Skip to main content
Select Source:

Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph c. 1840-1904


Chief Joseph, or Hin-mut-too-yah-lat-kekht (Thunder Rolling in the Mountains), was the outstanding leader from 1871 to 1904 of the largest and most influential band of nontreaty Nez Perce Indians. He was also one of several leaders who directed his people through the Nez Perce War of 1877 and the valiant but doomed effort to resist forced removal from their homeland in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon.

Like many terms for American Indian people and places, Nez Perce is a misnomer. French traders first applied the term, attributing to the entire people an only occasional practice of nose piercing. The Nez Perce people refer to themselves as Nimíipuu, which translates roughly as we people. Compared to their far more warlike eastern neighbors of the upper Plains, until the mid-nineteenth century the Nez Perce were mostly hospitable to American colonial agencies such as schools and missionaries. This relationship changed fairly dramatically shortly after the Treaty of 1855.

Joseph, born around 1840, was the son of Tuekakas, also known as Old Joseph, himself a powerful leader of the Nez Perce. Although some debate persists, Tuekakas was apparently a signatory to the Treaty of 1855 wherein a great deal of Nez Perce land was ceded to the United States in exchange for annuities. This treaty, which was abrogated by the U.S. governments failure to provide the promised annuities, began the process of Nez Perce expropriation that created a more or less permanent schism among the Nez Perce bands, and had a host of other penurious effects.

Joseph succeeded his ailing father as leader of the Wallowa Valley band of Nez Perce in 1871. He inherited a complex and finally insurmountable set of cultural and political problems that can be traced most directly to the Treaty of 1863, which came to replace the abrogated Treaty of 1855. The Treaty of 1863 formalized the division of the Nez Perce into treaty and nontreaty factions. The upper Nez Perce, represented by a man named (ironically) Lawyer, agreed to a massive sale of territory that included the Wallowa Valley. Critically, however, four Nez Perce bands, including Josephs, did not sign and flatly refused the terms of the treaty. U.S. officials nevertheless asserted Lawyers authority to cede, effectively, his neighbors land. The U.S. government thus asserted that Josephs homeland was federal territory, an assertion emphatically not shared by Joseph, his father, and the Wallowa Valley Nez Perce. Federal claims to the Wallowa Valley did much to precipitate the momentous Nez Perce War of 1877 and brought national attention to the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph.

Joseph made his first appearance as the principal representative of his people at a meeting with U.S. agents in March 1873. The U.S. position was that Josephs band must leave Wallowa and move onto the Lapwai Reservation. Joseph responded to the demand unequivocally:

The white man has no right to come here and take our country. Neither Lawyer nor any other chief had authority to sell this land. It has always belonged to my people. It came unclouded to them from our fathers, and we will defend this land as long as a drop of Indian blood warms the hearts of our men. (Howard 1978, p. 92)

Joseph impressed the U.S. representatives with both the quality of his character and his legal arguments. Consequently, an executive order from President Ulysses S. Grant withdrew the Wallowa Valley from settlement; however, this order, hotly contested by settlers, was reversed in 1875. In 1877 the U.S. Department of the Interior made the decision to compel Joseph and his band, by force if necessary, to remove to the Lapwai Reservation.

U.S. agents and representatives of Nez Perce non-treaty bands held a final council at Lapwai in 1877. The council went very badly for the Nez Perce, and their extraordinary record of peacefully tolerating a host of injustices came to an end. Although it appears that Joseph, with the utmost reluctance, agreed to remove to Lapwai, he and the other nontreaty bands were overtaken by events when a few young Nez Perce warriors exacted revenge killings on several settlers. Thus the Nez Perce war of 1877, the final significant conflict of the era of Indian wars, began.

The Nez Perce fought a brilliant running battle, complete with narrow escapes and decisive victories, against U.S. forces for several months and over 1,700 miles. In October 1877, after the Battle of the Bearpaw Mountains, they were finally surrounded and forced to surrender, a days march short of refuge in Canada. Joseph was the only principal Nez Perce leader to survive the hostilities, so the surrender agreement fell to him, and he responded with one of the most powerful examples of American Indian oration that we have on reliable record. The oration famously concludes: Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever (Howard 1978, p. 330). The sun stood at 2:20 P.M. on October 5, 1877.

In violation of the assurances made to Joseph by Colonel Nelson Miles at the surrender, Joseph and the remaining Nez Perce were interred on reservations in Kansas and then Oklahoma for the next twelve years. In 1885 they were moved to the Colville Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. Chief Joseph died September 21, 1904.

SEE ALSO Annexation; Colonialism; Land Claims; Native Americans


Beal, Merrill, D. 1966. I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Howard, Helen Addison. 1978. Saga of Chief Joseph. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Nurburn, Kent. 2006. Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez

Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Stephen A. Germic

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chief Joseph." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Chief Joseph." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 16, 2017).

"Chief Joseph." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Joseph (Nez Percé chief)

Joseph (Chief Joseph), c.1840–1904, chief of a group of Nez Percé. On his father's death in 1871, Joseph became leader of one of the groups that refused to leave the land ceded to the United States by the fraudulently obtained treaty of 1863. Faced with forcible removal (1877), Joseph and the other nontreaty chiefs prepared to leave peacefully for the reservation. Misinformed about the intentions of the Nez Percé, Gen. Oliver Otis Howard ordered an attack, which the Native Americans repulsed. Pursued by the U.S. army, the warriors, with many women and children, began a masterly retreat to Canada of more than 1,000 mi (1,609 km). The Nez Percé won several engagements, notably one at Big Hole, Mont., but 30 mi (48 km) short of the Canadian border they were trapped in a cul-de-sac by troops under Gen. Nelson A. Miles and forced to surrender. His eloquent surrender speech is one of the best-known Native American statements. The whites had assumed that Joseph, spokesman for the tribe in peacetime, was responsible for their outstanding strategy and tactics, which actually had been agreed upon in council by all the chiefs. He became, however, a symbol of the heroic, fighting retreat of the Nez Percés. He was taken to Fort Leavenworth, then spent the remainder of his life on the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington and strove to improve the conditions of his people. In 1903 he made a ceremonial visit to Washington, D.C.

See biographies by O. O. Howard (1881, repr. 1972) and H. A. Howard (1941, repr. 1965); M. D. Beal, I Will Fight No More Forever (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Joseph (Nez Percé chief)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Joseph (Nez Percé chief)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 16, 2017).

"Joseph (Nez Percé chief)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from