Chief Joseph (1840-1904)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 4/07/2009
  • Essay 8975
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Chief Joseph (1840-1904) was a leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Tribe who became famous in 1877 for leading his people on an epic flight across the Rocky Mountains. He was born in 1840 and he was called Joseph by Reverend Henry H. Spalding (1803-1874), who had established a mission amongst the Nez Perce in 1836. Young Joseph and his father soon returned to their traditional ways in their Wallowa homeland in Oregon. When Joseph grew up and assumed the chieftanship, he was under increasing governmental pressure to abandon his Wallowa land and join the rest of the Nez Perce on their reservation near Lapwai, Idaho. Joseph refused, saying that he had promised his father he would never leave. In 1877, these disputes erupted into violence and Joseph's band, along with other Nez Perce bands, fled across the Bitterroot Mountains into Montana, with federal troops in pursuit. Joseph was by no means the military leader of the group, yet his standing in the tribe made him the camp chief and the group's political leader. It was Joseph who finally surrendered the decimated band to federal troops near the Canadian border in Montana. Joseph and the tribe were taken to a reservation in Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma, where they remained until 1885 when they were sent to the Colville Reservation in North Central Washington. Joseph made several visits to Washington, D.C., to plead for a return to the Wallowa country, but his pleas were in vain. Joseph died in 1904 in Nespelem, Washington, of what his doctor called "a broken heart." His tomb remains in Nespelem today.

Reverend Spalding and Young Joseph

The boy who came to be called In-Mut-Too-Yah-Lat-Tat (sometimes spelled Hin-Mah-Too-Yah-Lat-Kekht or Heinmot Tooyalakekt) or, Thunder Rolling in the Mountains entered the world in 1840, somewhere in the beautiful and dramatic landscape centered on Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon. His father, Tuekakas (d. 1871), was the chief of the Wallowa Nez Perce band. They lived far from the main body of the tribe, which was across the Snake River in Idaho, but they reunited often to fish for salmon, gather camas roots, and socialize.

The Presbyterian missionary Rev. Spalding had arrived at Lapwai, Idaho, in 1836 to spread Christianity amongst the Nez Perce. Tuekakas was intrigued by Spalding and his white religion; Spalding baptized him and gave him the name Joseph. When his son came along, he was called Young Joseph. Young Joseph spent much of his earliest years at Spalding's mission, and probably attended some of Spalding's lessons. But he was too young to learn much English and when the boy was still small, Old Joseph (Tuekakas) had a falling-out with Spalding. His band returned to its old ways at Wallowa. Yet it became increasingly difficult to maintain the old ways of life. White miners and settlers began to encroach on their lands. Uprisings by other tribes across the Columbia Plateau had resulted in U.S. Army incursions, although Old Joseph managed to keep the Nez Perce at peace.

Treaties and Tragedies Following

In 1855, Old Joseph and Young Joseph attended a treaty council called by territorial governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) at Walla Walla. Stevens convinced the region's tribes that the best way to preserve their homelands from white encroachment was to sign a reservation treaty. The Nez Perce chiefs, including Old Joseph, signed it because the reservation included the band's Wallowa homeland and almost all of the other areas in present day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho where the band roamed.

Yet within months it became clear that the treaty was unenforceable. The settlers and miners kept coming. In 1863, federal authorities called another treaty council. Young Joseph attended as an observer. This time, many of the chiefs were alarmed at the provisions of the treaty. It called for giving up almost all of the tribe's lands, including the entire Wallowa country, in exchange for a small area around Lapwai and Kamiah. The government presumed that the Nez Perce wanted to settle down and become farmers, a notion that particularly appalled Young Joseph, who was passionately committed to his band's ancient roaming ways.

Old Joseph was equally disgusted. He, along with four other chiefs, refused to have any part of it and walked out. Some of the Christianized bands based at Lapwai and Kamiah remained at the council and one of their chiefs, named Lawyer ("because he was a great talker," said Joseph later) signed the treaty. The treaty gave away all of the Nez Perce lands outside that small reservation area, laying the foundations for tragedy to come.

The tribe was now divided between the treaty Nez Perce and the non-treaty Nez Perce. Old Joseph, defiantly non-treaty, went back to Wallowa and, in disgust, tore up the Bible that Spalding had once given him. By 1871, Old Joseph's health was failing. As he lay dying in his beloved Wallowa country, he gave his young successor advice on how to handle the inevitable conflicts with the whites. "When you go into council with the white man, always remember your country," he told his son. "Do not give it away" (Joseph).

