On today in 1904, the remarkable Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph dies on the Colville reservation in northern Washington at age 64. The whites had described him as superhuman, a military genius, an Indian Napoleon. But in fact, the Nez Perce Chief Him-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (“Thunder Rolling Down from the Mountains”) was more of a diplomat when compared to a warrior.
Chief Joseph-as non-Indians knew him-had been elected chief of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce Indians when he was only 31. For six difficult years the young leader struggled peacefully from the whites who coveted the Wallowa’s fertile land in northeastern Oregon. In 1877, General Howard of the U.S. Army warned that when the Wallowa as well as other bands of the Nez Perce didn’t abandon their land and proceed to the Lapwai Reservation within 30 days, his troops would attack. While a few of the other Nez Perce chiefs argued they ought to resist, Chief Joseph convinced them to adhere to the order instead of face war, and he led his people on a perilous voyage throughout the flood-filled Snake and Salmon River canyons to a campsite close to the Lapwai Reservation. But acting without Chief Joseph’s knowledge, a band of 20 young hotheaded braves chose to take revenge on a few of the more offensive white settlers in the area, sparking the Nez Perce War of 1877.
Chief Joseph was no warrior, and he opposed most of the subsequent actions of the Nez Perce war councils. Joseph’s younger brother, Olikut, was a lot more active in leading the Nez Perce into battle, and Olikut helped them successfully outsmart the U.S. Army on several occasions since the war ranged over a lot more than 1,600 miles of Washington, Idaho, and Montana territory. Nonetheless, military leaders and American newspapers persisted in believing that since Chief Joseph was the most prominent Nez Perce spokesman and diplomat, he should be their principal military leader also.
By chance, Chief Joseph was the sole major leader to survive the war, plus it fell to him to surrender the surviving Nez Perce forces to Colonel Nelson A. Miles at the Bear Paw battlefield in northern Montana in October 1877. “From where the sun now stands,” he promised, “I will fight no more forever.” Chief Joseph lived out the rest of his life in peace, a well known romantic symbol of the noble “red men” who many Americans admired since they no more posed any real threat.