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Joseph, Chief of the Non-Treaty Nez Percé

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                   


This commission report that one of the most troublesome questions in the way of the Government's control of Indian affairs in Idaho is the contest between the Catholic and Protestant churches. This strife is a great detriment to the Indians. To illustrate this, they quote Chief Joseph's reason for not wishing schools on his reservation. He was the chief of the non-treaty band of Nez Percé occupying the Wallowa Valley, in Oregon:

"Do you want schools and school-houses on the Wallowa Reservation?" asked the commissioners.
Joseph. "No, we do not want schools or school-houses on the Wallowa Reservation."
Com. " Why do you not want schools ?"
Joseph. "They will teach us to have churches."
Corn. "Do you not want churches?"
Joseph. " No, we do not want churches."
Corn. "Why do you not want churches?"
Joseph. "They will teach us to quarrel about God, as the Catholics and Protestants do on the Nez Percé Reservation, and at other places. We do not want to learn that. We may quarrel with men sometimes about things on this earth, but we never quarrel about God. We do not want to learn that."

Great excitement prevailed among the settlers in Oregon at the cession of the Wallowa Valley to the Indians. The presence of United States soldiers prevented any outbreak; but the resentment of the whites was very strong, and threats were openly made that the Indians should not be permitted to occupy it; and in 1875 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs writes :

"The settlements made in the Wallowa Valley, which has for years been the pasture-ground of the large herds of horses owned by Joseph's band, will occasion more or less trouble between this band and the whites, until Joseph is induced or compelled to settle on his reservation."

It is only two years since this valley was set apart by Executive order for the use and occupation of these Indians; already the Department is contemplating "compelling" them to leave it and go to the reservation in Idaho. There were stormy scenes there also during this year. Suits were brought against all the employees of the Lapwai Agency, and a claim set up for all the lands of the agency, and for many of the Indian farms, by one Langford, representing the old claim of the missionaries, to whom a large tract of ground had been ceded some thirty years before. He attempted to take forcible possession of the place, and was ejected finally by military force, after the decision of the Attorney general had been given that his claim was invalid.

The Indian Bureau recommended a revocation of the executive order giving the Wallowa Valley to Joseph and his band. In June of this year President Grant revoked the order, and in the autumn a commission was sent out "to visit these Indians, with a view to secure their permanent settlement on the reservation, their early entrance on a civilized life, and to adjust the difficulties then existing between them and the settlers."

It is worthwhile to study with some care the reasons, which this commission gave to Chief Joseph why the Wallowa Valley, which had been given to him by Executive order in 1873, must be taken away from him by Executive order in 1875:

  • "Owing to the coldness of the climate, it is not a suitable location for an Indian reservation.
  • White squatters now in part settle it for grazing purposes.
  • The President claimed that he extinguished the Indian title to it by the treaty of 1863.
  • It is embraced within the limits of the State of Oregon.
  • The State of Oregon could not probably be induced to cede the jurisdiction of the valley to the United States for an Indian reservation.
  • In the conflicts, which might arise in the future, as in the past, between him and the whites, the President might not be able to justify or defend him.
  • A part of the valley had already been surveyed and opened to settlement: if, by some arrangement, the white settlers in the valley could be induced to leave it, others would come."

To all these statements Joseph replied that he "asked nothing of the President. He was able to take care of himself. He did not desire Wallowa Valley as a reservation, for that would subject him and his band to the will of, and dependence on, another, and to laws not of their own making. He was disposed to live peaceably. He and his band had suffered wrong rather than do wrong. One of their number was wickedly slain by a white man during the last summer, but he would not avenge his death."

"The serious and feeling manner in which he uttered these sentiments was impressive," the commissioners say, and they proceeded to reply to him "that the President was not disposed to deprive him of any just right, or govern him by his individual will, but merely subject him to the same just and equal laws by which he himself as well as all his people were ruled."