Chief Joseph

In August 1871, his father died and Young Joseph became Chief Joseph, the leader of his band (although he continued to call himself In-Mut-Too-Yah-Lat-Tat). He was by most accounts a tall, handsome man, with a natural charisma and command. "He was at that time an ideal type of an American Indian, six feet in height, graceful of movement, magnificently proportioned, with deep chest and splendid muscles," wrote Eliza Spalding Warren, the daughter of Reverend Spalding, in 1916. "His expression was mild and impassive, except when aroused, when a light would come into his small bright eyes, which denoted the iron will and defiant, war-like spirit that lay beneath" (Warren).

General O. O. Howard (1830-1909) who became famous for his pursuit of Chief Joseph, later wrote that Joseph was "finely formed" and notable mostly for the "particular expression of his face" (Howard). "It appeared to partake of the mild obstinacy of his father and the treacherous slyness of his mother's people [the Cayuse]," Howard wrote. "Joseph wore a somber look and seldom smiled."

Yet, according to biographer Kent Nerburn, Chief Joseph did not have a reputation within his band as a warrior or even as a hunter. He was valued more for his counsel and his strength of purpose, and his commitment to the old ways on the band's ancestral lands. During a series of parlays with government officials, he continued to insist that he "would not sell the land" nor "give up the land" (Nerburn). Soon that steadfast commitment would be stretched to the breaking point. Pressure was building to move all of the Nez Perce onto the small Idaho reservation. Howard called another treaty council in May 1877, but this time, there would be no negotiation. Howard told Joseph and the other chiefs that their people would need to move, and would have 30 days to do it. If they refused, the army would move them by force.

"Rather than Have War ..."

When Joseph returned from the council, he discovered that soldiers had already moved in to the Wallowa Valley, ready to force them off. "I said in my heart that, rather than have war, I would give up my country," Joseph later said. "I would rather give up my father's grave. I would rather give up everything than have the blood of the white men upon the hands of my people" (Joseph). Joseph then led his forlorn, and in many cases, angry, people to Camas Prairie in Idaho for one last tribal rendezvous before picking out their own parts of the reservation. He was convinced it was the only way to keep his people safe and intact. He also believed that he could eventually work out an agreement that would allow them to return to Wallowa and at least share the land with the white settlers.

Joseph had one intensely personal reason for avoiding war. He had a newborn child; one of his wives, Springtime, had just given birth days before to a daughter. But the mood at Camas Prairie was belligerent. A band of Nez Perce warriors had ridden off to the white settlements to exact bloody revenge for an earlier murder. Warfare broke out. "When my young men began the killing, my heart hurt," said Joseph. "Although I did not justify them, I remembered all the insults I had endured, and my blood was on fire. Still, I would have taken my people to buffalo country without fighting, if possible" (Joseph).

The Long Exodus

Joseph and the other chiefs concluded that the only way to avoid all-out war was to leave their country altogether, head over Lolo Pass into Montana, and buy some time among the friendly Flathead people in the buffalo country. Yet as they made preparations to move, fierce battles with soldiers broke out in White Bird Canyon on the Snake River, and then on the Clearwater River. All-out war was already upon them.

At this point, Joseph was only one chief among several strong leaders, including White Bird, Chief Looking Glass, and Toohoolhoolzote. The latter two were strongly in favor of crossing Lolo Pass and then continuing even farther east to the buffalo plains of central and eastern Montana. Joseph was not convinced; he wanted to cross the pass, spend time in the Bitterroot Valley, wait until tempers cooled down, and then return to the Wallowa Valley. What was the point of fighting, he said, if they weren't fighting for their land?

Yet Looking Glass prevailed and became the acknowledged military commander of the group. Joseph is said to have replied, "This is your fight, not mine. I will conduct the retreat of the women and the children. It is your task to keep the soldiers away" (Beal). Joseph's role became that of camp chief, organizing all of the camp logistics and making sure that all of the families were safe and accounted for. This was an enormous and important task as somewhere around 800 Nez Perce were on the move, the majority women and children, accompanied by horses and pack animals estimated at 3,000.

The task was never more important than on the first part of the exodus, the Lolo Trail across the Bitterroots, notorious for its cliffs, mud, rocks, and steep-cut mountains. Yet the Nez Perce had a huge advantage as they filed their way atop these heavily forested ridges. They had traveled the route for centuries, on the way to the buffalo grounds. General Howard, burdened with wagons and guns, lagged far behind. Howard later wrote that the Indians "jammed their ponies through, up the rocks, over and under the logs and among the fallen trees without attempting to cut a limb, leaving blood to mark their path."  If he had followed their example, after three days he "would not have had ten mules left on their feet" (Howard).

Joseph and the Nez Perce made it over Lolo Pass and down to the Bitterroot Valley with only minor skirmishes. Joseph believed that they had left the war behind them. During one early confrontation with soldiers at an ineffectual barricade nicknamed Fort Fizzle, they struck an impromptu deal. "We agreed not to molest anyone and they agreed that we might pass through the Bitterroot country in peace," Joseph later wrote (Joseph). They even stopped for several days at Stevensville to rest up and to trade stock with white settlers. Looking Glass patrolled the streets of Stevensville, making sure his young warriors weren't getting drunk and causing trouble.

