ON SEPTEMBER 20, 1805, a group of Nez Perce Indians gave salmon and berries to the members of a frozen and starving Corps of Discovery, the team of explorers led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in what is present-day Idaho. Seventy-two years later, defeated and starving, an elderly Nez Perce man, Halahtookit (Daytime Smoke)—the son of Clark and a Nez Perce woman—died as a captive of the U.S. government.
He had been a participant in one of the most remarkable historical events in this continent’s history—the 1877 flight of 750 Nez Perce, among them Chief Joseph, attempting to escape to freedom in Canada. A few hundred warriors and their families, along with their life’s possessions and a herd of thousands of horses, fought off hundreds of American troops over a 1,500-mile chase through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, besting U.S. forces in every military engagement (three major battles and several skirmishes) except the last—and finally surrendering some thirty miles from the Canadian border.
The Nez Perce War is, along with Custer’s 1876 defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Florida Seminole Wars, Tecumseh’s fight for Indian independence, and Geronimo’s running battle with U.S. soldiers in the Southwest, one of the most famous wars in the history of conquest of indigenous peoples on this continent by the United States.
Many books have been written about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perces’ flight to freedom, including the late Alvin Josephy Jr.’s indispensable The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, Merrill D. Beal’s “I Will Fight No More Forever”: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War, Bruce Hampton’s Children of Grace: The Nez Perce War of 1877, Candy Moulton’s Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People, and many others, including by several of its participants. The question then must be: why another one? Elliott West does not justify his version on the basis of any original or groundbreaking new research—though it’s clear that he has meticulously reviewed both primary and secondary sources—but on the basis of his approach as a historian to the subject.
Too often, West contends, the story of the Western expansion and conquest and the story of the Civil War and its aftermath are seen as two “independent historical narratives,” the former “peripheral,” even “largely irrelevant, to explaining America during a critical turn of its history.” West pulls back the lens and attempts to situate the Nez Perce War in a broader national context that links the conquest of the West with the post–Civil War explosion of industrial capitalism and reconstruction in the East and South, suggesting that they be included in a historical conception of the period as “Greater Reconstruction.”
The Nez Perce (“pierced nose”) were an Indian tribal group that lived in the area that is today northwestern Idaho, northeast Oregon, and southeast Washington. Their culture was influenced by both coastal Indian practices and those of the Plains people, combining salmon fishing and the gathering of camas roots with buffalo hunting. This was made possible by the acquisition of the horse, which made its way northward after being introduced to the Southwest by Spanish conquerors in the late 1600s.
After the visit by Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce were drawn into the fur trade—America’s first major industry which, West tells us, produced its first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor, owner of the American Fur Company. The latter had moved westward in search of beavers after having wiped them out in the east. True to his aim, West sprinkles his narrative with historical tidbits that set his subject in a wider context, for example noting that the Owyhee River in Idaho is named after “three of the company’s Hawaiian trappers killed by Bannocks.”
The Nez Perce, who were both excellent horse riders as well as breeders, were inserted into a vast network of international trade by selling horses to trappers. Unwittingly, this “admitted an opening wedge of empire” at a time when Britain and the U.S. were still vying for control of the Pacific Northwest.
After the trappers came the settlers, traipsing through Nez Perce country to settle in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But before settlers began to covet Nez Perce land, Protestant missionaries, eager to outflank the Catholic missionaries hosted by the British trading outposts, arrived in order to civilize and uplift the Indian heathens. Tensions naturally built up over the fact that the Nez Perce, who saw themselves as “essentially good” were not susceptible to the idea of surrendering their souls to Jesus. They were interested in Christianity to the extent that it could provide them with access to spiritual power. The missionaries aimed to convince the tribes to accept “Anglo-Saxon” law, forsake hunting and turn to farming, and, West summarizes, “to forsake collective ownership of land and things in favor of private property and the accumulation of wealth.” That Indians did not properly “tame the land” was a perpetual excuse used by the white invaders for their slaughter and dispossession.
The tension was brought to a head by the introduction of diseases such as small pox that wiped out huge percentages of the Nez Perce and other Indian tribal populations, prompting a group of Cayuses to massacre one missionary family.
In 1855, the tribes of the region were tricked and cajoled into selling away most of their land in exchange for living on relatively small reservations and government annuities. A Nez Perce Christian convert appropriately named Lawyer conveniently presented himself as the nation’s “chief” (the Nez Perce bands had no such thing) and signed away most of the Nez Perce land. But there were many bands, such as those of Looking Glass and Chief Joseph, who lived with his people in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, that refused to go to the reservation or acknowledge the treaty.
The land outside the new reserves were opened up to settlement; that and rumors of gold prompted a flood of squatters to pour into the regions east of the Nez Perce. Tensions mounted, and the Indians who were angered by the 1855 treaty fought back. The army declared war on the Yakima and their chief, Kamiakin. The Wallawalla leader Peopeo Moxmox, rumored without any foundation to be planning an uprising against the white settlers, was arrested, shot, and “by one account, his body was flayed and his skin made into souvenir razor strops.”
