Chief Joseph: The Tragic Journey That Led to His Famous Surrender

On October 5, 1877 Chief Joseph and his tribe the Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army. Learn about the tribe’s way of life and their final act of defiance.
Icons of the Wild West: Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph. (Photo: MPI/Getty Images)

It was called the Nez Perce War, but for the native people of the Wallowa Valley, it was a fight for survival. In 1877 the federal government pressured the Nez Perce to give up millions of acres of their homelands to the feed the gold rush. Refusing to be forced onto a reservation, a band of about 700 men, women, children, and elders treked 1,400 miles from what is now eastern Oregon, crossing through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in an attempt to reach Canada. Along the way, they faced exhaustion and starvation while battling 2,000 U.S. soldiers.

Sadly, they never reached their goal. Just 40 miles shy of the Canadian border, the group found themselves surrounded by the U.S. Army. By then, the frigid weather, dwindling supplies, and endless miles of merciless terrain had taken its toll. On this day in 1877, the war ended when Chief Joseph surrendered to U.S. General Nelson A. Miles, famously uttering: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Nez Perce Warrior Photo

A Nez Perce warrior. (Photo: Edward S. Curtis via Wikimedia Commons)

They call themselves Nimipu, the real people. Long before white settlers ventured into their territory, the Nez Perce occupied an estimated 28,000 square miles. Experts at breeding horses, they climbed atop their appaloosas and roamed across the vast stretches of grasslands west of the Rocky Mountains. Throughout the year, they would travel to where food was most available; crossing the Bitterroot Mountains to hunt buffalo, salmon fishing in the Columbia River, and harvesting camas root near the Clearwater River.

Named Nez Perce by French Canadian fur traders, the tribe had peaceful relationships with outsiders. When Lewis and Clark first met the Nez Perce in 1805, the weary and hungry explorers were greeted with a meal of buffalo, dried salmon, and camas bread. The tribe enjoyed strong relationships with members of their expedition, exchanging gifts and passing on local knowledge, such as canoe building.

Nez Perce tribesmen and an Appaloosa, circa 1895. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Nez Perce tribesmen and an Appaloosa, circa 1895. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But eventually those relationships began to fray. Although they had welcomed traders, missionaries, and explorers, the Nez Perce soon felt the oncoming tidal wave as more whites began to appear, attracted by the rich resources of their ancestral home. Chief Joseph once remarked: “It has always been the pride of the Nez Perce that they were the friends of the white men. But we soon found that the white men were growing very rich very fast and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had."

In 1855, the chiefs grudgingly signed a treaty with the U.S. government, giving them a reservation that included most of their traditional homelands. But soon after, gold was found within their territory -- a tragic discovery for the Nez Perce. Tens of thousands of Americans rushed to their reservation, in violation of the treaty. The U.S. government pressured the tribe to sign a new treaty, which took away 90% of the land away from the tribe. Some groups complied. Others, including Chief Joseph’s group, did not. Forced to leave the land of their ancestors, the group was relocated to Idaho. Along their journey, three young Nez Perce warriors, were believed to have massacred a band of white settlers. Fearing retaliation by the U.S. Army, the chief helped lead one of the great retreats in American military history.

Although it was a victory for the U.S. Army, for the Nez Perce the war was a tragedy. Forced to leave the land of their ancestors, the group journeyed through unforgiving wilderness for over three months. Many were killed, horses were lost, and members of the tribe were eventually taken prisoner or sent into exile.

Even today, Chief Joseph's famous surrender speech immortalizes him as a great leader during a deeply tragic time:

Chief Joseph Family Photo

Chief Joseph with his family, circa 1880. (Photo: By F. M. Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, "Yes" or "No." He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. 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.