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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Day the Earth Wept

Updated: Jan 14

In the Spring of 1877, Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce band, along with several other chieftains, made the decision to fight for their survival and try to escape to Canada rather than be imprisoned on a reservation.

Chief Joseph and the Day the Earth Wept

May 15, 1877

Almost exactly 143 years ago to the day, Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe faced the end of their 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 30 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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You may also enjoy these related posts:

-In Honor of Chief Joseph

-Following in the Steps of Chief Joseph

-The History of the Appaloosa

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I would like to see excerpts of writings by “Notes from the Frontier” included in high school U.S. history curriculum. They should also be shared via college electives and as part of the coursework for history majors. Personally, I’m honored to be your student on FaceBook. Thank you!


Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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