Specializing in Native American Crafts Since 1916

Cameron Trading Post has recently been updating its collection of antique Plains Indian artifacts, which has put me in mind of that history. The story of the “White Man’s” arrival and settlement of the portion of North America now called the United States has always been a bittersweet one to me. It is a story of a conquest and in that respect I suppose it is less bloody and full of treachery than other such stories in the history of the world. I do not take a stand, either for the indigenous people of America or for the emigrants. I don’t see the point. The world has changed and moved on. I am a citizen of this country and it is not the same place, nor are we the same people, of 150 years ago. Yet who we are now is born of that time and it is worthy of remembrance and introspection.

The so-called “Indian Wars” are represented in the general history as having taken place in the last half of the 19th century. There was no “shot heard ’round the world” that began them. The last shot heard that ended them was on a cold winter day in 1890 at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. There are many very good accounts of those days and I won’t presume to do better. There is one poignant story, however, that stands out. That is of the Nez Percés and their final battle for their homeland. I will attempt now to tell it and hope you will forgive me any errors I make either in my history or my grammar!

The year was 1877. The Indian Wars in many respects were over. The Great Plains tribes with a few notable exceptions were defeated and confined to small reservations out of the way of manifest destiny.

But the story of the Nez Percés had not yet unfolded. Their lands encompassed the Clearwater, Snake, and Salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest. These lands had been reduced by treaties, although not signed by even a half of the leaders of the tribe, but the Nez Percés were trying to continue their way of life despite gold rushers and settlers encroaching on their lands. The Nez Percés, long friendly with the whites had not killed a single white man in battle. A combination of events in the near future was about to change all that.

The Nez Percés were an unusual cultural hybrid. They had lived in the same area for hundreds of years, a land of beautiful canyons and river valleys, grassy meadows and forests of pine and evergreen. For centuries they had been a largely sedentary people moving only seasonally to nearby camps hunting the plentiful game and fishing the rivers for salmon. It took nearly two centuries from the time the Spaniards first set foot upon the New Land for the horses they brought with them to reach the Nez Percés. While the Americans were fighting their revolution against the British, the Nez Percés were beginning their own cultural revolution with the horse. They quickly became exceptional horsemen and are credited with breeding the Appaloosa. The horse opened new frontiers and they quickly and eagerly adapted the ways of the Plains horse culture, traveling hundreds of miles in hunting parties to the Eastern plains in search of buffalo. They adopted the tipi and became semi-nomadic. They settled in to this new life, making seasonal hunting trips for buffalo into the Plains for a century. They never abandoned their old way of life, but rather incorporated this new and exciting animal and the possibilities it represented into it.

The Nez Percés, as with most of the tribal Indians, did not have a “Great Chief” but rather lived in small, related bands of which each had its agreed upon leader.

One of these was Joseph, not the Chief Joseph most of us know from the history books, but his father. Joseph was a good leader, a wise and far-seeing man. He had become “Joseph” at his baptism and was friendly with the white missionaries and traders of the time. In 1855 the Nez Percés, by treaty were given half of their original lands encompassing an area around the convergence of the Washington, Oregon, and Idaho borders. At the time these lands were considered wild, with no possibilities for farming or homesteading. To anyone with knowledge of the history of land treaties between the government and the Indian tribes this type of arrangement will sound familiar and what was to happen would come as no surprise.

By 1863, prospectors looking for gold encroached upon the Nez Percés lands. Settlers followed, tearing down the Indian fences and taking over Nez Percés’ pasture and farm lands. The Nez Percés complained, demanding the government enforce the treaty. The government responded by creating a new treaty, signed by a third of the representative Nez Percés leaders took away three-quarters of the reservation. Joseph did not sign this treaty. He was enraged by what he saw as a betrayal by the Whites. He saw no reason to sign the new agreement when the old one had been broken with no effort on the part of the government was ever made to enforce it. He returned to his homeland in the Wallowa valley and shredded his Old Testament, vowing never to have anything to do with the treacherous Whiteman again.

