His real name was Hin-mut-too-yah-lat-kekht, which means “thunder rolling in the mountains.” He was born about 1840. The tribe called themselves Nimiipu and their language was a Shahaptan dialect. French-Canadian trappers called them Nez Perce, because a few had pierced noses, though this was not a tribal custom. Their traditional hunting grounds encompassed north-central Idaho, southeastern Washington, and northeastern Oregon. Their summer amp was on the shores of Lake Wallowa.
The tribe was a fairly religious one and were receptive to white man’s religion. In 1835, Marcus Whitman arrived, and he was very impressed with the friendliness of the tribe. When he returned east for supplies he rallied support for a mission for the Nez Perce. He returned in 1836 with Reverend and Mrs. Spalding. Spalding established a mission at Lapwai creek near the confluence of the Clearwater River and the Snake River. He taught religion, but also taught tilling and planing grains, potatoes, etc. His wife opened a school and taught reading, writing, and math. Old Joseph was deeply religious and was baptized by Spalding in 1845, at which time he and his son were given the name Joseph. The later Whitman Massacre spoiled relations between Spalding and the tribe somewhat.
Young Joseph grew up hearing the legends of the origins of “the people.” He heard of the earlier friendships with Lewis and Clark. Because of the falling out with Spalding, Joseph had formal schooling for only a few years. His remaining education was typical, learning fishing for salmon; imitating bird and animal calls; making spears, knives, arrows, and quivers; hunting buffalo; and using roots for food and medicines. When he was two a major council was held at Lapwai. A criminal code was written, and a chief was elected to be chief of all the subunits of the Nez Perce. This situation lays the foundation for the later war in 1877. Ellis was named the first chief, and Joseph’s father was one of the subchiefs.
On June 15, 1846, the boundary between the U.S. and Canada was finally placed at the 49th parallel. This put the Indians under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Major Isaac Stevens was appointed governor of the new Washington territory and Indian agent. The Wallowa Valley was the main home of the Nez Perce by then. But whites were encroaching. In May 1855, Stevens called a council to try to avert hostilities. The council included the Walla Walla, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama, and Cayuse tribes. Stevens wanted to negotiate reservation territory, one in Nez Perce territory and one in Yakama territory. The Indians were mistrustful. Just when a tentative agreement was being reached, Looking Glass, a Nez Perce war chief returned from a buffalo hunt. He was dismayed at treaty making and stirred up the tribe. Negotiations broke down. The treaty was finally signed. Indians would get schools, sawmills, shops, and about $200,000. Also, whites would be forbidden to settle on their land, and they could fish, hunt, and graze livestock on their land. However, Joseph’s father refused to sign.
The treaty was not ratified by Congress until 1859. This fact caused further distrust of the government since it created delays in getting the promised goods from the whites. Also, the treaty did not keep whites out, especially prospectors. Supplies finally came in 1861, but nothing came the following year due to the interruption of the Civil War. Also the government never paid them for their horses they used in the Yakima Wars. In 1862, Indians met with territorial agents to agree to a further reduction of Nez Perce lands, namely those portions that most of the mining and agriculture activities were. They would receive no more benefits for giving up more land.
An Indian named Lawyer signed representing all the Nez Perce bands. However he did not have authority to act in such manner. Old Joseph was especially upset at this because the land being given away included his beloved Wallowa Valley. Reservation ended up only one-sixth of its original size. Differing views on this renegotiation led to the dissolution of the federation of Nez Perce in 1863. Two factions go separate ways and became known as “treaty” and “non-treaty” Indians. Old Joseph led the non-treaty group and remained steadfast and never accepted any gifts for the land. He did not stay in the boundaries and he lived as before.
In 1867, the treaty of 1863 is ratified. But the government still hasn’t lived up to its promises of the 1855 treaty. It is becoming more and more difficult for the chiefs to restrain the young men from going on the warpath. In 1868, the Secretary of the Interior is instructed to tell the non-treaty Indians to go to the reservation. The government considered Lawyer’s signature to represent all bands; the Indians did not. Old Joseph still refused.
By 1868, ranchers are encroaching and refuse to leave. Young Joseph is beginning to take on more duties. The agent is still pressing them to go to the reservation. He insisted they take up farming, which was sinful to the Indians to till mother earth.
Old Joseph died in 1871, and Young Joseph inherited his birthright. It was his father who taught him that “no man owned any part of the earth, and a man could not sell what he did not own.” Young Joseph vowed forever that he would not sell the land of his forefathers. His father had also taught him that selfishness and greed were sins. He had set an example to share with the poor and kill animals only when food is needed and to waste nothing. He taught Joseph to be thankful for the gifts of the great spirit.
There was peace for a little while, but in 1873 the agents were back trying to force them onto the reservation. He refused to go, still claiming that Lawyer did not represent all Nez Perce. In 1877, the long fight began.
General O.O. Howard came to try to convince Chief Joseph to go to the reservation. He gave them 30 days to pack, herd the livestock, and get out. To the last, Chief Joseph wanted to avoid war; he said he needed more time because the river was too high and the livestock was scattered across the countryside. Howard said no. By then Chief Joseph had decided that leaving was preferable to war, but he wanted to do it on his own terms. Unfortunately a group of young warriors killed four white men. The tribe had already been on the move and continued on to White Bird Creek to collect stock before leaving. Soldiers attacked them there for the first battle. It was 60 Indians against 100 whites. 33 whites lost their lives.
After that Howard brought in 700 more men. He followed the Nez Perce across the Salmon River. This was exactly what Chief Joseph wanted; it was a trick that allowed the Indians to cut off his supplies for 3 days. Another battle ensued. Both lost a few men. The Nez Perce then retreated further to the Bitterroot Valley. They made a deal with the soldiers already there that neither side would harm the other. Chief Joseph thought his troubles were over. But a new force led by General Gibbon attacked while they were asleep. 50 women and children and 30 fighting men were lost. The tribe retreated further into Yellowstone country. They were attached there by General Sturgis. He was attacked again by General Miles. More men, women, and children were lost. General Miles tried again to get Chief Joseph to surrender. He finally convinces him to lay down his arms. Chief Joseph then made his famous speech in which he says, “I will fight no more forever.” It was September, 1877.
The tribe was then escorted to the Tongue River, then Bismarck, North Dakota, to wait until spring. From there they were sent to Fort Leavenworth, then Baxter Springs, Kansas in 1878. Many Nez Perce died in these places. Finally, in 1885, the remaining members of the tribe were sent to the Colville Reservation in northern Washington State. Chief Joseph lived there for 12 years until he became alarmed at white encroachment on the reservation. He went to Washington, D.C. to plead with the president. It was his old nemesis General Miles who promised his people would be left alone. He died on September 21, 1904.
Chief Joseph had always been dismayed because the whites had too many chiefs and none knew what the other was saying. In this way, he discovered promises made by Miles to return to Wallowa Valley was not possible. He met with many white officials, including the president, and heard many different promises. If he couldn’t have his home, he wanted the Bitterroot Valley, since it was similar to Wallowa. He died only wanting the same rights as white have and be subjected to the same laws.