Chief Joseph

Leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce. He led his band when they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands onto the significantly reduced reservation in Lapwai, Idaho Territory.

Birth

Chief Joseph was born March 3, 1840, Hinmuuttu-yalatlat in the Wallowa Valley of north eastern Oregon. He was known as Young Joseph during his youth because his father, Tuekakas, was baptized with the same Christian name, later becoming known as “Old Joseph” or “Joseph the Elder.”

Nez Perce Reservation

Isaac Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, organized a council to designate separate areas for natives and settlers. Joseph the Elder and the other Nez Perce chiefs signed a treaty with the United States establishing a Nez Perce reservation encompassing 7.7 million acres (31,000 km²) in present-day Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The 1855 reservation maintained much of the traditional Nez Perce lands, including Joseph’s Wallowa Valley. It is recorded that Chief Joseph’s father requested that Young Joseph not sell the 7.7 million acres of their lands in North America, and that he protect and guard his father’s burial place.

Reduced Reservation Size

An influx of new settlers caused by a gold rush led the government to call a second council in 1863.Government commissioners asked the Nez Perce to accept a new, much smaller reservation of 760,000 acres (3,100 km2) situated around the village of Lapwai in Idaho, and excluding the Wallowa Valley. In exchange, they were promised financial rewards and schools and a hospital for the reservation. Chief Lawyer and one of his allied chiefs signed the treaty on behalf of the Nez Perce Nation, but Joseph the Elder and several other chiefs were opposed to selling their lands, and did not sign.

Their refusal to sign caused a rift between the “non-treaty” and “treaty” bands of Nez Perce. The “treaty” Nez Perce moved within the new reservation’s boundaries, while the “non-treaty” Nez Perce remained on their lands. Joseph the Elder demarcated Wallowa land with a series of poles, proclaiming, “Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

Leadership

Joseph the Younger succeeded his father as leader of the Wallowa band in 1871. Before his death, Joseph’s father counseled his son:

“My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

Joseph commented “I clasped my father’s hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father’s grave is worse than a wild beast.”

Nez Perce War

An armed conflict between several bands of the Nez Perce tribe and their allies, against the United States Army. After the first armed engagements in June, the Nez Perce embarked on an arduous trek north initially to seek help with the Crow tribe. After the Crows’ refusal of aid, they sought sanctuary with the Lakota led by Sitting Bull, who had fled to Canada in May 1877 to avoid capture following the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Nez Perce were pursued by elements of the U.S. Army with whom they fought a series of battles and skirmishes on a fighting retreat of 1,170 miles. The war ended after a final five-day battle fought alongside Snake Creek at the base of Montana’s Bears Paw Mountains only 40 miles from the Canadian border.