This Day In History: Great Native American Chief Dies (1904)

Title Nez Perce group known as "Chief Joseph's Band", Lapwai, Idaho, spring, 1877 Date 1877 Notes A large group of men on horseback with mountains in the background. In the front center of the group can be seen Chief Joseph, White Bird and Looking Glass. Subjects Nez Perce Indians--Wars, 1877 Group portraits--Idaho Lapwai (Idaho) Joseph, Nez Perce Chief, 1840-1904 Looking Glass, Nez Perce Chief, d. 1877 White Bird, Nez Perce Chief Location Depicted United States--Idaho--Lapwai Object Type Photographs Negative Number L94-7.105 Collection Roy Berk Repository Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture Restrictions Transmission Data Image/JPEG

On this day in history in 1904, the leader of the  Nez Perce tribe Chief Joseph dies on a reservation in Washington State.  He was one of the most famous native American leaders in the Old West and won the regard and the respect of the white American government and even the army. He was often called an Indian superman and compared to military greats such as Napoleon or Caeser.

Chief Joseph (as he was known to the whites) had been elected to lead a band of Nez Perce Indians when he was still only a young man. He adopted a strategy of seeking peaceful co-existence. For many years he tried to reach an agreement with the white settlers and only wanted to live in harmony with the newcomers. However, his tribe lived in a fertile area, that the white settlers wanted. The Nez Perce tribe were ordered off their lands and given a month to evacuate their ancestral land. If they failed they would be attacked by the US army under General Howard. Some of the Nez Perce wanted to stand and fight. Chef Joseph argued against this and stated that it was best that they left the area and sought new lands elsewhere.

Chief Joseph convinced them to follow him  rather than face war. He knew that the small Nez Perce tribe could not resist the might of the American army with their sophisticated weapons.  The Chef lead his people on a difficult journey  across the dangerous Snake and Salmon River canyons to a camp in a remote area. Here the Chief hoped to live in peace away from the white settlers. However, a small band of young warriors wanted to fight and they launched an attack on the settlers and killed some, this started the Nez Perce War in 1877. For a period during the war Chief Joseph was sidelined as those who advocated a war against the whites took charge of the tribe. The Nez Perce under Chef Joseph’s brother managed to evade the American Army and also to inflict some casualties on the pursuing troopers. Olikut was the leader of the Nez Perce and he led his people on a journey of some 1600 miles, all over the American North West. The Americans were impressed by the bravery and the cunning of the Nez Perce and they erroneously believed that Chief Joseph was still their leader. In fact, he was a diplomat and he was responsible for negotiations with the Americans. However, the Eastern newspapers mistakenly believed that Chief Joseph was also the tribe’s military commander. The Nez Perce survived countless attacks by the army but suffered very heavy losses . By chance, the only leader of the Nez Perce to survive was Chief Joseph and it fell to him to surrender to the army.  The Nez Perce had no choice they had no food or supplies and many were sick and they were facing a hard winter. He surrendered to the army in October 1877 and his eloquence and dignity impressed the whites. He vowed that ‘I will fight no more’’.

Title Nez Perce encampment, Lapwai, Idaho, July 4, ca. 1899 Date ca. 1899 Notes Bird's eye view of about 75 tepees in a circle with a variety of animals and people in activities around them. "Collected while at Camas Prairie, Id. 1899" Subjects Indian encampments--Idaho--Lapwai Lapwai (Idaho) Location Depicted United States--Idaho--Lapwai Object Type Photographs Negative Number L97-18.71 Collection F. Young Repository Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture Restrictions Transmission Data Image/JPEG
Nez Perce Encampment in Idaho (1899)

Chief Joseph lived out the rest of his life in peace, on a reservation. He was a popular symbol of the noble Indian, many in white American admired him and his commitment to peace.  However, history has generally credited him with too much of a role in the remarkable adventures of the Nez Perce and their survival.