The history of America would not be complete without a rendition of the exploits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In May 1804, accompanied by three dozen men, they set out across the still undiscovered land that would become part of the western United States in order to create maps and discover what the land held for the fledgling nation. America was still in its infancy when Lewis and Clark came across the Nez Perce Indians in the late summer of 1805. The American Revolution had concluded only a single generation earlier. In that short generation, after the United States had won its independence from Great Britain, it had suffered a depression and engendered serious doubts among European nations about whether this new experiment in republicanism would survive. However, survive it did, and it flourished. With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the United States became the third-largest nation on earth at the time.
Imbued with a sense of purpose that would later be called manifest destiny, Americans set out to occupy the space between the two great oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Before this occupation could begin in earnest, however, Lewis and Clark were dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the nation’s newest acquisition and to chronicle their findings so the generations to follow would be prepared for the long journey ahead. Midway through their journey, a tired and bedraggled Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery stumbled upon, rather than discovered, the Nez Perce Indians. Because of the generosity shown by the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark were able to complete their journey to the Pacific Ocean and return safely to the nation from which they had come. The chance meeting between these two peoples, the Americans and the Nez Perce, would change the story of America and introduce the growing nation to one of the most unique and farsighted leaders the land has ever produced, Chief Joseph.
His name was In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat. In the language of his people, it means “Thunder rising above lofty mountains,” and few men have been more aptly named than he. To the white population in America, however, he was known only as Joseph, chief of the Nez Perce Indians and the architect of one of the most pivotal events in the 19th century, the flight of the Nez Perce Indians in 1877. To most Americans at the time, the Nez Perce story seemed simple enough; when faced with the loss of their tribal lands and confronted by the advance of American civilization, the Indians fled. The image of these noble savages trying desperately to cling to the remnants of their dying civilization may have been the way most sympathetic whites would come to view the flight of the Nez Perce; however, their story began decades before that fateful summer in 1877.
Unfortunately, most Americans were not interested in learning about the treaties that had divested the Indians of their land; the near impossible requests that had been made by the commander of the military forces in the region, the Civil War general Oliver Otis Howard; or even the cruel treatment they had been forced to endure at the hands of settlers. Unable to reason with General Howard, unwilling to live on a reserve of land, and unable to remain on their traditional lands, many of the Nez Perce people followed Joseph on a 1,500-mile odyssey that took them from their traditional homes in Oregon and Idaho to the windswept prairie of northern Montana in a desperate bid to reach sanctuary in Canada. During their three-and-a-half-month ordeal, the Nez Perce defeated four U.S. armies and created a legend that endures to this day. To Americans unfamiliar with tribal power structures, they could attribute the phenomenal success of the Indians to only
one person, Chief Joseph. To white America, Joseph led blistering attacks that soundly defeated the military forces of the nation and then resolutely turned to continue his journey to the north. All of that would change on October 5, 1877.
While the image of a “Red Napoleon” had already been established in the minds of most Americans at the time, the surrender of the Nez Perce took on a romantic visage as an unbowed Joseph proudly approached Howard, presented him with his rifle, and proclaimed, “From this day forward, I will fight no more forever.” Stirring words and a panoramic scene worthy of the best Hollywood might have to offer, but the flight of the Nez Perce, their defeat of the armies of the United States, and the surrender of Joseph in the face of overwhelming odds did not happen because of or in the way that popular history remembers it.
It is perhaps because of the power of the images that grew around Joseph at the time and since that a legend was created. Like most legends, Joseph seemed almost to defy the limits of humanity. Much of what has been popularly attributed to Chief Joseph comes from newspaper reports that were dispatched from the field during that fateful summer. Later, Joseph would also recognize the power of this medium to spread the message about the plight of his people in the aftermath of their attempted escape to Canada. Forced to live in what the Nez Perce called the Eeikish Pah or the “hot place,” more than 25 percent of their people died, and it seemed they would never again see the cool meadows and mountains of their homeland. Using the newspapers and playing on American perceptions of the Indians, Joseph was able to successfully negotiate a return to the region, but not to the exact land of their ancestors.
Throughout the years of struggle, Joseph and the Nez Perce represent the enduring spirit of humanity when faced with insurmountable odds. While our recollections are marred by ideas of how we wanted or imagined things to be, not as they actually were, the story of Joseph and the Nez Perce is no less compelling. In the case of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, the perceptions and misunderstandings we have are the remnants of the ideas we have held for almost a century and a half.
Excerpted from Chief Joseph: A Biography
This biography offers a chronological presentation of the major events in Nez Perce history and in the life of one of their greatest leaders, Joseph.