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The Nez Perce Flight For Justice

June 2024
6min read

Snake River, Oregon side, June 1877

The charismatic Indian leader Chief Joseph stood on the bank of the Snake River, looking across the water to Idaho and beyond to his people’s new home, the Nez Perce reservation in the Clearwater Valley. With him were several hundred men, women, and children, many on horses, dragging their belongings behind them on travois. These Northern Plateau Indians, who called themselves Nee-Me-Poo (The People) or Iceyeeye Niim Mama’yac (The Children of the Coyote), were deeply unhappy about being turned out of the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, where their people had lived for centuries. But federal officials had given Chief Joseph and his people an ultimatum only six months earlier, forcing them to join other Nez Perce who had signed a treaty more than a decade before and moved to the reservation.

Until 1877 the Nez Perce had prided themselves on their friendship with Americans, beginning when they welcomed the Lewis and Clark Expedition in September 1805. In the decades that followed, as the young republic pushed west, increasing numbers of settlers trespassed on their lands. Even so, the Nez Perce had patiently avoided any open conflict.

In 1877 Chief Joseph was 37 years old, strikingly handsome, married, and the father of several children, all of whom, except one daughter, Kapap Ponmi, or “Brook Song,” had died in infancy. He was a skilled negotiator but had little left to work with. Worried about his people’s future, Joseph distrusted the U.S. officials but believed he had little choice and reluctantly agreed to relocate his people.

Swollen with late spring snowmelt, the Snake River moved fast, its strong currents largely hidden below its rippled surface. When the Nez Perce started to cross, things went wrong almost immediately. Several of their livestock were torn away down river and lost to sight. Joseph directed the rescue effort, which scattered the people all along the bank. In the midst of this confusion, some frontier ne’er-do-wells took advantage of the situation to raid the Nez Perce’s stock of fine Appaloosas. Hours later, the now exhausted and angry Nez Perce had gathered up their animals and set up camp just south of the reservation. They dug up camas bulbs for food and brooded about their forced expulsion.

Tensions had long simmered between white incomers and the Indians already pressed onto the reservation. On June 13 a few young warriors from Chief White Bird’s village killed four settlers whom they believed had mistreated their kinsmen. When news reached Joseph, he counseled caution, but fearing reprisal, the new arrivals withdrew to White Bird Canyon, near present-day Grangeville, Idaho. On June 18 scouts reported the approach of a large party of U.S. troops and local volunteers commanded by Capt. David Perry.

Joseph sent out a negotiating party under a white flag, but the volunteers fired upon them, setting off the Battle of White Bird Canyon. Although outnumbered two to one and poorly armed, the Nez Perce inflicted a devastating defeat on Perry’s party, killing 34 soldiers before the army retreated. Meanwhile, Nez Perce war parties raided neighboring ranches, killing 14 civilians.

White Bird Canyon thrust Joseph onto the horns of a dilemma. The U.S. Army still reeled from its defeat at the Little Big Horn and the death of George Armstrong Custer the year before. Joseph understood that federal officials would act decisively to suppress any acts of resistance. He still preferred to negotiate, or at least to retreat back to the Wallowa Valley and mount a defense among familiar surroundings. But the other chiefs believed that while negotiations were no longer possible, the U.S. army at least would never pursue them over the mountains into Montana. The Nez Perce fled into the rugged country between the Salmon, Snake, and Clearwater rivers.

Gen. Oliver Howard, commander of the Department of the Columbia, turned his attention to Chief Looking Glass’s village. While Looking Glass had not taken part at White Bird Canyon, Howard, mistakenly believing that he was actively recruiting for the “hostiles,” ordered Capt. Stephen Whipple and two companies of cavalry to arrest him. While Howard and the rest of his command pursued Joseph into the mountains, Whipple attacked Looking Glass’s village on July 1, killing mostly women and children. The chief and most of his people escaped, although losing many of their horses.

Whipple’s attack drove Looking Glass, a skilled military leader well versed in the mountain trails leading into Montana, into Joseph’s camp, along with all his followers, increasing the “hostile” ranks to approximately 300 warriors and 500 women and children. Looking Glass added his voice to those urging a retreat to Montana, and Joseph reluctantly agreed.

While Looking Glass, White Bird, and other war chiefs directed the defense, Joseph focused his efforts upon the formidable task of ensuring that the refugees had food and adequate transportation. The route across Idaho passed through a challenging topography of towering mountains and canyons blocked by deadfalls, and made use of narrow trails that would tax the endurance even of seasoned warriors. Most of the refugees were tribal elders, women, and children, many riding horses, but some walking along the steeper trails, gasping for air at the higher altitudes. Some women and children led horses dragging travois or packed with hides for small tepees or other shelters, while others searched for roots and berries. Hunting parties scoured the route for game and slaughtered stray livestock but were hard-pressed to fill their cooking pots.

