The Tragic Story Of Chief Joseph

October 6, 2022

In-Mut-Too-Yah-Lat-Tat (Thunder Rolling in the Mountains), who was born in 1840 near Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon, would become Chief Joseph in 1871. His father, Tuekakas, was the chief of the Wallowa Nez Perce, a band that lived far from the main part of the tribe located across the Snake River in Idaho. In 1836 when Rev. Spalding, a Presbyterian missionary, came to Lapwai, Idaho, he baptized Tuekakas, naming him Joseph, and his son became Young Joseph.

Chief Joseph circa 1900. Source: (Library of Congress/colorized).

As white miners and settlers encroached on the Nez Perce’s land, Old Joseph kept the Nez Perce peaceful, unlike other tribes who fought back. With the conflict in the territory, Isaac Stevens, the governor of the territory called a treaty council in 1855 attended by both father and son. Because they could preserve their homelands under the treaty, Old Joseph and the other Nez Perce chiefs signed it. The treaty created a reservation spanning the Wallowa homeland as well as much of the other areas that the band roamed in the Northwest, however, it did little to stop the arrival of the settlers and miners, and another treaty council was called. The government falsely assumed that the tribe wanted to settle down and become farmers; they also wanted the Nez Perce to give up almost all of their lands in exchange for a small area. Four chiefs in attendance walked out in disgust, but some bands remained, and one of the chiefs signed the treaty, giving away the land. This led to a division in the Nez Perce. Then, in August 1871, Old Joseph died, and his son became Chief Joseph.

Chief Joseph Fled With His Band

Source: (Library of Congress).

In 1877, during another treaty council, he was told that he and the other chiefs needed to move their people to the small reservation in Idaho, and if they refused, they would be moved by force. Upon his return, he found that the soldiers were already there, waiting to force the Nez Perce off the land. Rather than face a battle, he led his people to Camas Prairie in Idaho to join the reservation. Unfortunately, circumstances did not allow him to avoid the fight, so to avoid all-out war, Joseph made plans with other chiefs to leave their land entirely, fleeing over the Lolo Pass into Montana to join the Flathead people.

They Tried To Join The Flathead People

As they fled over the Bitterroots Mountains, the federal troops pursued them, and they managed to cross the Pass into the Bitterroot Valley with only minor skirmishes. The Nez Perce did not receive the welcome they anticipated from the Flathead people, however, as they had decided to remain neutral.

Soldiers Killed Women And Children

During the Battle of the Big Hole, soldiers made a surprise attack on the Nez Perce, who were camped in a meadow. The soldiers fired into the lodges and teepees. Joseph estimated that 80 Nez Perce were killed, and 50 of them were women and children, while only 29 soldiers and five civilian volunteers died. Although the Nez Perce escaped, they no longer believed peace was possible. As they fled toward Yellowstone country, they had several more skirmishes, and once they reached Yellowstone National Park, they encountered groups of tourists. Some of the warriors, distrustful of all whites, killed two of the tourists.