The Nez Perce Flight For Justice

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Snake River, Oregon side, June 1877

The charismatic Indian leader Chief Joseph stood on the bank of the Snake River, looking across the water to Idaho and beyond to his people’s new home, the Nez Perce reservation in the Clearwater Valley. With him were several hundred men, women, and children, many on horses, dragging their belongings behind them on travois. These Northern Plateau Indians, who called themselves Nee-Me-Poo (The People) or Iceyeeye Niim Mama’yac (The Children of the Coyote), were deeply unhappy about being turned out of the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, where their people had lived for centuries. But federal officials had given Chief Joseph and his people an ultimatum only six months earlier, forcing them to join other Nez Perce who had signed a treaty more than a decade before and moved to the reservation.

Until 1877 the Nez Perce had prided themselves on their friendship with Americans, beginning when they welcomed the Lewis and Clark Expedition in September 1805. In the decades that followed, as the young republic pushed west, increasing numbers of settlers trespassed on their lands. Even so, the Nez Perce had patiently avoided any open conflict.

In 1877 Chief Joseph was 37 years old, strikingly handsome, married, and the father of several children, all of whom, except one daughter, Kapap Ponmi, or “Brook Song,” had died in infancy. He was a skilled negotiator but had little left to work with. Worried about his people’s future, Joseph distrusted the U.S. officials but believed he had little choice and reluctantly agreed to relocate his people.

Swollen with late spring snowmelt, the Snake River moved fast, its strong currents largely hidden below its rippled surface. When the Nez Perce started to cross, things went wrong almost immediately. Several of their livestock were torn away down river and lost to sight. Joseph directed the rescue effort, which scattered the people all along the bank. In the midst of this confusion, some frontier ne’er-do-wells took advantage of the situation to raid the Nez Perce’s stock of fine Appaloosas. Hours later, the now exhausted and angry Nez Perce had gathered up their animals and set up camp just south of the reservation. They dug up camas bulbs for food and brooded about their forced expulsion.

Tensions had long simmered between white incomers and the Indians already pressed onto the reservation. On June 13 a few young warriors from Chief White Bird’s village killed four settlers whom they believed had mistreated their kinsmen. When news reached Joseph, he counseled caution, but fearing reprisal, the new arrivals withdrew to White Bird Canyon, near present-day Grangeville, Idaho. On June 18 scouts reported the approach of a large party of U.S. troops and local volunteers commanded by Capt. David Perry.

Joseph sent out a negotiating party under a white flag, but the volunteers fired upon them, setting off the Battle of White Bird Canyon. Although outnumbered two to one and poorly armed, the Nez Perce inflicted a devastating defeat on Perry’s party, killing 34 soldiers before the army retreated. Meanwhile, Nez Perce war parties raided neighboring ranches, killing 14 civilians.

White Bird Canyon thrust Joseph onto the horns of a dilemma. The U.S. Army still reeled from its defeat at the Little Big Horn and the death of George Armstrong Custer the year before. Joseph understood that federal officials would act decisively to suppress any acts of resistance. He still preferred to negotiate, or at least to retreat back to the Wallowa Valley and mount a defense among familiar surroundings. But the other chiefs believed that while negotiations were no longer possible, the U.S. army at least would never pursue them over the mountains into Montana. The Nez Perce fled into the rugged country between the Salmon, Snake, and Clearwater rivers.

Gen. Oliver Howard, commander of the Department of the Columbia, turned his attention to Chief Looking Glass’s village. While Looking Glass had not taken part at White Bird Canyon, Howard, mistakenly believing that he was actively recruiting for the “hostiles,” ordered Capt. Stephen Whipple and two companies of cavalry to arrest him. While Howard and the rest of his command pursued Joseph into the mountains, Whipple attacked Looking Glass’s village on July 1, killing mostly women and children. The chief and most of his people escaped, although losing many of their horses.

Whipple’s attack drove Looking Glass, a skilled military leader well versed in the mountain trails leading into Montana, into Joseph’s camp, along with all his followers, increasing the “hostile” ranks to approximately 300 warriors and 500 women and children. Looking Glass added his voice to those urging a retreat to Montana, and Joseph reluctantly agreed.

While Looking Glass, White Bird, and other war chiefs directed the defense, Joseph focused his efforts upon the formidable task of ensuring that the refugees had food and adequate transportation. The route across Idaho passed through a challenging topography of towering mountains and canyons blocked by deadfalls, and made use of narrow trails that would tax the endurance even of seasoned warriors. Most of the refugees were tribal elders, women, and children, many riding horses, but some walking along the steeper trails, gasping for air at the higher altitudes. Some women and children led horses dragging travois or packed with hides for small tepees or other shelters, while others searched for roots and berries. Hunting parties scoured the route for game and slaughtered stray livestock but were hard-pressed to fill their cooking pots.