Born Spring 1840
Wallowa Valley, present-day Oregon
Died September 21, 1904
Leader of the Nimitu (Nez Perce) tribe and famous orator
"It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. I want time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more for ever."
C hief Joseph endures as a symbol of dignity—as a tribal leader who exhausted all efforts to find a peaceful means to secure the homeland of his tribe, and as an eloquent spokesman who won a good measure of public sympathy for the plight of the Nez Perce tribe. His attempts to avoid war, his skillful military strategy when confronted by larger and better-equipped U.S. forces, his care for the defenseless people in his tribe, and his noble surrender when victory proved impossible became legendary during his lifetime.
Chief Joseph was born in a cave during the spring of 1840 in the Wallowa Valley of present-day Oregon. His father, Tuekakas (c. 1790–1871), had been baptized earlier that year by a Presbyterian missionary minister named Henry Spalding (1803–1874) and had taken the name Joseph. When his son was born, the father became known as Joseph the Elder and the son Young Joseph. His mother was named Khapkahponimi. Up until age seven, Young Joseph was schooled in Christian teachings by Spalding, who called him Ephraim.
Young Joseph was also raised in traditional Nez Perce customs and was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-latkekht (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain). Like other boys of the Nez Perce, he participated in a ritual at age nine through which he attained a "Wyakin," or guardian spirit. While growing up, Young Joseph followed the typical migratory pattern of the Nez Perce—spending winter and early spring in the Wallowa Valley, moving to the prairie and woodlands in the summer months, and fishing mountain streams for salmon in late summer and autumn. He helped gather food, such as wild root crops (vegetables that grow underground, like wild potato, which the Nez Perce called keh-keet) and fruit (including many varieties of berries) as well as pine nuts and sunflower seeds. He hunted for large game animals, especially deer and elk, small game animals, and birds.
But as Young Joseph was growing up, the lands around him were undergoing great change. In 1843, the first wagon trains with white settlers passed through the region and formed what would be called the Oregon Trail. Three thousand settlers came to the region in 1845, and another four thousand came in 1847. That year, an epidemic of measles, an infectious disease, spread from settlers to the nearby Cayuse tribe and resulted in many deaths. The angered Cayuse engaged in a three-year war with settlers and the soldiers protecting them. Joseph the Elder and the Nez Perce did not participate in the war. They remained in the Wallowa Valley, which remained free of white settlers.
How the Nimipu Became Known as the Nez Perce
Archaeological evidence in the land of the Nez Perce shows the area was inhabited for thousands of years. Not much was known about the Nez Perce until the mid-1700s, when they began acquiring and herding horses and their warriors went on hunting trips. The first record of them by Americans occurred during the Lewis and Clark expedition, a group of explorers, led by Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), sent by U.S. president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–1809) in 1804 to reach the Pacific Ocean and explore lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In his journal, Lewis referred to the Nez Perce as the Chupunnish, which was probably taken from their word Tssup-nit-palu (meaning "Walking People," because they migrated with the changes of seasons). Lewis wrote that the tribe had "among the most amicable men we have seen. Their Character is placid and gentle, rarely moved to passion."
English explorers called the tribe the Pierced Noses, because some of the Nimipu decorated their noses with dentalium shells (narrow, tubular, conical shells from mollusks found in the ocean). French explorers adopted that name in its French form, Nez percés, from which it was Americanized to Nez Perce.
In 1853, Washington Territory was established, and two years later the governor of the territory, Isaac Stevens (1818–1862), negotiated a treaty with the Nez Perce that reserved 7 million acres for the tribe. The U.S. Congress ratified the treaty in 1859. Joseph the Elder, who supported peace with white settlers, helped develop the treaty, which included land set aside for the Nez Perce in present-day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In 1860, gold was discovered on Nez Perce land, bringing many more white frontiersmen to the area. The treaty of 1855 was soon rescinded, or taken back and canceled, and a new one was negotiated. Joseph the Elder refused to sign the new treaty, but a chief from a different band of the Nez Perce agreed to a financial settlement that turned over more than 6 million acres back to the United States in 1863. Joseph the Elder tore up what he called "the Thief Treaty" and declared that he was no longer a Christian. Young Joseph, then fifteen years old, followed his father's example. The "Thief Treaty" was ratified, or approved, by the U.S. Congress in 1867. In 1868, the first white settlers began arriving in the Wallowa Valley.
When his father died in 1871, Young Joseph was elected by the tribe to succeed him as chief. U.S. government officials tried to force Chief Joseph's band from the Wallowa Valley to a small reservation in Idaho. But Chief Joseph worked with sympathetic officials from the U.S. government's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to help secure support for his people. He seemed to have accomplished that in 1873, when an executive order from President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77) recognized the Wallowa Valley as Nez Perce territory. Two years later, however, Grant rescinded the order after pressure by the BIA to permit the building of a wagon road that would bring more settlers into the valley.
