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Chief Joseph

(Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt) Nez PercÚ leader who tried to peacefully lead his people to a reservation

Chief Joseph

"Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain" was born in the Wallowa Valley of what is now Oregon in 1840. He got the name "Joseph the Younger" from his father, who took the name "Joseph" upon being baptized in 1838.

An active supporter of peace with whites, Joseph helped Washington's Territorial Governor set up a Nez PercÚ reservation that stretched from Oregon into Idaho, in 1855. But, after gold was discovered in the territory in 1863, the federal government took back almost six million acres and left the Nez PercÚ with a reservation in Idaho that was less than 1/10th of what had been promised. Joseph responded by denouncing the United States, destroying his American flag and Bible, and refusing to sign any treaty making the new reservation boundaries official.

Joseph died in 1871, and his son was elected to succeed him as leader of the Nez PercÚ. In 1873, a federal order called for the removal of white settlers from lands promised to the Nez PercÚ, but that order was soon rescinded. In 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard threatened to launch a cavalry attack against any and all Nez PercÚ refusing to move to the reservation. Believing military resistance to be futile, Joseph reluctantly started out for Idaho.

Along the way, a small group of warriors decided to retaliate by raiding nearby settlements and killing several whites, after which the Army began actively pursuing Joseph and his "followers." Although he opposed war and truly believed his people would be better off agreeing to life on a reservation, Joseph agreed to march toward Canada, where his warriors hoped to join forces with the Sioux living there. All along the 1,400-mile march, Joseph's band of less than 700 Nez PercÚ (of whom less than 200 were warriors) fought some 2,000 soldiers in four major battles and numerous skirmishes. But the battles took their toll, and by October 5, 1877, it had become obvious to Joseph that surrender was the only way to save what remained of his people, and he formally surrendered (they had made it to within 40 miles of Canada).

map of the Nez Perce migration
map of the Nez Perce migration

a bloodless raid for supplies at Cow Island in Montana Territory, on September 25
skirmish at Cow Creek

When Joseph surrendered, he did so with the understanding that he and his "followers" would be allowed to return to their traditional home. The federal government, however, had them taken to a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). In 1879, Joseph was allowed to travel to Washington, D.C., where he made a personal appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes, but his request to be allowed to return home went unheeded.

Joseph was finally allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest in 1885, but was forced to live on the Colville Indian Reservation (a non-Nez PercÚ reservation) in northern Washington. He died there in 1904.

Despite his popular name, Joseph was never considered a chief by the Nez PercÚ, nor was he a warrior. He was, however, respected by his people, and was considered an official representative of the Nez PercÚ by the federal government.

Print Source

Benjamin Capps The Great Chiefs Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1980

Internet Source

New Perspectives on The West

See Also

President Rutherford B. Hayes

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The Robinson Library >> Indians of North America >> Tribal and Individual Biographies

This page was last updated on 12/07/2018.