Joseph had two sons, Ollikut and Young Joseph, who would both become Chiefs among their people. He had seen his lands dwindle and no doubt heard of the plight of the Indians of the Plains. He knew what was coming. Old and soon to die, he wanted his son, Josepph, to understand his fears. “My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few more years and 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.”

The prophecy was soon fulfilled. In 1873 the land of the Nez Percés was thrown open to homesteaders. Chief Joseph maintained that the land belonged to him. The government in its pattern of “legalizing” events that had already or were currently taking place, sent a five man commission to talk to Chief Joseph in an attempt to persuade him to validate the actions of the government. The commission was unsuccessful and the commissioners rankled by their treatment. Chief Joseph had impertinently treated them as equals to himself. Furthermore, the red savage had confounded their argument that the lands of the Nez Percés had been sold by previous treaty to the government with embarrassingly irrefutable logic unseemly for a mere Indian. “Suppose a white man should come to me and say, ‘Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.’ I say to him, ‘No. My horses suit me, I will not sell them.’ Then he goes to my neighbor and says to him, ‘Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them but he refuses to sell.’ My neighbor answers, ‘Pay me the money and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.’ The white man returns to me and says, ‘Joseph, I have bought your horses and you must let me have them.’ If we sold our lands to the government, that is the way they were bought.” Upon the commissioners return it was decided by them that Chief Joseph and his people should be moved from their one million acre homeland, by force if necessary, to 1200 acres on the Lapwai reservation. Chief Joseph, having heard the commission’s decree was faced with a decision for himself and his band, approximately 150 men, women, and children. The welfare of his people was at stake. If he chose to remain in defiance of the commission, sooner or later there would be a fight. He knew a little of the fate of the Great Plains tribes. Some of the other Nez Percés leaders might join him in defending their homeland, but to what end? There would be widows and fatherless children as warriors were killed in battle, villages would be destroyed, and they would be kept on the move, on the defensive for how long? He must have known the settlers would not stop coming, and the army would not stop fighting until every last one of his people were surrendered or dead. Yet how the words of his dying father must have haunted his nights. Joseph loved the land of his birth “more than all the rest of the world.” But he made his decision to accept the commission’s ultimatum, a decision that was soon rendered moot.

When Joseph acquiesced, May 15th, 1877, it was one of the commissioners, Major General Oliver O. Howard that laid down the terms of the agreement. Those terms were so ridiculous and so seemingly impossible to abide by, one wonders if the Major General had not hoped for a war. He gave Joseph one month and would not listen to pleas for more time. One month during the season when the stock was foaling, when the herds were scattered in numerous valleys over a million acres. One month to gather what he could and then make the hundred mile trek, facing the crossing of the Snake River in late Spring when the river was swollen to a half mile wide, a raging torrent with his livestock, women, children, and elderly. One month. One day more and Joseph was promised that the army would be there to drive him in.

But Joseph made it across the river without losing a single member of his band. He towed his young and elderly on rafts of tightly rolled skins across the river. Many hundreds of head of stock had to be left behind, and many hundreds more were cut off and stampeded by homesteaders who waited at the banks like vultures for Chief Joseph’s Nez Percés to cross. Once on the other side of the Snake, Chief Joseph settled in to camp with other non-treaty bands that had likewise accepted the commission’s mandate. Here they stayed to enjoy the remainder of their freedom before the end of the deadline that would have them settled the Lapwai Reservation.

But a peaceful surrender was not to be, regardless of the intentions of the Chiefs or the government. To understand how the Nez Percés peaceable move to the Lapwai reservation became a pitched battle and a desperate flight from the Army to sanctuary North, one first has to understand the story of a young man named Wal-lait-its whose father had been murdered three years before.

Wal-lait-its’ father, Eagle Blanket, had been on a trip in the spring of 1874. Upon his return, he found a fence around his garden erected by a neighboring settler; Larry Ott. Eagle Blanket rode to confront Mr. Ott. The ensuing argument ended when Mr. Ott drew his revolver and shot Eagle Blanket. Eagle blanket died some hours later, but not before asking his son Wal-lait-its to promise not to avenge his death, fearing reprisal for his son and his people. A complaint filed by the Nez Percés to the agent was fruitless. Larry Ott was acquitted, claiming self-defense. He said the Indian was throwing rocks at his horse.

