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  • James Houser

October 5, 1877 - The Nez Perce War

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

October 5, 1877. The Nez Perce are cornered. Stripped of their ancestral lands and hunted down by the United States Army, they have led larger numbers of bluecoats on an epic retreat of over a thousand miles: one of the great heroic and tragic sagas of the American Indian wars. But today, Chief Joseph will deliver his famous speech of surrender: “I will fight no more forever.”

As the term “Native American” is only partially accepted by the indigenous peoples of the continental United States, and a larger plurality prefers the term “American Indian,” that is the term I will use in this post.

Hundreds of years ago, the Nimiipuu – who would later be misnamed the Nez Perce - settled in central Idaho along the Clearwater River. The subsistence economy of hunting and gathering soon failed to sustain the growing population, so the Nimiipuu broke up into sub-clans that lived in dispersed villages, occupying the prairies in the summer and moving to high canyons in the fall to avoid the snow. By the early 18th Century, the Nimiipuu acquired horses, leading them to take trips to the Great Plains for buffalo hunting. The rising power of the Nimiipuu, though, brought them into conflict with the local Blackfoot and Shoshone peoples.

The first white men to have seen the Nimiipuu are likely to have been the starving Lewis and Clark Expedition. On their way to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark ran into Nimiipuu territory. Only the intercession of one of their tribeswomen, who Lewis and Clark had helped escape from the Blackfoot, prevented them from massacring the whole band. The Nimiipuu were also convinced by the fact that the Shoshone and Blackfoot had recently acquired firearms, and friendship with the Americans could gain them these valuable tools. In the grand tradition of white people mispronouncing or straight making up Indian names (hint: the Blackfoot didn’t call themselves that), Lewis and Clark misnamed the tribe the “Nez Perce.”

Thus the Nez Perce entered into the grand American narrative of Indian relations, and we all know how that goes. For their first few decades under American “rule,” the Nez Perce had limited contact with the United States. They were in one of the most isolated and least populated regions of the country. That began to change with westward expansion, but throughout the 1830s and 1840s the Nez Perce were mostly passed by. As long as settlers passed through and didn’t stop, the Nez Perce were friendly and engaged in trade – the Oregon Trail passed well south of Nez Perce territory. Indeed, a series of neighboring Indian tribes rose up against the Americans in 1847, but the Nez Perce did not want to damage their good relations with the Americans and didn’t assist them.

By the 1850s, though, the Federal government was obviously taking the Oregon Territory more seriously. A series of treaties in 1855 punished the rebellious tribes, removing much of their land and forcing them onto smaller reservations. While this treaty guaranteed the land rights and territory of the loyal Nez Perce, it had the effect of surrounding them with newly founded American settlements. They were quickly outnumbered by the incoming whites. With the acceptance of Oregon as a state in 1859, westward immigration became a flood; by 1860, over 60,000 American settlers had moved onto the lands around the Nez Perce territory. The 12,000 square miles of Nez Perce territory – held by only 3,000 members of the tribe – were very obviously a vulnerable island in a growing sea of white settlement. Complacent with their gifts and treaty rights, the tribe was only vaguely aware of the inevitability of their fate.

The tipping point came when gold was discovered on Nez Perce territory near the Clearwater. While anyone else would be excited to have gold found on their territory, this was NEVER a good thing for an Indian tribe. The gold rush was on, and thousands of settlers poured onto Nez Perce territory, founding the modern towns of Lewiston and Elk City. The US Army’s obligations in the Civil War prevented them from dispatching any real numbers of troops to protect Nez Perce lands, so they essentially forced the Nez Perce into accepting a new treaty.

In 1863, the Nez Perce were forced into what they called the “Steal Treaty,” where the United States stripped much of their ancestral land. Most of the northern Nez Perce, whose homes would be within the new boundaries, accepted the treaty and moved onto the reservation; those from the south, whose lands along the Clearwater River would be lost, refused to accede and returned to their villages. These “Non-Treaty” Nez Perce, led by their chief Old Joseph, began to reject further dealings with the Americans and turned to shamanistic movements that promised deliverance. Less than 1,000 Non-Treaty Nez Perce refused to accept the treaty, such a small number that the United States felt it could ignore them for now. In 1871, Old Joseph died and his son Hinmahtoolahyahket – better known to the Americans as Young Joseph, or just “Chief Joseph” – assumed leadership of the Non-Treaty Nez Perce.

As American settlers continued to inundate the Nez Perce’s ancestral lands – lands that had been theirs for centuries, lands they had lost when the Americans first failed to protect them and then broke the treaty – tensions grew, and clashes between individual Americans and Indians became more common. On June 22, 1876, one such incident occurred when an American settler killed Wind Blowing, a close friend of Joseph, during an argument. The Nez Perce demanded that the Army punish the murder, but the settlers refused to name any names. Joseph’s younger brother Ollokot demanded that the settlers evacuate the Nez Perce land, and soon began to assemble a warband to punish the intruders.

