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"I will fight no more, forever" The Sad Struggle of the Nez Perce


Nick explores the abandoned teepee skeletons of the Nez Perce
The gorgeous setting of the Big Hole valley is a sight to behold on the surface. A lonely creek meanders through the verdant valley. Mountains surround the creek bed like standing giants. But when you look beneath the green grass and the clear creeks, you will find that the Earth is stained in blood. It is the blood of 90 old men, women and children, mercilessly killed by US cavalry in a war about which you have probably never heard. The circumstances of the United States war against the Nez Perce are an embarrassment to the US army.

For 70 years, the Nez Perce and the whites had lived in peace, but with the discovery of gold, settlers invaded the land of the Nez Perce. At first, the settlers got along with the Nez Perce; eventually, there was not enough space for everyone to live. The Nez Perce were excellent horse and cattle breeders, but their prized animals were stolen by thieving neighbors.


"When in Rome. . ."

Moneyed interests, who saw riches to be made in the gold deposits beneath Nez Perce land, controlled the United States government. They pressured president Ulysses S. Grant to reconsider his generosity in letting the Nez Perce remain on their land. Grant, the former Civil War general for the North, ordered one of his top generals, Otis Oliver Howard, to go through with the dirty work of removing the Indians.

Within the Nez Perce tribe, elder people were held in reverence because of their experience, and the entire people were led by a band of chiefs. The chief who led the warriors was named Looking Glass. He was a very handsome tall man who was by all accounts a military genius.

The chief of the Nez Perce people was a solidly built man named Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt. His Christian name was Joseph, and he was known as younger Joseph. His father, also a chief, had converted to Christianity and adopted the name Chief Joseph. He read the bible given to him by the preacher who converted him. When the preacher tried to convince him to sell his land to the white men, he became enraged and ripped the bible to pieces. On his deathbed, the elder Joseph made his son promise never to give in to the tricks of the white men.

When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people...Always remember that your father never sold his country...the white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and mother.

Chief Joseph and General Howard meet
In the year 1877, these words echoed strongly in Chief Joseph's head when General Howard informed him that the Nez Perce had 30 days to vacate their land. He knew that ultimately the whites would kill every Indian left on "their" land, so to save his people he must move on to the reservation. The problem was that rivers were flooded and their cattle and horses were spread across the land.

Chief Joseph asked Howard to let him have a few more months, after thousands of years of occupying their land, to prepare for departure. General Howard, who remarked in his diary that the land rightfully belonged to the Nez Perce, refused his request and told him that any Nez Perce remaining in one month's time would be moved to the reservation.

When Chief Joseph told his people of the unbelievable situation, many of the young warriors were enraged and wanted to fight the whites. The Nez Perce were outstandingly skilled warriors, and fought with fierceness unmatched in the open field. Still, to fight the whites would only bring more death and sorrow to their situation. A dead warrior could not be replaced, while there was a limitless supply of white soldiers.

Joseph was called a coward, but the tribe reluctantly accepted their new fate and began preparing to leave. However, a group of young warriors wanted revenge against settlers who had been robbing, raping, and murdering without any punishment. They exacted revenge on the worst of the settlers, killing over a dozen whites in a night of war cries and blood. This was all the excuse that the US government needed to attack the entire village. When the tribal council heard about the killing of settlers, they decided to leave before government troops attacked.

This is thought to be the jacket Joseph wore into battle
Eight hundred members of the Nez Perce tribe gathered their possessions and left their home of thousands of years. They knew they had to get out of there quickly, but they had no idea of the hardship they would endure throughout the next four months.

Out of the 800 Nez Perce, there were about 200 warriors. The United States government sent out 2000 cavalry in pursuit of this roaming village. The Nez Perce, under the military leadership of Looking Glass, evaded the army for four months. They killed and wounded hundreds of American soldiers, skilled veterans from the civil war.

They did everything they did to fluster and confuse their enemy. The US soldiers wanted blood; many of them had seen what had happened to Custer's army at Little Big Horn and they wanted revenge. The Nez Perce set up ambush points, fake trails, and took routes over mountain ranges that white generals had thought impossible.

The Nez Perce suffered their most striking defeat at the battle of Big Hole, in western Montana. They arrived in the valley, a traditional hunting ground, days ahead of General Howard's troops. Chief Looking glass decided that they were far enough ahead to rest a few days. The elderly accepted this much needed stop, while some young warriors claimed that they had dreams they would be attacked if they remained in the valley. Chief Looking Glass assured them that there was nothing to worry about, and decided that they did not even need to post guards around the encampment.

At that very moment a group of soldiers was marching from nearby Fort Missoula to Big Hole. General Howard had telegraphed ahead and set up a pre-dawn attack on the entire camp.

Chief Looking Glass wearing his western style hat
The invading cavalry used a howitzer canon to wake up the sleeping Nez Perce. As the women, children, and elderly attempted to flee to the cover of the forest, they were mowed down by musket fire as US soldiers emerged from the trees. The soldiers killed babies, old people, and unarmed women. Who were the savages in this war?

Disgusted by such a display of brutality, the warriors quickly staked out the village and began to bury the dead while the non-combatants started making their way towards the Crow reservation.

The tide turned very quickly once the warriors of the Nez Perce got organized. They captured the Howitzer canon before it fired a third shot. They then proceeded to wreak havoc on the US army with their rifles, some warriors using traded guns superior to those of the US army. After 24 hours of holding the US cavalry at bay, the warriors vanished into the cover of the bush and caught up with their tribe.

When the Nez Perce arrived in Crow reservation, the Crow were unable to let them live there. Newspapers from all across the country were watching Chief Joseph, who they nicknamed "Red Napoleon". Many people were actually rooting for the Nez Perce to escape from General Howard.

Escape now meant reaching Canada, where Sitting Bull and his Sioux people had formed an exile camp. Chief Joseph and his people walked endlessly, over mountain passes and crossing rivers in a constant run from the US army. As the winter came on with its cold Montana snowfall, the very young and the elderly began to die.

The farthest most of the Nez Perce people made it north was Bear's Paw, Montana, just 40 miles from Canada. It was in Bear's Paw that the US army laid siege to the 700 or so remaining Native Americans. After five days of death and sorrow, Chief Joseph went to the US army camp and surrendered his rifle. As he handed it over he said this speech:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed . . . .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. Maybe I will 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.

Chief Joseph's Teepee still sits by the river in Big Hole
Chief Joseph was told that his people would be brought to their new reservation in Oregon. As always, the white men went back on their word and sent Joseph and his people to Oklahoma where many began to die from endemic disease.

When the rest of the tribe was allowed to move back to the Nez Perce reservation, Chief Joseph was sent to the desert in eastern Washington as a "dangerous element". He would eventually die there, stricken with grief because he never returned to his homeland. The official cause of death written on the certificate by the agency doctor: a broken heart.


Please email me at:teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Nick - Massacres and mayhem: manifest destiny at its worst
Irene - We don't need no thought control
Nick - Sitting Bull wins one for the Lakota Indians!
Steph - Potatoes, beans and cornbread. It's the life of a cowboy
Neda - Never give up: the story of Geronimo
Irene - East Meets West in the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad