Chief Joseph Worked Hard to Avoid Conflicts with Early White Settlers

Contributed by Jim Reavis

By Roy Carter

 In 1871, Old Joseph, father of the famous Nee Percé Chieftain, Chief Joseph, died and the son became chief. During the, next few years there was constant friction between the tribe and the government which still hoped to move the Non-Treaty tribes onto the reservation in Idaho. Settlers were beginning to move into the Wallows Valley and there was constant strife between them and the Indians.

     There can be no doubt that the white men were fully conscious of what they were doing in buying the Wallow Valley from Lawyer. A document signed by the secretary of the Treaty Council reads - "Finally it was concluded to make the treaty with the Lawyer band - Joseph's band never had anything to do with the treaty, never would have, and have never and never will receive any of the annuity good or any other benefit from the Government, claiming then, as they do now, that Lawyer and his chiefs were not the rightful chiefs of the Nez Peace and consequently had not the right to treat with the commissioners to cede their possessors right."

     Unrest continued. George Collier Robbing says in his "Pioneer Reminiscences",

"In Southern Idaho, Indian women and children were killed in attacks made by volunteer soldiers." A citizens committee posted rewards for Indian scalps; $100 far a buck's, $50 for a squaw's, and $25 for anything in the shape of an Indian under ten.

     Ulysses S. Grant, then president of the United States conceded the right of Joseph's people to the land but under pressure from groups both in Oregon and in the office of Indian Affairs reversed his position and declared the land open to homesteading. The government pressed for removal of the tribe from the valley to the Lapwai reservation.

     Joseph, still remembering his father's wish that the bones of his father and his mother would never be sold questioned the availability of land suitable for cultivation.

     In the mind of the resident Indian agent there was no question: "There is not enough to give heads of families twenty acres apiece."
In spite of this, the commission concluded that the Lapwai reservation was suitable and concluded their proceedings with the admonishing that "Unless they come to Lapwai and settle in a reasonable time they are to be placed by force upon the reservation.
     As a sidelight to the main problem, it is curious to note that at that time there were fewer than twenty families lining in the Wallows Valley an they privately had little use for the land. It has been reported that the only reason for the steady stream of complaint was to hurry the government in purchasing the land from them to secure the reservation.
     A minority report was submitted by Wood in which he stated: "The Government has so far failed to comply with the treaty of 1855 that none of the Nee Percé are bound by it. I recommend that although Joseph's band must be ultimately;. removed, yet until Joseph commits some act of overt hostility, force shall not be used to put him upon any reservation."
     The minority report was duly read and quickly forgotten.
          Early in 1877 a meeting was held and the four non-treaty tribes were given one month in which to gather their belongings, their horses, their cattle and move onto the reservation. Again dispute broke out, Tu-hul-hil-sote spoke out vehemently against the orders of General Howard who had been called in to execute the removal of the Indians.
     "You have no right to compare us, grown men, to children. Children do not think for themselves. Grown men do think for themselves. The government at Washington cannot think for us. The Great Spirit Chief made the world as it is and as he wanted it, and be made a part of it for us to live upon.  I do not see where you get authority to say that we shall not live where he placed us."
     The old chief was arrested for his outburst.

     Still hoping that a war could be be averted, Joseph at last agreed to leave the land of his fathers and move onto the Lapwai reservation, holding that he had not sold the land, that though he might never live there again, the land still belonged to his people. And again General Howard pointed out that they would have one month make the move and that unless they were upon the reservation at the end of that month, he would send troops for them.
     In late May, 1877, the four non-treaty tribes began their march to Lapwai. They were due back on June 14. Knowing the time was short and not wishing troops should be sent out against them, they hurriedly gathered up what was theirs and paid final farewell to the Wallowa valley as they brought in the herds of cattle and horses, many of which were left behind, many more were to be lost in having to forge streams swollen with the spring thaws. On June 8, the non-treaty tribes rendezvoused at Rocky Canyon before the final march to Lapwai.

     An undercurrent of bitterness ran like wildfire through the camp. All the old wrongs were aired and repeated in variation throughout the night. Revenge was asked for and only Joseph remained immobile in his insistence an keeping peace at all cost.

     A council was held, unattended by Joseph whose wife was expecting a child and they lived apart from the encampment. Even Joseph's brother, Alicut, counseled war, as strongly as Joseph counseled peace.

     On the night of June 13, four warriors of the tribe led  by White Bird could endure the rising tide of emotion no longer. They left camp and before morning the war that had been smoldering for so long flamed into violence. They rode into camp the following, day with  horses and rifles they had taken from the bodies of the settlers they had killed.

     Joseph, who had been gone during this time, returned to learn of the bloodshed.  He had counseled peace but peace was no longer possible.
     General Howard led the cavalry against the Nez Percé and in the succession of battles, White Bird Canyon, Cottonwood  proceed 1 wood, Camas Meadows, he learned first hand, the amazing military genius of this chief of the Nez Percé.  He outfought and outwitted the best of the U. S. Army along a battle line that led from the banks of the Snake River to within thirty miles of the Canadian border.
  Joseph had watched and learned from the white training during the years of  peace and he deployed his own troops with the same effectiveness that had subdued other nations. His few hundred warriors fought greater odds in every battle and still came out the victor and handed the army victory without reward. Always he had women and children to consider and his only thought was to get them across the Canadian border and into safety.