Wal-lait-its had thus honored his father’s wishes and had not retaliated. But two days before the deadline for the Nez Percés to be on the reservation, Wal-lait-its and his cousin, while clowning on horseback trampled some roots that lay drying in the sun. An old man scolded him: “See what you do? Playing brave you ride over my woman’s hardworked food. If you so brave, why you not go kill the white man who killed your father?” Shamed in front of his peers and hurt by the prodding of the old wound, this young man with his cousin and a friend went to find Larry Ott. Wal-lait-its and his companions did not find the rancher at home or along the valley. The Nez Percés say that Mr. Ott hid himself disguised among a group of Chinese miners until the trouble had passed. The three young Indians did find four other men, at least two of who had been the cause of various troubles among the Nez Percés and killed them. Bloodthirsty now, the death of these men was not enough. They returned to camp, recruited about fifteen more young men to go with them. They found whiskey and went on a drunken spree of rape and murder. No more could the Nez Percés claim that no white man had ever died by their hand.

The encampment was shocked by the murderous acts of this small band and quickly broke to distance themselves from the guilty. Joseph and Ollikut were away during the raid, but upon his return, Joseph realized that he was likely to be blamed for the attack because of his earlier resistance during the council. He stayed three days in the camp as his wife had just given birth, then left as soon as he could to join other bands that had fled south.

Retribution was swift. As soon as General Howard learned of the attacks, he sent two companies of cavalry after the Indians. The Indians rode out to meet the force under a white flag of truce, but were fired upon. Peaceful resolution of the acts of these few young men was never given a chance. Now it was war. Outnumbered with about 60 fighting men against the army’s 100, the Nez Percés managed to outmaneuver the cavalry and escape with the guns and ammunition of the thirty-four soldiers they left dead, themselves losing only two warriors.

General Howard learned caution, if little else. He began to call in more troops for the fight. At the same time more bands of Nez Percés began to join together for the defense but the Indians badly needed more numbers. General Howard himself provided them. He ordered an attack on the band of Chief Looking Glass based solely on accounts of panicky settlers that the band planned to join the fighting. In truth the people of Looking Glass remained neutral, quietly waiting out the end of the trouble. The attack on his peaceful band killed only a few of his people, but destroyed his village. Furious at the treachery, Looking Glass joined with the Nez Percés defenders.

Not quite a month since the first army shots were fired, General Howard’s army, now more than 600 strong caught the Nez Percés by surprise in their camp, firing upon them with a howitzer and gatling guns from across the river. One of the elderly chief’s, Toohoolhoolzote, made a brave charge with only twenty-four men, distracting the army while the other warriors swung out and encircled the army. With his superior weaponry and a force that outnumbered the warriors 6 to 1, General Howard found himself surrounded. Fighting continued throughout the day, but with few casualties. While the warriors fought, non-combatants moved the camp with its women and children to a safe distance east. The warriors pulled back from the battle and joined the camp. The Indians had only a brief time to discuss their situation and plan a strategy.

The chiefs met in council. Joseph, now that war was inevitable, wanted to remain and fight for the lands he so loved. “What are we fighting for? Is it our lives? No. It is for the fair land where the bones of our fathers are buried. I do not want to take my women among strangers. I do not want to die in a strange land. Some of you tried to say once that I was afraid of the whites. Stay here with me now and you will have plenty of fighting. We will put our women behind us in these mountains and die on our own land fighting for them. I would rather do that than run I know not where.” But the majority of the chiefs felt their only option was to flee and join their allies, the Crow to the East. Having had no prior wars with the army, they believed if they could escape the forces of General Howard, they would be safe from further reprisals. They did not understand that they were at war with the entire U.S. Army. Looking Glass was chosen as war chief and the Nez Percés began their flight. They chose a difficult route through the wilderness on the Lolo trail. With women, children, sick, wounded, elderly and a herd of two to three thousand horses, the Nez Percés made there way through the most difficult route, hand carrying the feeble around and through fallen trees, rocks and bramble. The General’s army was delayed in pursuit by settlers who complained that if he took his entire force in pursuit, they would be left at the mercy of the savages. The General was persuaded to wait for reinforcement ten days before he began pursuit

