General Howard’s Comment on Joseph’s Narrative

On reading in the North American Review for April the article entitled “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs,” I was so pleased with Chief Joseph’s statement – necessarily ex parte though it was, and naturally inspired by resentment toward me as a supposed enemy – that at first I had no purpose of making a rejoinder. But when I saw in the Army and Navy Journal long passages quoted from Joseph’s tale, which appeared to reflect unfavorably upon my official conduct, to lay upon me the blame of the atrocious murders committed by the Indians, and to convict me of glaring faults where I had deemed myself worthy only of commendation, I addressed to the editor of that journal a communication (which has been published) correcting misstatements, and briefly setting forth the facts of the case.

If I had had the power and management entirely in my hands, I believe I could have healed that old sore, and established peace and amity with Joseph’s Indians. It could only have been done, first, by a retrocession of Wallowa (already belonging to Oregon) to the United States and then setting that country apart forever for the Indians without the retention of any Government authority whatever; and, second, by the removal therefrom of every white settler, making to each a proper remuneration for his land and improvements. But this power I did not have, and the Indian management did not belong to my department.

Now permit me to present a few simple facts which will show whether, in manner or matter, I have failed to meet the requirements of the situation . . . . Governor Stevens and Joel Palmer, in 1855, made a treaty with the Nez Perces, including all the different bands. Joseph’s bands were parties to the treaty, and Joseph’s father signed it. This ceded and relinquished to the United States all land that the Nez Perces claimed outside of the limits then fixed and agreed upon.

This treaty, be it remembered, included Wallowa and Imnaha Valleys. In 1863 the United States, by their commissioners, made another treaty with the Nez Perces – fifty-one chiefs participating. This treaty reduced the limits so as to constitute the reservation in Lapwai, as it now is, and ceded all the land outside to the United States. Wallowa and Imnaha were left out.

Joseph’s band, and a few other bands, now known as the Salmon River or White Bird’s band, lived east of the reservation, and the Palouse or Hush-hush-cute’s band, west of the same. These, with a few more, on and off the reserve, constitute what are called “non-treaties.” The vast majority who made the treaty have kept good faith and are called “treaty Indians.” James Lawyer, the present head-chief, is an excellent man; dresses as a white man, and has a good house and farm. Now, notice the difference; Joseph says: “Governor Stevens urged my father to sign the treaty (1855), but he refused”; and then he goes on to give us a graphic account of this refusal and its consequences. He “cautioned his people to take no presents.” He “was invited to many councils, and they tried hard to make him sign the treaty, but he was firm as a rock and would not sign away his home,” etc. Now, all this is very fine; yet his father did sign the treaty. His name is the third on the list, and there are eleven white witnesses, besides the makers of the instrument.

Governor Grover says in his message: “The reservation named became the common property of the whole tribe.” Joseph and his band acknowledged these conclusions also, by accepting the benefit of the treaty of 1855.

Such is the record of history, in precise contradiction to Young Joseph’s traditional statement. But he states truly the claim (based on the treaty of 1863), of the United States to Wallowa, and Joseph’s constant demurrer thereto. The underlying cause of all the troubles, finally resulting in the war, is Joseph’s assumption that, as sub-chief, he is not bound by this treaty, inasmuch as he has ever refused to sign it.

Again, the account of Joseph concerning his father’s death, and his home, is beautiful and quite affecting. I dislike to mar the effect of it, yet it is a known fact that when the United States agents sought to make some definite arrangement, proposing to give this land to the tribe as a home, the offer was refused. The Governor of Oregon writes in 1873: “This small band wish the possession of this large section of Oregon simply to gratify a wild, roaming disposition, and not for a home.” And even up to the last peace council the objection was not that “you take from us our home” (for they intended to live part of the year with the remainder of the tribe), but ” you take away our liberty; fix bounds to our habitation, and give law to us. The land is ours, and not yours.

