As the newly established American Colonies expanded their borders taking over lands they needed for farming, they frequently encountered resistance from the Indigenous People who had lived on the same land for centuries. The government of the Colonies ordered the “Indian Removal” which gave the Calvary the right to kill those who did not comply and force the survivors to relocate. From 1800 – 1900, The Trail of Tears began in the South East and eventually spread to tribes in the North and West. This ethnic cleansing relocated entire tribes onto unfamiliar lands, lands that were deemed undesirable by the white settlers, with many dying along the way due to inadequate provisions, weather and exposure to diseases for which they had no immunity.
Before the arrival of the white men, Native Americans did not practice property ownership instead believing that God owned the land, and they were respectful and grateful for the resources. As hunters and gatherers, many tribes moved their camps seasonally and had defined territories. As more and more white settlers arrived, the “Indians” (as Christopher Columbus labeled them when he thought he had arrived in the West Indies) were forced to either fight for their territories or submit to removal.
Some white settlers did befriend Native American tribes and attempt to cohabitate, but to expedite the white expansion the Calvary often waged wars on them and did not hesitate to massacre entire villages including children, women and the elderly. The Native Americans were accustomed to fighting tribal wars but did not have the technology of guns to compete with the white warriors and instead relied on their knowledge of the terrain. The Calvary signed treaties with many tribes of Native Americans to “give them lands” for their own use in order to make peace. Often, however, the white men reneged on their contracts and took the lands back for themselves due to the discovery of natural resources.
The thriving population of more than 5 million Native Americans in 1492 when Columbus arrived was reduced to 250,000 by 1900 due to warfare, genocide, introduction of diseases, and annihilation of the buffalo. Thornton, Russell (1990).
Most Native American tribes were affected, and many great Chiefs have spoken or written their stories. In 1832, Black Hawk of the Sauk tribe in Mississippi made a Surrender Speech. Here is an excerpt:
…[Black Hawk]…is now a prisoner to the white men; they will do with him as they wish. But he can stand torture, and is not afraid of death. He is no coward. Black Hawk is an Indian.
He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came, year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. The white men despise the Indians, and drive them from their homes…
Fifty years after the events of 1840, John Burnett, wrote “The Cherokee Removal Through The Eyes of a Private Soldier” in which he penned his belief in what caused the United States to force the removal of the Cherokee Nation from the South and seize their lands:
In the year 1828, a little Indian boy living on Ward Creek had sold a gold nugget to a white trader, and that nugget sealed the doom of the Cherokees…Crimes were committed that were a disgrace to civilization. Men were shot in cold blood, lands were confiscated. Homes were burned and the inhabitants driven out by the gold-hungry brigands.
Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors…
Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.
The Nez Perce
The Nez Perce lived in the Wallowa Valley, a fertile plateau in the midst of mountains carved by the Snake River, which is now part of Oregon. Through the abundance provided by the natural resources, the Nez Perce were well-fed and hence had grown to be quite tall – well over 6 feet tall at a time when the Colonists were 5 to 5 ½ feet. They maintained their strength even through the snowy winters by exercising. The Nez Perce women owned the lodges and food sources while Victorian women were nothing but men’s chattel. The tribe had many advanced developments including the most accurate bows of any Native Americans.
The Nez Perce were not warlike people. Their land provided all they needed, and their interest in casual tribal warfare was almost nonexistent…The tribe itself, which numbered about 4000, was spread out over a vast country that stretched over thousands of square miles. They lived in small, isolated bands separated from one another by the difficult terrain of the Plateau country.
When the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived in 1805-6, the Nez Perce had no reason to fear white men. The 40 men of the expedition were in dire straits…they were starving, dirty and lost. The Nez Perce called them dog-men because they all had beards.
The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They also brought many things that our people had never seen. They talked straight, and our people gave them a great feast as proof that our hearts were friendly. These men were very kind. They made presents to our chiefs, and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perces made friends with Lewis and Clark and agreed to let them pass through our country and never make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perces have never broken. No white man can accuse us of bad faith and speak with a straight tongue. It has always been the pride of the Nez Perces that they were friends of the white men.
But the White Men Kept Coming
The Nez Perce tribe was comprised of clans who had their own lands and own Chief. Typically there would be meetings amongst the leaders, but much confusion arose from individual pacts made by Chiefs with government officials and the Calvary. In 1855, the Nez Perce were pressured into selling a third of their ancestral lands, but in 1860 when gold was discovered on their land, the U.S government failed to keep white settlers off the reservation. Again, some of the Nez Perce were coerced into giving up even more land, this time 90% of the reservation!