When gold was discovered in Nez Perce territory in the 1860s, miners, and later settlers, began encroaching on their lands, depleting prime game and forage lands as they went. When Indians resisted this onslaught, the picture of conquest was inverted. “As whites rolled over and devastated Indian peoples,” writes West, “they described Indians as the predators and themselves as set-upon victims.” Anyone who has seen a Hollywood Western knows exactly what West is talking about. In 1863, ostensibly to “protect” Indians from settlers, the Nez Perces were forced into an even smaller reservation than the one they had agreed to in 1855. The Nez Perces lost seven million more acres, or 90 percent of the land included in the original treaty.
Joseph and a handful of other bands that had refused to live on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho attempted to live in peace in their traditional homelands. But after the Civil War, Indian policy would not allow that. In 1971, Congress ruled that tribes would no longer be considered nations, but rather wards of the state. The plan was to force all Indians to live on reservations, speak English, and farm small plots of useless land. Any Indians who refused were to be rounded up and brought to the reservation, and hunted down if they resisted. As General William Tecumseh Sherman put it, the policy was “peace within their reservation and war without.”
Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard, who became commander of the department of Colombia in 1874, and who during the Civil War had his flank turned by Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, was charged with bringing the “non-treaty” Nez Perces onto the reservation. Events were unfolding in the Northwest at almost the same time that Custer was warring against the “non-treaty” Sioux and Cheyenne in North Dakota.
After briefly considering the possibility that the Wallowa Nez Perces could be left alone, Howard flipped his position—they were ordered to move to the reservation on the grounds that all Nez Perces were bound by the 1863 treaty. Joseph later explained what the whites were doing:
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, this is the way they were bought.
The five non-treaty bands had gathered near the reservation border and were prepared to move to it when something happened. Driven to rage, a group of young warriors went on a rampage killing sixteen white settlers. Realizing a clash was inevitable, the bands—only about 800 people and about 250 warriors—fled with their possessions and thousands of horses. They were chased by an army of nearly a thousand U.S. soldiers. At one point, the fleeing Nez Perces took captives in the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone, and later released them. Strangely, General Sherman was vacationing in the new park at the time, but the Nez Perce didn’t run into him.
Forced to fight for their lives, the Indians, under leaders like Looking Glass and White Bird (Joseph was not a war leader), fought well, showing great discipline and marksmanship. Their 1,500-mile odyssey is all the more impressive considering that the Nez Perces were not only outmanned, outgunned, and out-supplied, but also the fact that the warriors had to protect their families and their possessions.
One of the biggest and most devastating battles was Big Hole. On August 9, 184 troops commanded by John Gibbon, one of a handful of survivors of the recent Battle of Little Bighorn where Custer made his “last stand,” conducted a surprise attack on the Nez Perce encampment. Dozens of women and children were slaughtered, but the Indians fought hard and almost routed the troops and managed again to escape with 700 survivors. West misses the larger picture when he writes, “Soldiers were doubtless guilty of some atrocities.” He notes that some men refused to shoot at women and children, while others showed no hesitation. The point, however, is that a military assault on sleeping families for the purposes of smashing their ability to resist and herding them forcibly onto reservations was all one big atrocity.
The Indians’ fighting ability impressed their pursuers. At one point, Howard sent forces to relieve a company that was under attack by the Nez Perce warriors, who had outflanked them and were picking them off one by one. When Howard’s forces arrived, instead of going after the Nez Perces—“who had ridden 36 miles and fought a battle during the past 24 hours,” subsequently retreating to their camp fifty miles away, he dug in, in anticipation of another Nez Perce attack! “I candidly think Joseph [they all mistakenly thought Joseph was the war leader] could whip our cavalry,” West quotes a journalist from the camp, “and cannot blame General Howard for not giving him battle.”
Howard later wrote that the Nez Perces were “like the Cossacks of Russia, the best skirmishers in the world.” When asked if Indians were treacherous, he replied, “No, not so much as the Anglo-Saxons.”
Constantly on the run and under attack, with dwindling resources and ammunition and a deadly attrition rate with every battle and skirmish fought, the Nez Perces finally were cornered and forced to surrender thirty miles from the Canadian border. Joseph and his people were sent to prisoner of war camps in Kansas. Though he was finally able to return to live on the Colville reservation in central Washington in 1885, he and his people were never again allowed to return in the Wallowa Valley.
Joseph’s famous surrender speech was written down by Howard’s aide-de-camp, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, in a Chicago Tribune article. It is very likely, argues West, that it was embellished. In an interesting sidebar to the story, Wood’s “early sympathy for the Indians,” as West describes it, later blossomed into a “radical critique of the government’s role in the war.” He became an anarchist lawyer who defended Emma Goldman and knew Clarence Darrow.
More than fifty years after the flight of the Nez Perces, Yellow Wolf, who had been with Chief Joseph, told his story to Lucullus McWhorter, and it was later published in 1940, five years after Yellow Wolf died. “I want the next generation of whites to know and treat the Indians as themselves,” he told his friend. Generations later, that goal is yet to be fulfilled.