Chief Joseph – Leader of the Nez Perce

He told his little daughter to stay where she was, and himself cut right through the cavalry and rode up to his own teepee, where his wife met him at the door with his rifle, crying: “Here is your gun, husband!” The warriors quickly gathered and pressed the soldiers so hard that they had to withdraw. Meanwhile one set of the people fled while Joseph’s own band entrenched themselves in a very favorable position from which they could not easily be dislodged.

General Miles had received and acted on General Howard’s message, and he now sent one of his officers with some Indian scouts into Joseph’s camp to negotiate with the chief. Meantime Howard and Sturgis came up with the encampment, and Howard had with him two friendly Nez Perce scouts who were directed to talk to Joseph in his own language. He decided that there was nothing to do but surrender.

He had believed that his escape was all but secure: then at the last moment he was surprised and caught at a disadvantage. His army was shattered; he had lost most of the leaders in these various fights; his people, including children, women, and the wounded, had traveled thirteen hundred miles in about fifty days, and he himself a young man who had never before taken any important responsibility!

Even now he was not actually conquered. He was well entrenched; his people were willing to die fighting; but the army of the United States offered peace and he agreed, as he said, out of pity for his suffering people. Some of his warriors still refused to surrender and slipped out of the camp at night and through the lines. Joseph had, as he told me, between three and four hundred fighting men in the beginning, which means over one thousand persons, and of these several hundred surrendered with him.

His own story of the conditions he made was prepared by himself with my help in 1897, when he came to Washington to present his grievances. I sat up with him nearly all of one night; and I may add here that we took the document to General Miles who was then stationed in Washington, before presenting it to the Department. The General said that every word of it was true. In the first place, his people were to be kept at Fort Keogh, Montana, over the winter and then returned to their reservation.

Colville Reservation in Washington State

Colville Reservation in Washington State

Instead they were taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and placed between a lagoon and the Missouri River, where the sanitary conditions made havoc with them. Those who did not die were then taken to the Indian Territory, where the health situation was even worse. Joseph appealed to the government again and again, and at last by the help of Bishops Whipple and Hare he was moved to the Colville Reservation in Washington. Here the land was very poor, unlike their own fertile valley. General Miles said to the chief that he had recommended and urged that their agreement be kept, but the politicians and the people who occupied the Indians‘ land declared they were afraid if he returned he would break out again and murder innocent white settlers! What irony!

The great Chief Joseph died broken-spirited and broken-hearted (September 21, 1904). He did not hate the whites, for there was nothing small about him, and when he laid down his weapons he would not fight on with his mind. But he was profoundly disappointed in the claims of a Christian civilization.

I call him great because he was simple and honest. Without education or special training he demonstrated his ability to lead and to fight when justice demanded. He outgeneraled the best and most experienced commanders in the army of the United States, although their troops were well provisioned, well armed, and above all unencumbered. He was great finally, because he never boasted of his remarkable feat. I am proud of him, because he was a true American.

 

By Charles A. Eastman, 1918. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.

Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains, by Charles A. Eastman, 1918. The text as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader. Charles A. Eastman earned a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890, and then began working for the Office of Indian Affairs later that year. He worked at the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota, and was an eyewitness to both events leading up to and following the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890.  Himself part-Sioux, he knew many of the people about whom he wrote.

Also See:

Nez Perce Chief Joseph's grave marker, Wallowa  Lake, Oregon,, photo courtesy Nez Perce

Nez Perce Chief Joseph’s grave marker, Wallowa
 Lake, Oregon,, photo courtesy Nez Perce

Indian Proverbs & Wisdom

Legends, Myths & Tales of Native Americans

Old West Legends

Native American People

Native American Tribes

Nez Perce – A Hard Fight For Their Homeland

 

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