Chief Joseph

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Leader of his people in the Nez Perce War of 1877, Chief Joseph attempted to retain for his people the freedoms enjoyed prior to white American interest in their lands.

Early Life

Chief Joseph (Heinmot Tooyalakekt in his native tongue, which translates as Thunder-Rolling-in-the-Mountains) was born to Old Joseph (Tuekakas) and Asenoth. He was baptized Ephraim on April 12, 1840, by the Reverend Mr. Henry H. Spalding, who maintained a Presbyterian mission at Lapwai in the heart of the Nez Perce’s country. This area, which comprises parts of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, contains some of the most desirable land in the United States. As such, white Americans desired the land upon which the Nez Perce and other bands of Indians lived. In 1855, the United States government greatly reduced the holdings of all tribes and bands in the northwestern United States in a series of treaties at the Council of Walla Walla, called by the governor of the Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens. In those treaties, the Neemeepoo (meaning the people) or Nez Perce (pronounced nez purse) agreed to what amounted to a fifty percent reduction of their territory. The Nez Perce were able to keep this much of their land because the whites were not yet interested in the wild and remote country of west-central Idaho and northwestern Oregon. The Nez Perce had been exposed to Christianity as early as 1820. The existence of Christian names indicates that many practiced that religion. Chief Joseph was, or was generally believed to have been, baptized and named Ephraim. It would fall to him, a kind and gentle man, to deal with the problems—initially encroachment and then expropriation—which threatened the lands of his fathers.

The troubles of the Nez Perce developed in 1861, when gold in quantity was discovered along the Orofino Creek, a tributary of the Clearwater. Old Joseph attempted to keep the prospectors from the land but finally accepted the inevitable and sought to supervise rather than prohibit the activity. This plan failed. Once the area had been opened, many whites entered. In violation of the agreements, and of the treaties of 1855, which prohibited such white encroachments, some whites turned to farming. The results were surprising. The government, rather than forcing the whites to leave, proposed an additional reduction of the Nez Perce lands. The federal government indicated that as much as seventy-five percent of the holdings should be made available for white settlement. Old Joseph refused; his refusal apparently split the Nez Perce peoples. Some of them agreed to the reduction. Aleiya, called Lawyer by the whites, signed the agreement which the Joseph faction of the Nez Perce would refer to as the thief treaty. Hereafter, the Nez Perce were divided into the treaty and nontreaty bands. Old Joseph refused to leave the Wallowa Valley, where his nontreaty Nez Perce bred and raised the Appaloosa horse.

Old Joseph died in 1871, and, at his parting, he reminded his eldest son, Heinmot Tooyalakekt, or Young Joseph, “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. . . . This country holds your father’s bones. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.” Chief Joseph was as adamant in his refusal to sell or part with the land as had been his father, but he realized the power and inconstancy of the United States government. In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant issued an executive order dividing the area that the whites were settling between the whites and the Nez Perce. In 1875, however, Grant opened the entire region to white settlement. In 1876, he sent a commission to see Chief Joseph. The decision had been made to offer Joseph’s band of nontreaty Nez Perce land in the Oklahoma Indian Territory for all of their Idaho holdings.

What transpired as a result of this decision has been termed by Jacob P. Dunn, Jr., in Massacres in the Mountains (1886), “the meanest, most contemptible, least justifiable thing that the United States was ever guilty of. . . .” Chief Joseph refused the offer to move to Oklahoma. General Oliver Otis Howard arrived with orders to enforce the presidential decision. General Howard proposed a swift compliance with those orders. Joseph realized that his Nez Perce could not long stand against a government and an army determined to take their land and move them. Accordingly, a council of chiefs, including Joseph’s younger brother Ollokot (a fine warrior), White Bird, Looking Glass, and the Wallowa prophet, Toohoolhoolzote, reached the decision to go to Canada rather than to Oklahoma. General Howard, however, declared that “the soldiers will be there to drive you onto the reservation. . . .”

Life’s Work

The Nez Perce War of 1877 is misnamed. It would be more appropriate to label it a chase. It is the story of Chief Joseph’s attempt to lead his people to the safety of Canada, where the geography and the climate were more similar to the traditional lands than were those of Oklahoma. The United States Army, under orders to deliver the Nez Perce to the Indian Territory, would pursue Chief Joseph’s band during the 111-day war/chase which eventually found Joseph winding over fourteen hundred miles through the mountains. His attempt to elude the military...

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Chief Joseph

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: In an attempt to find refuge in Canada, Chief Joseph led six hundred Nez Perce on a seventeen-hundred-mile march from Oregon, defeating U.S. military forces along the way and surrendering only fifty miles from freedom.

Young Joseph was in his mid-thirties when he became chief of the Nez Perce. In the face of pressure from white settlers, Chief Joseph, opposed to war, reluctantly agreed to move his people to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. In June, 1877, before the move was completed, renegade Nez Perce warriors killed some settlers, and the U.S. military moved in swiftly.

A peace-loving man, Chief Joseph proved a remarkable general. He assembled 600 Nez Perce, only 155 of whom were warriors, and left the Wallowa Valley in Oregon, seeking refuge in Canada. The group of Nez Perce fought their way seventeen hundred miles across Idaho and into Montana. In a number of battles, including White Bird Canyon (June 17, 1877) and Clearwater River (July 11-12), they outwitted the military and suffered few losses. At Big Hole (August 9-10), the Nez Perce were ambushed and suffered losses of more than 90 people. They reached Bear Paws Mountain, about fifty miles from Canada, in October. However, fresh calvary troops arrived, and with most of his warriors now dead and many of his people starving and freezing, Chief Joseph surrendered on October 5, 1877, declaring, “I will fight no more forever.”

Further Reading:

A Clash of Cultures: “I Will Fight No More Forever.” Documentary. Discovery Channel, 1993.

Hook, Jason. American Indian Warrior Chiefs: Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Geronimo. New York: Sterling, 1989.

Malinowski, Sharon, ed. Notable Native Americans. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1995.

Sacred Journey of the Nez Perce. Documentary. Idaho Public Television, 1996.

Scott, Robert Alan. Chief Joseph and the Nez Percés. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Warburton, Lois. The Importance of Chief Joseph. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1992.