In Honor of Chief Joseph
Updated: May 11
Today is the 145th anniversary of the tragic surrender of Chief Joseph at the Bear Paw battlefield. He would be immortalized as "The Red Napoleon" and "The Most Decent Indian That Ever Lived"
"Treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them an even chance to live and grow."
Today--October 5th--marks the 145th anniversary of the surrender of Chief Joseph at the Battle of the Bear Paw in northern Montana, only 30 miles from the Canadian border, where the Nez Perce fought so valiantly to escape to freedom, to join Sitting Bull's camp and not be imprisoned on a reservation.
Chief Joseph was born in a mountain cave during a thunderstorm and was given the name, “Thunder Rolling from the Mountain.” The son of a chief, destined to be a chief himself, he would become one of the most famous and honored Americans in history. He was a big man, believed to be 6’3”, but stoic and exuded quiet integrity. By the time he was 36, newspapers across the nation would call him “The Red Napoleon” during his epic fight against the U.S. military to keep his people free, outmaneuvering and outfighting the nation’s best Civil War generals, Sherman, Sheridan, Miles and Howard.
"It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises."
The Nez Perce hold a very unique place in American history and the Native American legacy; had it not been for the Nez Perce, the Lewis and Clark Expedition would not have survived and the course of history might have been altered. But the Nez Perce, an advanced and prosperous people, saved the white explorers and showed them the Northwest Passage, thereby opening the floodgates of white hoards to the west.
For generations, Nez Perce oracles had foretold of great change for the tribe, so the Nez Perce embraced the strange white men as predestiny. When the whites brought with them devastating diseases that decimated Native populations and that whites seemed more immune to, the Nez Perce, being an innovative people, thought perhaps the white man’s Bible held magical powers and would help protect them. The tribe sent emissaries all the way to St. Louis to investigate Christianity. Joseph and his chieftain father would be baptized and both given the Christian name, “Joseph,” as well as Christian Bibles. Years, later, both would tear up their Bibles and scatter them to the wilderness after whites broke their treaties over and over and stole Nez Perce land.
"You might as well expect rivers to run backwards as any man born free to be contented penned up." -CHIEF JOSEPH
Joseph became chief of his people at age 31, in 1871, when his father died. On his deathbed, his father told young Joseph not to sell “the land of his father’s bones.” It would be only five years later, when the U.S. government would decree that Joseph and his tribe must move to a reservation. Joseph refused and chose to fight, making a desperate attempt to escape to freedom, to “The Medicine Line,” the Canadian border, where Sitting Bull had already fled.
They would have to leave their lush ancestral home of thousands of years on the shores of Wallowa Lake. Joseph would lead his band of 800 people and 3,000 horses through 1,500 miles of the roughest land on earth. First through the spectacular Imnaha Valley, through Hell’s Canyon, the continent’s deepest gorge, cross the Continental Divide four times fording rushing mountain rivers, navigating through land of the Yellowstone, the sacred land they called “unfinished by the Creator.”
"I believe much trouble would be saved if we opened our hearts more." -CHIEF JOSEPH
Joseph’s band would be joined by other non-treaty Nez Perce chiefs. Against overwhelming numbers and artillery, fresh troops and horses, and even white technological advantages of the telegraph and train transport, they prevailed through a dozen battles over five months, covering about 1,500 miles. They almost made it. Forty miles from the Canadian border, they fought their last battle at the Bear Paw. It was October. Bitter winter had come. The children were freezing. Many of the warriors were dead, including nearly all the chiefs.
On October 5, 1877, Joseph rode out to General Howard and uttered his famous words to an interpreter: “Tell General Howard I know his heart.... Our chiefs are killed... The little children are freezing to death... Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
"Hear me, my chiefs! My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." -CHIEF JOSEPH
Colonel Miles, who stood beside General Howard, saw Joseph’s body bloodied by bullet grazes, his fingers blackened with frostbite, and his rawhide war shirt bloodied and riddled with holes. Miles asked Joseph to have the shirt as a souvenir. Later, Miles told Harper’s Weekly: “Joseph’s shirt bore 20 bullet holes. It was visible evidence of the fierce fighting. Joseph had been where lead was flying.”
