200 warriors ” fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications.” In over three months, the band of about 700, fewer than 200 of whom were warriors, fought 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous skirmishes.” This was a time when every man in the tribe was expected to be a warrior for his people. Expected to train and embrace a warrior’s mindset.
The man who became a national celebrity with the name "Chief Joseph"
was born in the Wallowa Valley
in what is now northeastern Oregon in 1840. He was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt,
or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, but was widely known as Joseph,
or Joseph the Younger, because his father had taken the Christian name
Joseph when he was baptized at the Lapwai
mission by Henry Spalding in 1838.
Joseph the Elder was one of the first Nez Percé converts to Christianity and an active supporter of the tribe’s longstanding peace with whites. In 1855 he even helped Washington’s territorial governor set up a Nez Percé reservation that stretched from Oregon into Idaho. But in 1863, following a gold rush into Nez Percé territory, the federal government took back almost six million acres of this land, restricting the Nez Percé to a reservation in Idaho that was only one tenth its prior size. Feeling himself betrayed, Joseph the Elder denounced the United States, destroyed his American flag and his Bible, and refused to move his band from the Wallowa Valley or sign the treaty that would make the new reservation boundaries official.
When his father died in 1871, Joseph was elected to succeed him. He inherited
not only a name but a situation made increasingly volatile as white settlers
continued to arrive in the Wallowa Valley. Joseph staunchly resisted all
efforts to force his band onto the small Idaho reservation, and in 1873
a federal order to remove white settlers and let his people remain in
the Wallowa Valley made it appear that he might be successful. But the
federal government soon reversed itself, and in 1877
General Oliver Otis Howard threatened
a cavalry attack to force Joseph’s band and other hold-outs onto the reservation.
Believing military resistance futile, Joseph reluctantly led his people
Unfortunately, they never got there. About twenty young Nez Percé warriors, enraged at the loss of their homeland, staged a raid on nearby settlements and killed several whites. Immediately, the army began to pursue Joseph’s band and the others who had not moved onto the reservation. Although he had opposed war, Joseph cast his lot with the war leaders.
What followed was one of the most brilliant military retreats
in American history. Even the unsympathetic General
William Tecumseh Sherman could not help but be impressed with the
1,400 mile march, stating that "the Indians throughout displayed
a courage and skill that elicited universal praise… [they] fought with
almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines,
and field fortifications." In over three months, the band of about
700, fewer than 200 of whom were warriors, fought 2,000 U.S. soldiers
and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous skirmishes.