William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America


"Chief Joseph"


The man who became a national celebrity with the name "Chief Joseph" was
born in the Wallowa Valley in what is now northeastern Oregon in 1840. He
was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the
Mountain, but was widely known as Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, because
his father had taken the Christian name Joseph when he was baptized at the
Lapwai mission by Henry Spalding in 1838.

Joseph the Elder was one of the first Nez Perc converts to Christianity
and an active supporter of the tribe's longstanding peace with whites. In
1855 he even helped Washington's territorial governor set up a Nez Perc
reservation that stretched from Oregon into Idaho. But in 1863, following
a gold rush into Nez Perc territory, the federal government took back
almost six million acres of this land, restricting the Nez Perc to a
reservation in Idaho that was only one tenth its prior size. Feeling
himself betrayed, Joseph the Elder denounced the United States, destroyed
his American flag and his Bible, and refused to move his band from the
Wallowa Valley or sign the treaty that would make the new reservation
boundaries official.

When his father died in 1871, Joseph was elected to succeed him. He
inherited not only a name but a situation made increasingly volatile as
white settlers continued to arrive in the Wallowa Valley. Joseph staunchly
resisted all efforts to force his band onto the small Idaho reservation,
and in 1873 a federal order to remove white settlers and let his people
remain in the Wallowa Valley made it appear that he might be successful.
But the federal government soon reversed itself, and in 1877 General
Oliver Otis Howard threatened a cavalry attack to force Joseph's band and
other hold-outs onto the reservation. Believing military resistance
futile, Joseph reluctantly led his people toward Idaho.

Unfortunately, they never got there. About twenty young Nez Perc
warriors, enraged at the loss of their homeland, staged a raid on nearby
settlements and killed several whites. Immediately, the army began to
pursue Joseph's band and the others who had not moved onto the
reservation. Although he had opposed war, Joseph cast his lot with the war

What followed was one of the most brilliant military retreats in American
history. Even the unsympathetic General William Tecumseh Sherman could not
help but be impressed with the 1,400 mile march, stating that "the Indians
throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise...
[they] fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards,
skirmish lines, and field fortifications." In over three months, the band
of about 700, fewer than 200 of whom were warriors, fought 2,000 U.S.
soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous

By the time he formally surrendered on October 5, 1877, Joseph was widely
referred to in the American press as "the Red Napoleon." It is unlikely,
however, that he played as critical a role in the Nez Perc's military
feat as his legend suggests. He was never considered a war chief by his
people, and even within the Wallowa band, it was Joseph's younger brother,
Olikut, who led the warriors, while Joseph was responsible for guarding
the camp. It appears, in fact, that Joseph opposed the decision to flee
into Montana and seek aid from the Crows and that other chiefs -- Looking
Glass and some who had been killed before the surrender -- were the true
strategists of the campaign. Nevertheless, Joseph's widely reprinted
surrender speech has immortalized him as a military leader in American
popular culture:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead.
Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who
say, "Yes" or "No." He who led the young men [Olikut] 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

Joseph's fame did him little good. Although he had surrendered with the
understanding that he would be allowed to return home, Joseph and his
people were instead taken first to eastern Kansas and then to a
reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where many of them
died of epidemic diseases. Although he was allowed to visit Washington,
D.C., in 1879 to plead his case to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, it
was not until 1885 that Joseph and the other refugees were returned to the
Pacific Northwest. Even then, half, including Joseph, were taken to a
non-Nez Perc reservation in northern Washington, separated from the rest
of their people in Idaho and their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.
In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United
States policy toward his people and held out the hope that America's
promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled for Native
Americans as well. An indomitable voice of conscience for the West, he
died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland, according to his doctor
"of a broken heart."


Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Pilgrims and Puritans