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An American Indian man on horseback stood outlined against a steely sky past midday on 05 October 1877. Winter was already settling into the prairies of what would soon become the state of Montana.
Five white men stood in the swaying grass on the other side of the field, watching the horse move closer. Four wore blue uniforms, another in civilian attire. One of the uniformed men was tall and stout, with bright blue eyes and a large, curling mustache. He watched the proceedings with an air of self-importance. The surrender of the man on horseback might have been inevitable, sure, but it was nevertheless a nice feather in his cap. Perhaps his superiors would finally grant him that promotion after this whole affair was over.
The other four men were more apprehensive. All of them were experienced in fighting American Indians on the frontier, but this opponent had been different. One man, with a full, dark beard and right arm missing below the elbow, looked at the approaching chief with grudging respect. The man had lost his arm in the American Civil War 15 years earlier, so he knew battle well. And in his opinion, the man across the field was a tactical genius, a “Red Napoleon.” Despite overwhelming odds, this Red Napoleon had wormed his way out of battle after battle, somehow always coming out on top.
Until now, that was. Now he was surrendering to the U.S. military.
Surrounding the horse were five others, walking with their hands on the horse’s flanks. All of them wore blankets, the edges flapping in the snowflake-flecked wind. The man on horseback wore a blanket across his right shoulder to his left arm, revealing buckskin leggings and a shirt tattered with bullet holes. His hair was pulled back into two long braids, and tied up with otter skin. A rifle lay across his lap.
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe slid off the horse and approached the men in uniform, still holding his rifle. He held out the weapon to the man without an arm, but the latter shook his head. Instead, the man with the large mustache stepped forward and took the weapon, a snub Winchester 1866.
One of the military men readied a pen and a piece of paper to take down the words of surrender. The civilian stood next to him, a local who had graciously volunteered to translate this important moment. The surrender of Chief Joseph would definitely make headlines in all the East Coast newspapers.
Adjusting his blanket, Chief Joseph raised his hands to the sky and spoke in his native language. The civilian translated for the officers: “From where the sun now stands, I shall fight no more.”
As the story of the meeting on the grassy field was told and retold, printed and reprinted in newspapers and books, it took on a mythic quality. The man on horseback became a symbol for the predestined trajectory of a nation, one in which the people who had lived in the Wild West for millennia faded away to make room for the American settler.
But for the people who lived through that fateful moment, it seemed far from inevitable. In fact, to the Nez Perce, everything about that story was wrong.
That year—1877—was a turning point in American history: the U.S. government officially ended Reconstruction and pulled the last troops from the former Confederacy; Colorado became the newest American state; and in Canada, Alexander Graham Bell installed the first commercial telephone. And on 07 May in a small frontier town in northern modern-day Idaho, six men gathered in a canvas hospital tent with the sides looped up to let in the early summer breeze. On one side sat two white men: John Monteith—the agent assigned to the Nez Perce Reservation—and Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard.
The general wore a military uniform, the empty sleeve for his missing right arm pinned to the front. After graduating from West Point Military Academy in 1854, he had quickly risen through the ranks of the Union Army. Men who fought with him remarked on how unsettlingly calm he seemed during battle, even when a bullet punched through his right wrist at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862. Howard attributed this trait to his zealous devotion to evangelical Christianity.
It was his Christianity that drove him to avoid sending runaway slaves back to their owners during the war, and then to accept the position of Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau afterward. To the dismay of President Andrew Johnson, Howard instituted rations, schools, courts, and medical care for recently freed slaves. He helped found a college that accepted students regardless of race or gender. Howard University continues to be an important historically Black college today.
But Congress abruptly dropped the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872, and shuttled the general off to the frontier to deal with the “Indian problem”—namely, that they were living on land that white settlers wanted. Howard’s job was to put as many tribes as possible onto a reservation, where they would be assimilated into white Christian culture.
Howard was far from pleased by this turn of events. Not only was the job a demotion, but it ensured he’d be too busy to interfere as governments large and small meticulously undid his years of work toward racial equality. But Howard was a soldier, and he did as he was told: the tribes would move, peacefully or by force.
On the other side of the tent were four Nez Perce, dressed in their traditional garb of buckskin and woven blankets. The name meant “pierced nose” in French. Although the tribe occasionally sported nose jewelry, the name was likely a result of mistranslating the sign language that tribes of the Pacific Northwest used to communicate across their many languages. In reference to the fact that the tribe regularly crossed the Bitterroot Mountains to hunt bison on the Great Plains, the index finger of the right hand pointed up and down beside the face. To early French explorers, the gesture resembled piercing the nose. The tribe preferred to call themselves the Nimiipuu, translated as the “real people.”
The American Indians at the meeting each represented a band of Nez Perce. Alalimya Takanin, also known as Looking Glass, was a no-nonsense chief as proven in battle as Howard. Peopeo Kiskiok Hihih, also known as White Bird, represented the proud continuation of a long line of warriors, now soft-spoken and well-respected in his 70s. The third and strongest was Toohoolhoolzote, a powerfully built man who could carry a blacktail buck under each arm on his way back from a hunt.
The fourth and youngest was only in his 30s. He’d spent his youth drinking and carousing, leading some to think that his younger brother might be better suited to leadership. But he had matured into a careful, well-spoken leader with a powerful chest and shoulders. His name was Heinmot Tooyalalkekt, better known as Chief Joseph.
