoke from the camp-fires, rising in the still air of the spring morning, indicated its position. Silhouetted against the sky in the light of the rising sun, illuminating the west side of White Bird Creek, keen eyes in Joseph’s camp discovered horsemen at the head of the canon. A field-glass revealed the soldiers.

As Joseph watched them the descent began. For an instant all was confusion in the Indian camp. Something like a panic began to develop.

“Let us cross over the river with the women and children and abandon the camp,” urged Ollicut. “The soldiers will not be able to get at us there.”

White Bird, too, thought the advice was good, but Joseph was in no mood for retreat. He resolved to remain and give battle. With quick military instinct, he sent the women and children with the spare horses down the river behind the bluffs. He divided his two hundred warriors into two bodies. One moiety he gave to White Bird with instructions to move to the right, taking position just at the mouth of the canon behind the ample cover afforded by ridges and ravines. With his own men, he lined the buttes covering the space where the canon debouched in the valley. His dispositions were admirable. He had set a trap for the soldiers.

The canon widened sufficiently as it descended to permit the soldiers to approach in a column of fours. No precaution was neglected. One hundred yards in advance rode Lieutenant Theller with eight troopers. Captain Perry with the volunteers and his own men followed, and some fifty yards after this party, Trimble with his troop.

Not an Indian was to be seen, but every man was on the alert and ready. Suddenly, the buttes were lined with Indians. Rifle-shots rang out; several bodies of mounted Indians galloped between the buttes and charged toward the approaching column, yelling and firing. The trap was sprung. From an elevated point Captain Perry discovered that the level ground back of the buttes was filled with Indians. Lieutenant Theller, upon whom the first attack fell, deployed his squad of men and, by putting up a bold front, kept the Indians in check until Captain Perry’s company came up at a gallop. The volunteers seized the most commanding position on the field, a hillock to the left. They at once dismounted and opened fire. Perry dismounted and deployed his company in a slight depression on the right of the volunteers, backing up Theller who retreated on the main body in good order. On the right of Perry, Trimble’s company galloped into line.

The soldiers were cool and determined. The firing was fast and furious for a few moments. Several of the troopers were hit; but there were no serious casualties. The canon was filled with smoke. The Indians galloping to and fro, those on foot scarcely exposing themselves at all, escaped with little loss. As the exciting moments fled away, White Bird gained his appointed position and suddenly appeared in force opposite the left flank of the soldiers. At the same time, Joseph extended his line on the right flank. To prevent his right from being turned Perry detached Sergeant McCarthy with six men to take position on the slope of the canon and hold it. White Bird instantly attacked on the left and was completely successful. The volunteers, losing two men, fled, leaving the flank of Perry’s company in the air. Joseph seized the abandoned butte, the key to the position. There were moments of confusion and alarm, but the officers kept their men in hand. The troopers sprang to their horses and slowly retreated up the canon, seeking another ridge upon which to reform, fighting every foot of the way.

They were furiously pressed by the Indians. In the confusion, Trimble’s troop gave back, leaving McCarthy’s band isolated and surrounded. Trimble rallied them and charged the Indians; they were checked and the retreat of the soldiers halted for the time being. But they had lost their position and in a short time the whole body was forced back for the second time. Again brave McCarthy and his desperate six, who had been grimly holding their place among the rocks, were abandoned.

Lieutenant Parnell with a platoon of Trimble’s troop made a gallant charge to rescue them. The party was brought off except two who were shot from their horses and killed. Parnell and his men streamed up the canon in a wild gallop after the flying main body. The officer kept his head, however, and succeeded in rescuing another wounded man on the way. For these two exhibitions of distinguished gallantry he received a medal of honor, as did McCarthy, the heroic sergeant.