     He led there across the Lobo pass into the Bitterroot Valley of Montana through the Big Hole and was forced to double back down through the Yellowstone to avoid contact with troops moving up from the south, led by Colonel Miles.
     Still hoping to make Canada and safety, Joseph turned his tribe northward again.  The winter was setting in now and they had little food and clothing when the snow began to fall.
     Within thirty miles of the long-sought after border and freedom, Joseph built camp. He felt he had a few days lead on the pursuing forces and posted no guards nor sent out scouts and later he was to admit to this mistake. It was here that the final battle occurred in the shadow of Bear Paw Mountains.

     When the battle brake out, Joseph sent riders to Sitting Bull for aid and he fought a bitter delaying battle, hoping for reinforcements from the leader of the Sioux Nation and the hero of the Little Big Horn. The battle lasted for five days and it was then that it became evident no aid would come to help them. Joseph, realizing the futility of further resistance, surrendered to General Howard on the moaning of October 4 with these wards:

     "Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tu-hul-hil-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets little children are freezing to death. My people, some off 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 to have time to look for my children 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." 

     White Bird with what remained of his band escaped during the night across the border, he, whose people had been responsible for the war, found freedom in Canada.
      Of Joseph's family there was left his daughter, a baby of some five months old, another daughter, Sarah, was in exile with White Bird. He had lost two wives in the battle of Big Hole; his brother, Alicut.
     The record lists eleven engagements in all, five being pitched battles of which Joseph lost one, tied one, and won three. He had marched his people across a trail that stretched out some 1,800 miles and 75 days.

     General Sherman, at the close of the campaign when the facts were before him had to write:  "'Thus has terminated one of the mast extraordinary Indian Wars of which there is any records.  The Indians throughout had displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise; they abstained from scalping; let captive women go free; did not commit indiscriminate murders of peaceful families (which was usual) and fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications."
     At no time during the battles did Joseph have more than 350 warriors yet he had fought against some 2000 soldiers: the troops had lost 126 men and 140 wounded while Joseph had 151 and 88 wounded which did not include the loss of women and children.

     According to the terms of surrender, the Nez Percé were to be returned to Lapwai as soon as was humanly possible to do so, which meant the following spring. A violent uproar protesting this by the whites living near the reservation prevented action and the tribes were put on Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

     Joseph fought for the return of his people to their homeland, to Lapwai. In this fight he was aided by Colonel Miles

who had promised them as much at the surrender, and who felt the government duty-bound to do so.

     Joseph spoke with Senator Graver, who had led the pressure group which had resulted in President Grant's reversal of position on the ownership of the Wallow Valley and who now headed the commission appointed to investigate Joseph’s claims to him, he said:

            “I do not like this country (the Indian Country).  I have seen enough of it since I have been kept in it.  I have lost eighty of my people and I am afraid of this country.  We must all die if we stay here.  When I stopped fighting I surrendered to Howard and Miles.  I wished for peace.  At that surrender we came to an understanding with these two generals.  It was a true understanding.  We supposed we were to be sent to our own country, but we were brought down here.
         “Why do the people in Washington hesitate to carry out their agreements?”
         Grover told him then that his valley was settled by white men and that he could never return there to live, asking if there was other lands where he would like to live.  It was his request to have his people moved to a reservation on the upper Columbia River.  There were then three hundred and eighty three men, women and children left in the tribe.
       It was not until 1885 that the government granted the Nez Percé permission to be returned to the Northwest.  The remnants of the tribe were split those of Looking Glass and White Bird’s bands were returned to Lapwai while Joseph’s band was sent to the Colville Reservation in Northern Washington.  They settled near the sub-agency on the Banks of the Nespelem River.
       Here he spent his remaining years.  He married twice more in spite of objections by missionaries.  To them he replied:

 “I fought through the war for my country and these women.  You took away my country: I shall keep my wives.”

     In 1897, Joseph left the reservation for Washington, D. C. Again white men were encroaching upon his land.  While in Washington he was invited to participate in the dedication of Grant's tomb in New York City, which he attended before he returned gratefully to his home.
     Only once was he allowed to return to the Wallowa Valley, in 1900.  He found that his father's grave was now the property of a rancher, a part of his fields.  He was taken to the spot and found it well kept, he saw it with tears in his eyes.

     His wit and his wisdom are best expressed in the words of the man himself: 

“Look twice at a two-faced man”: “Cursed by the hand that scalps the reputation of the dead”: “The eye tells what the tongue would hide”: “Fire water courage ends in trembling fear”: “Big name often stands on small legs”: “Finest fur may cover toughest meat”: “When you get the last word with an echo, you man do so with a squaw”.

      His last funeral rites were performed in 1905.  A granite monument, built with funds donated by James J. Hill, railroad magnate, was dedicated at that time and his personal possessions were distributed among his relatives and the members of his tribe.
            He was reburied at the base of the monument, facing the East.  On the column is his likeness and is inscribed on one side with the name the White man knew so well and on the other, Hin-mah-too-yah-kekht—Thunder Rolling In the Mountains.
            At the ceremony, the aged half-blind Chief Yellow Bull spoke:

“I am very glad to meet you all here today, my brothers and sisters and children and white friends.  When the Creator created us, He put us on this earth, and the flowers on the earth, and He takes us all in his arms and keeps us in peace and friendship, and our friendship and peace will shine forever.  Our people love our old customs.  I am very glad to see our white friends here attending this ceremony, and it seems like we all have the same sad feelings and that fact helps to wipe away my tears and the loss of our dead chief.

 “Joseph is dead, but his words will stand as long as this monument.”

            So be it.

Jim Reavis Contributions


Wallowa County

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