What does it mean when commissioners sent by the President to induce a band of Indians to go on a reservation to live, tell them that they shall be subjected on that reservation " merely to the same just and equal laws" by which the President and " all his people are ruled?" And still more, what is the explanation of their being so apparently unaware of the enormity of the lie that they leave it on official record, signed by their names in full? It is only explained, as thousands of other things in the history of our dealings with the Indians are only to be explained, by the habitual indifference, carelessness, and inattention with which questions relative to Indian affairs and legislation thereon are handled and disposed of, in whatever way seems easiest and shortest for the time being. The members of this commission knew perfectly well that the instant Joseph and his band moved on to the reservation they became subject to laws totally different from those by which the President and "all his people were ruled," and neither "just" nor " equal:" laws forbidding them to go beyond certain bounds without a pass from the agent; laws making them really just as much prisoners as convicts in a prison-the only difference being that the reservation is an unwalled out-of-door prison; laws giving that agent power to summon military power at any moment, to enforce any command he might choose to lay on them, and to shoot them if they refused to obey. "The same just and equal laws by which the President himself and all his people are ruled!" Truly it is a psychological phenomenon that four men should be found willing to leave it on record under their own signatures that they said this thing.

Farther on in the same report there is an enumeration of some of the experiences which the Nez Percé who are on the Idaho Reservation have had of the advantages of living there, and of the manner in which the Government has fulfilled its promises by which it induced them to go there; undoubtedly these were all as well known to Chief Joseph as to the commissioners. For twenty-two years he had had an opportunity to study the workings of the reservation policy. They say:

"During an interview held with the agent and the treaty Indians, for the purpose of ascertaining whether there were sufficient unoccupied tillable lands for Joseph's band on the reservation, and for the further purpose of securing their co-operation to aid us in inducing Joseph to come upon the reservation, facts were brought to our attention of a failure on the part of the Government to fulfill its treaty stipulations with these Indians. The commission therefore deems it their duty to call the attention of the Government to this subject.

"1st. Article second of the treaty of June 9th, 1863, provides that no white man-excepting such as may be employed by the Indian Department shall be permitted to reside upon the reservation without permission of the tribe, and the superintendent and the agent. Nevertheless, four white men are occupying or claiming large tracts on the reservation.

"It is clearly the duty of the Government to adjust and quiet these claims, and remove the parties from the reservation. Each day's delay to fulfill this treaty stipulation adds to the distrust of the Indians in the good faith of the Government.

" 2d. Article third of the same treaty of 1863 provides for the survey of the land suitable for cultivation into lots of twenty acres each; while a survey is reported to have been early made, no measures were then, or have been since, taken to adjust farm limits to the lines of the surveyed lots.

"3d. Rules and regulations for continuing the possession of these lots and the improvements thereon in the families of deceased Indians, have not been prescribed, as required by the treaty.

" 4th. It is also provided that certificates or deeds for such tracts shall be issued to individual Indians.
"The failure of the Government to comply with this important provision of the treaty causes much uneasiness among the Indians, who are little inclined to spend their labor and means in improving ground held by the uncertain tenure of the pleasure of an agent.

" 5th. Article seventh of the treaty provides for a payment of four thousand six hundred and sixty-five dollars in gold coin to them for services and horses furnished the Oregon Mounted Volunteers in 1856. It is asserted by the Indians that this provision of the treaty has hitherto been disregarded by the Government."

The commissioners say that "every consideration of justice and equity, as well as expediency, demands from the Government a faithful and literal compliance with all its treaty obligations toward the Indians. A failure to do this is looked upon as bad faith, and can be productive of only bad results."

At last Chief Joseph consented to remove from the Wallowa with his band, and go to the Lapwai Reservation. The incidents of the council in which this consent was finally wrung from him, are left on record in Chief Joseph's own words, in an article written by him (through an interpreter) and published in the North American Review in 1874. It is a remarkable contribution to Indian history.

It drew out a reply from General 0. 0. Howard, who called his paper "The true History of the Wallowa Campaign;" published in the North American Review two months after Chief Joseph's paper.

Between the accounts given by General Howard and by Chief Joseph of the events preceding the Nez Percé war, there are noticeable discrepancies.

General Howard says that he listened to the "oft-repeated dreamer nonsense of the chief, ` Too-hool-hool-suit,' with no impatience, but finally said to him: 'Twenty times over I hear that the earth is your mother, and about the chieftainship of the earth. I want to hear it no more.'"