There is no disguising the fact that the troops were now panic-stricken. They had not looked for such fighting, such generalship. The officers displayed splendid heroism, but unavailingly. Lieutenant Theller brought up the rear. The Indians, by taking to ravines and intersecting canons, were able to intercept a number of the soldiers who were pressed so hard that they had retreated into one of the lateral canons. The rear-guard was thus cut off. Unfortunately they retreated into a cul-de-sac and were killed to the last man. Only the speed of their horses saved the rest of the men from annihilation; as it was, Theller and thirty-six men were killed and two desperately wounded. It was not until they got out of the canon and the pursuit was abandoned that Perry was able to bring them to a stand. The total casualties among the troops were nearly forty per cent!

The first blow in the grim little game had been struck and all the honors were with Joseph. He had displayed in this battle all the qualities of a soldier. He had demonstrated in force along the enemy’s lines and had suddenly attacked him heavily on the left flank. When the enemy had retreated he had made use of his topographical knowledge to intercept his rear-guard and cut it to pieces. Throughout the battle he had been in the very thick of the fighting. He had exposed himself to every possible danger without hesitation. During this battle Joseph’s wife gave birth to a daughter. When he finally gave up the struggle in Montana this was the only child left him. And the baby was with him all through the long retreat.

Now was seen the wisdom of Howard’s orders for the concentration of the troops. As the different troops reported, he dispatched them to the front and presently took the field with some three hundred soldiers. Joseph still remained in the valley of the Salmon. On June 27th, his scouts reported the approach of Howard. Waiting until Howard had almost reached the valley, Joseph moved down the Salmon River a few miles, crossed it and took up a strong position in the mountains on the other side. He had chosen his position with as much generalship as Washington displayed when he established his winter camp after Trenton and Princeton in the hills about Morristown. He threatened everything.

General Howard thus comments on the strategy of the great Nez Perce: “The leadership of Chief Joseph was indeed remarkable. No general could have chosen a safer position, or one that would be more likely to puzzle and obstruct a pursuing foe. If we present a weak force he can turn upon it. If we make direct pursuit he can go southward toward Boise, for at least thirty miles, and then turn our left. He can go straight to his rear, and cross the Snake at Pittsburg Landing. He can go on down the Salmon, and cross at several places and then turn either to the left, for his old haunts in the Wallows Valley, or to the right and pass our flank threatening our line of supply, while he has, at the same time, a wonderful natural barrier between him and us in the Salmon, a river that delights itself in its furious flow.”

The only way Howard could dislodge him was to cross the Salmon River and attack him in the fastnesses of the hills. Should he do that Joseph either could wait his attack with splendid prospects of success, or he could execute a counter-stroke by re-crossing the Salmon to the north and falling upon Howard’s communications. It was impossible for Howard to keep his army in idleness staring at Joseph across the river. He decided to follow him. Howard was not deceived as to the possibilities of the situation, for he dispatched Major Whipple with two troops of cavalry to move toward Cottonwood Creek where Looking Glass and his men had encamped.

Looking Glass was very much disaffected, especially since the news of the victory in White Bird Canon, and Howard hoped to prevent him from joining Joseph. Whipple had orders to force Looking Glass on the reservation. Incidentally, Whipple was to hold Joseph in check in case he attempted to cut Howard’s communications.

Things did not happen as they were planned. Howard crossed the Salmon River; Joseph made off to the north, crossing the river with all his women, children and horses; Whipple fell in with Looking Glass and succeeded in capturing eight hundred ponies, but the chief and his people escaped. Joseph descended from the mountains and marched rapidly across Camas Prairie, while Howard was still entangled in the mountain country, and fell upon Whipple’s force which was hastily entrenched at Cottonwood Ranch. A scouting-party under Lieutenant Rains, comprising a sergeant and nine men, was surrounded and killed to a man on the 3rd of July. On the 4th another party of civilians proceeding to the succor of Whipple was surrounded, its commander and others desperately wounded and the whole party placed in grave peril from which they were only extricated by a gallant cavalry charge by a troop sent from the position to rescue them. Whipple was closely invested. Howard learned of these disasters and again acted promptly. He retraced his steps across the Salmon, up White Bird Canon and followed Joseph post-haste to the Cottonwood Ranch.