The Nez Perce selected Toohoolhoolzote to speak for them. For two days, Toohoolhoozote tried to explain to General Howard that the 1863 treaty had been signed by only a small band of Nez Perce, so it had no legal authority to force the entire Nez Perce tribe onto a reservation.
Howard wasn’t listening. Negotiating with the Nez Perce would seem like a way for him to continue his quest for racial equality after his advancements from the Freedmen’s Bureau crumbled across the South, but there were two reasons that wasn’t going to happen. First, unlike the freed slaves that Howard had served in the Freedman’s Bureau, the Nez Perce weren’t happy to see him. The complete annihilation of General George Armstrong Custer’s company at the hands of the Sioux one year earlier made it abundantly clear that American Indians weren’t interested in the U.S. military’s “help.”
The second reason had to do with the haircuts of the men across the tent. Chief Joseph and Toohoolhoozote wore their hair long, except for a thick portion across the forehead that was cut short and swept up. The style identified them as adherents for the Dreamer movement, a religious fever that spread across the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s. It emphasized a return to tradition and pride in native culture, which directly contradicted Howard’s evangelical Christianity. In his view, the men across the tent were unrepentant heathens.
Toohoolhoozote tried, once again, to explain to Howard that they could not abandon the Wallowa Valley because white farmers would immediately desecrate their sacred Mother Earth with farming equipment. But as far as Howard was concerned, it wasn’t a matter of if the Nez Perce were going to a reservation, but when. “Twenty times over I hear the earth is your mother,” he said, “I want to hear it no more, but come to business at once.”
Toohoolhoozote replied, “So long as the earth keeps me, I want to be left alone; you are trifling with the law of the earth.”
“The question is,” Howard asked, “will the Indians come peacefully on the reservation, or do they want me to put them there by force?”
“I never gave the Indians authority to give away my land,” Toohoolhoolzote repeated, referring to the treaty with the small band of Nez Perce. In the military’s record of that day, Toohoolhoozote added, “The Indians may do as they like, but I am NOT going on the reservation.”
The Nez Perce, however, recall a more colorful response: “I have a penis, that which belongs to a man! I am a man, and I will not go!”
Either way, Howard’s temper boiled over. “I will send you there,” he snapped, “if it takes years and years.” He called for another soldier. The two grabbed Toohoolhoozote’s arms and pulled him into a nearby guard house, locking the door.
Joseph, Looking Glass, and White Bird stared at Howard in disbelief. This was supposed to be a peace talk, but the real intention had just been made clear. This was a fist wrapped in kid gloves. Howard informed them that they had 30 days to vacate the Wallowa Valley and move to their new reservation.
The next few weeks were a flurry of activity. Although the Nez Perce moved seasonally, they never crossed the Snake River until summer. In late May, it would be swollen with snowmelt and raging dangerously. But the Nez Perce knew better than to complain. They gathered their cattle, packed their belongings, and disassembled their teepees. Joseph carefully led his band across the cold, turbulent river, leaving his homeland for the last time.
In early June, about 600 Nez Perce arrived at a familiar summer campsite—Tepahlewam, or Split Rocks, located among the gently rolling, camas flower-covered hills of modern-day Idaho just past the state’s western border. Joseph’s band arrived first, but they were quickly joined by Looking Glass, White Bird, and Toohoolhoolzote, who’d been let out of the guardhouse the day after his detention.
The tribe was fewer than 100 miles from the Wallowa Valley, and everything was both entirely normal and horribly wrong. Joseph’s 12-year-old daughter Tah-hy helped the women gather camas roots, a starchy bulb that preserved well through the winter, while the men gambled and slaughtered cattle. His heavily pregnant second wife, Toma Alwawinmi, sequestered herself in a small teepee to give birth. The child would grow up on the reservation that was only a few days’ travel away, and yet felt like another world.
On 13 June, White Bird’s band decided to hold a te-lik-leen ceremony. The traditional procession of warriors, the leaders thought, might arouse some optimism in these dark times.
The warriors rode their horses in a circle, boasting of their war deeds. Bringing up the rear, a spot reserved for the bravest, were two cousins on a single horse: Wahlitits and Sarpsis Ilppilp. No one is quite sure what happened next; in one account, their horse trampled a pile of camas roots. In another, they frightened a child. What is certain is that in the subsequent pandemonium, someone shouted to Wahlitits, “If you are so brave, why don’t you go kill the white man who killed your father?”
Of all the Nez Perce, White Bird’s band had suffered the most at the hands of white settlers. Many of the warriors bore scars from dog attacks or murdered loved ones. The young men were seething about the army forcing them to abandon their land. Chief Joseph had spoken with them at length about the importance of peace. A war might restore the honor of a few warriors, he argued, but the U.S. Army would ultimately destroy the tribe.
But Chief Joseph wasn’t there; he was away slaughtering cattle with his brother Ollokot. He had no idea what was happening back at Split Rocks.
Wahlitits replied, “You will be sorry for your words.” The next morning, Wahlitits, Sarpsis Ilppilp, and his 17-year-old cousin Wetyemtmas Wahyakt rode off to find Larry Ott, the white settler who had murdered Wahlitits’s father three years earlier during a land ownership argument. The warriors couldn’t find Ott, so they decided to kill four settlers who had a reputation of cruelty to the Nez Perce instead.
