TWT logo

Together We Teach
Reading Room

Take time to read.
Reading is the
fountain of wisdom.

| Home | Reading Room Indian Heroes And Great Chieftains

Indian Heroes And Great Chieftains
By Charles A. Eastman

< BACK    NEXT >




The Nez Perce tribe of Indians, like other tribes too large to be
united under one chief, was composed of several bands, each
distinct in sovereignty. It was a loose confederacy. Joseph and
his people occupied the Imnaha or Grande Ronde valley in Oregon,
which was considered perhaps the finest land in that part of the

When the last treaty was entered into by some of the bands of
the Nez Perce, Joseph's band was at Lapwai, Idaho, and had nothing
to do with the agreement. The elder chief in dying had counseled
his son, then not more than twenty-two or twenty-three years of
age, never to part with their home, assuring him that he had signed
no papers. These peaceful non-treaty Indians did not even know
what land had been ceded until the agent read them the government
order to leave. Of course they refused. You and I would have done
the same.

When the agent failed to move them, he and the would-be
settlers called upon the army to force them to be good, namely,
without a murmur to leave their pleasant inheritance in the hands
of a crowd of greedy grafters. General O. O. Howard, the Christian
soldier, was sent to do the work.

He had a long council with Joseph and his leading men, telling
them they must obey the order or be driven out by force. We may be
sure that he presented this hard alternative reluctantly. Joseph
was a mere youth without experience in war or public affairs. He
had been well brought up in obedience to parental wisdom and with
his brother Ollicut had attended Missionary Spaulding's school
where they had listened to the story of Christ and his religion of
brotherhood. He now replied in his simple way that neither he nor
his father had ever made any treaty disposing of their country,
that no other band of the Nez Perces was authorized to speak for
them, and it would seem a mighty injustice and unkindness to
dispossess a friendly band.

General Howard told them in effect that they had no rights, no
voice in the matter: they had only to obey. Although some of the
lesser chiefs counseled revolt then and there, Joseph maintained
his self-control, seeking to calm his people, and still groping for
a peaceful settlement of their difficulties. He finally asked for
thirty days' time in which to find and dispose of their stock, and
this was granted.

Joseph steadfastly held his immediate followers to their
promise, but the land-grabbers were impatient, and did everything
in their power to bring about an immediate crisis so as to hasten
the eviction of the Indians. Depredations were committed, and
finally the Indians, or some of them, retaliated, which was just
what their enemies had been looking for. There might be a score of
white men murdered among themselves on the frontier and no outsider
would ever hear about it, but if one were injured by an Indian --
"Down with the bloodthirsty savages!" was the cry.

Joseph told me himself that during all of those thirty days a
tremendous pressure was brought upon him by his own people to
resist the government order. "The worst of it was," said he, "that
everything they said was true; besides" -- he paused for a moment
-- "it seemed very soon for me to forget my father's dying words,
'Do not give up our home!'" Knowing as I do just what this would
mean to an Indian, I felt for him deeply.

Among the opposition leaders were Too-hul-hul-sote, White
Bird, and Looking Glass, all of them strong men and respected by
the Indians; while on the other side were men built up by
emissaries of the government for their own purposes and advertised
as "great friendly chiefs." As a rule such men are unworthy, and
this is so well known to the Indians that it makes them distrustful
of the government's sincerity at the start. Moreover, while
Indians unqualifiedly say what they mean, the whites have a hundred
ways of saying what they do not mean.

The center of the storm was this simple young man, who so far
as I can learn had never been upon the warpath, and he stood firm
for peace and obedience. As for his father's sacred dying charge,
he told himself that he would not sign any papers, he would not go
of his free will but from compulsion, and this was his excuse.

However, the whites were unduly impatient to clear the coveted
valley, and by their insolence they aggravated to the danger point
an already strained situation. The murder of an Indian was the
climax and this happened in the absence of the young chief. He
returned to find the leaders determined to die fighting. The
nature of the country was in their favor and at least they could
give the army a chase, but how long they could hold out they did
not know. Even Joseph's younger brother Ollicut was won over.
There was nothing for him to do but fight; and then and there began
the peaceful Joseph's career as a general of unsurpassed strategy
in conducting one of the most masterly retreats in history.

This is not my judgment, but the unbiased opinion of men whose
knowledge and experience fit them to render it. Bear in mind that
these people were not scalp hunters like the Sioux, Cheyennes, and
Utes, but peaceful hunters and fishermen. The first council of war
was a strange business to Joseph. He had only this to say to his

"I have tried to save you from suffering and sorrow.
Resistance means all of that. We are few. They are many. You can
see all we have at a glance. They have food and ammunition in
abundance. We must suffer great hardship and loss." After this
speech, he quietly began his plans for the defense.

The main plan of campaign was to engineer a successful retreat
into Montana and there form a junction with the hostile Sioux and
Cheyennes under Sitting Bull. There was a relay scouting system,
one set of scouts leaving the main body at evening and the second
a little before daybreak, passing the first set on some commanding
hill top. There were also decoy scouts set to trap Indian scouts
of the army. I notice that General Howard charges his Crow scouts
with being unfaithful.

