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Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
Digital History ID 1096


Date:1877

Annotation: The last great war between the U.S. government and an Indian nation ended at 4 p.m., October 5, 1877, in the Bear Paw Mountains of northern Montana. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce nation surrendered 87 men, 184 women, and 147 children to units of the U.S. cavalry.

For 11 weeks, he led his people on a 1,600 mile retreat toward Canada. He engaged 10 separate U.S. commands in 13 battles and skirmishes, and in nearly every instance he either defeated the American forces or fought them to a standstill. But in the end, the Nez Perce proved no match for Gatling guns, howitzers, and cannons.

At that moment, Joseph delivered one of the most eloquent speeches in American history. He spoke no English, but below are his translated remarks. Having handed his rifle to Col. Nelson Miles, Joseph concluded:

The little children are freezing to death.... I want to have time to look for my children and see how many I can find.... 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.

One of his terms of surrender was that his people be returned to their homeland.

For 31 years, Joseph fought for his peoples' return to eastern Oregon's Wallowa Valley, where his people had produced the famous appaloosa horse, bred for speed and endurance. He met with three American presidents to argue his case: Rutherford Hayes, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. He died at the age of 64 in 1904.

In 1877, the U.S. government sent General Oliver Howard to force the Nez Perce to move to an Idaho reservation. Chief Joseph and his band left for the reservation, but before they could reach it, several Nez Perce youths, disillusioned by broken treaty promises and white encroachment on their land, attacked and killed 18 white settlers.

Chief Joseph then began a three month, 1,600 miles flight to Canada with four separate U.S. military units in pursuit. Chief Joseph and his party repeatedly turned the tables on numerically superior forces. They eluded and out-fought 2,000 Army soldiers in 13 battles before finally surrendering in a Montana snowstorm, just 40 miles from the Canadian border. Only 418 men, women, and children out of 800 who had set out were left. During the final battle, General Miles attempted to seize Chief Joseph under a flag of truce, but the chief had to be exchanged when the Nez took a white lieutenant prisoner.

Under the terms of the surrender, the Nez Perce were promised that they could live on a reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. But instead the Nez Perce were sent to Oklahoma. Half the tribe died from disease on the trip. A decade later, the Nez Perce were relocated on a reservation in eastern Washington.

The surrender of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce ended a decade of warfare between Indians and the U.S. government in the Far West. It meant that virtually all western Indians had been forced to live on government reservations.


Document: The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They brought many things which our people had never seen. They talked straight and our people gave them a great feast as proof that their hearts were friendly. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perce made friends with Lewis and Clark and agreed to let them pass through their country and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perce have never broken.

For a short time we lived quietly. But this could not last. White men had found gold in the mountains around the land of the Winding Water. They stole a great many horses from us and we could not get them back because we were Indians. The white men told lies for each other. They drove off a great many of our cattle. Some white men branded our young cattle so they could claim them. We had no friends who would plead our cause before the law councils. It seemed to me that some of the white men in Wallowa were doing these things on purpose to get up a war. They knew we were not strong enough to fight them. I labored hard to avoid trouble and bloodshed. We gave up some of our country to the white men, thinking that then we could have peace. We were mistaken. The white men would not let us alone. We could have avenged our wrongs many times, but we did not. Whenever the Government has asked for help against other Indians we have never refused. When the white men were few and we were strong we could have killed them off, but the Nez Perce wishes to live at peace.

On account of the treaty made by the other bands of the Nez Perce the white man claimed my lands. We were troubled with white men crowding over the line. Some of them were good men, and we lived on peaceful terms with them, but they were not all good. Nearly every year the agent came over from Lapwai and ordered us to the reservation. We always replied that we were satisfied to live in Wallowa. We were careful to refuse the presents or annuities which he offered.

Through all the years since the white man came to Wallowa we have been threatened and taunted by them and the treaty Nez Perce. They have given us no rest. We have had a few good friends among the white men, and they have always advised my people to bear these taunts without fighting. Our young men are quick tempered and I have had great trouble in keeping them from doing rash things. I have carried a heavy load on my back ever since I was a boy. I learned then that we were but few while the white men were many, and that we could not hold our own with them. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had a 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 mountains and rivers if they did not suit them.

[At his surrender in the Bear Paw Mountains, 1877]

Tell General Howard that I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead; Tu-hul-hil-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who now say yes or no. He who led the young men [Joseph's brother Alikut] 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 and 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, my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more against the white man.

[On a visit to Washington, D.C., 1879]

At last I was granted permission to come to Washington and bring my friend Yellow Bull and our interpreter with me. I am glad I came. I have shaken hands with a good many friends, but there are some things I want to know which no one seems able to explain. I cannot understand how the Government sends a man out to fight us, as it did General Miles, and then breaks his word. Such a government has something wrong about it. I cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things. I have seen the Great Father Chief [President Hayes]; the Next Great Chief [Secretary of the Interior]; the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief; and many other law chiefs [Congressmen] and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words do not give me back my children. Good words will not make good the promise of your war chief, General Miles. Good words will not give 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. Too many misinterpretations have been made; too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men and the Indians. If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.

I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I cannot go to my own home, let me have a home in a country where my people will not die so fast. I would like to go to Bitter Root Valley. There my people would be happy; where they are now they are dying. Three have died since I left my camp to come to Washington.

When I think of our condition, my heart is heavy. I see men of my own race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.

I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If an Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If a white man breaks the law, punish him also.

Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself -- and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike -- brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.

Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht has spoken for his people.

Source: Chester Anders Fee, Chief Joseph: The Biography of a Great Indian, Wilson-Erickson, 1936.

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