On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph, exhausted and disheartened, surrendered in the Bears Paw Mountains of Montana, forty miles south of Canada. Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain was born in 1840 in the Wallowa Valley of what is now northeastern Oregon. He took the name of his father, (Old) Chief Joseph, or Joseph the Elder. When his father died in 1871, Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, was elected his father’s successor. He continued his father’s efforts to secure the Nez Percé claim to their land while remaining peaceful towards the whites.
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking-glass is dead. Too-hul-hul-suit is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men, now, who say ’yes’ or ’no’[that is, vote in council]. He who led on the young men [Joseph’s brother, Ollicut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. 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; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever! Chief Joseph’s surrender to General Nelson A. Miles, October 5, 1877.
In 1873, Chief Joseph negotiated with the federal government to ensure that his people could stay on their land in the Wallowa Valley as stipulated in 1855 and 1863 land treaties with the U.S. government. But, in a reversal of policy in 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard threatened to attack if the Indians did not relocate to an Idaho reservation. Chief Joseph reluctantly agreed.
As they began their journey to Idaho, Chief Joseph learned that a group of Nez Percé men, enraged at the loss of their homeland, had killed some white settlers in the Salmon River area. Fearing U.S. Army retaliation, the chief began a retreat. With 2,000 soldiers in pursuit, Chief Joseph led a band of about 700 Nez Percé Indians—fewer than 200 of whom were warriors, towards freedom—nearly reaching the Canadian border. For over three months, the Nez Percé had outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers traveling some 1,000 miles across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
By the time Chief Joseph surrendered, more than 200 of his followers had died. Although he had negotiated a safe return home for his people, the Nez Percé instead were taken to eastern Kansas and then to a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). In 1879, Chief Joseph went to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Rutherford Hayes and plead the case of his people. Finally, in 1885, nine years before his death, Chief Joseph and his followers were allowed to return to a reservation in the Pacific Northwest—still far from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.
One early Oregon settler told of his encounter with Chief Joseph:
Why I got lost once, an’ I came right on [Chief Joseph’s] camp before I knowed it…’t was night, ‘n’ I was kind o’ creepin’ along cautious, an’ the first thing I knew there was an Injun had me on each side, an’ they jest marched me up to Jo’s tent, to know what they should do with me….
Well, Jo, he took up a torch, a pine knot he had burnin’, and he held it close’t up to my face, and looked me up an’ down, an’ down an’ up; an’ I never flinched; I jest looked him up an’ down ‘s good ‘s he did me; ‘n’ then he set the knot down, ‘n’ told the men it was all right, –I was`tum tum;’ that meant I was good heart; ‘n’ they gave me all I could eat, ‘n’ a guide to show me my way, next day, ‘n’ I could n’t make Jo nor any of ’em take one cent. I had a kind o’ comforter o’ red yarn, I wore round my neck; an’ at last I got Jo to take that, jest as a kind o’ momento.
Glimpses of California and the Missions, by Helen Hunt Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1902. pp. 278-79. “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections
- Search the George Washington Papers on the term indian affairs to access over seventy letters concerning interaction between the fledgling United States and various Native American tribes. Also, search on this same term in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 and Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789 to find relevant documents from this same period.
- “California as I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900 contains an 1888 report by Charles C. Painter, agent of the Indian Rights Association on The Condition of Affairs in Indian Territory and California.
- The Maps Collections provide insight into the geographic shifts that Native Americans made as the United States expanded westward. Search the collection on the keyword indian to retrieve maps showing the location of various tribes over the period 1771-1894. See, for example, a 1923 map of Indian Reservations west of the Mississippi River.
- View the special presentation Indian Land Cessions in the United States in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to read Treaties, Acts of Congress, and Executive Orders concerning Indian lands. Browse this material by Tribe, by State or Territory, and by Date. See, for example, information on the Land Cession to the Nez Perce (Joseph’s band), made by the Cherokee people.
- Search on Montana or the names of individual Indian tribes to find a wide array of materials. In particular, American Indians of the Pacific Northwest External provides access to important written documentation found in Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior. Other reports include information from the Montana agencies such as the Flathead Agency, Blackfeet Agency, and Crow Agency.
- Examine bird’s-eye view maps of Montana towns through the collection Panoramic Maps. Follow the instructions presented with each map and zoom in on an area of the map to see houses, churches, horse drawn carts, and much more in greater detail.
- Today in History contains a number of features about the United States and Native Americans. Search on Native Americans to learn about the end of the Creek War in 1814, the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, and passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.