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Chief Joseph the Elder of the Nez Perce: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore Chief Joseph the Elder. Born as Tuekakas, the mid-19th century Nez Perce chief originally promoted peace with the white American settlers.

Bad Faith

Nobody likes having the wool pulled over their eyes. Generally, when you make an agreement with someone - be it a neighbor, a business partner, or even your spouse - you expect that if you honor your end of the agreement, that person will honor his or hers. When a negotiating partner negotiates in bad faith, or just simply does not want to honor it later, it can often make the other party very angry.

Just such a bad faith negotiation occurred between the peaceful leader of the Nez Perce tribe, Chief Joseph the Elder, and the U.S. government in the mid-19th century.

Peacemaker

Likely born in the 18th century with the name Tuekakas, Chief Joseph the Elder was the chief of the Nez Perce Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-19th century. With traditional lands covering parts of northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington, and northern Idaho, the Nez Perce considered the Wallowa Valley in Oregon sacred.

Chief Joseph, as the tribal leader of the Nez Perce, promoted peace with the white American settlers in order to protect the Nez Perce's presence in the Wallowa Valley. In 1838, he allowed himself to be baptized by a Christian missionary, from whom he received the Christian name, Joseph. In 1855, he again kept the peace between his people and the settlers, by helping the governor of Washington Territory draw the boundaries of a reservation on which he agreed to keep the Nez Perce tribes. The initial settlement preserved peace and included parts of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

Large dark green area represents original Nez Perce reservation; inner orange area represents the 1863 redrawn reservation
Nez Perce and other Native American reservations in Pacific Northwest

Treaty Broken

The treaty which created the Nez Perce reservation and the peace that Chief Joseph the Elder so cherished was soon in tatters. Due to gold being found within the bounds of the Nez Perce reservation in the early 1860s, in 1863 the U.S. government unilaterally redrew the boundaries of the reservation, reducing it from its original 7.7 million acres to an area roughly 780,000 acres, a territorial reduction of nearly 90%. Most importantly, the sacred Wallowa Valley was outside the boundaries of the new reservation.

Enraged, Chief Joseph famously renounced any treaties he and the Nez Perce people had made with the American government. He tore up his American flag, shredded his Bible, and refused to sign the treaty that had redrawn the reservation's boundaries. He further refused to move his people from the Wallowa Valley.

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