As the sun set on 14 June, the trio returned. Nez Perce elders were holding a routine council (minus Looking Glass and his band, who already left for the next leg of the journey) when someone shouted from outside the lodge, “You poor people are holding council for nothing! Three young men have come from White Bird country, bringing horses with them! Horses belonging to a white settler they killed! Killed yesterday sun! It will have to be war!”
Many in the camp were terrified; whites seldom distinguished between the acts of individual members and the tribe. Even if they could convince the government this was an isolated incident, the American legal system rarely offered fair trials to American Indians. These reckless young men had doomed them all.
The elders desperately tried to take control of the situation, but the young men weren’t listening. They were angry, and someone was finally doing something. Sixteen men joined the original trio. Together, they carried out the bloodiest American Indian attacks of the post-Civil War era. Reports of the violence vary wildly, since the Nez Perce tended to downplay while white settlers exaggerated. But some facts are certain: between 14 and 22 people were killed, mostly male white settlers who had wronged the Nez Perce. Women and children were allowed to flee or were briefly taken captive, leaving witnesses to the murders. Although the small communities along the northern Oregon-Idaho border knew that they lived among American Indians, they had considered this kind of rage to be part of the past. These attacks sent a shock wave through their quiet existence.
When Joseph returned to Split Rocks with his fresh beef, he was barraged with a flurry of information: the te-lik-leen, the murders, the raiding party. He briefly considered going to the reservation as planned and explaining everything to Howard, but dismissed the idea. “I can hardly go back,” he said. “The white people will blame me, telling me that my young men have killed the whitemen.” The Nimiipuu prepared for battle.
Meanwhile, on 14 June, several Nez Perce warriors arrived at a ranch 7 miles from an Idaho town called Mount Idaho. Arthur “Ad” Chapman was married to a Umatilla woman, a tribe friendly with the Nez Perce. He and his wife had even lived with Chief Joseph’s extended family for a time. The warriors informed the couple that several rogue Nez Perce were murdering white men and suggested that he and his wife leave, just to be safe. Instead, Chapman rode straight for Mount Idaho to spread the news.
A bustling metropolis for frontier standards (there were two general stores instead of one), Mount Idaho was just 65 miles southeast of Fort Lapwai—close enough for help but too far for it to arrive quickly. In a panic, townsfolk dug trenches and made barricades of wagons, logs, and flour sacks. Farmers and ranchers from the nearby countryside took shelter in any public building available, even the jail. “We are in the midst of an Indian war,” they wrote to Howard, “Give us relief, and arms and ammunition…Hurry up; hurry!”
As 15 June dawned, Howard woke up ready to welcome the Nez Perce to their new reservation. It had been more than a month since he’d seen the Nez Perce chiefs, and they had been so wonderfully cooperative with all his demands. Last he’d heard, they were camping only a few days away at Tolo Lake, right on schedule to meet up with the 1863 treaty-signers that had already arrived. At 9 in the morning, the general was greeted with news of the murders.
As Howard decided how to respond, the Nez Perce already on the reservation responded with shock. Several people, including Joseph’s father-in-law, tried to explain to Howard that this all must be a horrible mistake. They offered to meet with Joseph and resolve the issue. They could bring the murderers to justice, they insisted. Despite their pleas, Howard sent the cavalry of Fort Lapwai to Mount Idaho.
On the morning of 16 June, Joseph’s band joined Toohoolhoozote’s and White Bird’s in Lahmotta, about a half-day’s walk south of Split Rocks. Known to the white residents as White Bird Canyon, the Nez Perce had chosen this familiar campsite because of its steep walls and rolling buttes. The warriors returned from their violent exploits, confident in their deeds and ready to defend their tribe.
While the Nez Perce leaders deliberated what to do next, the men discovered that the raiders had stolen more than just horses. There were barrels of whiskey, baskets of champagne, and bottles of brandy. In the shadow of impending annihilation, the warriors drank with enthusiasm.
After 24 hours of riding, the cavalry from Fort Lapwai collapsed into their bedrolls on the outskirts of Mount Idaho. As the cooks boiled gallons of bean soup, a ragtag group of men with rifles entered the camp. They were a sort of volunteer militia of local residents that had kept watch while they waited for the Army to show up. At the front was a man on a white horse, wearing a large, white, wide-brimmed hat. It was Ad Chapman, and he had more news to share.
Chapman told the soldiers that he had lived with the Nez Perce and knew their language. The campsite in White Bird Canyon that the tribe currently occupied contained a crossing point for the Salmon River, which would allow them to easily slip away at a moment’s notice. If they wanted to win this war, he told them emphatically, they had to strike now, or the Nez Perce would escape.
Indians were cowardly scoundrels, Chapman continued. It was just a few men guarding women and children. An easy victory. A chance to take the frontier back. Before they could even finish their soup, the soldiers were ordered up again.
In the early hours of the morning, the Nez Perce warrior Itskimzekin (called “No Feet,” because he had none) came galloping into camp from his sentinel post. One hundred well-armed cavalry stood just over the ridge.
Toohoolhoolzote, White Bird, and Joseph ran through the camp, awaking every warrior who was not hopelessly drunk. Of the 140 men, only about 65 were battle-ready. Armed with a medley of outdated firearms and bows and arrows, they waited for battle.