In late July, Joseph led the Nez Perce over the treacherous Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains, then around a barricade U.S. soldiers had built across the trail and into the Bitterroot Valley. Footsore and short of provisions, but well ahead of their pursuers, they stopped along the Big Hole River near modern Wisdom, Montana, in early August to hunt and rest their mounts.

None realized that Col. John Gibbon and about 175 troopers from Fort Shaw in western Montana had approached. Shortly before dawn on August 9, 1877, Gibbon’s men opened fire on the sleeping Indians. The warriors rallied, forced the soldiers to retreat, and captured a mountain howitzer. When night fell, Joseph led the way south and up the Big Hole Valley. The Nez Perce escaped at a cost of 30 warriors killed, along with at least 60 women and children. The U.S. forces’ casualties totaled 29 dead and 40 wounded.

The hard-beset band crossed Bannock Pass into Idaho, then turned eastward along the Lemhi Valley. Howard followed, but on August 20, while Joseph hurried the main party toward Wyoming, Nez Perce scouts captured or scattered so many of Howard’s horses at the Camas Meadows that the general postponed his pursuit until he could recapture or recoup his livestock. By late August the weary Nez Perce had crossed through what is now Yellowstone Park and descended Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. In September they eluded Col. Samuel Sturgis and the remnants of the 7th Cavalry until they were overtaken by, and threw back, Sturgis’s force at Canyon Creek on September 13. By mid-September the Nez Perce had spent three months fleeing and fighting off pursuers across 1,000 miles of steep mountains, rocky trails, and raging rivers.

On September 17 Sturgis turned his troopers back, but Joseph and what remained of the Nez Perce trekked on. Leaving the Missouri, they skirmished with a wagon train and a small party of volunteers from Fort Benton, then stopped on September 25 on the northern fringe of the Bear Paw Mountains to catch their breath and rest their exhausted horses. Scouts reported that both Howard’s and Sturgis’s commands lay far behind. Only 40 miles separated them from Canada, but the weather had turned cold and blustery. While some did not want to stop, Looking Glass assured them that they had several days to rest, hunt, restock their larders, before heading north.

Again the chiefs underestimated their enemies. Howard had telegraphed Col. Nelson Miles at Fort Keogh in southeastern Montana, prompting Miles and 400 troopers to ride northwest, guided by Lakota and Cheyenne scouts. Undetected, on the morning of September 30 they swept in on the Bear Paw encampment. When the first shots rang out, Joseph and his daughter were outside the camp tending their horses. Galloping back, Joseph rallied a party of warriors who repulsed two cavalry charges. When a third foray penetrated the village, he led a counterattack that again drove the troops to retreat, but meanwhile the Lakota and Cheyenne had scattered or captured many of the Nez Perce horses. The surviving Nez Perce took refuge on a ridge overlooking the encampment. The battle continued throughout the day. As night fell, a blizzard swept in from the northwest.

Still not contemplating surrender, Joseph and the other chiefs argued over the next move. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Joseph stated his willingness to negotiate a settlement, but not an unconditional capitulation. White Bird feared that they would hang should they surrender. Looking Glass, who believed that Sitting Bull would send assistance from Canada, took a sniper’s bullet on October 3 and died.

Two days later, Howard arrived with reinforcements at the battlefield. After conferring, Miles and Howard sent a messenger to Joseph guaranteeing him that if the Nez Perce surrendered they could return to Idaho; if not, the assault would be renewed. For Joseph the choice was clear. Burdened with women, children, and tribal elders, he could not escape to Canada. On the afternoon of October 5 he rode forward, reluctantly met with Miles and Howard, and delivered his famous speech: “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Chief Joseph and about 400 of his followers surrendered. Another 300 Nez Perce led by White Bird slipped through the American lines and eventually joined the Sioux in Canada under Sitting Bull.

While Miles was sincere in his promises, federal officials refused to honor them. Joseph and his people were shipped first to Kansas, then south to Indian Territory. After Joseph journeyed to Washington and repeatedly pled for their return to the Northwest, in 1884 they were finally placed on the Colville Reservation in Washington, where Chief Joseph died in 1904. Yet the epic of undaunted resolution struck a responsive chord, even among their enemies. Howard and Miles united in praising their bravery, military ability, and perseverance. Journalists lionized Chief Joseph, and for many readers the handsome, eloquent chieftain and his people emerged as the embodiment of the “noble red man’s” justifiable resistance to heavy-handed U.S. Indian policy. Regardless of stereotypes, their flight and resistance remain remarkable epics of American history, while today the modern Nez Perce people play a viable part in the American nation.

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