The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark....All the Nez PercÚs made friends with Lewis and Clark and agreed to let them pass through their country, and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez PercÚs have never broken. It has always been the pride of the Nez PercÚs that they were the friends of the white men.
By 1877, most Nez PercÚ were living on a reservation along the Clearwater River in Lapwai, Idaho, where many had converted to Christianity, wore white men's clothes, and had taken up farming. But some still held fast to their old way of life, among them a band that lived in the Wallowa Valley of eastern Oregon.
Their "village chief" -- responsible for the welfare of his people -- was a tall, reserved man whose Nez PercÚ name -- Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht -- meant "Thunder Rolling From the Mountains." Whites called him Chief Joseph. As a young man, Joseph had promised his dying father that he would never sell their homeland, and for six years he had refused to move when government agents tried to enforce a treaty that his band of Nez PercÚ had never signed.
Do not misunderstand me [and] my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours. The earth is the mother of all people and all people should have equal rights upon it.
do not wish to interfere with your religion, but must talk about practicable
things. Twenty times over you repeat that the earth is your mother...Let
us hear no more, but come to business at once.
General Oliver Otis Howard was a one-armed Civil War hero who had founded Howard University for emancipated blacks in Washington D.C. Now he was dispatched to deal with the Nez PercÚ. After investigating, Howard became convinced that Joseph was right about the treaty, and he offered to buy the Wallowa Valley on behalf of the government. But Joseph refused. Finally the order came to move the Nez PercÚ one way or another, and Howard told Joseph and the others that if they weren't on the Lapwai reservation within a month, his soldiers would force them to go.
I knew I had never sold my country, and that I had no land in Lapwai; but I did not want bloodshed. I did not want my people killed. I did not want anybody killed....I said in my heart that, rather than have war, I would give up everything rather than have the blood of white men upon the hands of my people.
Joseph and the other chiefs began moving their people toward Idaho, but a handful of young warriors, seeking revenge for the way the Nez PercÚ had been treated, slipped away and killed eighteen whites. For the first time in their history, Joseph's people suddenly found themselves at war with the United States.
Howard sent two troops of cavalry to bring the young warriors and the rest of the Nez PercÚ in. He wired his superiors: "Think we will make short work of it."
Catching up with Joseph's band at White Bird Canyon on the Salmon River, Howard's troops attacked. The Nez Perce hurled them back.
soldiers did not hold their position ten minutes. Some soldiers...were
quickly on the run. Then the entire enemy force gave way...We counted
thirty-three dead soldiers. We did no scalping. We did not strip them
naked. We did not hurt the dead. Only let them lie.
Only three Nez Perce warriors had been wounded in the battle, but Perry had lost a third of his command and been driven from the field.
"I have been in lots of scrapes," one army scout remembered, but "I never went up against anything like the Nez PercÚ in all my life."
News of the stunning defeat at White Bird Canyon, almost one year after Custer's death at the Little Bighorn, shocked the country. Howard called for more troops, and for the next three months they would pursue Joseph and his people as they carried out one of the most remarkable military retreats in history.
On July 3rd, the Nez Perce wiped out an army scouting party of thirteen men that got too close.
On Independence Day they fought off an attack at an old stage stop called Cottonwood, A week later, on the Clearwater River, they killed thirteen more of Howard's men who sought to stop them.
Then they began climbing the Bitterroot Mountains, led by a war chief named Looking Glass, following the same trail through Lalo Pass that had brought Lewis and Clark to them three quarters of a century earlier.
There were about 700 of them -- only 200 warriors, the rest women, children and old people, all in Joseph's care. Still, they moved quickly, believing that if they could make it to Montana and join their allies, the Crow, they would be safe.
When they reached Montana, the Nez PercÚ turned south along the Bitterroot River, paying for food and supplies from white settlers -- but the frightened townspeople of Missoula, Butte, Bannock, and Virginia City demanded army protection.
On an elevated plateau surrounded by mountains, called the Big Hole, Looking Glass convinced the weary Indians they could rest for several days. Howard, he said, was too far behind them to worry about.
But Colonel John Gibbon had assembled all the available soldiers in western Montana and, with the help of Bannock scouts, had tracked the unsuspecting Nez PercÚ to the Big Hole. On August 9, his troops attacked at dawn.
In the first moments, between 60 and 90 Nez PercÚ were cut down -- many of them dead before they could kick free of their blankets. But the survivors regrouped, women and children and old men fighting alongside the warriors with such fury that they drove the soldiers from the camp.
Few of us will soon forget the wail of mingled grief, rage, and horror which came from the camp four or five hundred yards from us when the Indians returned to it and recognized their slaughtered warriors, women, and children. Above this wail of horror we could hear the passionate appeal of the leaders urging their followers to fight, and the war whoops in answer which boded us no good.
The enraged warriors pinned Gibbon's men down with their fire, while Joseph led the others away from the fighting.
