1800s |

The Surrender of Chief Joseph – 10/5/1877

On October 5th of 1877, less than one month after the great Lakota Chief Crazy Horse was killed, Chief Joseph, a famous Chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe, surrendered to U.S. Troops, after a heart wrenching chase of almost 1,200 miles that ended just about three hundred yards short of the Canadian border. This is what became known as the Nez Perce war.

Chief Joseph had planned to seek asylum with Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, who had already escaped to Canada, but would soon be forced to return to the United States.

Chief Joseph was born Hinmuuttu Yalatlat in 1840, somewhere in northeastern Oregon. In English, his name meant Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain.

His father, Joseph the Elder, signed a treaty with the United States government in 1855, which separated settlement lands from Indian lands. The treaty allowed 7.7 million acres set aside for the Nez Perce reservation. The land occupied parts of eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and Idaho. Joseph the Elder made his son (Joseph the Younger) promise never to sell this land, and to protect his father's burial site at all costs.

In 1863, the U.S. Government asked the Nez Perce to accept a much smaller piece of land, in exchange for hospitals and schools being built there, as well as financial rewards. Some Nez Perce Chiefs signed the new treaty, while others (including Chief Joseph the Elder) did not. This caused a rift between the treaty Indians, who entered the smaller land area, and the non-treaty Indians, who stayed where they were.

Then Joseph the Elder surrounded the Wallowa valley with markers and signs that said “Inside this boundary, all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

As his father lay dying, Joseph the Younger became the leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce. Once again, his father made him promise to protect the graves of his parents (in other words, don't sell the land). Chief Joseph later remarked, “I clasped my fathers hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father's grave is worse than a wild beast.”

Chief Joseph went on to lead his Wallowa band through the most difficult part of their history, as they were increasingly outnumbered by white American settlers. For fear of reprisal by the American military, Chief Joseph would not allow any violence, preferring to just give in to the settlers demands whenever possible. Despite his reputation for pacifism, eventually, all Nez Perce were forced to move to the smaller land area in Idaho Territory.

In the end, Chief Joseph and his band of about 750 men outmaneuvered the United States Army for more than three months. Their traveling took them through the rugged terrain of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

Finally, on October 5th of 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered.

In September of 1904, Chief Joseph died, still in exile from his homeland. His doctor listed the cause of death as “a broken heart.”

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Mark Hinderberg


Retired History Professor at Vanderbilt University. Love taking a portal through time and sharing my knowledge with anyone else who loves reading about history. It is my passion and my greatest hobby.