The Flathead people, however, had chosen to remain neutral and were far from welcoming. By this time, even Joseph was resigned to crossing all the way over the Rocky Mountains and getting to the plains.

Peace Is Shattered

Any illusion of peace was shattered at the Battle of the Big Hole. Soldiers under the command of Colonel John Gibbon (1827-1896) caught up with the Nez Perce, camped in a high mountain meadow. The soldiers made a surprise attack, firing into the lodges and teepees. A fierce fight raged for the rest of the day. Joseph estimated that 80 Nez Perce were killed; 50 of them women and children. "Nez Perce never make war on women and children," Joseph later said. "We could have killed a great many ... while the war lasted, but we would feel ashamed to do so" (Beal).

Gibbon lost 29 soldiers, plus five civilian volunteers. The Nez Perce had managed to rally and make a successful escape, but this battle marked a turning point. No more would Joseph and his tribe believe that peace could be an option. Mutual distrust and violence marked the rest of the long Nez Perce trail, which would lead for another 1,000 miles.

Joseph never pretended to be a master military strategist, as others later claimed, yet he did play a key role in salvaging an important victory at Big Hole. He and another warrior rescued the tribe's grazing horses from being stampeded by the soldiers, thus ensuring that the exodus could continue. The tribe put their wounded on travois poles and continued toward the Yellowstone country, with several more skirmishes and raiding parties along the way. When they entered Yellowstone National Park, they ran into several parties of tourists. Some of the young warriors, now utterly distrustful of all whites, apprehended and shot two of them, although Joseph did what he could to protect the rest. He later said that most of them "were treated kindly" and the "women were not insulted" (Joseph). Clearly, it was becoming more and more difficult for Joseph, Looking Glass, and another leader named Poker Joe to keep the angry and desperate warriors in line.

Army troops were waiting for the Nez Perce to emerge from the park, but Joseph and his people crossed the Absaroka Range in places deemed impassable, and eluded their captors. Then they struck straight north for the Canadian border, their refuge of last resort. It was now September 1877 and the weather was starting to turn. They had lost many of their warriors and the families were exhausted by this epic journey. They were camped at the foot of the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, only a couple of days ride from the Canadian border, when troops under Colonel Nelson Miles (1839-1925) caught up with them.

The Last Battle

In a series of bloody battles, some fought in the snow, Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote were killed. So was Joseph's brother, Ollokut. Some Nez Perce, as many as 200, escaped and made their way over the Canadian border. But most were tired, wounded and exhausted. "I could not bear to see my wounded men and women suffer any longer," said Joseph. "We had lost enough already" (Joseph).

In the face of their hopeless situation, it was left to Joseph to meet with Miles and Howard on October 5, 1877, and hand over his rifle in a symbolic gesture of surrender. Joseph's surrender speech, recorded by one of the soldiers, became one of the most famous speeches of the American West:

"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 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" (Beal).

The accuracy of that transcription is in doubt; for one thing, Joseph did not speak English and whatever he said had to be translated. But Joseph later specified that he did say words which amounted to, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more" (Joseph).

He surrendered with the assurance from Miles that he and his people would be transported back to the reservation in Idaho. This was one more promise not kept. Federal authorities were afraid that passions would be re-ignited in Idaho if the Nez Perce returned, so the ailing and wounded band, now 400 strong, was escorted first to North Dakota, then to a camp in Kansas, and finally, in the summer of 1878, to a reservation in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

Chief Joseph, National Icon

Chief Joseph, to his surprise, had become a nationwide sensation. Even while the war was going on, Joseph was getting credit for every Nez Perce victory. The press called him "The Red Napoleon." After the Battle of the Big Hole, The New York Times reported that the military skills of Joseph and the Nez Perce were "as if they had been acquired at West Point" (West). Howard himself lavished praise on Joseph's "consummate generalship" which was "equal to that of many a partisan leader whose deeds have entered into classic story" (Howard).

Now that Joseph was the only Nez Perce chief left, he became even more idolized. A newspaper correspondent from St. Louis said, "A more noble captive has never graced our land." Joseph tried to use some of this newfound admiration to get a better deal for his people. He was sent to Washington, D.C., in 1879 to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) and other officials. He received a huge ovation when he spoke to a group of congressmen and other officials, but no other satisfaction.

A Tragic Exile

Joseph and his fellow Northwesterners were miserable and ravaged by disease in the utterly alien Indian Territory. His young daughter, born as the war started, succumbed. Joseph told the Washington dignitaries that his new home "amounts to nothing."

