Nez Perce War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For more than three months, Chief Joseph conducted a war in retreat. He led his people for fifteen hundred miles as they fled a U.S. army that greatly outnumbered them—standing to fight occasionally before retreating once more—in one of the most remarkable Indian war campaigns of U.S. history. When they finally surrendered, the Nez Perce were exiled from their homeland.

Summary of Event

During the nineteenth century, the Nez Perce tribes occupied various areas of the American Northwest, including Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. There were five separate groups, each under the leadership of an autonomous chief. One group occupied Oregon territory in the Imnaha and Wallowa Valleys and was under the leadership of Joseph the Elder, or Old Chief Joseph. In 1855, the governor of the Oregon Territory signed a celebrated treaty with Joseph and numerous other Nez Perce leaders, allowing the tribe ownership of all the land in the Imnaha and Wallowa Valleys. The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate. Nez Perce War (1877) Native American wars;Nez Perce War Joseph, Chief Looking Glass Alokut Howard, Oliver O. Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Idaho;Nez Perce War Montana;Nez Perce War [kw]Nez Perce War (June 15-Oct. 5, 1877) [kw]War, Nez Perce (June 15-Oct. 5, 1877) Nez Perce War (1877) Native American wars;Nez Perce War Joseph, Chief Looking Glass Alokut Howard, Oliver O. Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Idaho;Nez Perce War Montana;Nez Perce War [g]United States;June 15-Oct. 5, 1877: Nez Perce War[4960] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 15-Oct. 5, 1877: Nez Perce War[4960] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;June 15-Oct. 5, 1877: Nez Perce War[4960] Joseph the Elder Miles, Nelson A.

The treaty of 1855 proved short-lived, however: The Civil War (1861-1865) and the discovery of gold at Orofino, Idaho, in 1860, led to a surge in the migration of white settlers into the valleys and territories claimed by the Nez Perce. Because of increasing tensions between the whites and the Indians, in 1863 a new treaty was negotiated. The new terms excluded the Imnaha and Wallowa Valleys and other vast areas of land that had been dedicated to the Indians in 1855. The revised treaty was signed by James Reuben and Chief Lawyer, but Chiefs Old Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass refused to ratify it. Thus, the 1863 treaty resulted in a distinction between “treaty Indians” and “nontreaty Indians.”

In 1871, Old Chief Joseph died, leaving the leadership of the Nez Perce to his son, Joseph the Younger, commonly known simply as Chief Joseph. The continuing influx of white immigrants into the Nez Perce lands caused increasing problems between Indians and whites. In 1876, a commission was appointed to investigate complaints, and it was decided that the nontreaty Nez Perce had no standing and that all groups should move onto designated reservations. In 1877, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued instructions to carry out the commission’s recommendations. Preparing for the transition, a council of tribal leaders and U.S. government officials was set to meet on May 3, 1877. Chief Joseph and his brother, Alokut, represented the Nez Perce, while General Oliver O. Howard represented the U.S. government. The final understanding was that the nontreaty Indians would be on their designated reservations by June 14, 1877.

On June 15, 1877, word was received at Fort Lapwai, Idaho, that the Nez Perce had attacked and killed several settlers around Mount Idaho, Idaho. U.S. Army troops were sent from Fort Lapwai to counterattack. On June 17, troops headed into Whitebird Canyon and engaged in a bitter encounter with the Nez Perce. The U.S. Army lost thirty-four troops and numerous horses; the Nez Perce, numbering only seventy warriors, had only four wounded in the battle. On July 1, regular troops and Idaho volunteers under Captain Stephen C. Whipple attacked Looking Glass’s village. The troops shot, destroyed property, and looted at random. As a result, Looking Glass joined the war effort with Chief Joseph.

By then, Chief Joseph and his people had already left their home. They had begun the extended retreat for which they would become famous on the day the army first attacked, June 17, 1877, and all their subsequent battles with the army took place in the course of retreating. By July 13, after numerous skirmishes with General Howard’s troops and other soldiers, Chief Joseph, with approximately four hundred of his people in tow, moved eastward toward the Lolo Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains. On July 15, Looking Glass urged escape to Montana and proposed joining with the Crow of the plains. Chief Joseph agreed, Looking Glass became supreme war leader, and on July 16, the nontreaty Nez Perce summarily left the boundaries of their traditional homeland.

Chief Joseph and Looking Glass kept track of Howard’s position and were able to stall and otherwise frustrate Howard’s advance. As a result, the chiefs led the Nez Perce through Lolo Trail and into the Missoula area. General Howard subsequently contacted Colonel John Gibbon at Fort Shaw, Montana, and instructed him to take up the pursuit. Gibbon was able to muster 146 men of the Seventh Infantry and 34 civilians.