Joseph, well served by his scouts, was aware of Howard’s movements. He raised the siege and retreated to the south fork of the Clearwater where it is joined by Cottonwood Creek. There he effected a junction with Looking Glass which raised his numbers to some two hundred and fifty fighting men, with about four hundred and fifty women and children.

His campaign so far had been a brilliant success. The untried Nez Perce had beaten the enemy in detail. In the face of a more numerous and entirely unencumbered body of fighters, he had succeeded in concentrating his own men,-all this while accompanied by over two thousand ponies, large herds of cattle, and his women and children. Joseph remained quiet waiting Howard’s next move. So soon as he got his little army in hand Howard, with some four hundred men, mostly cavalry, with a small body of artillery, and some mounted infantry, advanced to attack him. Although greatly outnumbered Joseph did not retreat. He had chosen his position on the bank of the Clearwater, a mountain stream with steep banks rising to level plateaus cut by deep ravines. On the banks of the river he had thrown up some rude fortifications. When Howard’s army appeared, Joseph did not wait, but instantly attacked him. Though his force was small he made skilful attempts to outflank the American soldiers and nearly succeeded. Indeed, only the timely arrival of reinforcements prevented the capture of Howard’s supply-train.

The night of July 11th left both contestants on the field, each confident that the morrow would give him the victory. There were a number of wounded among the soldiers, and their condition was the more aggravated because the Indians had seized the only spring whence the troops could get water while the Indians held the river. The fighting during the day had been fierce and in several instances hand-to-hand. The Indians had charged directly upon the troops again and again as before led by Joseph in person. He seemed to bear a charmed life for, although horses were killed under him, he escaped without a wound.

The Indian fire was terribly accurate and very fatal, the proportion of wounded to killed being about two to one. “A large number of the casualties occurred in the short time before each man had protected himself by earth thrown up with his trowel bayonet. At one point of the line, one man, raising his head too high, was shot through the brain; another soldier, lying on his back and trying to get the last few drops of warm water from his canteen, was robbed of the water by a bullet taking off the canteen’s neck while it was at his lips. An officer, holding up his arm, was shot through the wrist; another, jumping to his feet for an instant, fell with a bullet through the breast.3

The next day the battle was renewed. Howard, by making good use of his artillery, succeeded in driving the Indians back to their entrenchments. Employing his preponderance of force he concentrated a column under Maj. Marcus P. Miller, which he launched against the Indian left. The cavalry charged most gallantly, and in spite of a desperate resistance crossed the ravine and turned the Indian entrenchments, taking them in reverse. Joseph’s position was now untenable. By a dashing counter-charge he checked Miller, and by a vigorous resistance he held off Howard so that he finally brought off his force in good order. Extricating himself with great skill he retreated up the river, crossing it at Kamiah Ford where he halted ready for further battle.

In these two days of hard fighting the troops lost thirteen killed and twenty-seven wounded. The Nez Percés lost twenty-three killed and forty-six wounded. Forty were captured. Although defeated Joseph had not lost credit. He had inflicted serious loss upon the enemy. He had fought a two days’ battle against a force outnumbering his own in the ratio of eight to five, and when defeated had withdrawn in good order. He had re-established himself in another formidable position.

General Howard’s summary of the campaign thus far is both just and generous: “The Indians had been well led and well fought. They had defeated two companies in a pitched battle. They had eluded pursuit, and crossed the Salmon. They had turned back and crossed our communications, had kept our cavalry on the defensive, and defeated a company of volunteers. They had been finally forced to concentrate, it is true, and had been brought to battle. But, in battle with regular troops, they had held out for nearly two days before they were beaten, and after that were still able to keep together, cross a river too deep to be forded, and then check our pursuing cavalry and make off to other parts beyond Idaho. The result would necessitate a long and tedious chase.

“Still, on our side, the Indians had been stopped in their murders, had been resolutely met everywhere, and driven into position, and beaten; and, by subsequent pursuit, the vast country was freed from their terrible presence.”