In a last, desperate attempt for peace, the leaders sent out a group of warriors under the white flag with an offer to peacefully hand over the murderers. As the peace party crested the ridge, a collection of cavalry officers waited to meet them.
Before anyone could stop him, Ad Chapman pointed his rifle at the peace party and fired. Whether they liked it or not, the war had begun.
Down in the valley, a young Nez Perce warrior named Yellow Wolf heard the shot and his eyes flew up the ridge. He saw the large white hat and recognized Chapman, who he’d met at his uncle’s house. The white man and his wife had been guests. Now, Chapman had just fired the first shot. There wasn’t time to wonder why.
The Nez Perce returned the enemy fire with an accuracy that shocked the soldiers. They might have lacked numbers, but the warriors were well drilled in sharpshooting and needed every shot to count.
The cavalry moved into position on one ridge while civilian volunteers moved to another. Already, the horses were nervous and bucking from the gunfire. A bugler began to play the battle orders, but a sharpshooter shot the man off his horse mid-tune. When the captain frantically asked the second bugler to start playing, the man discovered he’d dropped his instrument during the march. The soldiers couldn’t communicate.
Wahlitits, Sarpsis Ilppilp, and a third warrior named Tipyahlahnah charged the right flank of the cavalry. Each wore a red blanket, hoping the bright color would draw the soldiers’ attention. Riding full gallop, they fired into the column.
Chapman looked around at the chaos and decided that he’d had enough. Among the hail of bullets, he turned and led the civilian volunteers in retreat.
“Chapman was a great leader,” a Mount Idaho local recalled wryly. “He had the lead going into the White Bird battle, and he was in the lead going out of it.”
With the civilians gone, the cavalry decided to follow Chapman’s lead. Their terrified horses bucked and scrambled up the steep slope to safety. When they finally made it to Mount Idaho, they realized that out of 100 soldiers, 34 were dead and two were wounded. Not a single Nez Perce had been killed.
The victorious Nez Perce scrambled up the slope, collecting rifles from the dead. By attacking White Bird Canyon, the cavalry had unintentionally provided the tribe with a much-needed supply of weapons. The chiefs led their tribes across the Salmon River to get as far away as possible before news of the defeat got to Howard.
The Nez Perce had practiced war for centuries, but this situation was different. Instead of men fighting men for honor and glory, the Nez Perce were on the run with more than 500 women, children, and elderly. Not to mention several hundred horses and thousands of cows, which were the wealth of the tribe. It was a bad situation, and the tribe knew it.
In the years afterward, Howard would say that Joseph had devised a brilliant battle plan by observing the cavalry through a spyglass. Howard would describe Joseph as the Indian Napoleon; a man who eked out victory through military prowess. It was easier for him to believe that than the truth: that a handful of hungover Nez Perce warriors had rolled out of bed, grabbed a mishmash of weapons, and taken down 100 U.S. cavalrymen.
Howard hurried to reinforce the survivors. With more than 200 total calvary, infantry, and artillery troops, he arrived at White Bird Canyon five days after the battle. He found only a small number of Nez Perce warriors, all safely on the other side of the violently rushing Salmon River. The warriors shouted a litany of insults before disappearing into the hills.
Howard assumed they were going west, back to the Wallowa Valley. He ordered his men to cross the Salmon, which one soldier called a “God-fearing boiling cauldron.” In a cold rain, they followed the Nez Perce trail up a steep precipice. As they gained elevation, the rain turned to sleet.
After two weeks of riding, the trail led back to the Salmon River. The tribe had never crossed it at all; only a handful of warriors had made the trek to make it seem like the tribe had traversed the river. Howard had fallen for a trick.
Facing the realization that he would have to cross the treacherous river again, Howard wasn’t in a mood to be forgiving. He sent Captain Stephen Whipple with men to arrest Chief Looking Glass.
For weeks, Looking Glass had been oblivious to the tribe’s predicament. His band had left Tepahlewan before the te-lik-leen and arrived on the reservation as planned. Even after news of White Bird Canyon, Looking Glass acted as though everything was normal. Hopefully, the chief thought, the Army would leave them alone.
Whipple, his 66 cavalry, and a volunteer interpreter arrived in the early morning. Looking Glass was busy eating breakfast, so he sent a messenger to reiterate his neutrality. Whipple demanded to see the chief in person. Looking Glass correctly assumed this was a ploy to get him out of the teepee and sent the messenger back out to say no.
When the messenger reappeared without the chief, a trigger-happy volunteer fired at him. The few Nez Perce warriors present returned fire, and soon the whole camp went into a panic. Women, children, and the elderly fled as soldiers set fire to their teepees. “Of course this settled it,” a warrior later stated. “We had to have a war.”
When Whipple returned to Howard with a report that Looking Glass was not only free, but now actively fighting with the Nez Perce, Howard was furious. He ordered the captain to rush ahead and intercept the tribe at an abandoned ranch, while he and the rest of troops followed behind. Whipple sent 13 men to scout the road ahead of his soldiers. On the way to the ranch, he discovered that all of them had been killed by Nez Perce warriors. Soon afterward, Whipple realized he and his men were surrounded.
As Whipple exchanged rounds with the warriors, a message arrived with news from Mount Idaho. Once again, a group of volunteers had decided to take on the Nez Perce, and once again discovered it was harder than they’d thought. The 17 men said they were up against 150 warriors (the Nez Perce say the real number was between 12 and 14) and facing certain annihilation. When an already-stressed Whipple reluctantly sent his troops to rescue them, the Nez Perce vanished.