Joseph wrote to his old friend Chief Moses (1829-1899), of the Columbia tribe, and asked him if his band could join Moses on his recently established Colville Reservation in North Central Washington. It was about 150 miles from the Wallowa country, but it had the same salmon, camas meadows, and ponderosa pines they remembered so fondly. Moses agreed and, eventually, so did the federal government. In 1885, Joseph and 149 others were packed into trains and sent to the Colville Reservation; about 118 of the other exiles, mostly the Christianized Nez Perce, were sent back to Lapwai.

Moses greeted Joseph as a brother, but the reception was cooler amongst the San Poil and Nespelem tribes, which also shared the reservation. At one point, hostilities with the San Poil were barely averted. Joseph and his band lived close to Moses' band near the little settlement of Nespelem and settled into a relatively peaceful, but poverty-stricken, life. They were free once again to hunt, fish, and gather roots and berries – but everything was harder to come by. The Indian agents wanted the Nez Perce to grow their own food, but Joseph showed no inclination to become a farmer.

Two Old Chiefs

Some white settlers of the region considered Joseph's presence to be dangerous. They called him a "large, fat-faced, scheming, cruel-looking cuss" (Nerburn). Moses and Joseph became a common sight in Wilbur and other nearby towns. A Wilbur reporter wrote the "two old murdering rascals" strutted around town "as only becomes men of rank" (Ruby and Brown). They later became increasingly jealous of each other and did not always get along. Once, when someone asked Moses if Chief Joseph was going to come to the Yakima Jubilee, Moses said, "He is not very good to ride now and it will take him as long to come down here as an old woman" (Ruby and Brown).

As the years passed, it became harder for the Nez Perce to maintain the horse herds that were so integral to the Nez Perce way of life. Moses complained that the Nez Perce had become indolent since coming to the reservation and indulged too much in drinking and gambling. Joseph and his people became more dependent on government handouts. Yet Joseph never gave up his crusade to return to the Wallowa Valley. He made several more fruitless trips to Washington, D.C., to make his case. During an 1897 trip, he was invited to New York City to attend Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden, where, remarkably, he was greeted by old enemies Howard and Miles and conversed congenially with them.

Finally, in 1900, Chief Joseph received permission to return to Wallowa and make his case before the valley's white settlers. He told a large crowd that he had never sold his land and that he now wished to reclaim some of the prime land near his father's burial place, as well as some areas near Wallowa Lake and parts of the Imnaha Valley. He was met with jeers. They considered Joseph sentimental and delusional and expressed no willingness to sell him, much less give him, any land at all. A government inspector who accompanied Joseph recommended that Joseph was better off staying on the Colville. So, his hopes dashed forever, he remained on the Colville with his small band, living in a teepee instead of the house that had been provided him. His people stuck to their old ways, building a longhouse for their ceremonies. To the local Indian agent, this was simply "passing away their time in a filthy and licentious way of living" (Nerburn).

He remained a celebrity back East, however. In 1903 he was invited to give an anniversary speech at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he shared the stage with General Howard. He said that "ever since the war, I have made up my mind to be friendly to the whites and to everybody" (Nerburn).

A Broken Heart

His health and his spirits slowly declined. On September 21, 1904, as he lay dying of an undiagnosed illness, he asked his wife to get his headdress because "I wish to die as a chief" (Nerburn). Soon after, Chief Joseph's long journey was over.

His name lives on in the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River, Chief Joseph Pass in Montana, and the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway in Wyoming. Most poignantly, it lives on in the places he loved best: Joseph Creek, Joseph Canyon, and the small town of Joseph, Oregon, in the heart of the Wallowa Valley. Yet his tomb, marked by a tall white monument, remains in Nespelem, not far from where he died. He never achieved his dream to be buried in the land he loved. "Chief Joseph," said the white physician who attended him, "died of a broken heart" (Nerburn). 


Kent Nerburn, Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce (New York and San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Chief Joseph, In-Mut-Too-Yah-Lat-Tat Speaks, 1879 interview with the North American Review, reprinted in In Pursuit of the Nez Perce (Kooskia, Idaho: Mountain Meadow Press. 1993); O. O. Howard, From the General's Pen: The Nez Perce Campaign of 1877, reprinted in In Pursuit of the Nez Perce (Kooskia, Idaho: Mountain Meadow Press. 1993); Merrill D. Beal, I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963, twelfth printing 1991); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Half-Sun on the Columbia: A Biography of Chief Moses, revised paperback edition (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995); Helen Addison Howard and Dan L. McGrath, War Chief Joseph (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964); Eliza Spalding Warren, Memoirs of the West: The Spaldings (Portland: Marsh Printing Co., 1916); Alvin Josephy, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).

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