Many in his tribe wanted war against the settlers, but Chief Joseph pacified them while he continued to try to convince officials about the right of his people to the valley. In January 1877, after many meetings, Joseph's band was again ordered to move to a reservation at Lapwai, Idaho. They were supposed to move by April 1, 1877, but in May, Chief Joseph was still attempting to negotiate. American military leaders of the region threatened to remove the Nez Perce by force. To show they were serious, they took as prisoner one of the Nez Perce, a chief named Toohoolhoolzote. He was soon released, and the Nez Perce began their journey to the reservation in Idaho.
As the Nez Perce neared the reservation following a difficult crossing of the Snake River in Idaho, a member of Joseph's band killed four white settlers who were known as Indian-haters as revenge for his father's murder years before. This act ignited a war, and Chief Joseph had to turn from diplomacy to military strategy.
Long journey for survival
The Nez Perce won an early battle against an American cavalry unit (horses and riders) where they were outnumbered one hundred fighting men to sixty. As the Nez Perce moved to a safer position, their scouts reported that another American unit was approaching. Chief Joseph decided to lead his tribe to Canada. The year before, Chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) of the Sioux had escaped to Canada after winning the Battle of Little Big Horn against George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876; the battle is also known as Custer's Last Stand), and Chief Joseph believed that moving to Canada would save his people. From June to October in 1877, Chief Joseph and his tribe managed to stay ahead of the better armed American forces, to pick advantageous times to engage in battles, and to defend their position successfully.
Their journey took them across Idaho and into Montana, where the Nez Perce had to cross the Bitteroot Mountains and pass near a fort containing over 250 armed soldiers and volunteers. In a daring move, Chief Joseph led men, women, children, and animals along a narrow route on a cliff side above the fort, where they were too far away to be hit with gunfire and artillery from the fort.
Instead of heading due north to Canada, the Nez Perce went south along the mountains, where they could trade with Native Americans of the Crow tribe. But their camp was attacked in the Battle of Big Hole by an Indian fighting unit, and many Nez Perce women and children were killed. Still, Nez Perce marksmen were so skilled that they stopped a cavalry assault, forced it into retreat, and then moved on while the unit regrouped.
Reaching the southwest corner of Montana, the Nez Perce turned east and passed through Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Yellowstone had become a national park in 1872.) Meanwhile, two new U.S. regiments were pressed into service and waiting near the famous Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.
Chief Joseph changed course, however, after first having his people and animals moving in different directions to confuse trackers. He selected a narrow mountain path wide enough for only two people, and the tribe moved along the path slowly and in silence. Regiments looking for them were not able to see, hear, or track them. The Nez Perce were able to leave Yellowstone safely and entered Montana for a long journey to Canada. In Montana, they learned that other tribes were tired of war with the United States and were not going to help the Nez Perce.
The Nez Perce successfully fought off an assault by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at Canyon Creek, Montana, on September 13, 1877—four months after having begun their journey. While the cavalry regrouped, the Nez Perce moved on, blocking the path behind them with boulders and fallen trees. The cavalry returned to Fort Keogh in eastern Montana. Over the next ten days, the Nez Perce traveled most of the width of Montana and reached the Missouri River. Seventy years earlier, the Lewis and Clark expedition had passed on the river at that point on their way to the Pacific Ocean, on the journey where they would record the first meeting between U.S. citizens and the Nez Perce.
"I will fight no more forever"
Colonel Nelson Miles (1839–1925), meanwhile, left Fort Keogh with over 380 fighting men to head off the Nez Perce before they reached Canada. On the morning of September 30, 1877, at Bear Paw, Montana, just 40 miles south of the Canadian border, Miles led an assault that successfully divided the Nez Perce camp into two sides. Nez Perce warriors went for their weapons and defensive positions, separated from defenseless women and children. Chief Joseph would recall later: "About seventy men, myself among them, were cut off. My little daughter, twelve years of age, was with me. I gave her a rope, and told her to catch a horse and join the others who were cut off from the camp." Meanwhile, Nez Perce marksmen were able to drive back Miles's forces and took a defensive formation.
The battle turned into a siege—where one side (the Nez Perce) remains, or is trapped, in a defensive area or structure and the other side (Miles's forces) batters the place with steady gunfire and artillery, larger weapons like cannons. Five inches of snow fell on the first night, with the Nez Perce digging trenches either for their soldiers to form a defense or for warmth and protection for their nonfighters. Over the next few days the siege continued, with a few failed assaults by Miles's men. Meanwhile, Chief Joseph and Miles began discussing terms of surrender. Chief Joseph was assured by Miles and his superior, General Oliver Otis Howard (1830–1909), that his people would be allowed to return to the reservation in Idaho after spending the winter in Yellowstone, where the wounded could be tended to.
