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Nez Perce War


NEZ PERCE WAR, or Chief Joseph's War, was the result of efforts by the federal government to deprive the Nez Perces of their lands in northeastern Oregon's Wallowa Valley.

Title to Wallowa Valley lands was recognized in a treaty negotiated between territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens and the Nez Perces in 1855. The treaty was signed by fifty-eight Nez Perces, including tribal leaders Old Joseph and Lawyer, who were Christian converts. In return for a cession of land and the establishment of a reservation of about five thousand square miles, the Nez Perces were promised a monetary payment and goods and services from the government. They were also guaranteed the right to travel, fish, and hunt off the reservation.

The Nez Perces grew dissatisfied with the 1855 agreement. At a meeting in September 1856, Old Joseph and several other Nez Perce leaders complained to the whites that their acceptance of the treaty did not mean they had agreed to surrender their lands. Added to the tribe's dissatisfaction was the fact that the government had failed to render the promised services and payments.

Following the discovery of gold on the reservation in 1860, federal commissioners convened at Fort Lapwai in Idaho in 1863 to negotiate a new treaty that would protect the Nez Perces from an escalating level of white intrusion that threatened their grazing lands, while keeping the gold country open. The resulting treaty of 1863 reduced the boundaries of the reservation to about a tenth of its 1855 size, and the new reservation included primarily those lands belonging to the Christian Nez Perces, perhaps about three-fourths of the tribe. Moreover, the reduction of the reservation would exclude the tribe from the Wallowa Valley. The non-Christian bands refused to recognize the 1863 treaty, although they were given a year to settle within the boundaries of the restructured reservation. Old Joseph renounced his conversion, and anti-white feelings intensified, especially among those bands—called nontreaty bands—which rejected the agreement. They continued to use the Wallowa lands, despite growing white settlement there.

Pressure to give up more land continued over the next several years, while relations were strained further by the murder of over twenty Nez Perces by whites. Finally, in 1877, General Oliver O. Howard met with nontreaty Nez Perce leaders at Fort Lapwai in order to induce them to leave the Wallowa lands and return to the reservation. As the nontreaty leaders prepared to comply, some warriors attacked and killed a group of whites, and Howard responded by pursuing the so-called hostiles. The non-treaty Nez Perces resisted.

Led by Chief Joseph (the son of Old Joseph), the Nez Perces defeated Howard's troops at White Bird Canyon on 17 June, and conducted an inconclusive engagement at Clearwater on 11 July. Realizing he could not hold off the army indefinitely, Joseph, 200 warriors, and 350 women, children, and elderly opted to flee, beginning a remarkable 1,300-mile, three-month-long journey. Prevented from entering Montana by the Flatheads, and unable to persuade their old allies, the Crows, to join them, the Nez Perces decided their only alternative was to join Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, who had recently entered Canada. After an inconclusive engagement with troops led by General John Gibbon at the Big Hole River on 9 August and Seventh Cavalry forces at Canyon Creek on 30 September, Chief Joseph and his people were intercepted at Bear Paw Mountain, about forty miles from the Canadian border, by Colonel Nelson Miles. Surrounded, Joseph surrendered to Miles and General Howard on 5 October 1877 in order to save his remaining followers, some 400 in all. Most of Joseph's followers were sent to Oklahoma after their defeat at Bear Paw, but many would later return to the Colville reservation in Washington.


Beal, Merrill D. "I will fight no more forever": Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963.

Greene, Jerome A. Nez Perce Summer 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2000.

Stadius, Martin. Dreamers: On the Trail of the Nez Perce. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 1999.

Walker, Deward E., Jr. Conflict and Schism in Nez Perce Acculturation: A Study of Religion and Politics. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1968.


See alsoIndian Land Cessions ; Tribes: Northwest .

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