News of the uprising was now Nationwide. The Nez Percés passed over the high country and down into Montana where they found their way blocked by a hastily constructed fort built to waylay them. Ordered by Captain Howard via telegraph, that uncomprehended enemy of the warring Indian, the fort was assembled and manned by one Captain Rawn with a handful of soldiers and 200 or so volunteers from the surrounding area. Chief’s Looking Glass, White Bird, and Joseph rode ahead to talk with the commander. They explained that their quarrel was with General Howard. They meant no harm to the people of the area; indeed they knew most of the volunteers from previous excursions through the area to hunt buffalo. Captain Rawns’ orders were clear. He was there to hold the Indians back until General Howard could engage them, but the volunteers were under no such obligation. The volunteers promptly went back to their homes rather than to risk danger to their families, leaving Captain Rawn and his 30 men to stop the band. The Nez Percés simply skirted the fortifications and continued on their way. The ineffective effort was dubbed “Fort Fizzle” in the news.

News of the hostiles had come to Colonel John Gibbon, who assembled forces and set out to overtake them. With two hundred men he arrived and prepared a surprise attack on the Indians. At dawn on August 9th he and his soldiers advanced upon the Nez Percés sleeping in their camp.

At the first breaking of light upon the valley a young Nez Percés emerged from his lodge and stood up in the cold mists of the dawn. The air must have bitten into his skin as he prepared his horse and mounted to tend the herd. Perhaps it was his horse looking nervously into the distance, or the young man might have seen the soldiers when he turned his mount. He stopped and stared for only a few seconds, the time it took for his groggy mind to interpret the meaning of the long, black line that emerged from the mist moving toward him. By then it was too late. The force of the bullet knocked him from his horse and he was dead when he hit the ground. The army opened fire.

The sound of the shot that killed the young herder must have alarmed the sleeping Indians. Warriors and their families scrambled out of their lodges, some forgetting their guns to find cover. The soldiers shot into the lodges. The children and old women attempting to flee were shot down. Many people were slaughtered, shot at such close range that their clothing and flesh were seared. Women and children were clubbed to death. Babies heads were crushed with rifle butts or boot heels.

With all the Indians seemingly dead or dying the soldiers turned their attention to looting the lodges and trying to set the coverings alight that were wet with the morning dew. But a contingent of warriors that escaped the initial onslaught rallied to form a skirmish line that advanced and fired upon the distracted soldiers. More Indians that had fled in the initial confusion were now returning and firing from varied positions into the main body of troops. The Nez Percés were unique among many Indian tribes in that they were dead shots and their accuracy and unwavering advance forced the soldiers from the camp and into the trees where they began to mount their defense. The old chief, White Bird led the surviving warriors and the soldiers found themselves besieged in their defensive positions surrounded by Indian snipers. Attempts by Colonel Gibbon to break the siege were unsuccessful. A howitzer was tried, but captured by the Indians as was a packhorse loaded with ammunition. The Indians didn’t know how to fire the weapon, and so destroyed the firing mechanism and removed the wheels. The Nez Percés held Colonel Gibbon and his men in this manner all day. He was short of water, food, and ammunition for his men. He had lost 29 soldiers and 40 more, including himself, were wounded. His relief must have been great when he saw in the fading light of the evening the forces of General Howard and his cavalry arriving, causing the Nez Percés to fall back and break off the fight.

The Nez Percés continued their retreat. They took their wounded and buried their dead. General Howard and Colonel Gibbon made their report and listed 89 Nez Percés dead. They did not elaborate. No one knows for certain just who among the Indians had been killed, but years later a Nez Percés called Yellow Wolf said that only 12 fighting men were lost in the battle of Big Hole, but he said those twelve were their best. Rainbow and Five Wounds, two Warrior chiefs, were killed, and Wal-lait-its and his cousin Red Moccasin tops were also among the dead. The rest in the armies count were women and children. That was not in the report.

