Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce The Nez Indians lived in present day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They lived in lodges, raised livestock, hunted, and traded their livestock for other goods. The Nez Perce had a reputation for peaceful relations with white settlers going all the way back to Lewis and Clark, who were welcomed, fed, and given a place to rest by the Nez Perce in 1805. The Nez Perce continued to have a good relationship with whites for over fifty more years, and the Nez Perce would brag that no white man had been killed by them in 70 years. Unfortunately, the 70 year streak came to violent and tragic end.
The excellent land the Nez Perce occupied and the gold that was discovered in nearby regions led white people to demand the land, and soon many settlers were making up stories of Nez Perce Indians stealing their livestock in order to pressure the government to remove the Nez Perce. In 1863, a treaty was presented to Old Joseph and the Nez Perce that would force them to turn over most of their land, including the Wallowa Valley in Oregon (the most prized land of the Nez Perce) and would force them to live on a reservation in Idaho. Old Joseph was so angry he tore up a Bible that had been given to him by a Christian missionary and he refused to sign the “thief treaty.” Some of the Nez Perce did sign the treaty, which led the government to claim that all the Nez Perce would have to move.
In 1871, Old Joseph died and his son (Young) Joseph became the leader of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph sent petitions to President Grant asking to remain on their land, and President Grant in 1873 issued an order that allowed the Nez Perce to keep their land. But Grant changed his mind two years later as he issued a new order in 1875 allowing whites to settle in the Wallowa Valley. The Nez Perce were ordered to move to the Lapwai reservation in Idaho.
General O.O. Howard (the same general who was head of the Freedmen’s Bureau) was sent to make Joseph and his people leave. When Howard met Joseph, he gave Joseph 30 days to have all of the Nez Perce packed and moving to Idaho. Joseph bitterly argued against removal, but he agreed to leave peacefully even though many Nez Perce warriors wanted to go to war. The Nez Perce began moving in June, 1877.
As the Nez Perce were crossing the Snake River, some white settlers came by and stole some of their livestock. Trying to avoid more losses, the Nez Perce hurried their animals across their river, and many were drowned. Many young Nez Perce warriors were furious and they called Chief Joseph a coward for not fighting. Still, Joseph did not want to go to war. But at night some warriors left camp and killed eleven whites in revenge for being moved off their land and having their livestock stolen. The war between the Nez Perce and the U.S. Army had begun.
Chief Joseph did not agree with the actions of his warriors, and he could either immediately surrender his people or go to war against the whites. Joseph chose to side with the Nez Perce and go to war, and soon the U.S. Army was attacking the Nez Perce.
General Howard had about 600 soldiers while Chief Joseph had only 250 warriors, and Chief Joseph was also traveling with about 500 people (women, children, and the elderly) who could not fight. Still, Joseph and his warriors led Howard’s soldiers into a trap at White Bird Canyon on June 17, 1877. The Nez Perce killed many of the troops and sent the rest in retreat. Howard came with more soldiers, but the Nez Perce ran away across the mountains. Over and over again, the Nez Perce brilliantly avoided being captured while warriors retreated and attacked the soldiers at the same time, constantly killing the U.S. soldiers and preventing them from being able to capture the whole tribe.
The Nez Perce believed their only hope was to escape to Canada where the U.S. soldiers would no longer be allowed to pursue them. Another group of soldiers under Colonel Gibson began to chase the Nez Perce with 200 more soldiers. Gibson told his men not to take any male or female prisoners.
On August 10, Gibson’s soldiers charged into the Nez Perce camp in an ambush. Although some Nez Perce men, women, and children were killed, the Nez Perce warriors soon recovered and began firing back. The Nez Perce were better shots, especially since the U.S. soldiers had been drinking the night before and were drunk. Soon, the soldiers were running away. When they tried to set up a cannon, the Nez Perce soldiers swarmed on the cannon killing the men and destroying the cannon. The Nez Perce were then able to escape as General Howard’s troops came to rescue Gibson’s troops. The chase of the Nez Perce continued, and the Nez Perce were even seen by tourists at Yellowstone National Park. General Sherman was one of the people touring Yellowstone when the Nez Perce traveled through the park, and he ordered another group of troops under Nelson Miles to chase the Nez Perce.
The Nez Perce were unaware of Miles’ army and thought that they finally had a chance to make it to Canada. Just forty miles south of the border in October, 1877, Miles’ troops surrounded the Nez Perce camp and charged. White Bird coolly led his warriors in front of the camp and they stopped the cavalry charge with their incredibly accurate shots. For the next several days, Miles’ troops and the Nez Perce fought each other, but the Nez Perce were not able to escape and Howard’s army also arrived. With his people freezing, starving, and hopelessly outnumbered, Chief Joseph decided to surrender rather than see everyone die. Joseph was told that if he would surrender, the Nez Perce would be allowed to live and would be escorted to the reservation in Idaho. Joseph gave up his gun and surrendered. In one of the most famous American speeches, Joseph declared, “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.”
The flight of the Nez Perce remains one of the greatest military accomplishments in world history. In just four months, 250 warriors and 500 women, children, and elderly people traveled over 1,300 miles of mountainous land. In that march, Chief Joseph’s warriors avoided or fought off about 2,000 soldiers, making fools out of the entire army of the northwest United States.
Unfortunately, the Nez Perce had one more cruel surprise in store for them. Instead of being taken to the reservation near their homeland in Idaho, there were sent to another reservation in Oklahoma. On the useless and swampy reservation land, many Nez Perce died from malaria and from the heartbreaking trauma of being removed so far from their cherished homelands. Many politicians and reformers came to visit Joseph and Nez Perce on the reservation and many of them promised Joseph that he would receive justice and be allowed to leave the reservation and its terrible conditions. Chief Joseph even visited Washington, D.C., and he made another moving speech pleading for justice in 1879. Joseph said:
“I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done…Words do not pay for my dead people…Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of all the talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the… broken promises… Treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them the all an even chance to live and grow… Let me be a free man—free to travel… free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself.”
Joseph’s plea for justice was not answered. Eventually, some of the Nez Perce were allowed to move back to the Idaho reservation. Joseph was sent to a different reservation in Washington, where he was exiled from most of his people. Joseph died on September 21, 1904. The reservation doctor wrote that Joseph had died of a “broken heart.”
Question: Answer the questions on a separate sheet of paper if you need more room. Make sure you put your answers in your own words. 1. How did the Nez Perce and white people get along at first? What caused the Nez Perce to change their attitudes about white people?
2. Why did Old Joseph tear up his Bible?
3. Why did some Nez Perce warriors start a war by killing eleven white settlers? Do you think the warriors were justified in killing the white settlers, or do you think their actions were wrong? Explain your answer.
4. Why was it unlikely that Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce would have succeeded in escaping to Canada?
5. Why does Chief Joseph decide to surrender?
6. Why is Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce’s attempt to escape to Canada considered such a great military accomplishment even though the Nez Perce were still captured in the end?
7. What is the main idea of Chief Joseph’s speech at Washington D.C. in 1879? Did Joseph ever get what he was asking for?