The indefatigable Howard marched up the Clearwater in pursuit, and finding that Joseph’s position at Kamiah could not successfully be attacked in front he proceeded past him to Dunnell’s Ford, intending to cross there and turn by the right flank and fall upon Joseph’s rear. Joseph divined this, and desiring to reorganize his troops and prepare for a desperate venture he resorted to stratagem for delay. He sent word to Howard that he would like to talk with him. Howard thereupon halted at Dunnell’s Ford where Joseph sent one of his warriors to talk with him, playing for time! Meanwhile, the Nez Percés made every preparation to carry out the momentous decision to which their chief had come. Since Idaho had become too hot for him, Joseph determined to lead his people across the mountains to the hunting-ground in Montana and thence to that haven of malcontent Indians, British Columbia. Once across the British line they would be safe. This involved a retreat of from fifteen hundred to two thousand miles with a certainty of pursuit. It meant hard marching and harder fighting. It was a desperate resolution, but perhaps the only one save surrender -which he did not consider for a moment – to which the great Nez Perce could come.

“Joseph’s last appeal was to call a council in the dale, and passionately condemn the proposed retreat from Idaho. `What are we fighting for?’ he asked. `Is it for our lives? No. It is for this land where the bones of our fathers are buried. I do not want to take my women among strangers. I do not want to die in a strange land. Some of you tried to say once that I was afraid of the whites. Stay here with me now and you shall have plenty of fighting. We will put our women behind us in these mountains and die on our own land fighting for them. I would rather do that than run I know not where.’”4

He did not decide upon this course without great reluctance. He knew that he was leaving, and probably forever, the land which had been the home of his fathers. Would he ever come back to it? Would he ever reach the desired haven across the far-off boundary line?

Howard was soon convinced that Joseph had no intention of coming in, so he crossed the Clearwater and struck for his rear in accordance with his plan. If he could drive Joseph back toward the Salmon he could get him eventually by surrounding him in the limited country at his disposal for marching and fighting. His advance was delayed at Weippe on July 17th by a body of Indians whom Joseph had thrown forward for that purpose. This and the time lost in the negotiations gave Joseph the start he wanted. When Howard with the loss of one man killed and one wounded had dispersed the Indians at Weippe and dashed down the river he discovered that Joseph was gone. With his flocks and his herds, his women and his children, his old and his young, he had struck the famous Lo-to Trail and was hurrying northward and eastward with all the speed he could command.

There is no worse trail in North America than the Lo-lo. At times it straggled over huge boulders and jagged ravines; again through forests primeval, every foot so encumbered with prostrate trees as to be well nigh impassable.

The following description of the trail and a typical march of the troops over it is from the pen of Captain Farrow:

“The ascent of the heights beyond Kamiah was tedious in the extreme. It was raining hard, and the muddy, slippery trail was almost impassable, filled with rugged rocks and fallen timber. The descent to the Lo-to Fork was made by slipping, crawling and scrambling over rocks and through thick underbrush. At the `We-ipe’ was an opening in the forest with water and grass. Here was a camp made for the weary, footsore animals and exhausted men, after a sixteen tulle march of the greatest severity.

“The trail ahead being obstructed by fallen trees of all sizes and descriptions, uprooted by the winds and matted together in every possible troublesome way, a company of forty `pioneers,’ with axes, was organized and sent ahead to open the trail, wherever possible. It is true that the Indians had gone over this trail ahead of the troops; but they had jammed their ponies through, over and under the rocks, around, over and under logs and fallen trees and through the densest undergrowth, and left blood to mark their path, with abandoned animals with broken legs or stretched dead on the trail.

“It is remarkable that the average daily march of sixteen miles was made over the Lo-lo Trail, when we realize the necessity of climbing ridge after ridge, in the wildest wilderness, the only possible passageway filled with timber, small and large, crossed and crisscrossed. The following, from the record of August 2nd, will serve to show the nature of these daily marches:

“The command left camp at seven A.M. Artillery at head of column. The trail led through woods of the same general character; a `slow trail,’ owing to mountainous country and fallen timber. The summit of the hills was covered with rough granite boulders, making the path quite difficult. Our men travel it well, and are in good order. We march sixteen miles and encamp on a slope of the mountain. Poor grazing; the only feed consists of wild dwarf lupine and wire-grass. Several mules were exhausted, and some packs of bacon were abandoned by the way. Dead and broken-down Indian ponies very numerous along the trail. Camp made about four P.M.”