Joseph’s pictures of frontier troubles between whites and Indians are graphic and true. The killing of a member of his tribe by a white man he refers to. This came near causing an outbreak. The troops intervened between the settlers and the Indians, and the latter quieted down. But the slow process of the civil law, and the prejudice against Indians in all frontier courts, almost invariably prevent the punishment of crimes against Indians. I did what I could to further the ends of justice, in bringing the guilty to trial; but my efforts in this case resulted in nothing. The Indian has a complaint against us (army and agents), because we can and do punish him, but do not and cannot punish white men who steal the Indian’s property and take life.

“But no war was made on my people until General Howard came to our country two years ago,” etc. This has all the summary brevity of Shakspere’s history, but is not more accurate. The facts are, that I had been in command of the department since the fall of 1874, and had many dealings with Joseph and his people.

The “non-treaties” became suspiciously restless during the Modoc troubles. This was quieted by my worthy predecessor, by sending a considerable force among them just after the Modoc War.

General Davis, speaking of a large gathering of Indians that boded difficulty at the Wee-ipe, says: “The troops did not interfere with the council (twelve hundred Indians), but their presence there for about ten days had the effect to disperse it. General dissatisfaction, however, seemed to prevail among the ‘non-treaty Nez Perce’ This was particularly the case with Joseph’s band, the claimants of Wallowa Valley.”

Again, the same year (1874), these Indians were so restless and threatening that Maj. John Green, First Cavalry, was sent to Wallowa Valley with two companies, and remained till the Indians left for their winter quarters.

The next year (1875), I say in my report: “The troubles at Lapwai and Wallowa Valley have not thus far resulted in bloodshed; but it has been prevented by great carefulness and provision on the part of the Government agents.”

The year following (1876), my report goes into the trouble again at length, mentioning the grave fact that “an Indian was killed by a white man in a dispute concerning some stock,” and winds up with these words: “And renew my recommendation of a commission to hear and settle the whole matter, before war is even thought of.” The commission was at last ordered, but not until after blood had been shed – not till after the Indians had stood up in battle array against armed citizens in Wallowa; and a conflict was averted only by the intervention of regular troops. The commission came, held its memorable sessions at Lapwai in November of 1876, and labored hard and long to get the consent of the disaffected “non-treaty Indians” to some measures of adjustment.

Here are a few of the facts developed by this commission: “The Dreamers, among other pernicious doctrines, teach that the earth being created by God complete, should not be disturbed by man; and that any cultivation of the soil or other improvements to interfere with its natural productions; any voluntary submission to the control of the Government; any improvement in the way of schools, churches, etc., are crimes from which they shrink. This fanaticism is kept alive by the superstition of these Dreamers, who industriously teach that if they continue steadfast in their present belief a leader will be raised up (in the East), who will restore all the dead Indians to life, who will unite with them in expelling the whites from their country, when they will again enter upon and repossess the lands of their ancestors. “Influenced by such belief, Joseph and his band firmly declined to enter into any negotiations, or make any arrangements that looked to a final settlement of the question pending between him and the Government . . . yet, in view of the fact that these Indians do not claim simply this (rights of occupancy), but set up an absolute title to the lands, an absolute and independent sovereignty, and refuse even to be limited in their claim and control, necessity, humanity, and good sense constrain the Government to set metes and bounds and give regulations to these non-treaty Indians. . . . And if the principle usually applied by the Government, of holding that the Indians with whom they have treaties are bound by majorities, is here applied, Joseph should be required to live within the limits of the present reservation.”

The commission, though firm and strong in the expression of its opinion, was very patient with and kind to the Indians. I was a member of this commission, and earnestly desired peace. I took Joseph’s brother by himself and showed him how much it would be for the Indians’ advantage to come to some settlement and spent a long time in giving him and his brother, in the kindest manner, the benefit of my counsel. They appeared at one time almost on the point of yielding, but bad advice intervened to renew the Dreamer sophistry. The commission promised that they should annually visit Wallowa, and so recommended. But here are a few closing words: “If these Indians overrun land belonging to the whites and commit depredations on their property, disturb the peace by threats or otherwise, or commit other overt acts of hostility, we recommend the employment of sufficient force to bring them into subjection, and to place them upon the Nez Perces Reservation. The Indian agent at Lapwai should be fully instructed to carry into execution these suggestions, relying at all times upon the department commander for aid when necessary.”

