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The end of Nez Perce

In early October of 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the United States military after a harrowing five month war to reclaim their ancestral homeland from gold rushing Americans. The following excerpt from Elliot West’s The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story describes the settlement made and the challenging move north the displaced Nez Perce faced as a result of it.

In the end, according to Yellow Wolf, honor tipped the decision. Some Nez Perces had chafed at their impression that when Joseph had met with Miles, Joseph had asked to end the fight. On one of Captain John’s and Old George’s visits, they brought this message:

“Those generals said to tell you: ‘We will have no more fighting. Your chiefs and some of your warriors are not seeing the truth. We sent our officer [Jerome] to appear before your Indians—sent all our messengers to say to them, ‘We will have no more war!’

“Then our man, Chief Joseph spoke, ‘You see, it is true. I did not say ‘Let’s quit!’

“General Miles said, ‘Let’s quit.’

“And now General Howard says, ‘Let’s quit’

“When the warriors heard those words from Chief Joseph, they answered, ‘Yes, we believe you now.’

“So when General Miles’s messengers reported back to him, the answer was, ‘Yes.'”

That yes was not a collective yes, just one man’s assent, albeit a man many would choose to follow. A sizeable minority in the camp, most of them from the bands of White Bird and the late Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote, chose to make a try for Canada. White Bird deeply distrusted white leaders, apparently never considered surrendering, and as one who had always pushed for Canada instead of Crow country, would not miss his chance now. After dark, he and others so inclined slipped through the cordon of soldiers, who apparently played it loose, caught up in the mood of release and assuming it was finished. These escapees joined others who had broken away during the first fighting but had stayed, watching from the fringes, to see how things turned out. The refugees felt their way in strings and clusters across the blustery flatlands toward the international boundary. While Miles and Howard left the impression that only a handful had slipped through their hands, the Nez Perce Black Eagle compiled a list of 233 or 234 who broke free between the attack on September 30 and October 6. If he was close to accurate, more than a third of those who were at Snake Creek when Miles ordered the first charge eventually got away.

Soon after Joseph’s message, a final parlay was held at a grassy spot between two lines. Apparently, it deepened Joseph’s impression that Miles was in charge and would send them home to Idaho. Yellow Wolf has Miles brimming with goodwill: “No more battles and blood! From this sun, we will have good time on both sides… plenty time for sleep, for good rest.” Howard, he said, was the same: “It is plenty of food we have left from this war…. All is yours.” The understanding sealed, the two groups returned to their camps, and a couple of hours later, between two and three o’clock in the afternoon on October 5, came the formal surrender. Joseph rode slowly up a steep rise at the west end of the bluff. Walking beside him were five other men, their hands on his horse’s flanks or on his leg. The six spoke softly among themselves. Joseph’s chin was on his chest and his hands crossed across the saddle’s pommel. His Winchester carbine lay across his lap. A gray shawl was around his shoulders, and his hair was in two braids and tied up with otter skin. It was obvious that, if not the bands’ war leader, he had put his life repeatedly on the line. He had grazing wounds on his forehead, his wrist, and the small of his back, and the sleeves and body of his shirt were peppered with bullet holes. Miles later “begged the shirt as a curiosity.”

Standing and waiting for Joseph were Howard, Miles, Lieutenant Wood, and two other officers. Ad Chapman, the civilian who had been present since the fighting at White Bird, was there as interpreter. As Joseph dismounted and approached, his companions stepped back. Facing Howard, Joseph offered his rifle, but Howard, following his promise to let Miles finish the business, stepped away and gestured toward Miles. He took the carbine. All shook hands. Joseph, with Chapman translating, seems to have said something like “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more.” With that, it was over.

Joseph (Hinmaton-Yalatkit), Nez Perce'chief; full- length, standing.
Joseph (Hinmaton-Yalatkit), Nez Perce’chief; full- length, standing. Photographed by William H. Jackson, before 1877. From National Archives. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Elliott West is Professor of American History at the University of Arkansas and author of The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story.

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