The Last Stand Of Chief Joseph


A first the government took no action, but as harassment of the Indians continued and the threat increased that they might retaliate with violence, a commission of five members was appointed to meet with the Nez Percés in November, 1876, with authority to make a final settlement of the matter for “the welfare of both whites and Indians.”

The commissioners, Howard, Wood, and three eastern civilians, found Joseph a disquieting figure. Only 36 years old, tall and powerfully built, he seemed strangely amicable and gentle: yet he bore himself with the quiet strength and dignity of one who stood in awe of no man. And when he spoke, it was with an eloquent logic that nettled the whites, who found themselves resenting their inability to dominate him.

Why, they asked him, did he refuse to give up the Wallow? He answered by referring to the land as the Mother of the Indians, something that could not be sold or given away. “We love the land,” he said. “It is our home.”

But, they persisted, Lawyer had signed it away in 1863.

Joseph had a ready reply that embarrassed them. “I believe the old treaty has never been correctly reported,” he said. “If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed that our country has been sold to the government. Suppose a white man should come to me and say, ‘Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.’ I say to him, ‘No, my horses suit me, I will not sell them.’ Then he goes to my neighbor, and says to him, ‘Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them but he refuses to sell.’ My neighbor answers, ‘Pay me the money, and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.’ The white man returns to me and says, ‘Joseph, I have bought your horses and you must let me have them.’ If we sold our lands to the government, this is the way they were bought.”

To all their arguments, Joseph replied with an uncompromising “No” and when the council ended, the exasperated commissioners had made no progress with him. But events were moving against the Indians. The situation in the Wallowa had grown perilous, and the commission was under political pressure. Two excited white men had killed an Indian youth after mistakenly accusing him of stealing their horses. Joseph had had all he could do to keep his people calm, and the settlers, fearing an uprising, were arming and calling for military protection.

To the commissioners, despite the fact that it was unjust and there was no legal basis for it, there could be only one decision, and before they left the reservation headquarters at Lapwai, they rendered it: Unless, within a reasonable time, all the non-treaty Nez Percés (the other bands that had not signed in 1863, as well as Joseph’s people in the Wallowa) voluntarily came onto the reservation, they should be placed there by force. General Howard, symbolizing the force that would be used, signed the report along with the three easterners. Only Major Wood’s name was absent, and it is believed that he submitted a minority report, though it has never been found.

Immediately after the decision, the Indian Bureau defined the “reasonable time” and ordered the Indians to come onto the reservation by April 1, 1877. Unable to move their herds and villages across the rugged canyons in the dead of winter, the Nez Percés appealed for another conference, and, as April 1 came and went, General Howard agreed to one last meeting with all the non-treaty chiefs at Lapwai. It did no good. The die had been cast, and Howard adamantly refused to discuss the commission’s decision. As the Indians pleaded in proud but pitiable terms to be allowed to remain in the lands where their fathers were buried, the General finally lost patience and threw one of the most respected old chiefs, a deeply religious war leader and tribal orator named Toohoolhoolzote, into the guardhouse. It broke the spirit of the others. To gain Toohoolhoolzote’s release, they capitulated with bitterness and agreed to have their bands on the reservation in thirty days.

All of Joseph’s skill as a diplomat had to be called into play when he returned to his people. He had abandoned his father’s counsel and trust, and there were cries to ignore him and go to war rather than to move to the reservation. When Joseph argued that the white man’s power was too great for them to resist and that it was “better to live at peace than to begin a war and lie dead,” they called him a coward. But he received strong assistance from his younger brother, Ollokot, a daring and courageous buffalo hunter and warrior who had won many tribal honors and held the respect of the more belligerent younger element. Eventually the two brothers won agreement to the capitulation from the band’s council. With heavy hearts, the Indians prepared to round up their stock and move.

A half year’s work was crowded into less than thirty days as the people combed the mountains and forests for their animals and drove them down the steep draws to the Snake. The river was in flood, and hundreds of head of stock were swept away and drowned during the tumultuous crossing. Other portions of the herds, left behind on the bluffs and plateau, were driven away by whites who attacked the guards and harassed the withdrawing Indians. By June 2, with twelve days of grace remaining, the people reached an ancient tribal rendezvous area just outside the border of the reservation. Here they joined the other non-treaty bands and lingered for a last bit of freedom.