• Notes From The Frontier

Chief Joseph

THE DAY THE EARTH WEPT, MAY 15, 1877


On this day 142 years ago, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe faced the end of his tribe's civilization as a free people. Joseph--his Nez Perce name was "Thunder Rolling from the Mountains"--was one of the last chiefs to stand against white invasion. The ultimate irony since 74 years before, his tribe had saved Lewis and Clark from starvation and freezing to death, then showed them the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. For decades, Chief Joseph had resisted treaties to give up the land and move to a reservation. But on May 15, 1877, U.S. General Howard told Joseph they must give up their land or fight. They could no longer roam the millions of magnificent acres of the Pacific Northwest near Yellowstone, their land for 15,000 years.


Joseph knew the only way the Nez Perce would be free was to escape to the "Medicine Line," the Canadian border. He and several other chiefs gathered their people and their thousands of horses, including their prized Appaloosas. For the next five months and 1,500 miles, the Nez Perce fought off several pursuing U.S. armies through the roughest terrain on the face of the earth. The nation watched in awe as they won against much greater numbers with heavy artillery, fresh horses and multiple armies. Newspapers called Joseph "The Red Napoleon." (Their tactics were so brilliant they came to be taught at West Point.) The nation found itself rooting for the underdog. The Nez Perce almost made it. Only 40 miles from the Canadian border, with many dead and dying and the children freezing to death, Joseph surrendered at the Battle of the Bear Paw on October 5, 1877 and uttered the famous words: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."


Joseph and his people were exiled far from their beautiful homeland and never allowed to return. Many years later, as a very old man, Chief Joseph was allowed to visit his father's grave. He found that the grave had been dug up and his father's skull exhibited in a dentist's office in Idaho.

        

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  • Notes From the Frontier