Mary's Library

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Chief Joseph (1840-1904)

On September 21, 1904, Chief Joseph of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce died on the Colville Indian Reservation in northern Washington State. Joseph became Chief of the Nez Perce in 1871, at the age of 31, upon the death of his father. His years as Chief were heroic and, ultimately, tragic.

For years, the Nez Perce had lived in peace with white settlers in Wallowa Valley in Northeastern Oregon and in Idaho. At the time Joseph became Chief, however, the Nez Perce and the United States Government were in conflict over efforts to force the Nez Perce from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and onto a much smaller reservation in Idaho. Although many Nez Perce settled onto the Idaho reservation, hundreds of Nez Perce in the Wallowa Valley resisted.

War broke out in 1877 between members of the Wallowa band who refused to go to the Idaho reservation and the troops sent to force them onto the reservation. Chief Joseph skillfully led his people in a long retreat, trying to find refuge, and fought a series of defensive battles attempting to fend of U.S. Cavalry forces led by General Oliver O. Howard.

On October 5, 1877, Joseph and the Nez Perce were forced to surrender. The defeated Nez Perce were sent to Kansas and then to the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In 1885, Chief Joseph and a few his surviving Nez Perce followers were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. They were sent, though, to the Colville Reservation in Washington and not to Nez Perce reservation in Idaho or to their homeland in Oregon. Joseph never again saw his Wallowa Valley.

Joseph's words, upon his surrender, marked the death of a way of life:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men 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.

A new book on Chief Joseph has been published. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy (2005) by Kent Nerburn It's going on my wish list.

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