It was in this tense environment that a man named Lew Wilmot approached General Howard. Wilmot had been the previous owner of the alcohol the Nez Perce drank before the Battle of White Bird Canyon, and one of the 17 volunteers in need of rescuing. He informed Howard that the Nez Perce were camped at Cottonwood Creek and used his audience with the general to go on a profanity-laden tirade about the Army’s incompetence.
Wilmot had hit upon one of the realities of the Nez Perce War: although the Army was officially in charge, the men filling the ranks were mostly eastern immigrants and Civil War veterans unfamiliar with the surrounding territory. This meant that the commanders had to rely on local civilians for help, and the locals had no interest in adhering to military procedure. Instead, to the Army’s immense frustration, they improvised. Badly.
At White Bird Canyon, it had been a civilian who fired the first shot. Same with Whipple’s attempt to arrest Looking Glass. Valuable military resources were wasted because of trigger-happy civilian volunteers, and Howard’s patience was running thin.
The locals, however, held a view shared by many national newspapers: the Army’s job was to protect white settlers by killing American Indians. It didn’t matter how difficult those settlers were making it; if they weren’t killing American Indians, they might as well leave. And right now, the American Indians were killing them. This was completely unacceptable. Rumors were already swirling that Congress wanted Howard fired.
Howard arrested Wilmot for abuse of an officer. He and his troops headed toward Cottonwood Creek, with volunteer Chapman leading the way. It was, after all, near his ranch, and he was the only one who knew the terrain. Chapman accidently led the men a full 2 miles past the Nez Perce camp before Howard realized his mistake and turned the company around. Chapman didn’t seem overly concerned about this error.
With the Nez Perce tucked into a small valley below them, the general decided it was time to use the howitzer cannon that had been dragged by three horses all the way from Fort Lapwai. This show of clearly superior weaponry would surely cause the Nez Perce to surrender.
The cannon fired with a booming noise that echoed through the landscape. The Nez Perce looked up with horror. As the warriors ran for their guns, Howard realized that the cannonball had completely missed the camp. The general frantically tried to think of a plan B, which gave Toohoolhoozote time to lead two dozen warriors up the steep bluffs and block the assault. While both sets of soldiers fired at each other from protective lines, the Nez Perce families packed up and slipped away. The Army suffered 13 dead and 27 wounded, many of them officers. The Nez Perce had four dead and six wounded.
When news of the battle spread east, Montana settlers panicked. On 25 July, a local company of soldiers constructed a makeshift barricade across a Bitterroot Mountain pass. Locals showed up 50 at a time, ready to defend the land the Army clearly couldn’t protect. But when the Nez Perce actually showed up, it was immediately clear that they only wanted to pass through. With no threat to their farms or homes, the locals deserted in droves. The soldiers were left hopelessly alone in what eastern newspapers dubbed “Fort Fizzle.”
With so many victories behind them, the Nez Perce now had to consider something new: winning. What would it look like? It was now clear that the United States would never let them live peacefully in Wallowa Valley. But Howard only wanted their land, and now he had it. There was nothing left to fight over. So, as they saw it, the tribe faced a choice that millions of immigrants contemplated all across the world: to stay in an unsustainable homeland, or to continue their traditions somewhere new.
Chief Joseph and the other chiefs decided to take the familiar seasonal route over the Bitterroot Mountains and start again in a new homeland. Perhaps the Sioux would help them, or another of their allies. They could start a new life, away from the violence of the Pacific Northwest.
But even as he led his people to their new home, Joseph wasn’t so sure about this plan. He’d moved away from the spotlight during most of the campaign, allowing the more military-minded Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote to make war decisions. Joseph was a politician, not a general. His experience was more suited to overseeing the less glamorous but equally important task of feeding and sheltering 500 women, children, and elderly, as well as hundreds of animals. So, that was what he did. But Joseph had interacted enough with the U.S. military to know this was about more than just the Wallowa Valley. This was about domination.
General Howard, the high-ranking evangelical hero of the Civil War, had been beaten again and again by a ragtag group of nonwhite heathens. That wasn’t supposed to be possible. But just as with the defeat of Custer’s company at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Nez Perce had revealed that the U.S. government could be resisted. And if the government ever wanted to claim dominion over the Wild West, the Nez Perce couldn’t be allowed to exist outside their purview. That, in their opinion, would be letting the Indians win. And Indians did not win.
With failure after failure marring his record, it was clear to the Army that Howard needed to be replaced. Colonel John Gibbon and his troops stationed at Fort Shaw, several hundred miles to the north, were called to intercept the Nez Perce. As the men marched past Fort Fizzle, they enlisted the remaining soldiers.
After the long journey over the Bitterroot Mountains, the Nez Perce allowed themselves a much-needed rest. They had traveled across Idaho and were just over the Montana border, where prairies once again dominated the landscape. Camping in the willows of a high mountain valley at the fork of the Big Hole River, families gathered to cut teepee poles, mend clothing, and hold another te-lik-leen ceremony to celebrate their new life in buffalo country. Singing and dancing went on long into the night, for as Yellow Wolf later said, “We had left General Howard and his war in Idaho.”