Chief Joseph and Looking Glass crossed the Continental Divide and encamped their weary followers in the Big Hole Valley, unaware of Colonel Gibbon’s pursuit and position. On August 9, Colonel Gibbon’s troops made a surprise attack on the Nez Perce’s camp and engaged in a long and difficult battle. Many Nez Perce lives—mostly of women and children—were lost in the initial confrontation. Chief Joseph and White Bird outflanked Gibbon’s troops and led the families to safety, while the warriors under Alokut and Looking Glass split Gibbon’s forces. After holding the army in siege for several days, the warriors eventually broke off the engagement, and the Nez Perce continued their retreat through the Montana territory.

Flight of the Nez Perce in 1877

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By August 27, Chief Joseph had led the Nez Perce into Yellowstone National Park National parks, U.S.;Yellowstone , with General Howard and his troops in continuing pursuit. By September 6, Chief Joseph and Looking Glass had made their retreat through the northeast corner of Yellowstone Park. Continuing north, Chief Joseph led his people up through the Snowy Mountains and finally into the northern foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains, an easy day’s ride from the Canadian border. Unknown to Chief Joseph, Colonel Nelson A. Miles Miles, Nelson A. had been notified by General Howard and was in pursuit from Fort Keogh, paralleling Chief Joseph’s trail from the north. On September 30, Colonel Miles’s troops made a surprise attack on the Nez Perce’s camp. The fighting during the Bear Paws Battle was intense. The army lost fifty-three men and the Nez Perce lost eighteen warriors, including Alokut, Tulhulhutsut, and Poker Joe. On the night of October 4, General Howard rode into Miles’s camp and provided the reinforcements that would ensure a final surrender from Chief Joseph.

On October 5, General Howard sent terms of surrender to the Nez Perce. A brief skirmish evolved, and Looking Glass was fired on and killed. Colonel Miles assured Chief Joseph that he and his tribe would be allowed to return home to the Northwest in peace. Feeling that he could do so with honor, Chief Joseph offered one of the most famous surrendering speeches ever documented. Turning to the interpreter, Chief Joseph said:

Tell General Howard I know what is in his heart. What he told me before, I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tulhulhutsut is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He [Alokut] who led on the young men is dead. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. 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.

Contemporary magazine illustration of Chief Joseph and his principal chiefs surrendering to U.S. Army general Nelson A. Miles on October 5, 1877.

(Library of Congress)

Thus ended the Nez Perce War, one of the most remarkable Indian war campaigns of U.S. history.

Significance

Chief Joseph surrendered with 86 men, 148 women, and 147 children. The Nez Perce were transported to Fort Keogh for temporary holding. On November 1, despite Colonel Miles’s Miles, Nelson A. assurances that the tribe would be allowed to return to the Northwest, he was ordered to take his prisoners farther south, to Fort Lincoln, near Bismarck, North Dakota North Dakota . On November 27, Chief Joseph and his people were moved again (by train) to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Kept in unsanitary conditions, plagued by disease and twenty deaths, in July, 1878, Chief Joseph and his people were again moved to the Quapaw Reservation in Kansas territory. By the end of the year, nearly fifty more tribe members had died from disease.

After repeated requests to return to the Northwest, in 1885, eight years after their surrender, the 268 survivors of the nontreaty bands taken into captivity were allowed to return to the Northwest. About half of them were housed at Lapwai, Idaho, and Chief Joseph’s Wallowa band was housed at Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington. From the time of his return to the Northwest until his death, September 21, 1904, Chief Joseph attempted in vain to gain permission to return his people to his homeland in the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adkison, Norman B. Indian Braves and Battles with More Nez Perce Lore. Grangeville, Idaho: Idaho County Free Press, 1967. This brief history chronicles events of the Nez Perce from actual correspondence, journals, and interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. Nez Perce Indian War and Original Stories. Grangeville, Idaho: Idaho County Free Press, 1966. Another brief chronicle of events of the Nez Perce from actual correspondence, journals, and interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beal, Merrill D. I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963. Detailed history of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chalmers, Harvey, II. The Last Stand of the Nez Perce. New York: Twayne, 1962. Detailed history of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gidley, Mick. Kopet: A Documentary Narrative of Chief Joseph’s Last Years. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. This brief history well documents various photographs, journals, and correspondence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moeller, Bill, and Jan Moeller. Chief Joseph and the Nez Perces: A Photographic History. Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press, 1995. Color photos and text depict the places in Idaho and Montana where the Nez Perce Indians camped, followed trails, and sought refuge from government troops between June and October, 1877.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moulton, Candy. American Heroes: Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People. New York: Forge Books, 2005. Well-documented biography, recounting Chief Joseph’s attempt to lead his people to safety in Canada and his subsequent diplomatic initiatives to regain his people’s homeland.

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Chief Joseph. Nez Perce War (1877) Native American wars;Nez Perce War Joseph, Chief Looking Glass Alokut Howard, Oliver O. Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Idaho;Nez Perce War Montana;Nez Perce War

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