Chief Joseph then handed his rifle to Howard as a symbolic gesture of surrender. Howard politely deferred the honor to Colonel Miles. Then, Chief Joseph made his famous speech of surrender. Chief Joseph said, "Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before (about returning to the reservation), I have in my heart, I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all killed…. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. I want time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more for ever."
By that time, Chief Joseph was leading about five hundred people, less than a hundred of whom were fighting men. They had traveled nearly 2,000 miles—a distance nearly equal the length of Europe, and longer than the distance from Paris, France, to Moscow, Russia. In over three months, the band of about seven hundred, fewer than two hundred of whom were warriors, fought two thousand U.S. soldiers and volunteers in four major battles and numerous smaller skirmishes.
Colonel Miles respected the Nez Perce. "Exceedingly self-reliant, each man seemed to be able to do his own thinking and to be purely democratic and independent in his ideas and purposes," Miles noted. Miles called Chief Joseph "the boldest and best marksman of any Indian I have ever encountered. And Chief Joseph was a man of more sagacity [perception] and intelligence than any Indian I have ever met."
Trail of broken promises
At the end of Chief Joseph's long journey to save the Nez Perce, he began another long struggle on their behalf. The terms of surrender were not honored, despite pleas to American officials from Colonel Miles. Instead of being allowed to live on their reservation in Idaho, or their homeland in the Wallowa Valley, the Nez Perce were marched eastward to Bismarck, North Dakota, for a temporary stay. In Bismark, they were greeted by many townspeople. The story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce was already beginning to spread across the United States. From North Dakota, the Nez Perce were moved to a reservation near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This was a flat, hot, and swampy area, not at all like their lush homeland. Many of the Nez Perce contracted malaria. The Nez Perce were then moved to a similarly flat and unsuitable reservation in Oklahoma.
Chief Joseph continued to be very active for his people, working with the BIA with the support of many army officers, including General Howard and Colonel Miles. Because he spoke so eloquently and his reputation had spread far in the United States, Chief Joseph was invited to visit Washington, D.C., in 1879. He met with President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81), but he was unsuccessful in having his land returned. Chief Joseph's stature grew even more, however, when he explained his cause in speeches, including one during his visit to Washington, D.C., and in an article he wrote for the North American Review, one of the leading magazines of the nineteenth century. In his speeches and his writings, Chief Joseph often used terms Americans identify with, like "The earth is mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it," that form the basis of American democracy.
The Nez Perce finally won the right to return to the Pacific Northwest in 1885, but instead of going to the Wallowa Valley, they were settled on a reservation at Colville, Oregon. They had to contend with white farmers, foresters, and miners and to try and live in a manner different from the way in which they had prospered for many years.
Chief Joseph continued to plea the case of the Nez Perce. He traveled to New York City and Washington, D.C., in 1897 to attend the dedication of a tomb for former general and president Ulysses S. Grant. He stood in company with Howard and Miles, who still believed Chief Joseph deserved the chance to live in Wallowa. Still, he could not win back the land of his people. In 1899, he returned to the Wallowa Valley for the first time in twenty-two years. The valley had changed, but much was still as it had been. He visited his father's grave. Chief Joseph was back in Washington, D.C., in 1903, speaking with President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–1909), but Roosevelt took no effective steps to secure the return home of the Nez Perce.
Chief Joseph, Famous Speaker
In a speech made in January 1879 at Lincoln Hall, Washington, D.C., Chief Joseph spoke of equal rights:
If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them all an even chance to live and grow…. The earth is mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases….
I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They can not tell me.
In 1904, Chief Joseph suffered a heart attack. He was sitting by a fire, next to the tipi in which he lived—continuing to live in the manner of his people. He died and was buried in Nespelem, Oregon, where a monument marks his grave.
For More Information
McAuliffe, Bill. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce: A Photo-Illustrated Biography. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 1998.
Shaughnessy, Diane, and Jack Carpenter. Chief Joseph: Nez Perce Peacekeeper. New York: PowerKids Press, 1997.
Taylor, Marian W. Chief Joseph: Nez Perce Leader. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.
Warren, Robert Penn. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. New York: Random House, 1983.
"Chief Joseph: As Remembered by Ohiyesha (Charles A. Eastman)." American Indian Resource Directory.http://www.indians.org/welker/joseph1.htm (accessed on March 11, 2004).
"Chief Joseph." PBS: New Perspectives on the West.http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/chiefjoseph.htm (accessed on March 11, 2004).
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. government’s 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 Joseph’s, did not sign and flatly refused the terms of the treaty. U.S. officials nevertheless asserted Lawyer’s authority to cede, effectively, his neighbor’s land. The U.S. government thus asserted that Joseph’s 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 Joseph’s 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 day’s 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.
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