As the tribe celebrated, a team of military scouts moved carefully through the underbrush. They heard the low murmur of voices, the barking of dogs, and the wail of a baby crying. Then they crept back to their own side and plotted their attack.
Just as the sun was rising on the morning of 9 August, an elderly man went to check on his horses. He headed for the river, but then paused, looking into the willows. At that moment, Colonel Gibbon’s soldiers leapt up, shot the man, and ran hollering into the Nez Perce camp.
Warriors came running out of their teepees in shock and whirled around to retrieve their rifles, only to die in the doorway. Horses reared, breaking their tethers, and ran wild across the camp. Women and children ran for the willows, only to run into more soldiers. Children watched their mothers fall, their bodies riddled with holes. Joseph picked up his infant daughter and ran for the brush as the teepees began to burn.
Wahlitits crouched behind a log beside his pregnant wife, firing shot after shot at the seemingly endless line of soldiers until he was brought down by returning fire. The man who had started the Nez Perce War was dead.
As the rain of bullets stretched from minutes to an hour, the emotions of the tribe shifted from shock to rage. White Bird yelled to his cowering warriors, “Since the world began, brave men fight for their women and children! Are we going to run to the mountains and let the whites kill our women and children before our eyes?”
With rifles scavenged from the ruined teepees and dead soldiers, the Nez Perce sharpshooters fired at the soldiers now occupying their camp. Gibbon decided that the tribe was practically defeated and ordered his men to retreat to the river, where the sharpshooters’ bullets found their marks. White and Nez Perce bodies mingled together in the red-tinted water.
Gibbon ordered charge after charge in an attempt to regain the advantage, but each fell apart under enemy fire before they even made it out of the woods. All around the battlefield, the screams of wounded children and grieving families echoed across the once-beautiful meadow. In the maternity teepee, an elderly midwife and new mother lay dead, the newborn’s head crushed by a boot heel. The body of Sarpsis Ilppilp, one of warriors that had helped Wahlitits with the initial murders, was found with the beads of his protective necklace scattered across the dirt. He was still dressed in the red blanket from the Battle of White Bird Canyon.
When day fell to night, the Nez Perce buried their dead—30 warriors, and more than 60 women, children, and elderly. Chief Joseph collected his two daughters and his wife, who had all miraculously survived the slaughter. Then the Nez Perce ran for their lives.
After trudging across the newly formed Yellowstone National Park, the Nez Perce changed tactics once again. It was clear that no amount of distance would convince General Howard to stop chasing them; they were a symbol of the old world order, a remnant of an America devoid of an American government. If the tribe was going to survive, they needed to hide somewhere the Army couldn’t reach them. And the U.S. Army would stop at nothing—except perhaps the Canadian border.
The remainder of the tribe turned north. Howard had no issue picking up their trail; their path was dotted with shallow graves. “Poor Nez Perces!” Howard’s surgeon John Fitzgerald wrote to his wife, “I am actually beginning to admire their bravery and endurance in the face of so many well equipped enemies.”
But while the soldiers in the field were developing sympathy for their enemy, the military command was unmoved. Howard obeyed his orders to pursue the Nez Perce as winter settled into Montana’s high country.
Meanwhile, the eastern press continued to print stories about the flight of the Nez Perce. The following poem appeared in the Missoulian under the title “Big Hole,” depicting an imaginary letter from Colonel Gibbon to his superior:
Col. Gibbon to Gov. Potts:
We’re had a hard fight
and I’m sorry to say,
They’ve whipped us out quite
And the devil’s to pay
I wait at Big Hole
For an answer from you
And confess on my soul,
I don’t know what to do
Gov. Potts to Col. Gibbon:
Licked again? Your command
Nearly turned inside out?
Did Chief Joseph take a hand
Or was Howard about?
The newspaper reporters knew little of Nez Perce culture, but they were well versed in recent American and European military conflict. Stories of battle often focused on the genius exploits of great generals: Washington, Napoleon, Ulysses S. Grant. Therefore, in their mind, a tribe that had continued to hold out against the U.S. military must have a genius general at the helm. Chief Joseph—perhaps because of his diplomatic history with whites, or his strong physique, or perhaps simply because his name was easiest to remember—got that title.
Howard didn’t discourage this narrative. His defeats were less humiliating, and perhaps even understandable, if he was up against a military genius. Maybe, just maybe, he could pull through this ordeal and still have a job.
With the Nez Perce racing for the Canadian border, the Army deliberated. In the end, they decided Howard’s terrible performance might have a silver lining after all—the tribe had been lulled into a false sense of security. But it was time to bring out the big guns, and that meant Colonel Nelson Miles.
Howard and Miles had history together. Miles, a self-taught store clerk, had served under Howard during the first days of the Civil War. After the Battle of Fair Oaks, he’d held onto Howard’s right arm as it was amputated. But while Howard spent his life guided by his evangelical Christianity, Miles opted for relentless ambition. Despite his complete lack of political connections, the man quickly rose through the ranks, even marrying a niece of General William Tecumseh Sherman.
After the Civil War, Miles moved west and established himself as a reliable destroyer of American Indians. He’d defeated an alliance of the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho during the Red River War, and was just finishing up a campaign to destroy the Sioux and Cheyenne that had annihilated Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. American Indians knew him as “Bear Coat,” for the heavy fur outerwear he often wore during battle. Handing over Chief Joseph in chains, Miles schemed, might finally earn him that coveted general’s uniform.
