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Chief Joseph

Biography >> Native Americans

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe
Chief Joseph by William H. Jackson

Early Life

Chief Joseph was born a member of the Nez Perce tribe of Wallowa Valley, Oregon in 1840. His Nez Perce name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt which means Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. Young Joseph was the son of Joseph the Elder, the local chief. He grew up close friends with his brother Ollokot. He learned how to ride horses, hunt, and fish at a young age.

Joseph the Elder

When Joseph was just a young boy, settlers from the United States began to move into the land of the Nez Perce. In 1855, his father came to an agreement with the governor of Washington as to which land would remain Nez Perce land. There was peace between the Nez Perce and the settlers for several years.

Gold Rush

In the early 1860s, gold was discovered on the Nez Perce land. The U.S. government wanted the land and demanded that the Nez Perce agree to new deal. In 1863, they told the Nez Perce to move out of the Wallowa Valley and into Idaho. Chief Joseph the Elder refused. He felt the governor had lied to him when he made the first agreement.

Becoming Chief

In 1871, Joseph the Elder died and Young Joseph became chief. Before his father died, Joseph promised his father that he would not sell the land of the Wallowa Valley. Joseph did everything he could to keep the peace with the settlers. However, in 1877 one of the other Nez Perce bands got into a fight and killed several white settlers. He knew the peace had come to an end.

Nez Perce War

Chief Joseph knew his small tribe of 800 people and 200 warriors were no match for the United States army. In order to save his people he began a retreat. He hoped to make it to Canada where he would meet up with the Sioux tribe of Sitting Bull.

Map of the Nez Perce retreat
Flight of the Nez Perce by Unknown
(click picture for larger view)

The retreat of Chief Joseph is called the Nez Perce War. It is often considered one of the most masterful retreats in military history. With just 200 warriors, Chief Joseph managed to take his people 1,400 miles while fighting fourteen battles against the much larger and better equipped U.S. army. However, eventually he ran out of food, blankets, and many of his warriors had been killed. He was nearly to the Canadian border when he was forced to surrender on October 5, 1877.

Chief Joseph's Speech

Chief Joseph is famous for the speech he gave when he surrendered:

"I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men 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".

Rights Activist

After surrendering, the Nez Perce were forced to go to a reservation in Oklahoma. Eventually they were allowed to move back to Idaho in 1885, but this was still far away from their home in Wallowa Valley.

Chief Joseph spent the rest of his life fighting peacefully for the rights of his people. He met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and President Theodore Roosevelt to state his case. He hoped that one day the freedom of the United States would also apply to Native Americans and his people.

Interesting Facts about Chief Joseph Activities

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