Their greatest difficulty was in meeting an unencumbered army,
while carrying their women, children, and old men, with supplies
and such household effects as were absolutely necessary. Joseph
formed an auxiliary corps that was to effect a retreat at each
engagement, upon a definite plan and in definite order, while the
unencumbered women were made into an ambulance corps to take care
of the wounded.

It was decided that the main rear guard should meet General
Howard's command in White Bird Canyon, and every detail was planned
in advance, yet left flexible according to Indian custom, giving
each leader freedom to act according to circumstances. Perhaps no
better ambush was ever planned than the one Chief Joseph set for
the shrewd and experienced General Howard. He expected to be hotly
pursued, but he calculated that the pursuing force would consist of
not more than two hundred and fifty soldiers. He prepared false
trails to mislead them into thinking that he was about to cross or
had crossed the Salmon River, which he had no thought of doing at
that time. Some of the tents were pitched in plain sight, while
the women and children were hidden on the inaccessible ridges, and
the men concealed in the canyon ready to fire upon the soldiers
with deadly effect with scarcely any danger to themselves. They
could even roll rocks upon them.

In a very few minutes the troops had learned a lesson. The
soldiers showed some fight, but a large body of frontiersmen who
accompanied them were soon in disorder. The warriors chased them
nearly ten miles, securing rifles and much ammunition, and killing
and wounding many.

The Nez Perces next crossed the river, made a detour and
recrossed it at another point, then took their way eastward. All
this was by way of delaying pursuit. Joseph told me that he
estimated it would take six or seven days to get a sufficient force
in the field to take up their trail, and the correctness of his
reasoning is apparent from the facts as detailed in General
Howard's book. He tells us that he waited six days for the arrival
of men from various forts in his department, then followed Joseph
with six hundred soldiers, beside a large number of citizen
volunteers and his Indian scouts. As it was evident they had a
long chase over trackless wilderness in prospect, he discarded his
supply wagons and took pack mules instead. But by this time the
Indians had a good start.

Meanwhile General Howard had sent a dispatch to Colonel
Gibbons, with orders to head Joseph off, which he undertook to do
at the Montana end of the Lolo Trail. The wily commander had no
knowledge of this move, but he was not to be surprised. He was too
brainy for his pursuers, whom he constantly outwitted, and only
gave battle when he was ready. There at the Big Hole Pass he met
Colonel Gibbons' fresh troops and pressed them close. He sent a
party under his brother Ollicut to harass Gibbons' rear and rout
the pack mules, thus throwing him on the defensive and causing him
to send for help, while Joseph continued his masterly retreat
toward the Yellowstone Park, then a wilderness. However, this was
but little advantage to him, since he must necessarily leave a
broad trail, and the army was augmenting its columns day by day
with celebrated scouts, both white and Indian. The two commands
came together, and although General Howard says their horses were
by this time worn out, and by inference the men as well, they
persisted on the trail of a party encumbered by women and children,
the old, sick, and wounded.

It was decided to send a detachment of cavalry under Bacon, to
Tash Pass, the gateway of the National Park, which Joseph would
have to pass, with orders to detain him there until the rest could
come up with them. Here is what General Howard says of the affair.
"Bacon got into position soon enough but he did not have the heart
to fight the Indians on account of their number." Meanwhile
another incident had occurred. Right under the eyes of the chosen
scouts and vigilant sentinels, Joseph's warriors fired upon the
army camp at night and ran off their mules. He went straight on
toward the park, where Lieutenant Bacon let him get by and pass
through the narrow gateway without firing a shot.

Here again it was demonstrated that General Howard could not
depend upon the volunteers, many of whom had joined him in the
chase, and were going to show the soldiers how to fight Indians.
In this night attack at Camas Meadow, they were demoralized, and
while crossing the river next day many lost their guns in the
water, whereupon all packed up and went home, leaving the army to
be guided by the Indian scouts.

However, this succession of defeats did not discourage General
Howard, who kept on with as many of his men as were able to carry
a gun, meanwhile sending dispatches to all the frontier posts with
orders to intercept Joseph if possible. Sturgis tried to stop him
as the Indians entered the Park, but they did not meet until he was
about to come out, when there was another fight, with Joseph again
victorious. General Howard came upon the battle field soon
afterward and saw that the Indians were off again, and from here he
sent fresh messages to General Miles, asking for reinforcements.

Joseph had now turned northeastward toward the Upper Missouri.
He told me that when he got into that part of the country he knew
he was very near the Canadian line and could not be far from
Sitting Bull, with whom he desired to form an alliance. He also
believed that he had cleared all the forts. Therefore he went more
slowly and tried to give his people some rest. Some of their best
men had been killed or wounded in battle, and the wounded were a
great burden to him; nevertheless they were carried and tended
patiently all during this wonderful flight. Not one was ever left behind.