All this soon got to the local US Army commander, General Oliver O. Howard. Howard may be a familiar name to Civil War buffs, since he had led large bodies of troops in major Civil War campaigns including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Sherman’s March. Howard led some cavalry to defuse the brewing conflict between the Nez Perce and the local settlers, and on November 13 he called the Nez Perce leaders for a conference. He had been content to leave them alone since they were so few and generally peaceful, but with this recent flare-up he had to insist that they move to the reservation. He was surprised when Joseph offered a flat refusal. Howard had not been prepared for this, and not wanting to start a war decided to wait the situation out. For the next six months, Howard hung out and awaited instructions from Washington.

After a series of failed negotiations, Joseph decided that military resistance would be futile and they would agree to move onto the reservation. With great bitterness, the remaining Non-Treaty Nez Perce – all 750 of them – began to gather in preparation for their heartbreaking move to the reservation. Joseph was right: they could not resist the military power of the United States. But some young Nez Perce men raged against this reality, raged against the loss of their homes and their freedoms, raged against the treachery of the whites. Several Nez Perce youths got drunk on liquor and anger; led by a White Bird Nez Perce named Shore Crossing, they gathered up a small posse and went on a spree of raping and murdering up the Salmon River, killing eighteen Americans and raping four women.

When Joseph learned what his young men had done, he realized how bad they were in for it. The Nez Perce could muster no more than 225 warriors, and that was only if you counted every male between 16 and 60. Only a few dozen were veteran fighters, and they did not recognize Joseph as a military leader. Throughout the coming struggle, Joseph would remain a diplomatic and administrative leader, doing his best to keep the 500 or so non-combatants together and safe during the epic campaign. The military leadership would be provided by fellow war leader Looking Glass. The Indians had no artillery, but they were skillful in skirmish fighting and were incredible marksmen with the repeating rifles they had gained through trade. The Nez Perce were twice as likely to score a lethal hit as an American soldier.

But the U.S. Army was nothing to laugh at. Despite their lack of ability as individual warriors compared to their Indian foes, they had a wealth of firepower the Nez Perce could only dream of – particularly the brand-new .45-caliber Gatling Guns and mountain howitzers they carried behind them. There were also far, far more Americans, and unlike the Nez Perce they were able to replace their numbers as the war went on.

Looking Glass had chided the young murderers, declaring that “You have acted like fools in murdering white men” – but he was still committed to peace, and departed with his own band of Nez Perce for the reservation. Joseph and his brother Ollokot were not so sure. While it may still have been possible to prevent outright conflict, Howard’s dispatch of two companies of the 1st Cavalry under Captain David Perry to intercept the Non-Treaty Nez Perce made it seem like war was upon them. They would make one last attempt at peace, however. The Nez Perce assembled their warriors at the southern end of White Bird Canyon as Perry’s unit approached. When the Nez Perce sent out a small detachment with a truce flag, however, someone fired a shot, and it was on. The Nez Perce War had begun.

The Nez Perce had only about 70 warriors at hand compared to 106 Americans, but Ollokot and Chief Joseph led them on flanking maneuvers against the American cavalry. The dismounted troopers were unable to compete with the fast-moving and accurate Nez Perce warriors, who ran them up and down the steep, rocky slopes of the Idaho mountains. The fighting was fierce and quick, and the American cavalrymen – who had not expected a fight so soon – were utterly routed. They suffered 34 killed and 4 wounded, while the Nez Perce warriors lost no one. In winning the Battle of White Bird Canyon, though, the Nez Perce had lost the peace.

For Joseph and his band of Nez Perce, the options were slim. Joseph decided to head southeast to seek refuge and perhaps be accepted into the Crow tribe in southern Montana. Failing that, he would head north to Canada to try and link up with Sitting Bull, who had fled into Canadian territory after the Battle of Little Bighorn the previous year. There were very few Nez Perce, and a lot of white men. It was best to avoid undue attention, try to slip past the Americans’ units, and reach a safe haven some place far away from their ancestral homes.

When Howard learned about the Battle of White Bird Canyon, though, he led out a large Army force to track down and subdue the Nez Perce. He set out with 227 troops to track the Indian forces, but soon found himself turned around and confused by the clever camouflage and concealment tactics of his foes. The distances involved were immense. Joseph danced around Howard and outmaneuvered him at every turn, and soon the American forces – who had set out only half-prepared – were outright starving. The Nez Perce slipped by Howard at Cottonwood on July 5, 1877, and escaped east faster than the Americans could follow.

Out of frustration, Howard ordered a preemptive attack on Looking Glass’s war band, even though Looking Glass was trying to comply with the treaty and march onto the reservation. This was a stupid move, since it only drove Looking Glass to unify with Joseph’s band. Now at their top strength of around 250 warriors, over 600 non-combatant women and children, and around 3,000 horses and other animals, the Nez Perce struck out east. The Army followed.