Note: There is obviously material missing from the original book between these two sections. We are working on recovering it.

up and the Indian camp was shelled with fearful effect. Miles sent word to Howard that he had Joseph corralled at last and that gallant officer dashed off with a few men and joined Miles on the 3rd of October. The weather was very cold and snowy and both sides suffered severely.

Joseph afterward stated that he could have escaped if he had abandoned his women, children, and wounded. Unwilling to do this there was nothing left him but surrender. He gave up the unequal game on the 4th of October. Surely he had fought a good fight! In the battle Miles had lost twenty-four killed and fifty wounded, or over twenty per cent of his force. Joseph had lost seventeen killed. He surrendered eighty-seven warriors, of whom forty were wounded, one hundred and eighty-four squaws, and one hundred and forty-seven children. This was his pathetic message to General Howard:

Tell General Howard that 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-suit is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men now, who say “yes” or “no” [that is, vote in council. He who led the young men [Joseph's brother Ollicut] 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 to see how many of them I can find; maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

Colonel Wood thus describes the scene and pictures the great chieftain:

“It was nearly sunset when Joseph came to deliver himself up. He rode from his camp in the little hollow. His hands were clasped over the pommel of his saddle and his rifle lay across his knees; his head was bowed down. Pressing around him walked five of his warriors; their faces were upturned and earnest as they murmured to him; but he looked neither to the right nor to the left, yet seemed to listen intently. So the little group came slowly up the hill to where General Howard, with an aide-de-camp, and General Miles waited to receive the surrender. As he neared them, Joseph sat erect in the saddle, then gracefully and with dignity swung himself down from his horse, and with an impulsive gesture threw his arm to its full length and offered his rifle to General Howard. The latter motioned him toward General Miles, who received the token of submission.

Those present shook hands with Joseph, whose worn and anxious face lighted with a sad smile as silently he took each offered hand. Then, turning away, he walked to the tent provided for him.

“His scalp-lock was tied with otter fur. The rest of his hair hung in a thick plait on each side of his head. He wore buckskin leggings and a gray woolen shawl, through which were the marks of four or five bullets received in this last conflict. His head and wrist were also scratched with bullets.”

Perhaps one of the truest tests of greatness is ability to bear worthily defeat. By any standard Joseph acquitted himself well in this his most trying hour.

Joseph, whose force never amounted to three hundred fighting men, had engaged at different times some two thousand soldiers. Of these one hundred and twenty six had been killed and one hundred and forty wounded. During the long retreat and the hard fighting Joseph had lost one hundred and fifty-one killed and eighty eight wounded. He had fought eleven engagements, five being pitched battles, of which he had won three,

Note: There is obviously material missing from the original book between these two sections. We are working on recovering it.

of him had marched sixteen hundred miles. His own march had been at least two thousand miles. This constitutes a military exploit of the first magnitude and justly entitled the great Indian to take rank among the great Captains.

Joseph claimed, and there is no doubt as to the facts, that General Miles agreed that the remnant of the Nez Percés should be returned to Idaho. How did the United States keep that promise? It repudiated it entirely! Joseph and his band were sent down to Fort Leaven, worth. I saw them often during the winter. In the spring they were given the unhealthiest reservation in the Indian Territory. These were mountain Indians, not used to the hot malarious climate of low lands and low latitudes. They died like sheep. Joseph protested in vain. To the everlasting credit of General Miles he also used his powerful influence in order to have the tardy Government keep faith with its poor captives. It was not until 1885 that the Indians were sent back to their beloved mountain home.

The other day a gray-headed old chief, nodding by the fire, dreaming perhaps of days of daring and deeds of valor, by which, savage though he was, he had written his name on the pages of history, slipped quietly to the ground and fell into his eternal sleep. Peaceful ending for the Indian Xenophon, the Red Napoleon of the West!

