October 5, 1877 – Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to US soldiers, ending his and his tribe’s tragic flight from the US Army and submitting to be returned to a reservation.
In September of 1805, Lewis and Clark’s expedition, exhausted and starving, stumbled down the western side of the Bitterroot Mountains into modern day Idaho, where they met a band of Nez Perce Indians. The Indians immediately took in the travelers, feasting them with so much salmon, roots and berries that many of the starving Corps of Discovery members took ill.
The expedition remained with the Nez Perce for several days as they recuperated, and Indian guides instructed Lewis and Clark as to the route west to the Pacific Ocean. They also helped the Corps build canoes to take them on their journey, and agreed to hold their horses to wait for their return. In May of 1806 the expedition returned, spending several months this time with the Nez Perce as they waited for the snow to melt and allow them to cross back over the Bitterroots.
During this time a close bond formed between the Corps and the Nez Perce. The whites and natives lived closely together, trading, competing in athletic events, and establishing a future trading alliance for the benefit of both peoples. Relations between the two groups were so friendly, in fact, that Nez Perce tradition claims that Clark had an affair with an Indian maiden, leaving her pregnant with a new baby son. By the time the Corps set out east towards home, the Nez Perce were firmly within the American orbit, happy with the promise of future trade and eternal friendship.
Fast forward to the 1850’s. An influx of white settlers into western Idaho and eastern Washington – the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce – put an immense amount of pressure on the Nez Perce’s land. US policy towards the Indians had, since Andrew Jackson’s day, resembled that of a conqueror to the vanquished. Long gone were the days where whites and Indians negotiated for land with at least a pretext of equal dealing, replaced with a system where the US government dictated its terms to the local Indians, who had no choice but to accept.
Those terms were always the same: the Indians would give up the bulk of their ancestral lands to the US government and would agree to move onto a small chunk “reserved” for them. As time passed, and more and more whites moved into the area, new treaties would be forced onto the Indians wherein they would have to cede even more land and agree to live on smaller and smaller reservations.
Despite their invaluable assistance to Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce were not immune to white land grabs. In the 1840’s, with the opening of the Oregon Trail, thousands of white settlers poured into Washington and Idaho. In 1855 the Nez Perce chiefs – including Joseph’s father (known as Joseph the Elder) – signed the Walla Walla Treaty wherein they ceded some of their land in exchange for a 7.7 million acre reservation that included the Walla Walla Valley, the center of their ancestral lands. This valley was key to Joseph, as it was his ancestors’ burial grounds.
As with every other such treaty, before the ink was dry more white settlers moved into the area, putting pressure on the US government to acquire more Indian land. In 1863 a new treaty council was called, and the Nez Perce were “offered” a new reservation 1/10 the size of their original one. Making matters worse, the Walla Walla Valley was not a part of this new reservation. The Elder Joseph and most of the other Nez Perce chiefs refused to sign, but two chiefs did, and that was all that the US government needed (also following US policy).
This led to a split among the Nez Perce between those “bands” of Nez Perce who signed and those who didn’t; the “treaty” bands moved onto the new reservation, whereas the “non-treaty” Nez Perce – including Joseph’s band – refused, remaining on their 1855 treaty land. For the next decade an uneasy peace settled into the area. In 1871the elder Joseph died, and Chief Joseph took over as chief of his non-treaty Walla Walla band, purportedly promising his father on this deathbed that he would never sell the land of his ancestors. By 1877 the US government decided to turn the screws, and the local US military commander, General Oliver Otis Howard, the Civil War hero, abolitionist, and founder of Howard University, gave Chief Joseph 30 days to clear out of Walla Walla and move onto the Nez Perce reservation.
Joseph agreed to leave Walla Walla, but before he could lead his band to Idaho, a group of Nez Perce warriors killed four white settlers out of anger over the US action. Joseph, hoping to avoid a war that he knew he would lose, decided instead to make a run for it. Leading about 750 non-treaty Nez Perce, he headed towards Montana with the aim of reaching Canada and seeking asylum among the Lakota Sioux there, who under Sitting Bull had themselves fled the US after the Sioux War of 1876 (the one with Custer’s Last Stand).
For the next several months Joseph and his band fled before Howard’s 2,000 soldiers through Idaho and Montana, covering over 1,000 miles. Although Joseph wanted to avoid bloodshed, his warriors were forced to engage in several battles with US cavalry. Although the Nez Perce were able to repeatedly repel the US soldiers, the Nez Perce casualty count mounted (including scores of women and children) until nearly all of Chief Joseph’s military leaders were dead.
Finally, in late September, Joseph’s band was trapped by 1,500 soldiers only 40 miles from the Canadian border. Unable to break through the US Calvary lines, an exhausted Joseph had no choice but to surrender. On October 5, 1877, he gave himself and his band up to General Howard, purportedly telling Howard,
“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzoote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [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. 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.”
While those iconic words have become the subject of inspirational posters and memes, some historians have doubts about the accuracy of the reports of the speech, at least as was eventually recorded by Howard’s assistant.
Nevertheless, surrender would not be Joseph’s last indignity. During the surrender negotiations, General Howard promised Joseph that his people would be allowed to go to the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, but after the surrender that deal was negated by the Commanding General of the Army, William T. Sherman. Instead, the 400 or so Nez Perce survivors were sent first to a swamp in Kansas and then to a dusty reservation in Oklahoma, a thousand miles from their homeland. Finally, in 1885 Joseph and his remaining band were allowed to move back to a new reservation in Washington, where he died in 1904.