The Nez Percés took their wounded and their dead. Once a safe distance was reached they buried their lost kin. No Plains warriors ever willingly left their dead or wounded behind. Common belief held that what befalls the body in this life is carried to the next. Chief Joseph relates that his people were told by the spirits of their near relatives to treat the whites humanely, not to mutilate the bodies to render them helpless against the Indians in the next world as was the common practice of the Plains. That is why, when General Howard allowed his Bannock scouts to dig up the Nez Percés dead to mutilate and scalp the bodies, he earned the eternal hatred of the Nez Percés.

But the humane treatment of the whites during this battle was not unnoticed. The flight of the Nez Percés was news and there began to be an outcry against the army’s brutal tactics, not only from the usual sympathizers in the East, but even close to home. This was remarkable considering Custer’s forces were cut down at Little Big Horn only a year before causing a new outrage and hatred of Indians among the whites on the frontier. Only those in Idaho who remembered the atrocities committed by Wail-lait-its and those who were enjoying their new homes built on former Nez Percés lands remained detractors. The army’s callousness was causing Chief Joseph to become a hero as the Nez Percés had managed to elude the army of General Howard despite great odds. But Chief Joseph was not a War Chief by the record of history and by his own admission. The tactics used thus far were those of other leaders such as Looking Glass, Toohoolhholzote, White Bird, Rainbow, Ollikut, Five Wounds, and Red Owl. But because of the white’s knowledge of Chief Joseph, his diplomatic skill at the commissioner’s council and, later, his respect earned of Colonel Nelson A. Miles, it was assumed (even by the army) that Chief Joseph was the leader and tactician responsible for the whole tribe.

But against the army courage and skill could only buy time. The Indians were on the run, fleeing through Yellowstone toward Montana ostensibly to join their old allies, the Mountain Crow, although deviations in their route suggest there may have been some indecision as to where to go. General Howard’s forces were a day behind and the Nez Percés in unfamiliar territory were unsure of the way to the Mountain Crow lands. They had no chance to rest their wounded and feeble. A night raid on the army’s horses bought some time, and the Indians captured a prospector, promising to release him unharmed if he would serve as their guide. An agreement was reached and both captor and captive kept their word. Looking Glass rode ahead hoping to enlist the help of the Crow or, at least, obtain their permission to enter their lands. But times had changed for the old allies of the Nez Percés. Fearing reprisals from the army, the Mountain Crow would not help the Nez Percés but they did promise not to aid the army in their pursuit. The army indeed called for Crow scouts soon after. Most had other business they were attending to at the time and could not oblige and those that did proved particularly inept to the task. Upon Looking Glass’ return, the chiefs decided in council that their only hope was to cut north and make for Canada through the mountains.

A new player, Colonel Samuel Sturgis was sent to cut of the Nez Percés retreat. It is an interesting trait of Indian warfare that it does not lend itself to long sieges or involved tactics. Many a company was saved from utter annihilation by the Indian’s unwillingness to see a siege through. After the thrill of the battle, when the defenders settle in and the only shots fired are those of the occasional sniper, the Indians, tired from the battle, often simply lost interest and went home. This penchant for distraction may have cost their freedom. The Nez Percés had crossed the Yellowstone River to see a lone stagecoach making its way along the river valley. The Indians captured the stagecoach while the occupants making a dive for the bushes. The Indians took turns racing the coach up and down the river. All this playful excitement was cut short, however, at the appearance of a line of Sturgis’ soldiers and some of Howard’s scouts along with a band of River Crows, not as kindly disposed to the Nez Percés as their Mountain counterparts. The Crows, for their part, turned out to have less interest in a battle than they did in the herd of 2500 horses moving with the Nez Percés across the valley. The Crows took off after the horses; cutting out about 300 head and herding them promptly back to their reservation. The soldiers and scouts were left to deal with the Nez Percés. Some of the warriors took firing positions in the rocky hillside while the rest placed themselves between the soldiers and the retreating women and children who were leading the remainder of the herds and camp to safety. The Nez Percés fled up the canyon with the warriors to their rear, firing to cover their retreat.