Even the old warhorse, General William Tecumseh Sherman, not given to sentimentality, admired the Nez Perce, telling newspapers “they elicited universal praise and fought with scientific skill.”
"The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it."
But, still, the government would not allow the Nez Perce to return to their ancestral land to live in peace. They were exiled to the Quawpaw reservation in Oklahoma, a dry, desolate place they called “Eeikish Pah,” the Hot Place. There, more Nimiipuu died and the infant cemetery filled with a hundred tiny graves. Joseph was devastated. The suffering of his people sickened his heart. Still, he traveled all over the country and to Washington DC to talk to the President, to plead for his people’s return to their ancestral land.
Joseph would be allowed to return––only briefly––to the land of his father’s bones, the Wallowa Valley. When he visited his father's grave, he found it had been ransacked and that a local dentist was exhibiting his father’s skull. At the desecrated grave amidst a plowed field, his daughter, Running Steps, tried to comfort her father.
"We soon found that the white men were growing rich very fast, and were greedy." -CHIEF JOSEPH
Joseph died on September 21, 1904. The summer following Joseph’s death, the famous Indian photographer and Joseph’s friend, Edward Curtis went to Nespelem, Washington, to be present at Joseph’s memorial. Curtis got down into the grave and helped bury the chief’s vault.
Curtis wrote: Chief Joseph’s saga is an “unparalleled story in the annals of the Indian's resistance to the greed of the whites. That they made this final effort is not surprising... against such dishonored and relentless objection.”
"I pressed my father's hand and told him I would protect his grave with my life. My father smiled and passed away to the spirit land."
The next day Curtis participated in the chief’s Hi-u potlatch (Big Giving) in which every earthly possession of the old chief and his wife was given away. He wrote: “Through it all, his wife sat by the great stack of goods being distributed, handing out each article. At times, when some article obviously dear to her heart was handed out, great tears would roll down her cheeks.”
Curtis concluded: “So was the closing act in the drama of the life and death of the most decent Indian ever known. To employ words in the condemnation of the great wrong that his people suffered would be useless, for was it not but one of countless iniquities that have marked the white man’s dealings with the Indians since the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth?”
PHOTOS: (1) 1900 Edward Curtis portrait of Chief Joseph. Curtis greatly admired Chief Joseph and photographed him nearly 30 times. He was so devoted to the chief that he attended his memorial in 1904 and helped bury him. (2) Believed to be the first portrait of Joseph, taken by John Fouchs at Joseph’s surrender at the Bear Paw in 1877. Fouchs first became renown for photographing the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Joseph wore the same ceremonial war shirt the following year when he sat for famous portrait painter Cyrenius Hall in 1878. That painting now hangs in the Smithsonian and was the model for the 1968 Joseph US postage stamp. The rawhide shirt is decorated in brilliant beading and horse hair. It disappeared for more than a century, then was rediscovered, when it was auctioned off in 2012 for $900,000! (3) 1877 portrait of Joseph by Orlando Scott Goof in Bismarck, Dakota Territory. Joseph was 37 years old. (4) 1901 portrait of Joseph by Major Lee Moorehouse. (5) Joseph sat for this 1903 portrait in Edward Curtis’s Seattle studio a year before his death. This was the photograph most newspapers across the country ran the following year to announce his death with the headline: “GREAT INDIAN CHIEF DEAD.” (6) Joseph’s Wallowa Band at Lapwai, Idaho, during their 1877 war with the U.S. Army. (7) Joseph’s family portrait, 1880, by F.M. Sargent. Washington State Historical Society. (8) Chief Joseph poses with General John Gibbon, whom Joseph defeated at the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. This photograph was taken 12 years later. (9) One of the few images of Chief Joseph astride an Appaloosa, the beloved breed the Nez Perce developed. This photo taken in 1903 in Nespelem Creek, Okanagan County, Washington, by Edward H. Latham. Joseph is wearing spectacular Nez Perce ceremonial dress: a feather headdress, beaded moccasins and leggings, and holds a staff and shield. His horse is painted in war markings with beaded martingale (chest strap), and a beaded serape lined with eagle feathers.
You may enjoy these related posts:
-The History of Appaloosas
-The Chief Joseph Trail Ride
-The Saga of Jackson Sundown
"In Honor of Chief Joseph" was first posted July 20, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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