Chief Joseph the Younger: Information & Surrender

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 Younger. A Nez Perce Native American chieftain in the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph the Younger became famous for leading his tribe for more than 1,000 miles while fleeing the U.S. army.

Last Stand

When was the last time you took a stand? Perhaps you have protested something the local government has tried to do, or perhaps it was something as simple as not giving your pushy sibling the last piece of cake. Regardless, you likely did so because you felt it was time to stop letting yourself be pushed around and make sure your voice was heard.

A similar situation faced Chief Joseph the Younger and his tribe of Nez Perce Native Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. When it came time for this fed up chieftain to make a decision, he chose to make a stand.

Early Life

The man who became Chief Joseph the Younger was born in the Wallowa Valley in the territory that became northeastern Oregon in March, 1840. Born with the Nez Perce name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, meaning Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, he was the child of Chief Joseph the Elder, a Nez Perce chieftain who had been baptized with the Christian name 'Joseph' by missionaries in 1838.

Joseph's father promoted peace with the American white settlers, and in 1855 he aided government officials in drawing the Nez Perce reservation which at the time stretched from northeastern Oregon to northern Idaho. Despite this, in 1863, after gold was found in the hills of the Nez Perce reservation, the U.S. government redrew its bounds, reducing Nez Perce land to nearly 10% of its former area. Angered, Joseph's father renounced his treaty with the U.S. government and refused to live within the reservation's new bounds.

Joseph the Younger as Chief

When Joseph's father died in 1871, the tribe elected Joseph the Younger as their chieftain. He continued to fight for the rights of his people to reside in their traditional land and refused to remove his people to the new reservation. In 1873, the U.S. government conceded, ordering any new white settlers out of the former Nez Perce territory.

This victory, however, was short lived. In 1877, the U.S. government sent a detachment of cavalry under General Oliver Otis Howard to force the Nez Perce onto the new reservation. Joseph the Younger again refused to move onto the new, smaller reservation, and he began moving his people north. A retreat to more northern, largely uninhabited territory may have saved Joseph the Younger and the Nez Perce if not for a raid led by a group of disgruntled young Nez Perce that killed several white settlers. As a result of the raid, Howard resolved to pursue the Nez Perce and bring them to justice.

The March

The Nez Perce's subsequent retreat, which lasted for more than 1,000 miles, captured the attention of U.S. citizens and made Chief Joseph the Younger famous. With a tribe of approximately 800, but with only 200 actual warriors, the Nez Perce under Joseph attempted to reach Canada and seek refuge under Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. Harassed by Howard's 2,000-strong U.S. cavalry force the entire length of the march, the Nez Perce valiantly fought off numerous attacks as they traveled north and east. The march earned Joseph the moniker, 'The Red Napoleon,' and it was only within forty miles of Canada, with no food or blankets, and only about 80 warriors remaining that Chief Joseph the Younger surrendered to the U.S. troop, famously stating:

'I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed... 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! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.'

Though Chief Joseph refused to resist forced movement of his people any longer, he continued to fight for his people's right to their homeland with his voice, at one point meeting with president Rutherford B. Hayes in Washington, D.C. Though the remaining Nez Perce were sent first to Kansas and then to present-day Oklahoma, in 1885 they were returned to reservations in Idaho and Washington. Sadly, Joseph the Younger would never again see his homeland in the Wallowa Valley, dying in Washington in 1904.

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