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Chief Joseph
Digital History ID 708

Author:   Chief Joseph
Date:1879

Annotation: His is one of the most heartwrenching stories in all of American history. Ordered to move from the Wallowa Valley of Oregon to a reservation in Idaho, Chief Joseph, a leader of the Nez Perce, decided to flee to Canada. He and his followers--55 warriors and about 300 women, children, and aged, traveled for four months across 1,200 miles, through Idaho and Montana, before being forced to surrender just 40 miles from the Canadian border. Here, he describes his retreat.


Document: For a short while we lived quietly. But this could not last. White men had found gold in the mountains around the land of 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.....

On account of the treaty made by the other bands of the Nez Perces, the white man claimed my lands. We were troubled greatly by white men crowding over the line....

Nearly every year the agent came over from Lapwai and ordered us on 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....

Year after year we have been threatened, but no war was made upon my people until General [Oliver Otis] Howard came to our country two years ago and told us that he was the white war-chief of all that country....

I said to General Howard..."I do not believe that the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do."

General Howard replied: "You deny my authority, do you? You want to dictate to me, do you?"....

[Several days later] General Howard informed me, in a haughty spirit, that he would give my people thirty days to go back home, collect all their stock, and move on to the reservation, saying, "If you are not there in that time, I shall consider that you want to fight, and will send my soldiers to drive you on."

I said: "War can be avoided, and it ought to be avoided. I want no war.... I can not get ready to move in thirty days. Our stock is scattered, and Snake River is very high. Let us wait until fall, then the river will be low. We want time to hunt up our stock and gather supplies for winter"....

General Howard refused to allow me more than thirty days to move my people and their stock....

We gathered all the stock we could find, and made an attempt to move. We left many of our horses and cattle in Wallowa, and we lost several hundred in crossing the river....Many of the Nez Perces came together in Rocky Canyon to hold a grand council....This council lasted ten days. There was a great deal of war-talk, and a great deal of excitement. There was one young brave present whose father had been killed by a white man five years before.... He left the council calling for revenge....

I was leaving the council...when news came that the young man whose father had been killed had gone out with several other hot-blooded young braves and killed four white men.... I saw that war could not be prevented. The time had passed. I counseled peace from the beginning. I knew that we were too weak to fight the United States. We had many grievances, but I knew that war would bring more....

We moved over to White Bird Creek, sixteen miles away, and there encamped, intending to collect our stock before leaving; but the soldiers attacked us, and the first battle was fought. We numbered in the battle sixty men, and the soldiers a hundred. The fight lasted but a few minutes....They lost thirty-three killed, and had seven wounded. When an Indian fights, he only shoots to kill; but soldiers shoot at random....

Seven days after the first battle, General Howard arrived in the Nez Perces country, bringing seven hundred more soldiers. It was now war in earnest....

[Several days later] he attacked us with three hundred and fifty soldiers and settlers. We had two hundred and fifty warriors. The fight lasted twenty-seven hours. We lost four killed and several wounded. General Howard's loss was twenty-nine men killed and sixty wounded....

Finding that we were outnumbered, we retreated to Bitter Root Valley. Here another body of soldiers came upon us and demanded our surrender. We refused....We then made a treaty with these soldiers. We agreed not to molest any one, and they agreed that we might pass through the Bitter Root country in peace. We bought provisions and traded stock with white men there.

We understood that there was to be no more war. We intended to go peaceably to the buffalo country, and leave the question of returning to our country to be settled afterward....

[A few days later] the soldiers surrounded our camp. About daybreak one of my men went out to look after his horses. The soldiers saw him and shot him down like a coyote.... We had a hard fight.... In the fight...we lost fifty women and children and thirty fighting men....

Several days passed.... We had repulsed each [army in turn] and began to feel secure, when another army, under General Miles, struck us. This was the fourth army, each of which outnumbered our fighting force, that we encountered within sixty days.

We had no knowledge of General Miles's army until a short time before he made a charge upon us, cutting our camp in two, and capturing nearly all our horses. About seventy men, myself among them, were cut off....

I thought of my wife and children, who were now surrounded by soldiers, and I resolved to go to them or die.... With a prayer in my mouth to the Great Spirit Chief who rules above, I dashed unarmed through the line of soldiers...but I was not hurt....

My people were divided about surrendering. We could have escaped from Bear Paw Mountain if we had left our wounded, old women, and children behind. We were unwilling to do this....

I could not bear to see my wounded men and women suffer any longer; we had lost enough already. General Miles had promised that we might return to our own country with what stock we had left.... I believed General Miles, or I never would have surrendered. I have heard that he has been censured for making the promise to return us to Lapwai....

On the fifth day I went to General Miles and gave up my gun, and said, "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more"....

We gave up all our horses--over eleven hundred--and all our saddles--over one hundred--and we have not heard from them since....

You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases... 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.

Source: North American Review (April, 1879).

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