The Nez PercÚ now slipped back into Idaho, then turned east again, toward the Yellowstone plateau, which had recently been set aside as a national park. William Tecumseh Sherman himself had assured visitors there was no danger from marauding Indians in the park. Indians, he said, were too superstitious to venture near the geysers.
But the Nez PercÚ swept right through, capturing more than a dozen horrified tourists and killing two of them, before the chiefs told the warriors to let the others go.
They moved on, still hoping to join forces with their longtime friends, the Crows. But the Crows were now pursuing them as scouts for the U.S. Army.
Many snows the Crows had been our friends. But
now...turned enemies. I do not understand how the Crows could think to
help the soldiers. My heart was just like fire...
The Nez PercÚ were alone. The West they had once known had vanished.
Yet there remained one last chance for escape: Sitting Bull had found safety in Canada. They headed north across Montana to join him.
By late September, when they finally crossed the Missouri River, the Nez PercÚ had come more than 1,500 miles; fought in seventeen engagements against more than 2,000 troops; suffered hardships, disappointments, and the loss of loved ones. But they had beaten or eluded every army sent against them.
Now, Canada -- and freedom -- were only 40 miles away.
Before crossing the border, the Nez PercÚ camped on Snake Creek, near the Bear Paw Mountains. General Howard, they knew, was more than two days' march behind them. They did not know, however, that Colonel Nelson A. Miles had mercilessly pushed his troops all the way from eastern Montana to intercept them.
The Nez PercÚ were quietly slumbering in their tents...When the charge was made...The tramp of at least six hundred horses over the prairie fairly shook the ground, and, although a complete surprise to the Indians in the main, it must have given them a few minutes' notice, for as the troops charged against the village the Indians opened a hot fire upon them.
Nez PercÚ warriors drove off one attack -- then a second, and a third. They killed or wounded 53 of the soldiers, but all their horses had been driven off. They could not escape. Miles dug in for a siege. The weather turned colder.
of our few warriors left from the Big Hole had been swept as leaves before
the storm....A young warrior, wounded, lay on a buffalo robe dying without
complaint. Children crying with cold. No fire. There could be no light.
Everywhere the crying, the death wail....I felt the coming end. All for
which we had suffered lost! Thoughts came of the Wallowa where I grew
up. Of my own country when only Indians were there. Of tipis along the
bending river. Of the blue, clear lake, wide meadows with horse and cattle
herds. From the mountain forests, voices seemed calling. I felt as dreaming.
Not my living self.
For five more days, the siege went on. A few Nez PercÚ slipped away and straggled into Canada, where Sitting Bull welcomed them, but would send no warriors to rescue the others.
Under a white flag, Miles opened negotiations. Joseph was selected to talk with him. Turn over your rifles, Miles said, and in the spring, you will be allowed to return home.
My people were divided about surrendering...[But] I could not bear to see my wounded men and women suffer any longer; we had lost enough already. Colonel Miles...promised that we might return to our own country with what stock we had left. I thought we could start again. I believed Colonel Miles, or I never would have surrendered.
On the afternoon of October 5, 1877, Joseph rode out to the foot of a bluff where Colonel Miles and General Howard were waiting for him.
threw himself off his horse, draped his blanket about him...and with a
quiet pride, not exactly defiance, advanced toward General Howard and
held out his rifle in token of submission.
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are all killed. Looking Glass is dead....The old men are all 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 food. No one knows where they are....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.
Joseph and his people were loaded onto a riverboat and sent down the Missouri to Fort Abraham Lincoln, where they expected to spend the winter. But while they were on the way, the promise that they could return home had been over-ruled by General Sherman.
Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal
praise. They abstained from scalping; let captive women go free; did not
commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families, which is usual, and
fought with almost scientific skill....Nevertheless, they would not settle
down on lands set apart for them...and when commanded by proper authority,
they began resistance by murdering persons in no manner connected with
their alleged grievances....They should never again be allowed to return
Miles and Howard could not change Sherman's decision. The Nez PercÚ had been betrayed again.
When the Indians arrived at the fort, its cannon greeted them, and the steam engine of a Northern Pacific train blasted its whistle three times. They had never seen a train before, and the Nez PercÚ began a mournful song. It sounded, one onlooker said, like a "death chant."
Then, Joseph and his people were loaded onto the train. They were not going home, they were now told, but far away, into exile in the northeastern corner of Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma -- nearly 2,000 miles from their beloved Wallowa Valley. Once there, they found conditions unsanitary, medicine scarce. Sixty-eight of them perished in the first year alone. Soon, they had a cemetery set aside solely for babies, with 100 graves.
Among the Nez PercÚ who died in exile was an old man named Halahtookit, or Daytime Smoke. According to Joseph's people, he was the half Indian son of William Clark, the American explorer the Nez Perce had sheltered more than 70 years earlier, the man who had first promised that the United States would always be their friend.
Good words do not last long....Good words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men....Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises.
You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases...
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