The Great Chiefs

Chief Joseph
1840 - 1904

Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph, the Younger

            Hinmaton Yalatkit, “Thunder Rolling in the Heights,” a Nez Percé chief, was an essentially peaceful man who came to be known as one of the greatest Indian military commanders of the 19th century.  He was born at the mouth of Joseph Creek, in the Wallowa Valley, Washington, sometime between January and April 1832, the third child of Khapkhaponimi, a Nez Percé woman, and her husband, Tuekakas, a Cayuse man also known as Old Joseph.  Baptized Ephraim as a lad, as was common missionary practice, he later took the name Joseph, by which he was known throughout his life.  He had two brothers, Ollokot (Frog) and Smuguiskugin or Shugun (Brown) and two sisters, Celia, also known as Sarah, and Elawmonmi.
            Joseph was a tall, heavyset man, handsome and dignified in bearing.  He became chief around the age of 30 after the death of his father.  While courageous, he was not a warrior chief; he relied upon diplomacy and passive resistance in his relations with Whites.  Following the establishment of the reservation in 1835, White settlers began to move onto the beautiful fertile land—especially after gold was discovered.  Accordingly, a new treaty was signed in 1863 which reduced the reservation to about 550 square miles.  The reservation no longer included the land of many of the leaders of the tribe, including Joseph’s father.  These leaders refused to sign the treaty and also rejected an amended treaty in 1868.  Although the government maintained that the treaties covered all Nez Percé, those who had refused to sign continued to occupy their homeland in the Wallowa Valley in relative peace with their White neighbors.  The split between treaty and nontreaty Nez Percé was never reconciled.
            Finally, in 1877, under pressure from settlers, squatters, and prospectors, the government decided to take action against Joseph and the rest of the nontreaty Nez Percé.  General O. O. Howard met with Joseph and his fellow chiefs in an attempt to reach a peaceful settlement.  But negotiations were disrupted because of trouble which broke out between some of the young Nez Percé and a number of Whites, in which casualties were suffered by both groups.  Howard was then determined to subdue the tribe and Joseph was forced into a state of war.
            In the first major battle, at White Bird Canyon, the federal forces were all but annihilated.  The Nez Percé won 18 more battles, but Joseph clearly realized that he had but three ways to end the war:  annihilation, surrender, or retreat; he chose the latter.  At first he planned to join the Crow people in Montana, but when they refused to assist him, his goal was to reach Canada—to join Sitting Bull and the Sioux who had fled there in 1876. 
            The retreat of Joseph and his people is generally acknowledged as one of the most brilliant in United States military history.  They eluded the pursuing troops, often by adroit rearguard actions in which a few sharpshooters were able to hold off a large number of attackers.  Their speed and flexibility amazed the Army; they even managed to maintain good relations with the Whites they encountered along the way.  Joseph was the undisputed leader, but all chiefs participated in decisions and were free to go their own way.  Joseph led about 750 of his people twice over the Rocky Mountains, through Yellowstone Park (it had been established in 1872), and across the Missouri River.
            The journey covered four states and over 1,500 miles.  Less than 40 miles from the Canadian border, at Bear Paws, Montana, the Nez Percé made camp, exhausted and near starvation.  Some chiefs advocated moving on into Canada immediately, but most felt that without rest only the strongest could make it.  Joseph agreed, unaware that fresh troops under the command of General Nelson Miles were rapidly approaching.  They attacked the camp early the next morning on September 30.  Amid the fierce fighting Joseph had his men dig in, and they were able to beat off the soldiers and entrench themselves for a long siege; but Joseph clearly realized that defeat was inevitable for his small, weakened band.
            On October 5, 1877 he surrendered, saying “I am tired of fighting.  Our chiefs are killed . . . It is cold and we have no blankets.  The little children are freezing to death.  My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food.  No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death.  I want time to look for my children and see how many I can find.  Maybe I shall find them among the dead.  Hear me, chiefs:  I am tired; my heart is sick and sad.  From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
            Although General Miles and Joseph had agreed that the Nez Percé would be returned to the west, the pledge was ignored in Washington.  Instead, they were sent to Indian Territory, where in an alien environment, homeless and dispirited, many died or grew weak.  Joseph made every appeal possible to get his people to an area that at least resembled their homeland.  He went twice to Washington D.C., where he won many supporters, but the leaders of the western states were adamant.  They feared that the dissidents would stir up trouble among the pesaceful Nez Percé on the reservation.  In 1885 however, some of the exiles were sent to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, and the others, including Joseph, went to the Colville Reservation in Washington.
            Joseph was regarded with high esteem by his enemies as well as his friends.  He was about 6’2” tall, strong, with piercing black eyes; he was an excellent orator.  True to his pledge, he fought no longer, though he continued working for the betterment of his people and for his dream that they would one day be allowed to return to their beloved Wallowa Valley, where the bones of their ancestors were.  In 1897 he went east and met President McKinley, General Miles, and General Howard, and in 1903 he again visited the Capitol, meeting President Roosevelt and escorted by Miles.  He died on September 21, 1904.  His first wife died, and he married two widows.  When White authorities demanded that he take only one, he replied, “I fought all through the war for my country and these women.  You took away my country; I shall keep my wives.”

Source:  Great North American Indians by Frederick J. Duckstander


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