Who Was Chief Joseph?

Chief Joseph of the Nez Pearce who was described as the Napoleon of the plains.

The Nez Perce were a peaceful tribe of some 700 men women and children who, in 1877, were trying to find a place of safety from the United States Government. Having fled from their homeland in the Pacific Northwest they were intent on getting to Canada - and safety. Twenty two years earlier they had ceded a small portion of their ancestral grounds to the Government. But the white's desire for land was not satisfied. Soon the Army was laying claim to almost 90 percent of the Nez Perce tribal land space.

The Nez Perce - pierced noses - were named for their habit of wearing shell ornaments through their noses. They had always been friendly in their dealings with the white man. They wanted nothing more than to coexist in peace. Their first contact with whites had been when Lewis and Clark had come across them in 1805. Meriwether Lewis called them "˜among the most amiable men we have seen.'

In 1836 the Reverend Henry Spalding founded a Protestant Mission on Lapwai Creek in Nez Perce country. An early convert was the chief of one of the prominent bands, Old Joseph. In 1840, Old Joseph's first son was born. Given the tribal name of "˜Thunder Rolling in the Mountains,' the child was baptized by Spalding and given the name Joseph. The child would spend most of his time around the Lapwai mission.

In the late 1840's Old Joseph moved his people southward to their ancestral grounds around the Wallowa valley. Despite this move the Army kept pushing for more land. In 1863, a treaty was called to reduce the tribal holdings from 10,000 to 1000 square miles. The upper Nez Perce signed while the lower tribes, under Old Joseph, walked out in disgust.

Old Joseph ripped up his Bible , completely disillusioned by the white man. As the old man's health deteriorated, Young Joseph began to take over more of his father's duties. He would meet the white men who were pushing for his people's lands, always polite but firmly resistant. In 1871, Old Joseph died and his son became Chief.

In May of 1877 General Oliver Howard gave the Nez Perce an ultimatum - come to the designated reservation grounds within 30 days or be ready to fight. Still wanting to avoid conflict, Joseph did his best to comply. He had his people quickly round up their stock and possessions and head south. They arrived outside the reservation and camped with the other Nez Perce bands with a week to spare on the ultimatum. The various chiefs met in council to discuss their predicament. Many of the younger men in the camp seethed for war. Four such young men set out one night to avenge the death of one of their fathers. When they returned to camp, they had killed four white people. This impelled other hotheads and soon 14 more whites were dead.

As a result of this the army began massing huge forces to crush the rebels. The first engagement came on June 17. Cavalry Commander Captain David Perry soon learned that his was no easy task. The Nez Perce proved themselves the better marksmen. As the warriors fought on the ridge, the people packed up to move out. Chief Joseph organised both operations. Perry was losing too many men and so retreated from the battlefield. The warriors chased them all the way to Mt Idaho, 18 miles away. Perry had lost 34 men and four wounded. Not a single Nez Perce had been killed.

On June 22, General Howard mustered a force comprising 400 soldiers as well as nearly100 Indian scouts to punish the Indians. Howard was surprised to see a war party assembled in the distance waiting for him. He set out in pursuit. This was, however, just a decoy. It led Howard on a wild goose chase. The next attack came on July 10 at what has become known as the Battle of the Clearwater. After a seven hour battle the Indians were finally outflanked and driven from the field. They fled northward, taking the old Lolo Trail across the hardy Bitterroot mountains.

Meanwhile Howard telegraphed ahead for troops to intercept the fleeing Indians. About 150 soldiers surrounded the expected exit point from the Bitterroots. But Chief Joseph's scouts found the whites and the Indians exited through secret Indian trails.

Now out in the open country the Nez Perce picked up speed. They rested in the Big Hole Basin. Howard's telegraph had sent Colonel John Gibbon to intercept them with about 200 men. On August 9th, Gibbon struck Chief Joseph's camp while it was sleeping. But still, the Indians managed to flee. Regrouping the warriors fought so furiously in hand to hand combat that Gibbon's men fell back. But the encounter had cost Chief Joseph 87 people.

Howard continued his pursuit. By August 19th he was just a day behind the Indians. Then Joseph did something extraodinary. He turned and led 45 of his men straight towards Howard's camp. But he did it in such a way that the sentries mistook the incoming as a reinforcing cavalry column. When the true identity of the invaders was established, Joseph had managed to drive off 150 of Howard's pack mules. Three troops rushed out in pursuit. But Joseph had regrouped his men into an ambush. The soldiers withdrew.

On August 22, Joseph entered Yellowstone National Park. Tourists in the park were terrified. Two of them were killed. As he advanced steadily towards Canada, Joseph consistently outwitted those sent against him. By mid September they had reached Bear Paw Mountains, just 40 miles from the Canadian border. Temporarily pausing, Joseph gave time for General Miles to position himself above him and cut off the retreat to Canada. On September 30th, Miles attacked the Indian camp. The Nez Perces fled to the ridges, leaving their tipis and horses behind. Then they dug in for the fight of their lives. Joseph sent a messenger to Sitting Bull in Canada to give him aid. But no reply came.

After five days of resistance, Joseph sent a message out to Miles, who had been reinforced by Howard. "I am tired of fighting," it said. He finally surrendered, along with 400 of his people. 300 others had managed to escape to Canada.

Joseph's people were exiled to the Indian Territory of Kansas. They weren't returned to the Northwest until 1885. Finally they were allowed to settle on the Colville Reservation in Washington. Chief Joseph died there in 1904.

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