Forty Miles from Freedom
In 1855 the United States Government signed a treaty with the Nez Perce Tribe, giving them a territory roughly identical with the land they had claimed as historically their own, which included the valley of the Wallowa River in today's northeastern Oregon. In 1867 the government insisted on another treaty which took away nine-tenths of what the tribe had previously been given. Pressed by the tribe's leaders as well as by sympathetic whites throughout the country, who pointed out that the treaty of 1867 had been signed by representatives of only one-third of the tribe, President Grant relented in 1873, signing an order that restored the Wallowa country to the Nez Perce, and directed all whites to leave the valley. However, most of the white settlers objected to the new agreement, and simply ignored the order. More settlers flooded in.
In 1875 a new presidential edict reopened the Wallowa to homesteading, and all the so-called "non-treaty" bands of Nez Perce, including the one in the Wallowa led by Joseph, were ordered to move to the Nez Perce Reservation on the Clearwater River by April 1, 1877. Their huge herds of cattle and horses had roamed to the mountain valleys for shelter at the onset of the previous winter, and rounding them up normally took as long as six months, but by the second week in June Joseph and his band began moving north. Meanwhile, tensions between defiant settlers and angry young Indians flared into serious crimes and insults on the part of one, and vengeful retributions on the other. Joseph, sensing war was inevitable, decided to join some other non-treaty bands in White Bird Canyon. There, two troops of the 1st U.S. Cavalry, reluctantly ordered by General Oliver Otis Howard to force all the non-treaties immediately onto the reservation, met their first defeat. That set in motion the heroic flight of 450 women, children and elders, 200 warriors, and their only remaining wealth .some 2,000 horses .toward the safe refuge that would forever elude them. Looking Glass was chosen war chief.
During the next four months the determined refugees, led by war chiefs such as Looking Glass, White Bird, Lean Elk, Toohoolhoolzote, and Joseph's own brother, Ollocot, would fight eighteen battles, including four skirmishes, and four major battles, winning all but the last, and eluding a total of more than 2,000 pursuers until the end of September. They killed 180 whites and wounded 150, while themselves losing 65 men and 55 women and children. And they did it all alone, ostracized by the people they had believed were their friends–the Salish and the Crows. The highest price of all was the alienation of their own countrymen, the Nez Perce who had given in to the onslaught of the white man's civilization.
Their painful descent into defeat, and generations-long exile and persecution, culminated at the western edge of the Bear Paw Mountains in north-central Montana on October 5, 1877. After six days under seige by 600 U.S. cavalry and infantry soldiers, Joseph surrendered 184 women, 147 children, and 87 men–including, it is said, Captain William Clark's son. They were forty miles, one long day's journey, from the "medicine line," the Canadian border. Fifteen hundred miles from their homes. Just forty miles from freedom.
In the dark of that same night, old Chief White Bird and a small number of his younger followers fled toward Canada, to join the Sitting Bull, the great Sioux Chief whose warriors had bested Colonel George Armstrong Custer's troops on the Little Bighorn a little more than a year before. The rest of the Nez Perce were taken as prisoners of war to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where more than twenty died. The following July the survivors were shipped by train to Baxter Springs, Kansas, and finally to a patch of sand and sagebrush they called Eeikish Pah, "The Hot Place," in northeastern Oklahoma.
From beginning to end the whole tragic episode was reported to the entire nation by telegraph. Correspondent Thomas Sutherland described the surrender on October 5, 1877:
As the sun was dropping to the level of the prairie and tinging the tawny and white land with waves of ruddy lights, Joseph came slowly riding up the hill. Five of his followers walked beside him; His hands were crossed on the pommel of the saddle, his head bowed upon his breast. His warriors talked in eager murmurs, he listening and making no reply. The Indian camp lay in the lengthening shadows and as the little group came up from the darkening valley into the higher light which showed their wretchedness, Joseph lifted his head, and with an impulsive gesture, straightened his arm toward General Howard, offering his rifle, as if with it he cast away all ambition, hope and manly endeavors leaving his heart and his future down with his people in the dark valley where the shadows were knitting about them a dusky shroud.1
Mark H. Brown, The Flight of the Nez Perce (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967).
Alvin M. Joseph, Jr., Chief Joseph's People and Their War (Yellowstone National Park, WY: Yellowstone Association, 1964).
Lucullus McWhorter, Yellow Wolf: His Own Story (rev. ed., Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1983).
Nez Perce Country: Official National Park Handbook (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1983).
Allen P. Slickpoo, Sr., Noon Nee-Me-Poo (We, the Nez Perces): Culture and History of the Nez Perces ([Lapwai, ID]: Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, 1973).
- 1. Mark H. Brown, The Flight of the Nez Perce (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967), 408.