In reviewing this remarkable campaign, General Howard said:9

“I was sent to conduct a war without regard to department and division lines. This was done with all the energy, ability and help at my command, and the campaign was brought to a successful issue. As soon as the Indians reached General Terry’s department, Gibbon was dispatched to strike his blow; then Sturgis, in close alliance, and, finally, Miles, in the last terrible battle. These troops participated in the struggle with exposure, battle, and loss, as we have seen. They enjoyed the appreciation and thanks of their seniors in command, and of their countrymen. But when, with the fullness of an honest and generous recognition of the work, gallantry, losses, and success of all cooperating forces, I turn my attention to the troops that fought the first battle, and then pursued the swift-footed fugitives with unparalleled vigor and perseverance, amid the severest privations, far more than a thousand miles, would it be wonderful if I magnified their doings, and gave them, were it possible, even an overplus of praise for the part they bore in this campaign?

“At the obstructing barricades in Montana, which were dangerous to pass, Looking Glass appeared as the diplomat. He succeeded by his ability in deceiving the commander of the defenses, and brought past the hindering works Joseph’s whole people in complete safety. He was killed and buried under the river-bank at Gibbon’s battle-field in Montana.

“After Gibbon’s battle, Joseph showed his influence over the Indians by rallying them on a height, just beyond the reach of the long-range rifles. He gathered the warriors, recovered lost ground, and recaptured his numerous herd of ponies, which had already been cut off by Gibbon’s men, buried the most of his dead, and made good his retreat before the force with me was near enough to harm him. Few military commanders, with good troops, could better have recovered after so fearful a surprise.

“At the Camas Meadows, not far from Henry Lake, Joseph’s night march, his surprise of my camp and capture of over a hundred animals, and, after a slight battle, making a successful escape, showed an ability to plan and execute equal to that of many a partisan leader whose deeds have entered into classic story.

“Again, his quick penetration into my plan of delaying my march between the Mussel shell and the Missouri, so as to make all speed, cross the broad river at Cow Island, defeat the guard, and then destroy an immense freight-wagon-tram, replenish his supplies, and make off beyond danger from the direct pursuit, is not often equaled in warfare.

“And even at the last, the natural resources of his mind did not fail him. Broken in pieces by Miles’ furious and unexpected assault; burdened with his women, children, and plunder; suffering from the loss of his still numerous though badly crippled herd of ponies, yet he was able to entrench, and hold out for several days against twice his numbers, and succeeded in pushing out beyond the white man’s pickets a part of his remnant to join his allies in Canada.

” From the beginning of the Indian pursuit across the Lo-to Trail, until the embarkation on the Missouri River for the homeward journey, including all halts and stoppages, from July 27th to October l0th, my command marched one thousand three hundred and twenty-one miles in seventy-five days. Joseph, the Indian, taking with him his men, women, and children, traversed even greater distances, for he had to make many a loop in his skein, many a deviation into a tangled thicket, to avoid or deceive his enemy.

“So that whichever side of the picture we examine, we find there evidence of wonderful energy and prolonged endurance. It will be, indeed, fortunate for mankind, if these same qualities which we cannot help commending, can hereafter be turned into a common channel, and used for the promotion of the arts of peace. What glorious results would have been effected, could these non-treaties have received the same direction that the worthy missionaries were, in early days, able to give to the remainder of their tribe, and have shown the same ability and persistence in peace that they did during this fearful Indian War.”

9 Op.cit., p.271, et seq.–C. T. B

Footnotes

  1. The reader will notice that many of these Nez Perce names are spelled differently by different writers in this series of papers. Inasmuch as most of the names are phonetically presented I have not striven for uniformity, but have let each man spell for himself as he pleased. 

  2. Quotation . Colonel Wood’s Century article. 

  3. Quotation from Col. C. E. S. Wood’s brilliant article in the Century for 1884, by permission of the publishers. 

  4. From Colonel Wood’s Century article. 



MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 16 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-epic-of-the-nez-perce.htm - Last updated on Aug 18th, 2014


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