Leaving Fort Keogh with 400 men, Miles marched diagonally into the Nez Perce’s path. The Nez Perce, who were still looking for Howard, wouldn’t be expecting a sideways attack.
On the morning of 30 September, the tribe awoke on the chilly Montana frontier. After traveling 1,200 miles in four months, they were finally almost done—only 40 miles stood between them and freedom. Chief Joseph was enjoying a leisurely breakfast with his daughters and his nephew Yellow Wolf when scouts arrived with news of a buffalo stampede. The scouts correctly guessed that encroaching soldiers had spooked them, but Looking Glass advised everyone to remain calm. After all, they were so close. What could go wrong now?
An hour later, a scout approached the camp on horseback, waving a blanket. Everyone understood the warning: soldiers were near. Instantly, the tribe was a blur of motion.
“Horses!” Joseph shouted, “Save the horses!”
While his brother Ollokot led the warriors up a bluff to meet the army, Joseph and his 12-year-old daughter Tah-hy ran toward the herd. Women and children grabbed the animals at random, ready to race the last 40 miles. Joseph took hold of a horse and helped Tah-hy onto its back. There was no time to add a saddle or reins; nothing to make this desperate, solo journey safer for the preteen girl. Joseph handed his daughter the only thing he could: a rope, to help her hang on. Tah-hy turned the horse toward Canada and took off at a gallop. Within minutes, she was out of sight.
Joseph turned around. Already, the Army had slid between the herd and the camp, cutting him off from the rest of the warriors. Yellow Wolf, who had followed his uncle’s command to save the herd, looked down on the village from a plateau. He saw “hundreds of soldiers charging in two wide, circling wings. They were surrounding [the] camp.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, on the other side of that divide, Toohoolhoolzote and five other warriors lay dead.
Joseph grabbed a horse and jumped on, directing it at the line of soldiers separating him from everything that still mattered. Guns rang out and bullets tore at the sleeves of his shirt, but he reached the other side of the line alive.
Joseph dismounted and staggered to the teepee. It was untouched by the fighting, the fire and breakfast things an uncanny reminder of the domestic scene that had taken place only a few moments before. In the teepee, Joseph’s waiting wife pressed a rifle into his hands. “Here’s your gun,” she said, “Fight!”
Joseph took the gun and ran to the bluff where his younger brother had led the majority of the warriors. By the time he arrived, Ollokot was already dead.
The Nez Perce continued to fire on the soldiers until the sun went down. That night, Yellow Wolf dug trenches that would hopefully serve as a protective shield in the next day’s fighting. An old man wandered through the camp, collecting the names of people who had escaped before the battle. Everyone eagerly listened for their friends and family. Yellow Wolf heard his mother’s name and felt both joy and grief at the news. He might never see her again, and he hadn’t even said good-bye.
Someone would tell the Sioux what had happened, the warriors told each other again and again. Some of the warriors that had won the Battle of Little Bighorn stood just over the border, living in exile in Canada. Surely they would come to rescue them.
As Yellow Wolf crouched inside the trench, his mind returned to the Wallowa Valley. “Of my own country where only Indians lived there. Of teepees along the bending river. Of the clear, blue lake, wide meadows with horse and cattle herds…I felt as dreaming.”
But when dawn broke, he was still on the barren prairie, his cold-numbed fingers still clutching his gun. As light rose over the horizon, Looking Glass stood up from the trenches to look into the distance, squinting for the Sioux warriors. An American bullet struck him in the head. The chief was dead before he hit the ground.
]It was time, Joseph decided, to put an end to all this. On the morning of 01 October, Yellow Wolf stepped out of the trench waving a white flag. Through a half-Nez Perce man named Tom Hill, he informed Miles that his uncle would like to speak with him. Soon afterward, Chief Joseph was in the general’s tent.
“He spoke English in a very deliberate way, uttering each word slowly without emphasizing any particular one,” a present soldier remarked later. Through the translator, Chief Joseph explained that he was only one of several leaders of the Nez Perce, so nothing they discussed would be binding. Miles ignored him, proceeding with the meeting as though Joseph was in charge. After several frustrating conversations, it was clear nothing was going to be decided. Joseph got up to leave.
Then, implausibly, Miles said that Joseph was now a hostage. The rest of the men were free to go.
It was a clear violation of the truce both sides had just agreed to. But in his mind, Miles was fighting American Indians, and the rules of warfare only applied to civilized people. Besides, Miles was convinced this would finally bring the war to an end. Chief Joseph was obviously the mastermind behind all this, and capturing him would render the tribe defenseless. Surrender would be imminent.
A few soldiers continued firing into the Nez Perce camp, despite the fact the tribe respectfully refused to fire back. But other Americans were shocked to hear of the truce violation. Combined with the fact that the Nez Perce weren’t losing their minds over the loss of their genius military strategist, Joseph was returned to the Nez Perce camp the next day.
Bullets sporadically showered the trenches as Joseph attempted to convince the tribe that surrender was the best option. White Bird was completely opposed. “General Miles and General Howard are mad,” he told the tribe. The elderly chief had already walked hundreds of miles in order to live free from military oppression and he wasn’t going to give up this close to victory. “They will get in their power, and give us heavy punishment. You can go! Be a slave if you wish! I am going to Sitting Bull! All who want to go with me can do so.”
