“Tell General Howard I know his heart. " - Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

21 September 1904, Hinmatóowyalahtq’it, better known as Chief Joseph, leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce, the “red Napoleon” of the widely admired fighting retreat of his people towards the Canadian border, died in the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington.
“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-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; 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 to have time to look for my children, and 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 forever.“ (Words attributed to Chief Joseph at the formal surrender of his band of “non-treaty” Nez Perce on October 5th, 1877, as noted by the Charles Erskine Scott Wood) 

Chief Joseph and his family, photograph taken c. 1880

The times they were a’changing, at least a bit. Even after Custer’s disaster on the Day of the Greasy Grass at Little Bighorn Creek, public opinion was divided. While western newspapers revelled in gory and often made-up details about the end of Yellow Hair and his brave band and boiled up old stories from the early days of the pioneers, back in the East, far away from the western frontier, voices arose that questioned the whole approach on dealing with native Americans. And wangling the territory in Oregon and Idaho off the Nez Perce, the Pierced Noses, as French trappers had dubbed the Niimíipu, was just another story of deception, dishonourableness and coercion. Thus, in violation of the Treaty of Walla Walla originally dating back to 1855, that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on anyway, a group of Nez Perce and Palouse finally refused to be moved to a reservation in Idaho, and sooner or later the army was mobilised to make the “non-treaty Indians” see reason. In June 1877, 750 of them, 250 warriors and their families, gathering around Hinmaton-Yalatkit or Chief Joseph and his war leaders Looking Glass and White Bird, decided they had absolutely no reason to and tried to get away to Canada like Sitting Bull’s Lakota did in May of the same year. The Nez Perce War had begun and the “New York Times” wrote in an editorial: “On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime".

Nez Perce group known as "Chief Joseph's Band", Lapwai, Idaho, spring, 1877

For the next three months the Nez Perce trekked north over 1,500 miles across Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana with a brigade of U.S. cavalry under General Oliver O. Howard in hot pursuit. Looking Glass and White Bird fought a brilliant action after the other that earned almost universal respect. Sherman himself mentioned: "One of the most extraordinary Indian Wars of which there is any record. The Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise. They abstained from scalping: let captive women go free; did not commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families, which is usual, and fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications." 40 miles south of the Canadian border, when they thought they had shaken off Howard’s brigade, exhausted with most of the provisions used up and in freezing cold, they were surprised by another brigade, Custer’s old 7th cavalry regiment among them, force marched to Montana by General Nelson Miles. After three days of fighting, with Looking Glass and White Bird fallen, Chief Joseph surrendered on October 5th.

Chief Joseph and his former enemy, Col. John Gibbon posing years later on one of the battlefields of the Nez Perce-trail

Chief Joseph had been called the “Red Napoleon” by the press, even though the actual fighting was planned and led by Looking Glass and White Bird, the war chiefs of the non-treaty Nez Perce. However, after October 5th, Chief Joseph was in the somewhat unfortunate role of the survivor of a daring but unsuccessful campaign. And the respect Sherman, then the U.S. Army’s supreme commander, gave to the Nez Perce was certainly limited. Actually, Chief Joseph’s condition of surrender was that he and his people were allowed to go back to Idaho, but General Miles agreement was overruled by Sherman who sent them to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to live in a swamp. 10 years later, the 268 survivors of the campaign of 1877 were finally allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. Chief Joseph, though, was exempted. He was separated from his people and brought to Colville Reservation, halfway between Seattle and Spokane, where he died, allegedly of a broken heart, in 1904.  

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