General Howard, embarrassed by his inability to capture the Nez Percés did not place his faith in Sturgis. He determined that this time he would not fail to see the Indians stopped before they reached the Canadian border and safety. He telegraphed ahead to Fort Keough to the command of Colonel Nelson A. Miles. If Miles could hurry his fresh troops to the Missouri River south of the Canadian border, he might be able to beat the Indians there. General Howard also knew that the retreating Indians would be tired, their horses tiring out, and their wounded, elderly, and young fading. He knew the rear scouts would be watching his advance and reasoned that if Sturgis backed off, giving the Indians a few days distance from his troops, they would slow their retreat and give the forces of Miles more time to reach the Missouri crossing with Sturgis and Howard’s forces behind, and cut the Indians off.

The strategy worked. The Nez Percés did slow their retreat, but arrived at the Missouri River just ahead of Miles’ forces. They crossed the River after helping themselves to stores of food that were guarded by a handful of men at the bank. Miles arrived downriver and hailed a steamer passing by that reported no sign of the Indians. The steamer had, in fact, left just ahead of the Nez Percés. Miles was sure he had arrived in time. The steamer was just underway when the three guards of the stolen stores upriver arrived with their news of the attack. Miles stood on the wrong side of the river, calculating that the Indians would make it to Canada before he could head them off if he could not cross immediately. The steamer that could have ferried his men was still in sight, but far downriver beyond hope of reaching with any horse. One of the Lieutenants had a brainstorm. They could fire shells at the bluff near the steamer. The crew would be sure to see them and would return to see what was wrong. The plan worked so well that Colonel Miles later took credit for it. His men were soon on the other side of the bank and in pursuit of the Indians.

Southeast of Havre, Montana, less than thirty miles south of the Saskatchewan border is a lonely mountain known as the “Bear Paws” by the Indians who knew them. Here the Nez Percés were camped, two days from freedom, with General Howard’s forces well behind. They were unaware of the approach of Colonel Miles’ troops a few days away. It was now September. They had set up a comfortable camp along a stream of the Milk River while they hunted a nearby herd of buffalo to prepare for the march in to Canada and the long winter that lay ahead. They stayed for several days enjoying the rest after such a long and harried retreat. But the weather grew cold and the day came when it was time to pack up the camp and head North into Canada. About 100 horses were fitted with their loads and while the remaining camp was being packed, Chief Joseph and his daughter were among the horse herds catching the animals that would be needed that day. It was then that he looked up and saw the horsemen of Colonel Miles’ command, 600 strong, galloping toward them from the south. Chief Joseph tells of the moment: “My little daughter, twelve years of age, was with me. I gave her a rope, told her to catch a horse and join the others who were cut off from the camp… I thought of my wife and children who were now surrounded by soldiers, and I resolved to go to them or die. With a prayer in my mouth for the Great Spirit Chief who rules above, I dashed unarmed through the line of soldiers. It seemed to me there were guns on every side, before and behind me. My clothes were cut to pieces and my horse was wounded, but I was not hurt. As I reached the door of my lodge, my wife handed me my rifle saying: ‘Here’s your gun. Fight.’ “

Colonel Miles was intent on smashing the Nez Percés with his first charge. If he could win this battle decisively where Gibbon and Sturgis had failed before him, it would be quite a feather in his cap and would probably get him promoted. He was so intent, and perhaps so excited by the sight of the Nez Percés within his grasp, that he underestimated the distance between himself and the camp, giving the Indians time to mount a hasty defense. White Bird took charge of the warriors. Leaving 60 to defend the retreating camp, he led 120 to crouch behind the ridge and meet the oncoming forces with rifle fire. As the army crested the hill, they were met with a blazing gunfire that killed many on the front lines and effectively halted the charge and sent the soldiers scurrying for shelter. The right wing of the cavalry avoided the worst of the Winchester fire and managed to charge the camp from the side and capture most of the horse herd. The camp was cut off from retreat. Miles, reeling from the losses of his attempted charge changed tactics and sent three companies to cut the Indians off from the creek that supplied their water. He laid in for siege. The army and the Indians dug in and the rest of the day saw only occasional sniper fire back and forth from both sides. That night came a winter storm that curbed the fighting and caused both sides to lay in for two more days. The cold of the storm and the lack of action caused the troops distraction, and the warriors could have broken through the lines to safety but would have had to sacrifice their women, children, elderly, and wounded. But the Indians remembered General Howard’s conduct at the Big Hole battle and feared that whomever were left behind for the army would be killed outright, no prisoners taken.