The resulting campaign deserves to be ranked among the great military epics. The Nez Perce fled, and Howard was at their heels the whole time. The Army’s forces only grew, as more and more detachments joined Howard’s powerful force in an effort to crush the vagrant Nez Perce once and for all. Joseph and Looking Glass fought battle after battle; brilliant rear-guard actions, successful deceptions, valiant stands, and rapid maneuvers became a constant feature of the Anabasis of the Nez Perce.

At the Battle at the Clearwater River on July 11, Joseph and Ollokot held off the Army’s Gatling Guns and cannons and inflicted grievous losses on the bluecoats. As they left the battlefield, they looked back on the valley of their fathers for the last time in their lives. They also left behind the spot where the Nez Perce had greeted and given food to Lewis and Clark so many years ago – and allegedly Clark’s illegitimate son, fathered on his Nez Perce wife, was now an elderly man riding along with Joseph and his band. Two Americas had met here, and only one would survive.

The Nez Perce fled. They stole horses, robbed fields, and pillaged barns to keep their convoy moving and their people fed. On July 16, they left modern Idaho and crossed into Montana up the arduous Lolo Trail: 120 miles of uninhabited mountains. As the war chief Looking Glass kept the advance and rear guards alert and strong, Joseph proved the spiritual leader of the tribe, keeping the 750 remaining men, women and children together in a tight column. They crossed the mountains remarkably quickly, emerging in Montana on July 25. But things were only getting worse. Howard had telegraphed ahead to other Army forces in Montana. As he was following them over the Lolo Trail, another American unit was coming at them from the front.

On August 9, Colonel John Gibbon’s force of 200 men surprised the Nez Perce at the Battle of the Big Hole. Both sides suffered terribly in the ensuing brawl; the Americans lost 30% of their number, Joseph and Gibbon were both wounded, and many Indian women and children were killed in the crossfire. The Battle of the Big Hole was the bloodiest of the whole war, and only hardened both the Nez Perce and the Americans. The war increased in both ferocity and tempo, and neither side took prisoners.

Dancing away from Gibbon’s force, the Nez Perce narrowly escaped Howard, who was emerging from the mountains. The Indians trekked into modern-day Yellowstone Park, staying just ahead of the converging American columns. Somehow, Joseph was convinced that his people could escape, and after defeating just one more army they could find a new home and live in peace. But it was not to be. The United States continued to conjure up more and more soldiers, and the Nez Perce had lost some of their bravest warriors at the Big Hole. Their only hope now was to escape to Canada ahead of the bluecoats. They had already marched a thousand miles; their horses were dying; their people were starving.

The Nez Perce column fought their way north through skirmishes and battles with the American forces. There always seemed to be one more company of mustachioed white men with Stetsons and Gatling Guns to overcome, but they kept moving. Finally, just 42 miles from the Canadian border, the Nez Perce stopped at a place called Bear Paw in central Montana. They had finally been fenced in by four separate Army columns, and were outnumbered three to one. Even their legendary tactics and maneuvers could not free them now. Joseph’s brother Ollokot was killed in the defense of Bear Paw. Howard had been reinforced by troops led by Nelson A. Miles, and the Americans had the Indians isolated and surrounded. Accompanying the Americans were Lakota Indian scouts, many of whom had fought against the Army only a year before at Little Bighorn.

After a three-day standoff, Joseph accepted that there was no more hope. He had to rely on whatever mercy the white man had. Looking Glass refused to surrender, and tried to break out. A number of Nez Perce – around 200 – managed to escape to Canada, but Looking Glass was killed in the escape attempt. Joseph surrendered the remaining 418 Nez Perce on October 5, 1877, and his speech has become legendary:

“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzoote is dead. The old men are all dead…Ollokot 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…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.”

The Nez Perce had traveled 1,170 miles from central Idaho to northern Montana. They fought four major battles and eighteen skirmishes, engaged 2,000 American soldiers of different units, and never with more than 250 warriors. Their retreat and bid for freedom had been one of the most heroic, tenacious, and magnificent feats of arms ever performed by the American Indian. The Nez Perce were acclaimed as warriors and heroes worldwide – but it would not save them. They had scared too many people, made too many headlines. The Nez Perce, as much as any indigenous people of North America, would exemplify the tragedy of the American Indian.

Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce never saw home again. They were never allowed to return to their lands in Idaho, or even to the small reservation with the rest of their people. They were consigned to Fort Leavenworth for a while, where they were forced to live in the swampy bottomlands where many suffered from malaria. Joseph went to Washington in 1879 to plead for his people, but this only got them to Oklahoma – which was just as bad. Finally, in 1885 the Nez Perce were allowed to return to the Northwest but were consigned to a different reservation in Washington. It was here that Chief Joseph died in 1904.

To the day of his death, Joseph pleaded with the American government for his people to return to their homeland in Idaho, but it never happened. Just one more casualty of the American Dream.

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