Chief Joseph (1840-1904)

Nez Perce group known as "Chief Joseph's ...

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Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain

Hin-maa-too-yah-lat-kekt (1840-1904)

For his principled resistance to the removal of his people to reservations, Chief Joseph became legendary as a humanitarian and peacemaker.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe was born in the Wallowa Valley in what is now northeastern Oregon in 1840. He was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, but was widely known in his youth as Joseph, the Younger, because his father had taken the Christian name Joseph after being baptized at a Christian mission in 1838.

Joseph, the Elder, was one of the first Nez Percé converts to Christianity and an active supporter of the tribe’s longstanding peace with whites. The Nez Perce had been a peaceful nation spread from Idaho to Northern Washington. They had maintained good relations with the whites from the time of Lewis and Clark, who had befriended the Indians years earlier when they traversed the Nez Perce homelands.

After a time though, the hospitable stance toward the newcomers wore thin as Joseph, the Elder, became increasingly wary of many settlers’ outward desire to obtain more Indian lands. Nevertheless, in 1855, he reluctantly worked with Washington’s territorial governor to set up a Nez Percé reservation that stretched from Oregon into Idaho. Though a step backward for their freedom, the treaty with the US allowed his people to retain much of their traditional lands. Unfortunately for the Nez Perce, the US government ultimately broke the treaty unilaterally several years later.

In 1863, following a gold rush in Nez Percé territory, the federal government seized back almost six million acres of the land ceded to Joseph’s tribe under the treaty, restricting the Nez Percé to a reservation in Idaho that was only one tenth its prior size. Obviously betrayed, Joseph, the Elder, denounced the United states, and his Bible, and refused to move his people out of Oregon. He scoffed at the new treaty designed to enforce the new reservation boundaries.

Joseph’s refusal to sign caused a rift in the tribes between Joseph’s “non-treaty” band and those who were for the treaty, who received blankets and other payments from the government for their cooperation. Joseph, the Elder, marked Wallowa land with a series of poles, proclaiming, “Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

When Joseph died in 1871 his son, Joseph the Younger, was elected to succeed him. Before his death he counseled his son:

“My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. 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 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 next fifteen years, ending in final surrender, were characterized by steady confrontation and suffering punctuated by brief periods of triumph for Joseph, the Younger.

He inherited not only a name but a situation made increasingly volatile as white settlers continued to arrive in the Wallowa Valley. The non-treaty defending Nez Perce suffered many injustices at the hands of settlers and prospectors. Out of fear of reprisal from the militarily stronger Americans, Joseph never fomented violence against them.

But the young chief did staunchly resist all efforts to force his band onto the small Idaho reservation. In 1873 a brief glimpse of hope was seen when a federal order was given to remove white settlers in favor of allowing Joseph’s people to remain in the Wallowa Valley. For a short time it appeared that Chief Joseph’s dream of tribal autonomy on traditional lands might actually come true. It was not to be. As was frequently the case back then, the federal government soon reversed itself, and in 1877 General Oliver Otis Howard threatened a cavalry attack to force Joseph’s band and other hold-outs onto the Idaho reservation.

Before the outbreak of hostilities, General Howard held a council to try to convince Chief Joseph and his people to relocate. Joseph’s defiant address to the General, which focused on human equality, expressed his disbelief that “the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do.”

Howard informed Joseph that his people had thirty days to collect their livestock and move to the reservation. The Nez Perce Chief pleaded for more time, but Howard told him that he would consider their presence in the Wallowa Valley beyond the thirty-day mark an act of war.

Returning home, Joseph called a council among his people. At the council, he sadly chose to acquiesce to the might of the force arrayed against him. In what must have been a gut-wrenching decision he had to choose to abandon his father’s grave to avoid war and the annihilation of his people. Believing military resistance futile, Joseph’s clan reluctantly packed their gear and began making their way toward Idaho.

Unfortunately, they never got there. About twenty young Nez Percé warriors, enraged at the loss of their homeland, staged a raid on nearby settlements and killed several whites. Immediately, the army began to pursue Joseph’s band and the others who had not yet made it onto the reservation. Still hoping to avoid further bloodshed, Joseph continued to lead his people north toward the reservation.

Within a mere sixteen miles from their destination they were attacked and Joseph began a strategic retreat now regarded as one of the greatest in military history. Well worth studying. Even the unsympathetic General William Tecumseh Sherman could not help but be impressed. He later stated that “the Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise… [they] fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications.”

For over three months, the band of about 700, fewer than 200 of whom were warriors, fought 2,000 soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous skirmishes. The Nez Perce outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers traveling 1,700 miles across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

By the time he formally surrendered on October 5, 1877, Joseph had become famous nationally and was widely referred to in the American press as “the Red Napoleon.” After a devastating five-day battle in freezing weather conditions with no food or blankets, Chief Joseph finally surrendered in Montana, only 40 miles south of Canada. His widely reprinted surrender speech has immortalized him as a military leader in American popular culture:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. 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 of them 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.

Joseph’s fame did him little good. Although he had surrendered with the understanding that he would be allowed to return home, Joseph and his people were instead taken first to eastern Kansas and then to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma where many of them died of epidemic diseases. Although he was allowed to visit Washington, D.C., in 1879 to plead his case to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, it was not until 1885 that Joseph and the other refugees were returned to the Pacific Northwest. Even then, half, including Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Percé reservation in northern Washington, separated from the rest of their people in Idaho and their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.

In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of policy toward his people and held out the hope that America’s promise might one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. Of course, as we know that didn’t happen. An indomitable voice of conscience for the West, he died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland, according to his doctor “of a broken heart.”


I have carried a heavy load on my back ever since I was a boy. I realized then that we could not hold our own with the white men. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had small country. Their country was large. We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit Chief made them. They were not, and would change the rivers and mountains if they did not suit them.”

Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all people as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that is was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only the truth; that it was a shame for one man to take another his wife or his property without paying for it.”

Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk.”


Chief Joseph. Chief Joseph’s Own Story. Originally published in the North American Review, April 1879.


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