Chief Joseph’s Own Story

Last Updated on June 15, 2014 by

Chief Joseph’s Own Story: With an Introduction by the Rt. Rev. W. H. Hare, D.D., Bishop of South Dakota 1

Wish that I had words at command in which to express adequately the interest with which I have read the extraordinary narrative which follows, and which I have the privilege of introducing to the readers of this Review. I feel, however, that this apologia is so boldly marked by the charming naiveté and tender pathos which characterizes the red-man, that it needs no introduction, much less any authentication; while in its smothered fire, in its deep sense of eternal righteousness and of present evil, and in its hopeful longings for the coming of a better time, this Indian chief’s appeal reminds us of one of the old Hebrew prophets of the days of the Captivity.

I have no special knowledge of the history of the Nez Percés, the Indians whose tale of sorrow Chief Joseph so pathetically tells – my Indian missions lying in a part at the West quite distant from their old home and am not competent to judge their case upon its merits. The chief’s narrative is, of course, ex-parte, and many of his statements would no doubt be ardently disputed. General Howard, for instance, can hardly receive justice at his hands, so well known is he for his friendship to the Indian and for his distinguished success in pacifying some of the most desperate.

It should be remembered, too, in justice to the army, that it is rarely called upon to interfere in Indian affairs until the relations between the Indians and the whites have reached a desperate condition, and when the situation of affairs has become so involved and feeling on both sides runs so high that perhaps only more than human forbearance would attempt to solve the difficulty by disentangling the knot and not by cutting it.

Nevertheless, the chief’s narrative is marked by so much candor, and he is so careful to qualify his statements, when qualification seems necessary, that every reader will give him credit for speaking his honest, even should they be thought by some to be mistaken, convictions. The chief, in his treatment of his defense, reminds one of those lawyers of whom we have heard that their splendid success was gained, not by disputation, but simply by their lucid and straightforward statement of their case. That he is something of a strategist as well as an advocate appears from this description of an event which occurred shortly after the breaking out of hostilities: “We crossed over Salmon River, hoping General Howard would follow. We were not disappointed. He did follow us, and we got between him and his supplies, and cut him off for three days.” Occasionally the reader comes upon touches of those sentiments and feelings which at once establish a sense of kinship between all who possess them. Witness his description of his desperate attempt to rejoin his wife and children when x sudden dash of General Miles’ soldiers had cut the Indian camp in two. . . “I thought of my wife and children, who were now surrounded by soldiers, and I resolved to go to them. With a prayer in my mouth to the Great Spirit Chief who rules above, I dashed unarmed through the line of soldiers. … My clothes were cut to pieces, my horse was wounded, but I was not hurt.” And, again, when he speaks of his father’s death: “I saw he was dying. I took his hand in mine He said: `My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. . . A few more years the white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body – never sell the bones of your father and mother.’ I pressed my father’s hand, and told him I would protect his grave with my life. My father smiled, and passed away to the spirit- land. I buried him in that beautiful valley of Winding Waters. I love that land more than all the rest of the world. A man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.”

His appeals to the natural rights of man are surprisingly fine, and, however some may despise them as the utterance of an Indian, they are just those which, in our Declaration of Independence, have been most admired. “We are all sprung from a woman,” he says, “although we are unlike in many things. You are as you were made, and, as you are made, you can remain. We are just as we were made by the Great Spirit, and you cannot change us; then, why should children of one mother quarrel? Why should one try to cheat another ? I do not believe that the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do.”

But I will not detain the readers of the Review from the pleasure of perusing for themselves Chief Joseph’s statement longer than is necessary to express the hope that those who have time for no more will at least read its closing paragraph, and to remark that the narrative brings clearly out these facts which ought to be regarded as well-recognized principles in dealing with the red man:

  1. The folly of any mode of treatment of the Indian which is not based upon a cordial and operative acknowledgment of his rights as our fellow-man.
  2. The danger of riding roughshod over a people who are capable of high enthusiasm, who know and value their national rights, and are brave enough to defend them.
  3. The liability to want of harmony between different departments and different officials of our complex Government, from which it results that, while many promises are made to the Indians, few of them are kept. It is a home-thrust when Chief Joseph says: “The white people have too many chiefs. They do not understand each other . . . . I cannot understand how the Government sends a man out to fight us, as it did General Miles, and then break his word. Such a Government has something wrong about it.”
  4. The unwisdom, in most cases, in dealing with Indians, of what may be termed Military short-cuts, instead of patient discussion, explanations, persuasion, and reasonable concessions.
  5. The absence in an Indian tribe of any truly representative body competent to make a treaty which shall be binding upon all the bands. The failure to recognize this fact has been the source of endless difficulties. Chief Joseph, in this case, did not consider a treaty binding which his band had not agreed to, no matter how many other bands had signed it; and so it has been in many other cases.
  6. Indian chiefs, however able and influential, are really without power, and for this reason, as well as others, the Indians, when by the march of events they are brought into intimate relations with the whites, should at the earliest practicable moment be given the support and protection of our Government and of our law; not local law, however, which is apt to be the result of special legislation adopted solely in the interest of the stronger race.



  1. This and the following chapter are taken from The North American Review for 1879, by the gracious permission of Messrs. Harper and Brothers, the present publishers of the magazine and the owners of the copyright. – C. T. B.[]


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