Chief Joseph says: "General Howard lost his temper, and said 'Shut up! I don't want to hear any more of such talk.'

"Too-hool-hool-suit answered, "Who are you, that you ask us to talk, and then tell me I sha'n't talk? Are you the Great Spirit? Did you make the world?' "

General Howard, quoting from his record at the time, says: "The rough
old says fellow, in his most provoking tone, says something in a short sentence, looking fiercely at me. The interpreter quickly says: He demands what person pretends to divide this land and put me on it?' In the most decided voice I said, `I am the man. I stand here for the President, and there is no spirit, bad or good, that will hinder me. My orders are plain, and will be executed.' "

Chief Joseph says: "General Howard replied, 'You are an impudent fellow, and I will put you in the guard-house,' and then ordered a soldier to arrest him."

General Howard says: " After telling the Indians that this bad advice would be their ruin, I asked the chiefs to go with me to look at their land. The old man (Too-hool-hool-suit) shall not go. I will leave him with Colonel Perry.' He says, `Do you want to scare me with reference to my body?' I said, `I will leave your body with Colonel Perry.' I then arose and led him out of the council, and gave him into the charge of Colonel Perry."

Chief Joseph says: " Too-hool-hool-suit made no resistance. He asked General Howard, Is that your order? I don't care. I have expressed my heart to you. I have nothing to take back. I have spoken for my country. You can arrest me, but you cannot change me, or make me take back what I have said.' The soldiers came forward and seized my friend, and took him to the guardhouse. My men whispered among themselves whether they should let this thing be done. I counseled them to submit. Too-hool-hool-suit was prisoner for five days before he was released."

General Howard, it will be observed, does not use the word "arrested," but as he says, later, " Too-hool-hool-suit was released on the pledge of Looking-glass and White Bird, and on his own earnest promise to behave better," it is plain that Chief Joseph did not misstate the facts. This Indian chief, therefore, was put under military arrest, and confined for five days, for uttering what General Howard calls a "tirade" in a council to which the Indians had been asked to come for the purpose of consultation and expression of sentiment.

Does not Chief Joseph speak common sense, as well as natural feeling, in saying, "I turned to my people and said, 'The arrest of Too-hool-hool-suit was wrong, but we will not resent the insult. We were invited to this council to express our hearts, and we have done so.'"

If such and so swift penalty as this, for "tirades" in council, were the law of our land, especially in the District of Columbia, it would he "no just cause of complaint" when Indians suffer it. But considering the frequency, length, and safety of " tirades" in all parts of America, it seems unjust not to permit Indians to deliver them. However, they do come under the head of "spontaneous productions of the soil ;" and an Indian on a reservation is "invested with no such proprietorship" in anything which comes under that head.

Chief Joseph and his band consented to move. Chief Joseph says: "I said in my heart that, rather than have war, I would give up my country. I would give up my father's grave. I would give up everything rather than have the blood of white men upon the hands of my people."

It was not easy for Joseph to bring his people to consent to move. The young men wished to fight. It has been told that, at this time, Chief Joseph rode one day through his village, with a revolver in each hand, saying he would shoot the first one of his warriors that resisted the Government. Finally, they gathered all the stock they could find, and began the move. A storm came, and raised the river so high that some of the cattle could not be taken across. Indian guards were put in charge of the cattle left behind. White men attacked these guards and took the cattle. After this Joseph could no longer restrain his men, and the warfare began, which lasted over two months. It was a masterly campaign on the part of the Indians. They Were followed by General Howard; they had General Crook on their right, and General Miles in front, but they were not once hemmed in; and, at last, when they surrendered at Bear Paw Mountain, in the Montana Hills, it was not because they were beaten, but because, as Joseph says, " I could not bear to see my wounded men and women suffer any longer; we had lost enough already. We could have escaped from Bear Paw Mountain if we had left our wounded, old women and children, behind. We were unwilling to do this. We had never heard of a wounded Indian recovering while in the hands of white men. I believed General Miles, or I never would have surrendered. I have heard that he has been censured for making the promise to return us to Lapwai. He could not have made any other terms with me at that time. I could have held him in check until my friends came to my assistance, and then neither of the generals nor their soldiers would ever have left Bear Paw Mountain alive. On the fifth day I went to General Miles and gave up my gun, and said, 'From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more.' My people needed rest; we wanted peace."

