| "I will fight no more forever"
The man who became a national celebrity with the name "Chief Joseph" he was a Nez Perce
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 Perce 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 Perce reservation that stretched from Oregon into Idaho. But
in 1863, following a gold rush into Nez Perce territory, the federal government took back almost
six million acres of this land, restricting the Nez Perce 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 on to the reservation. Believing military resistance futile, Joseph
reluctantly led his people toward Idaho.
Unfortunately, they never got there. About twenty young Nez Perce 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.
By the time he formally surrendered on October 5, 1877, Joseph was widely referred to in the
American press as "The Red Napoleon". It is unlikely, however, that he played as critical a role
in the Nez Perce's military feat as his legend suggests. He was never considered a war chief
by his people, and even within the Wallowa band, it was Joseph's younger brother, Olikut, who
led the warriors, while Joseph opposed the decision to flee into Montana and seek aid from the
Crows and that other chiefs---Looking Glass and some who had been killed before the
surrender---were the true strategists of the campaign. Never-the-less, Joseph's widely
reprinted surrender speech has immortalized him as a military leader in American popular
"I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed..Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead.
The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, "Yes" or "No". He who led the young
men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to
death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food.
No one knows where thy 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".
Joseph's fame did him little good. Although he had surrendered with the understanding that
he would be allowed to return home, Joseph and his people were instead taken first to eastern
Kansas and then to a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where many of
them died of epidemic diseases. Although he was allowed to visit Washington, D.C., in
1879 to plead his case to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, it was not until 1885 that Joseph
and the other refugees were returned to the pacific Northwest. Even then, half, including
Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Perce reservation in northern Washington, separated from the
rest of their people in Idaho and their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.
In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United States Policy toward
his people and held out the hope that America's promise of freedom and equality might one day
be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. An indomitable voice of conscience for the West,
he died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland, according to his doctor "of a broken heart".
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