Days passed and Miles became desperate. A renegade band of Sioux might fall upon them from the North. Sturgis or Howard might arrive any time to take away the glory that Miles had counted on for himself. He began a last ditch effort at negotiation with Chief Joseph, whom Miles understood to be the War Chief of the hostile band, but Joseph would not capitulate a surrender, offering instead a peace agreement if Miles would let them proceed unimpeded into Canada. Miles had neither the authority nor the desire to lose his last chance at glory. If Howard arrived to find Miles at the edge of a deserted enemy camp, there would be hell to pay. He opted instead to try heavy artillery fire. The cannon had to be dug into the ground to achieve a trajectory that would provide any results. Mortar shells were fired near vertically to drop into the camp where the Indians had dug their rifle pits. This helped to lessen the danger of sniper fire, and greatly demoralized the Indians who were terrified of the mortars, but accomplished little else. Days went by. The storm subsided and General Howard’s forces arrived. With him he had brought some members of the treaty Nez Percés to act as translators. General Howard laid down the conditions of surrender, promising to return the Indians to the Lapwai reservation in the Spring if they would lay down their arms at once. Chief Joseph could see the futility of resisting any further and finally the only War chief that remained alive, old White Bird, agreed. Joseph would go to make the surrender while he remained behind to oversee the surrender among the other bands.

The long fight was over. Freedom, only 30 miles to the north, might well have been across the ocean. The spirit of the last free Nez Percés was broken. Chief Joseph, speaking to the Nez Percés interpreter Captain John, conveyed his hopelessness for the rest of the band to hear. “Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhholzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes and no. He who led on the young men 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 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.” It is said Captain John cried as he relayed these words to the General.

Slowly over the course of the evening the captives straggled in. White bird, however, did not. He had betrayed Joseph by convincing him to surrender first while White Bird finished supervising the surrender of the rest of the bands. At nightfall, Whitebird escaped with a handful of men and women and made his way to Canada with the last free members of the Nez Percés. Howard made much of Whitebird’s escape, using it as an excuse to nullify many of the terms of the surrender agreement. Secretary of War, General William Tecumsah Sherman nullified the rest. The 418 captives were not sent back to their homeland, but rather were sent to Fort Leavenworth in the Indian Territory. One quarter of the captives died of sickness brought on from unsanitary living conditions and malaria.

If there is a happy ending to this story, it is that the Nez Percés survived. Chief Joseph became a good friend of Nelson Miles, who became Brigadier General Miles in 1880. Each year the Indians petitioned to be sent back to their homeland and each year General Miles sent with the petition his recommendation supporting it. Eventually all but 150 of the surviving members were returned to their homelands. But of those 150, Chief Joseph was one. The Idaho settlers vehemently opposed his return and the army brass feared his leadership capabilities, still under the misconception that it was he who led Nez Percés on their brave flight. Erskine Wood, an aide of General Howard’s during the Nez Percés war, wrote: “I think that, in his long career, Joseph cannot accuse the government of the United States of one single act of justice.” Chief Joseph never gave up petitioning for his return to the Wallowa. He died in 1904 still pining for that land of his fathers’ that he loved “more than all the rest of the world.”

For a much more thorough and well-written account of the Nez Percés’ brave fight for their freedom, I would refer you to The Long Death, by Ralph K. Andrist and also to The Nez Percés: Tribesmen of the Columbia Plateau, by Francis Haines, from both of which I borrowed heavily (never use the “P” word!) to enhance my memory in writing this account.

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