The terms of this surrender were shamefully violated. Joseph and his band were taken first to Fort Leavenworth and then to the Indian Territory. At Leavenworth they were placed in the river bottom, with no water but the river water to drink.

"Many of my people sickened and died, and we buried them in this strange land," says Joseph. "I cannot tell how much my heart suffered for my people while at Leavenworth. The Great Spirit Chief who rules above seemed to be looking some other way, and did not see what was being done to my people."

Yet with a marvelous magnanimity, and a clear-headed sense of justice of which few men would be capable under the circumstances, Joseph says: " I believe General Miles would have kept his word if he could have done so. I do not blame him for what we have suffered since the surrender. I do not know who is to blame. We gave up all our horses, over eleven hundred, and all our saddles, over one hundred, and we have not heard from them since. Somebody has got our horses."

This narrative of Chief Joseph's is profoundly touching; a very Iliad of tragedy, of dignified and hopeless sorrow; and it stands supported by the official records of the Indian Bureau.

"After the arrival of Joseph and his hand in Indian Territory, the bad effect of their location at Fort Leavenworth manifested itself in the prostration by sickness at one time of two hundred and sixty out of the four hundred and ten; and ' with in a few mouths' in the death of `more than one-quarter of the entire number.

It will be borne in mind that Joseph has never made a treaty with the United States, and that he has never surrendered to the Government the lands he claimed to own in Idaho. Joseph and his followers have shown themselves to be brave men and skilful soldiers, who, with one exception, have observed the rules of civilized warfare. These Indians were encroached upon by white settlers, on soil they believed to be their own, and when these encroachments became intolerable, they were compelled in their own estimation to take up arms."

Chief Joseph and a remnant of his band are still in Indian Territory, waiting anxiously the result of the movement now being made by the Ponca chief, Standing Bear, and his friends and legal advisers, to obtain from the Supreme Court a decision, which will extend the protection of the civil law to every Indian in the country.

Of the remainder of the Nez Percé (those who are on the Lapwai Reservation), the report of the Indian Bureau for 1879 is that they "support themselves entirely without subsistence from the Government; procure of their own accord, and at their own expense, wagons, harness, and other farming implements beyond the amount furnished by the Government under their treaty," and that "as many again as were taught were turned away from school for lack of room."

The Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions has contributed during this year $1750 for missionary work among them, and the Indians themselves have raised $125.

Their reservation is thus described: " The majority of land comprising the reservation is a vast rolling prairie, affording luxuriant pasturage for thousands of their cattle and horses. The Clearwater River, flowing as it does directly through the reserve, branching out in the North, Middle, and South Forks, greatly benefits their locations that they have taken in the valleys laying between such river and the bluffs of the higher land, forming in one instance at Kaimaib one of the most picturesque locations to be found in the whole Northwest. Situated in a valley on either side of the South Fork, in length about six miles, varying in width from one-half to two miles; in form like a vast amphitheatre, surrounded on all sides by nearly perpendicular bluffs rising two thousand feet in height, it forms one of the prettiest valleys one can imagine. A view from the bluff reveals a living panorama, as one sees the vast fields of waving grain surrounding well-built and tasty cottages adorned with porches, and many of the conveniences found among industrious whites. The sight would lead a stranger, not knowing of its inhabitance by Indians, to inquire what prosperous white settlement was located here. It is by far the most advanced in the ways of civilization and progress of any in the Territory, if not on the coast."

How long will the white men of Idaho permit Indians to occupy so fair a domain as this? The small cloud, no larger than a man's hand, already looms on their horizon. The closing paragraph of this (the last) report from the Nez Percé is:

" Some uneasiness is manifest about stories set afloat by renegade whites, in relation to their treatment at the expiration of their treaty next July, but I have talked the matter over, and they will wait patiently to see the action on the part of the Government. They are well civilized; but one mistake on the part of the Government at this time would destroy the effects of the past thirty years' teachings. Give them time and attention; they will astonish their most zealous friends in their progress toward civilization."

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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