Much of the tribe doubted the validity of the sale of their lands, but they lacked the ability to prove otherwise. The Calvary gave them 30 days to move to the new reservation, which was unrealistic, as they needed to gather all their livestock over miles and miles. One band of the Nez Perce held a ceremony during which they exhibited their might as warriors which seemed to inspire a group of young men to avenge the murders a year prior of some relatives at the hands of whites. They rode to a nearby white settlement and murdered four men. Word of the attack reached the Calvary who sent an army to punish the tribe and force them to move to the reservation.
Not all of the Nez Perce wanted to go to war with the white men, but now they had no choice. They prepared for attack, and ultimately planned to move the entire tribe and their livestock all the way to Canada. In multiple skirmishes over three and a half months in 1877, the tribe fought and outsmarted the Calvary. Only forty miles from the border of Canada, the exhausted tribe stopped to set up camp believing the Calvary had finally retreated, not realizing that a new army had arrived. They were attacked in the morning and held them off for three days. The commanders of the Calvary sent word to the camp that they wanted the fighting to end. Realizing that many of his people were unable to keep going and that the harsh Montana winter was upon them, Chief Joseph announced to the remaining warriors that he would agree with the Calvary to end the fighting if the tribe was allowed to return to their lands. Chief White Bird doubted the integrity of the Calvary and believed it was a trick. Joseph respected his opinion and allowed him to lead any of the tribe who agreed away to Canada. Joseph deliberately stalled the talks with the Calvary to give them time to escape.
Chief Joseph, born Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain), was a leader of a band of Nez Perce in the late 1800s. When he was young, Chief Joseph was known as Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, because he was named after his father who had taken the Christian name “Joseph” when he was baptized by a missionary in the early nineteenth century.
Chief Joseph was never considered a war chief by his people. When they did engage in battle, it was Chief Joseph’s younger brother, Olikut, who led the warriors, or other Nez Perce Chiefs. Joseph always sought the way of peace:
I labored hard to avoid trouble and bloodshed. We gave up some of our country to the white men, thinking that then we could have peace. We were mistaken. The white men would not let us alone. We could have avenged our wrongs many times, but we did not. Whenever the Government has asked for help against other Indians we have never refused. When the white men were few and we were strong we could have killed them off, but the Nez Perce wishes to live at peace.
Chief Joseph was not proud of the remarkable military retreat of the Nez Perce; on the contrary, he felt that neither he nor his people could endure any more pain or loss. This is the statement he sent by interpreter to the Calvary:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead… He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead… 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 they 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.
Over the next days, as Chief Joseph spoke through an interpreter to Colonel Miles and General Howard, he was adamant that he had not agreed to surrender, only to a cease-fire and he would only agree if the tribe was sent back to Idaho. Miles and Howard had great respect for Joseph and ordered their remaining soldiers to share provisions with the tribe. However, the Colonel and General had no power to decide what would become of Joseph’s request to return to his homeland.
Trail of Tears
Sadly, White Bird’s prophecy came true. The Commander of the Army, General William Tecumseh Sherman, ordered the Nez Perce to march over 265 miles to Kansas, not back to the Northwest, where the women and children were sent to one location and the men to another. These lands provided no hunting or gathering opportunities, no ability to raise horses; in other words, the tribal lifestyle and spirit of the Nez Perce was completely demolished. One writer noted what he saw when the tribe arrived and the awful conditions under which they lived:
…400 miserable, helpless, emaciated specimens of humanity, subjected for months to the malarial atmosphere of the river bottom…
As unbelievable as it seems, the decision made by Sherman to send the Nez Perce to Kansas was a budgetary decision made from his office in Washington D.C. as the cost of containment in Kansas was less than sending them back to Idaho. The United States was still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War; funds for the army were tight, and the Nez Perce War had cost them plenty. To make matters worse, the press ridiculed the army being outsmarted by the Nez Perce and suggested that they enlist the warriors as lieutenants.
One of the most extraordinary Indian Wars of which there is any record, the [Nez Perce] Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise. They abstained from scalping: let captive women go free; did not commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families, which is usual, and fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications.
The Nez Perce were one of the most respected and “civilized” tribes of all the Native Americans, yet this notoriety did not afford them differential treatment. They were seen as part of the “Indian problem” and white expansion required removing the “savages” to make way for civilization. General Sherman did not hide his belief that the easiest and least expensive method of removing Indians was to murder them. What saved the Nez Perce, without even knowing it, was that Chief Joseph had already become mythologized in the press, and the capture of the great Chief gave the army much needed prestige.
