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The Last Stand Of Chief Joseph
The Nez Percés led the Army a bitter 1,300-mile chase; when they surrendered, one of the last free Indian nations vanished into history.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
It was a fatal pause. On June 12 the Indians staged a parade through the camp, and one of the young men named Wahlitits, whose father had been murdered by a white man two years before, was taunted by an old warrior for having allowed the slaying to go unavenged. The next morning, his honor as a man impugned, Wahlitits stole away with two companions. By nightfall, in an outpouring of long-suppressed hatred, the youths had killed four white men along the Salmon River and wounded another one, all notorious for their hostility to the Nez Percés. The young men returned to the camp, announced what they had done, and raised a bigger party that continued the raids during the next two days, killing fourteen or fifteen additional whites and striking terror among the settlers and miners of central Idaho.
Both Joseph and Ollokot had been absent from the camp during the first raid, butchering cattle on the opposite side of the Salmon River. They returned in horror, finding the camp in confusion and the older people crying with fear and striking their tepees, intending to scatter to hiding places. Most of the Indians were certain that there would now be war, but Joseph still hoped to avert it. He tried to calm his people, assuring them that General Howard would not blame the whole tribe for the irresponsible actions of a few of its young hotheads, and urged them to remain where they were and await the troops, with whom he would make a settlement. The situation, however, had gone too far. The warriors rode around the camp, crying out that they would now give General Howard the fight that he had wanted, and the people would not listen to Joseph. One by one the bands departed to a hiding place farther south, in White Bird Canyon, leaving behind only Joseph, Ollokot, and a few of the Wallowa Indians.
Joseph’s wife had given birth to a daughter while he had been across the Salmon, and he lingered with her now in their tepee. Several warriors were detailed to watch him and Ollokot, lest these leaders who had so often pleaded for peace would desert the nontreaties and move onto the reservation. But though he had vigorously opposed war, Joseph would not abandon his people; two days later he and Ollokot, resolved to fight now that hostilities seemed unavoidable, joined the non-treaties in the new camp at White Bird.
Back at Lapwai Howard was stunned by news of the Salmon River outbreaks. He had planned all winter against trouble in the Wallowa, and when Joseph had moved out peacefully, he had thought that all danger was past. At the news of the outbreaks, he hastily ordered two troops of the 1st Cavalry, that had been stationed at Lapwai, ninety troopers and four officers under Captain David Perry and Captain Joel Trimble, to round up the hostiles and force them onto the reservation. Eleven civilian volunteers and twelve treaty Nez Percés accompanied the troops, and after a rapid two days’ march of almost eighty miles, they learned of the Nez Percé camp in White Bird Canyon and prepared to attack it early the following morning.
Alert Indian spies warned the Nez Percés of the troops’ approach. The soldiers would have to descend a long draw of treeless, rolling land, flanked by ridges and hills, to reach the Nez Percé village, which lay behind two buttes at the bottom of the slope. The chiefs were uncertain whether to resist and detailed six men to take a flag of truce forward and try to arrange a peaceful meeting with the officers. At the same time, the old men, women, and children were ordered to drive in the camp’s stock, while the warriors, stripping for action and mounting their ponies, sought hiding places to the right and left of the draw to await events. The total manpower of the Indian bands was about 150, but many of the men that morning were lying in camp, drunk on whisky seized during the raids and unable to fight. Others had no weapons or were too old, sick, or frightened to use them. Altogether, not more than 45 or 50 Indians—armed with bows and arrows; shotguns; old, muzzle-loading, furtrade muskets; and a few modern rifles—rode out to defend the village.
The nature of the terrain, offering a multitude of hiding places for flanking attacks, should have put the troopers on their guard. Instead they trotted confidently down the draw, ready for a thundering surprise charge. As they rounded a small hill, the Indian truce team appeared directly ahead of them. Behind the men with the white flag were other Nez Percés, sitting on their horses waiting to see what would happen. There was an instant of surprise. Then a volunteer raised his rifle and shot at the truce team. The Indians backed away, unharmed, a Nez Percé behind them fired in return, killing one of Perry’s two trumpeters, and the fight was on. As Indians began shooting from all directions, Perry hastily deployed his men in a line across the draw, placing the volunteers on a high, rocky knoll to his left. The company in the center dismounted, letting men in the rear hold their horses, and the company on the right remained mounted.