The Last Stand Of Chief Joseph


In June, 1877, just one year after the Custer debacle, a new and unexpected Indian outbreak flared in the West. To an American public wearied and disgusted with a governmental policy, or lack of policy, that seemed to breed Indian wars, this one, an uprising by formerly peaceful Nez Percés1 of Oregon and Idaho, was dramatized by what appeared to be superb Indian generalship. One army detachment after another, officered by veterans of the Civil War, floundered in battle with the hostiles. Western correspondents telegraphed the progress of a great, 1,300-mile fighting retreat by the Indians, swaying popular imagination in behalf of the valiant Nez Percés and their leader, Chief Joseph, who, as handsome and noble in appearance as a Fenimore Cooper Indian, became something of a combined national hero and military genius.

The government received no laurels, either, as the long trail of bitter injustices that had originally driven the Nez Percés to hostility became known. The war, like most Indian troubles, had stemmed from a conflict over land. For centuries the Nez Percés had occupied the high, grassy hills and canyon-scarred plateau land where Washington, Oregon, and Idaho come together. A strong and intelligent people, they had lived in peace and friendship with the whites ever since the coming of Lewis and Clark in 1805, and it was their proud boast that no member of the tribe had ever killed a white man.

In 1855, as settlers began to appear in their country, the government called on them to cede part of their land. The Nez Percés willingly accepted the confines of a reservation, but five years later gold was discovered on the reserve, miners poured in, and in 1863 the government attempted to reduce the reservation to less than one-fourth of its previous size. Led by a chief named Lawyer, those bands whose homes already lay within the boundaries of the new reservation agreed to sign the treaty. But the other chiefs, representing about two-thirds of the tribe, protested and withdrew from the council without signing.

Among the latter was a prominent old chief named Wellamotkin, father of Chief Joseph and known to the whites as Old Joseph. His band, composed of about sixty males and perhaps twice that number of women and children, had dwelt for generations in the Wallowa Valley in the northeastern corner of Oregon. Isolated on all sides by formidable natural barriers of high mountain ranges and some of the deepest gorges on the continent, the valley’s lush alpine grasslands provided some of the best grazing ground in the Northwest, and settlers were particularly anxious to possess it. Old Joseph’s refusal to sign the treaty of 1863, however, clouded the issue of ownership, and though the government announced that Lawyer and the chiefs who had signed had spoken for the whole tribe, binding all Nez Percés to the new reservation, no immediate attempt was made to drive Old Joseph’s band from the Wallowa.

As the years went by and Old Joseph’s people continued unmolested, it seemed as if their right to the Wallowa had been accepted. But white pressure against its borders increased steadily, and in 1871, as he lay dying, Old Joseph fearfully counseled his son:

“When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more, and the white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

The crisis came soon alter Old Joseph’s death. Settlers from Oregon’s Grande Ronde found a route into the Wallowa and moved in, claiming the Indians’ land. Young Joseph protested to the Indian agent on the Nez Percé reservation in Idaho, and an investigation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs resulted in a decision that the Wallowa still belonged legally to the Indians. On June 16, 1873, President Grant formally set aside the Wallowa “as a reservation for the roaming Nez Percé Indians” and ordered the whites to withdraw.

Recognition of their rights brought joy to the Indians. But it was short-lived. The settlers, refusing to move, threatened to exterminate Joseph’s people if they didn’t leave the valley. In defiance of the presidential order, more whites rolled in by the wagonload. As friction increased, Oregon’s governor, Leonard P. Grover, attacked Washington officials for having abandoned the government’s position of 1863 and forced the Administration to reverse itself. In 1875 a new and confusing presidential edict reopened the Wallowa to white homesteaders.

The Nez Percés were dismayed. Young Joseph, whom they called Heinmot Tooyalakekt, meaning “Thunder Traveling to Loftier Mountain Heights,” counseled patience. He moved the Indian camps from the neighborhood of the settlers and again appealed to the federal authorities. The assistant adjutant general of the Military Department of the Columbia. Major H. Clay Wood, was assigned to make a survey of the conflicting claims, and in his report, forwarded to Washington by his commanding officer, O.O. Howard, the one-armed “Christian” general of the Civil War, stated: “In my opinion, the non-treaty Nez Percés cannot in law be regarded as bound by the treaty of 1863, and insofar as it attempts to deprive them of a right to occupancy of any land, its provisions are null and void. The extinguishment of their title of occupancy contemplated by this treaty is imperfect and incomplete.”