It is the general belief that Indians are cruel and
revengeful, and surely these people had reason to hate the race who
had driven them from their homes if any people ever had. Yet it is
a fact that when Joseph met visitors and travelers in the Park,
some of whom were women, he allowed them to pass unharmed, and in
at least one instance let them have horses. He told me that he
gave strict orders to his men not to kill any women or children.
He wished to meet his adversaries according to their own standards
of warfare, but he afterward learned that in spite of professions
of humanity, white soldiers have not seldom been known to kill
women and children indiscriminately.

Another remarkable thing about this noted retreat is that
Joseph's people stood behind him to a man, and even the women and
little boys did each his part. The latter were used as scouts in
the immediate vicinity of the camp.

The Bittersweet valley, which they had now entered, was full
of game, and the Indians hunted for food, while resting their
worn-out ponies. One morning they had a council to which Joseph
rode over bareback, as they had camped in two divisions a little
apart. His fifteen-year-old daughter went with him. They
discussed sending runners to Sitting Bull to ascertain his exact
whereabouts and whether it would be agreeable to him to join forces
with the Nez Perces. In the midst of the council, a force of
United States cavalry charged down the hill between the two camps.
This once Joseph was surprised. He had seen no trace of the
soldiers and had somewhat relaxed his vigilance.

He told his little daughter to stay where she was, and himself
cut right through the cavalry and rode up to his own teepee, where
his wife met him at the door with his rifle, crying: "Here is your
gun, husband!" The warriors quickly gathered and pressed the
soldiers so hard that they had to withdraw. Meanwhile one set of
the people fled while Joseph's own band entrenched themselves in a
very favorable position from which they could not easily be dislodged.

General Miles had received and acted on General Howard's
message, and he now sent one of his officers with some Indian
scouts into Joseph's camp to negotiate with the chief. Meantime
Howard and Sturgis came up with the encampment, and Howard had with
him two friendly Nez Perce scouts who were directed to talk to
Joseph in his own language. He decided that there was nothing to
do but surrender.

He had believed that his escape was all but secure: then at
the last moment he was surprised and caught at a disadvantage. His
army was shattered; he had lost most of the leaders in these
various fights; his people, including children, women, and the
wounded, had traveled thirteen hundred miles in about fifty days,
and he himself a young man who had never before taken any important
responsibility! Even now he was not actually conquered. He was
well entrenched; his people were willing to die fighting; but the
army of the United States offered peace and he agreed, as he said,
out of pity for his suffering people. Some of his warriors still
refused to surrender and slipped out of the camp at night and
through the lines. Joseph had, as he told me, between three and
four hundred fighting men in the beginning, which means over one
thousand persons, and of these several hundred surrendered with him.

His own story of the conditions he made was prepared by
himself with my help in 1897, when he came to Washington to present
his grievances. I sat up with him nearly all of one night; and I
may add here that we took the document to General Miles who was
then stationed in Washington, before presenting it to the
Department. The General said that every word of it was true.

In the first place, his people were to be kept at Fort Keogh,
Montana, over the winter and then returned to their reservation.
Instead they were taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and placed
between a lagoon and the Missouri River, where the sanitary
conditions made havoc with them. Those who did not die were then
taken to the Indian Territory, where the health situation was even
worse. Joseph appealed to the government again and again, and at
last by the help of Bishops Whipple and Hare he was moved to the
Colville reservation in Washington. Here the land was very poor,
unlike their own fertile valley. General Miles said to the chief
that he had recommended and urged that their agreement be kept, but
the politicians and the people who occupied the Indians' land
declared they were afraid if he returned he would break out again
and murder innocent white settlers! What irony!

The great Chief Joseph died broken-spirited and
broken-hearted. He did not hate the whites, for there was nothing
small about him, and when he laid down his weapons he would not
fight on with his mind. But he was profoundly disappointed in the
claims of a Christian civilization. I call him great because he
was simple and honest. Without education or special training he
demonstrated his ability to lead and to fight when justice
demanded. He outgeneraled the best and most experienced commanders
in the army of the United States, although their troops were well
provisioned, well armed, and above all unencumbered. He was great
finally, because he never boasted of his remarkable feat. I am
proud of him, because he was a true American.



Top of Page

< BACK    NEXT >

| Home | Reading Room Indian Heroes And Great Chieftains




Why not spread the word about Together We Teach?
Simply copy & paste our home page link below into your emails... 

Want the Together We Teach link to place on your website?
Copy & paste either home page link on your webpage...
Together We Teach 





Use these free website tools below for a more powerful experience at Together We Teach!

****Google™ search****

For a more specific search, try using quotation marks around phrases (ex. "You are what you read")


*** Google Translate™ translation service ***

 Translate text:


  Translate a web page:

****What's the Definition?****
(Simply insert the word you want to lookup)

 Search:   for   

S D Glass Enterprises

Privacy Policy

Warner Robins, GA, USA