As the negotiations dragged on, warriors slipped out of the camp. It was clear that the Sioux weren’t coming.
But Chief Joseph stayed. “We could have escaped from Bear Paw Mountain if we had left our wounded, old women, and children behind,” he later wrote. “We were unwilling to do this.” The time of battle was over. Now, the Nez Perce needed a politician to get them the best surrender deal possible.
On 04 October, General Howard arrived at the battlefield. They may have been adversaries, but Howard and Joseph had developed a begrudging mutual respect. After the disastrous meeting with Miles, this was somebody that Joseph could negotiate with.
In messages carried back and forth between the camps, Howard laid out the terms of surrender. The conditions set by the Army were simple: if the Nez Perce surrendered, they could live peacefully on the reservation they had agreed to at that fateful meeting five months ago. Joseph asked the tribe for their consent. They agreed.
The following morning, Joseph rode his horse across the snowy Montana plain with a rifle in his lap. Five warriors stood around him, walking slowly as they made a funeral-style march through the grass. Their 1,200-mile journey was at an end.
The party halted in front of the representatives from the U.S. Army, which included Miles, Howard, and two lieutenants. To facilitate the Nez Perce surrender was none other than Ad Chapman, likely dressed in his signature white hat. Although he’d caused the Battle of White Bird Canyon and further complicated the Battle of Cottonwood Creek, the Army begrudgingly accepted that he was the only white man around who claimed to speak Nez Perce. Besides, Joseph knew Chapman. Better the devil you knew than the devil you didn’t.
Chief Joseph dismounted, still holding the rifle. The white Americans hesitated; this wasn’t part of the plan. But rather than aim the weapon, Joseph extended it toward General Howard.
Howard froze. Over the past few days, Miles had made it clear that this was his victory, and no one had better try to steal it from him. But Howard had been the man on the ground from day one, and Miles had merely shown up in the final chapter. If anyone deserved this rifle, it was him. And Joseph was offering it to him.
After only a momentary pause, Howard gestured to Miles. Joseph turned to the man who’d held him captive and handed him the rifle of surrender. He said a few words in his native language.
Then, Chapman translated Joseph’s famous words of surrender: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more.”
After his Montana surrender, Chief Joseph became mythologized. Although he was one of four chiefs, he had been the one most comfortable negotiating with whites. Hence, Joseph loomed larger than Toohoolhoolzote, White Bird, or Looking Glass in the minds of the American soldiers. Already, he was becoming part of a larger narrative.
Immediately following Joseph’s surrender, Howard’s aide and aspiring poet Charles Erskine Scott Wood released a statement to the press that he claimed included a direct transcription of Chapman’s translation of Joseph’s speech:
“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before — I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Too-hul-hul-sit is dead. Looking Glass is dead. He-who-led-the-young-men-in-battle [Ollokot] is dead. The chiefs are all dead. It is the young men now who say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ My little daughter has run away upon the prairie. I do not know where to find her—perhaps I shall find her too among the dead. It is cold and we have no fire; no blankets. Our little children are crying for food but we have none to give. Hear me, my chiefs. From where the sun now stands, Joseph will fight no more forever.”
Whether the aide embellished the transcription is up for debate, but whether the words were impactful is not. As the tribe was brought through Bismarck, citizens flooded the streets in the hope of catching a glimpse of Joseph.
General Howard was also responsible for the mythmaking. His book, Nez Perce Joseph, furthered public belief that the chief was a genius “Red Napoleon” that he had notably dominated. His campaign, in the public imagination, became the grand finale to a generational struggle. The Nez Perce were the last tribe that truly resisted the U.S. government, and Joseph’s surrender became a bookend for the American west. It became the moment the troops that had freed the southern slaves finally dominated the western natives.
Today, countless landmarks in the Pacific Northwest bear Chief Joseph’s name. In 2012, the shirt he wore during the surrender sold for nearly $1 million at auction. And in the American Experience pavilion of Disney World’s Epcot, an animatronic Chief Joseph gives his poetic surrender speech to packed audiences.
After the war, General William T. Sherman violated the surrender agreement and sent the tribe to a prisoner of war camp in Kansas. Eight months later, the surviving tribe members were sent by rail to Indian Territory, which would later become the state of Oklahoma.
Colonel Nelson Miles was promoted to general shortly after Joseph’s surrender, and later rose to the rank of major general. He and Howard quarreled over who was responsible for the Nez Perce victory for the rest of their lives.
Chief Joseph made several trips to Washington, D.C., to plead that the Nez Perce be allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. His request was granted. In 1885, he and his followers moved to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, where the old chief died in 1904. He never again visited the Wallowa Valley.
Joseph’s 12-year-old daughter Tah-hy made it to Canada and lived among the Sioux before returning to Montana under the influence of missionaries. The baby daughter that had survived the entire war died on the Oklahoma reservation.
Eventually, the tribe purchased 150 acres of land in the Wallowa Valley near the town of Joseph, also named for the legendary leader. The tribe celebrated the return with a traditional parade, not unlike the te-lik-leen that had started the conflict so long ago.
“A hundred and forty four years ago, there would have been a lot of tears and we can still feel their hurt,” said Nez Perce Vice Chairman Shannon Wheeler at the celebration in spring 2020. “But today there are tears of joy. We are coming home today.”
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