Tragedy of the Plains Indians
|Digital History ID 3502|
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 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 thirty-one 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
Chief Joseph then began a three month, 1,600 mile flight to Canada with four
separate U.S. military units in pursuit. 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
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.