He is commemorated in dozens of ways. His likeness is everywhere it seems, and his name is ubiquitous.
A town is named after him, as a hotel, a rodeo and a mountain. Thousands of faces and names have faded into the past, but his endures and will continue to endure as long as Americans care to remember the sufferings of the Indians.
His Nez Perce name was Hinmut-too-yah-lat-kekeht, which when translated into English means “Thunder Rolling in the Mountains.”
He was born in 1840 in the Wallowa Valley and grew up to become a Chief. In his manhood, be became known to the white man as Young Joseph.
White men had been coming to the Valley of the Winding Waters since about 1834. These first ones were explorers, trappers and missionaries. They represented only a trickle. As the trickle grew it became a stream; and in the end the stream grew into a madly rushing river, flooding its own banks and destroying all things that had been.
In 1855, Young Joseph’s father, the man known to white men as Old Joseph, entered into a treaty with Isaac Stevens, Governor of Washington.
Mount Joseph, Wallowa County, Oregon
Old Chief Joseph and a number of other Chiefs gave to the white man some of the land they had always called their own; but they made sure that the Wallowa Valley was left to them. It would never be given away or sold to the “Hairy Man” from the East.
The treaty of 1855, the first ever signed by white men, was quickly broken. Annuities promised by the government either arrived late or never. The Nez Perce were justifiably upset.
In 1863, the government decided to negotiate yet another treaty. Old Chief Joseph attended the negotiations, but when he discovered the white men wanted possession of his valley, he refused to sign.
Others, however, did sign and the government laid claim to the sacred land. The treaty caused a split among the Nez Perce. And on all horizons, war clouds, black and angry, were gathering.
Young Joseph grew up in the cold shadows of those clouds, and when his father died, leadership became his burden. He had been taught, that to honor the treaty of 1863 would be to dishonor the memory of his father, so he vowed to keep the Wallowas for his own people.
Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his family in Leavenworth where they were exiled from 1877 to 1885
The first white settlers appeared in the Valley of the Winding Waters in 1871. They had been living in the Grande Ronde Valley and were in search of more and better range land. They looked things over, left, and returned with others. Homesteads began to dot the land; tensions between the two races grew. The clouds were getting darker all the time.
Young Joseph was not a war chief. He was a statesman and an orator. According to the record, he counseled his people to keep peace with the newly arrived settlers. His wisdom held for five years, from 1871 to 1876. In the summer of 1876, the dark clouds rumbled and the first blood was spilled.
The first episode involved a pair of white settlers and a Nez Perce brave named Wil-lot-ya. The settlers Finley and McNall by name, came upon a Nez Perce camp and searched it, believing they might find some horses that had been stolen. A scuffle ensued and Finley shot Wil-lot-yah.
Joseph and his band sought justice, but found none. The two men were tried for the killing and acquitted. Animosities on both sides grew; more incidents occurred, and finally the government took a hand.
A commission set up to study the problems in the Wallowa Valley recommended that the region be cleared of the Nez Perce, by force, if necessary.
Young Joseph undoubtedly saw there was no holding back the flood. In May, 1877 he did what he vowed he would never do; he led his people away from the Wallowas toward Idaho and the Lapwai Reservation, which was to be their new home.
But the young men were bitter. Along the way, three of them broke off from the band, and in a rage killed four white settlers. The storm that had been brewing for so many years broke.
Joseph knew the white man would seek retribution, and so determined to lead his band to Canada. He took over 800 of his people in that direction, pursued by General O.O. Howard, the famed one-armed Indian fighter.
Howard finally ran the Nez Perce into the ground in Montana. Joseph surrendered his band at a place called “Bear Paw Mountain”, some 50 miles from the Canadian border in October, 1877.
Click on image to see full size map
The Nez Perce were put on reservations in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Washington. Joseph died at the Colville Reservation in Washington in 1904.
Today, he is well remembered. His picture hangs in banks, the post office, general stores, restaurants and barbershops.
He is the man who said:
“The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.”
“Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose.”
“Let me be free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think, talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.”
Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht has spoken for his people.
~ Chief Joseph
“Whenever the white man treats the Indians as they treat each other,
then we will have no more wars.
We shall all be alike…with one sky above us and one country around us.”
~ Chief Joseph
From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.