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The Great War Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces, and his lieutenants, White Bird and Looking-Glass

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Chief Joseph 1877
Chief Joseph 1877

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 Perce 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 reservation.

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 Perce 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 Perce came together and made Young Joseph their chief. They said that the other Nez Perce 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.”

Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph

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 of friends.

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.”

Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph

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!”


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