The American Indian Joseph (ca. 1840-1904), a Nez Percé chief, fought to preserve his homeland and did much to awaken the conscience of America to the plight of Native Americans.

Joseph was born in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon. In 1871, upon the death of his father, he assumed leadership of the nontreaty Nez Percé. White settlers coveted the traditional homeland of these Native Americans, and Joseph, seeking confirmation of Nez Percé territorial rights, met with Federal commissioners to discuss a spurious treaty in which the Indians had supposedly ceded their land to the U.S. government. The commissioners were disconcerted by Joseph, who stood 6 feet tall, was amicable but firm, and spoke with amazing eloquence.

Despite the obvious fraudulence of the old treaty, President Ulysses S. Grant opened the Nez Percé lands to settlement and ordered the Native Americans onto reservations. White settlers moved onto the land and committed atrocities against the Indians. Against his will, Joseph was forced by his tribesmen to fight. Pressed hard by Gen. Oliver Otis Howard's forces, Joseph was convinced that he could not win and began a lengthy withdrawal toward Canada. Pursued by Howard and harassed by many small detachments, Joseph fled toward Canada and thrilled the nation, whose sympathies were with the Native Americans.

During the fall of 1877 Joseph led his 500 followers into Montana. In the fighting he showed rare military genius and great humanity; he refused to make war on women and children, bought his supplies when possible, and allowed no mutilation of bodies. On October 1, as the Nez Percé paused to rest at the Bear Paw Mountains just 30 miles from Canada, they were surprised by Col. N. A. Miles with approximately 600 soldiers. With only 87 warriors, Joseph chose to fight. He would not abandon the children, the women, and the aged. After a 5-day siege, however, he said to Miles and his followers: "It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death… . 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."

The 431 remaining Nez Percé were taken to Kansas and subsequently to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). There so many of them sickened and died that an aroused American public demanded action. Chief Joseph was moved to Colville Reservation in Washington, along with 150 of his followers; the others were returned to Oregon. Joseph made many pleas to be returned to his tribal homeland, but he died on Sept. 21, 1904, and was buried on the Colville Reservation.


Further Reading on Joseph

The best of the many biographies of Joseph is Merrill D. Beal, I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé War (1963). Other interesting works include Helen Howard and Dan McGrath, War Chief Joseph (1941; published in 1965 as Saga of Chief Joseph), and Lucullus McWhorter, Hear Me, My Chiefs, edited by Ruth Bordin (1952).