Chief Joseph: an extraordinary Indian chief

Chief Joseph Bronze on Main Street in Joseph Oregon

The city of Joseph and the county’s newspaper, the Wallowa County Chieftain, are named in reverent memory of a Native American chief whose life loomed large in the settlement of the West.

Chief Joseph, loved and respected in his Nez Perce tribe, was beleaguered and misunderstood by the white man in the 1800s, and especially by the U.S. government. Today, however, he is recognized as having been a strong, compassionate leader.

Born in 1840 in what we now know as Wallowa County, Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, or Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt in the language of his tribe, later took the same name adopted by his father, Chief Old Joseph, who had converted to Christianity in 1838.

Old Chief Joseph’s gravesite can be visited at the northern end of Wallowa Lake, while Young Chief Joseph is buried on the Colville Reservation in Washington.

old chief josephs grave night

Old Chief Joseph Gravesite Monument

old chief joseph monument signage

The Wal-lum-wat-kin band of the Nez Perce (later translated to “Wallowa”) had lived peacefully in the remote Wallowa Valley for centuries, undisturbed by any invaders. The band raised families, hunted game, developed a superior breed of horses and, in particular, fished the salmon-rich waters of Wallowa Lake, the meandering Wallowa River and other streams.

Today, the Nez Perce work cooperatively with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and federal agencies through the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to maintain the health of the region’s fishing. The Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management maintains an office in Joseph.

As white settlers began to move west and north, they eventually reached the land of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph recalled:

“The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark . . . . They talked straight and our people gave them a great feast . . . . We had a great many horses of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return.”

This was in 1805, and the good feelings lasted for several decades. But in the 1870s, settlers and the U.S. Cavalry started to force the Nez Perce from their homeland. Chief Old Joseph had signed a treaty in 1855, but when the discovery of gold nearby prompted the government to take back millions of acres, he renounced the treaty. In 1863, a new treaty divided the tribe into treaty and non-treaty bands.

Old Chief Joseph died in 1871, leaving his son, Joseph (the younger) to carry on his father’s legacy. At first, together with Chiefs Looking Glass and White Bird, he led the Nez Perce to balk at settlement of their native lands. But sensing imminent violence and what that could mean for their outnumbered people, the three chiefs eventually agreed to new boundaries, diminishing their lands to one-tenth their original size. Even that wouldn't last...

heavy hearts nez perce homeland sign

nez perce trail beginning signage

In spring 1877, the Wal-lum-wat-kin crossed the Snake River, abandoning their homeland on their way to the new Nez Perce Reservation. A group of young braves happened upon some settlers who had killed their relatives and enacted fatal revenge. Knowing what the response would be, Joseph then diverted his people on what has been recognized as one of the most strategic retreats in the history of warfare.

The Wal-lum-wat-kin, joined by other non-treaty bands to number about 700 including 200 warriors, embarked on a 1,400-mile trek to Canada, where they would hopefully join Sitting Bull and the Sioux. With the Cavalry hot on their trail, the retreat came to be called the Nez Perce War.

Cavalry skirmishes, extreme winter weather and exhaustion took their toll, however. When they reached the Bears Paw Mountains of Montana, within 40 miles of the safety of the Canadian border, Joseph had lost more than half of his warriors and his brother, Ollokot. Many women and children were starving. Recognizing no alternative, Joseph surrendered.

“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead . . . . The old men are dead . . . . The little children are freezing to death . . . . My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Those last six words are legend, embodied in the title of a biographical 1975 movie. Like many Native American tribes, the Nez Perce were uprooted. The Army escorted them to Kansas and later the Oklahoma Territory. Chief Joseph went to Washington in 1879 to plead with President Rutherford B. Hayes and members of Congress, but his people never were able to see their Wallowa Valley homeland again.

Some were allowed to live in Idaho, where the Nez Perce Reservation now exists, but Joseph and those close to him were sent to a reservation in Colville, Washington. Joseph made two trips back to Wallowas to try to secure a small piece of land. He was rebuffed by locals and returned to Colville.

Chief Joseph died in 1904 of what his confidantes said was a broken heart.

Today, a few Nez Perce descendants live in Wallowa County, but many more are on the Colville and Nez Perce reservations and the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon.

The current-day Nez Perce have built a ceremonial homeland project on rural land in Wallowa, Oregon, where they host an annual Tamkaliks celebration that includes a friendship feast awaited eagerly by local residents.

nez perce homeland

joseph oregon information building

Chief Joseph himself is represented in Joseph with a larger-than-life bronze sculpture by Georgia Bunn in front of the Joseph Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center on Main Street.

More about the Nez Perce is available at the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture in Joseph, Oregon (https://josephy.org/library/), the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center in Wallowa, Oregon (wallowanezperce.org), and the tribe’s website, www.nezperce.org.

Sources: Fee, Chester Anders: The Biography of a Great Indian; PBS–The west; Biography.com; the Josephy Library

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