Dream of Freedom
Chief Joseph knew that the white men would continue to come in large numbers to the West. He also knew that they possessed skills and knowledge that the indigenous people did not. He and his tribe had witnessed miraculous medical healings, tools such as a telescope, and weapons from Lewis and Clark. Seeing the inevitable, they had acquiesced 90% of their lands to the white men. All they requested was some land of their own in the territory of their birth.
Initially, the plan from Washington was to keep the Nez Perce in Kansas through the winter, and then find a suitable location for them in the West. Instead, after just one week of recovery from the gruesome journey, the tribe was informed that they would be relocated again. This time they were going to Oklahoma, which the Nez Perce called the “hot country”. After many days in crudely fashioned train cars, the Nez Perce arrived and were told they were to share land with the Modoc tribe. Due to corruption in the agency providing them with supplies, they did not receive proper housing, clothing for the winter, enough rations or medicine. Sickness prevailed, many people died. The Nez Perce were losing their will to live and their belief in their Chief.
As Joseph languished in his own depression due to his inability to help his people, he realized that he was a famous person to the whites and that words had power in their world. During the tribe’s relocation to Oklahoma, at every train station, crowds gathered to get a glimpse of the famous Chief Joseph and his woodland people, hoping to hear him speak. Seeing no other way to change the dire conditions of the Nez Perce, he pushed hard for the chance to speak to the Great Leader in Washington.
Finally his wish was granted, and in January 1879, Chief Joseph, Yellow Bull and an interpreter traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak on behalf of his people and lobby for their return to their country. They met with many people, and spoke to a full house at Lincoln Hall. Chief Joseph was met with resplendent applause, and spoke for an hour and twenty minutes, during which he described the history of his tribe in an effort to dissuade those who believed Native Americans were wild animals. Here is an excerpt that references his dealings with white men:
I have seen the Great Father Chief [President Hayes]; the Next Great Chief [Secretary of the Interior]; the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief; and many other law chiefs [Congressmen] and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done.
I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises.
If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.
I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.
Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself -- and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.
Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike -- brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all…For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.
Joseph did not speak on behalf of the other Nez Perce Chiefs, but the white people did not fully comprehend that nuance and assumed he was the leader of the entire tribe. Nonetheless, he made a lasting impression and eventually the government was forced to make changes in the living conditions offered to them. Some of the tribe had begun to convert to the Presbyterian Church, and the local church leaders, enthralled with their innocence, became strong advocates for their relocation back to Idaho. In 1883, after the tribe raised the money for the journey, a group of 31 Nez Perce widows and orphans were sent home.
The Presbyterians continued to lobby and gathered signed petitions. But it was his former nemesis turned friend, Colonel Miles, who had become a General by then, who spoke to the Department of the Interior about sending the tribe to their homelands. In July 1884, Congress listened to Miles and finally authorized their return.
The reservation in Idaho, Lapwai, had become home to the Nez Perce Presbyterians, so Chief Joseph, still unable to return to Wallowa as he had hoped, chose to live his remaining years at the Colville, Washington reservation with his friend Chief Moses. Of the more than 800 Nez Perce that became prisoners of war in 1877, less than 300 remained.
Chief Joseph maintained his entire life that the government had tricked the Nez Perce and forced them off their native land. He refused an allotment of land at Lapwai in 1889 because he believed it would be interpreted as relinquishment of his rights to land at Wallowa. With white lawyers in Spokane, Washington, he constructed the timeline and documents that proved on multiple accounts that his family had never sold the Wallowa valley and that the Nez Perce were owed large sums of money for other acreage sold to the government. Resolution on either issue was never received.
Unable to live out his life in his indigenous homeland, and unable to obtain just restitution from the American legal system, Chief Joseph passed away in 1904 estranged from the native life he fought to reclaim. Sympathetic doctors aptly recorded that he died “of a broken heart.”
Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004) 141.
Zinn and Arnove, 142-146.
Kent Nerburn, Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005) xvi.
Chief Joseph, That All People May be One People, Send Rain to Wash the Face of the Earth, interview recorded in Washington, D.C., 1879 (Kooskia, ID: Mountain Meadow Press, 1995) 5.
“New Perspectives on the West: Chief Joseph”. PBS. From: Chester Anders Fee, Chief Joseph: The Biography of a Great Indian (Wilson-Erickson, 1936).
Zinn,and Arnove, 146-147.
Alvin M Josephy, Jr. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965) 637.
Josephy, Jr. (Notes from General William Tecumseh Sherman) 635.
“New Perspectives on the West: Chief Joseph”. PBS. From: Chester Anders Fee, Chief Joseph: The Biography of a Great Indian (Wilson-Erickson, 1936).
“New Perspectives on the West: Chief Joseph”. PBS.