Now, there was nothing like precipitancy in all this; so that the wonderfully abrupt advent of General Howard, with a fear of the laughter of the white man in his heart, and a threat of violence on his tongue, is all fiction.

Doubtless Joseph was told that the commission had recommended “that Wallowa should be held by military occupation,” to prevent and not to make war, and that I should have the work to do.

This commissioner’s report was approved at Washington. The Indian Agent, Mr. Monteith, did all that lay in his power to carry out the recommendations at first without military aid.

The Indians called me to an interview first at Walla Walla, afterward at Lapwai. At Walla Walla the talk with Joseph’s brother Ollicut was exceedingly pleasant. I write of it, “The old medicine-man looks happy, and Ollicut believes we shall have no trouble. .

“I made the appointment for Lapwai in twelve days, but I went to Lewiston immediately to meet the officers of Fort Lapwai, and Indian Agent Monteith, to read to them carefully the full instructions from the Honorable Secretary of War, General Sherman, and the commanding general of the military division, in relation especially to the agency the military was to have in placing the Indians upon the reservation.”

I made a visit to Wallula and then returned by stage to meet the non-treaties at Lapwai the 3rd of May (1877). This is the council to which Joseph invited me, and not I him, as he alleges.

Before giving points in this interview in answer to Joseph’s statements, I must state that Mr. Monteith, Indian Agent, had been instructed by his chief at Washington, to bring the “non-treaty Nez Percés” upon their reservation. He had made his official demand upon me. I had been positively ordered to give the essential aid. There was now nothing left to parley about, yet to please the Indians I had promised to meet them again, and I did.

These picturesque people came in sight, after keeping us waiting long enough for effect. They drew near the hollow square of the post and in sight of us, the small company to be interviewed. They struck up their song. They were not armed except with a few “tomahawkpipes” that could be smoked with the peaceful tobacco or penetrate the skull-bone of an enemy, at the will of the holder”; yet, somehow, this wild song produces a strange effect. Our ladies, thinking it a war-song, ask with some show of trepidation, “Do you think Joseph means to fight ?” The Indians sweep around the fence and make the entire circuit, still keeping up the song as they ride, the buildings breaking the refrain into irregular bubblings of sound till the ceremony was completed.

After all had finally gathered at the tent, and Father Cataldo had opened by a prayer in the Nez Percés language, I turned to Joseph and said through Mr. Whitman (the interpreter): “I heard from your brother Ollicut, twelve days ago at Walla Walla, that you wished to see me. I am now here to listen to what you have to say.

Joseph then told me of other Indians coming and said, “You must not be in a hurry to go till all get in, to have a talk.”

I replied: “Mr. Monteith, the Indian Agent, and I have our instructions from Washington. They send us to your people. If you decide at once to comply with the wishes of the Government, you can have the first pick of vacant land. We will wait for White Bird if you desire it. Instructions to him are the same as to you. He can have his turn.” And an old Dreamer intimating that they wished a long talk, the answer is: “Mr. Monteith and I wished to hear what you have to say, whatever time it may take; but you may as well know at the outset that, in any event, the Indians must obey the orders of the Government of the United States.”

Mr. Monteith then read his instructions from the Indian Bureau to the Indians and had them carefully interpreted to them, and also explained how he had already informed them of the orders to come on the reservation through Reuben (then head-chief at Lapwai) and that they had scorned his message. “Now, you must come, and there is no getting out of it. Your Indians, and White Bird’s, can pick up your horses and cattle and come on the reservation. . . . General Howard will stay till matters are settled.”

Ollicut replied at length, objecting to considering matters settled.

I rejoined: “Joseph, the agent, Mr. Monteith, and myself are under the same Government. What it commands us to do, that we must do. The Indians are to come on the reservation first; then they may have privileges, as the agent has shown, to hunt and to fish in the Imnaha Valley. If the Indians hesitate to come to the reservation, the Government directs that soldiers be used to bring them hither. Joseph and Ollicut know that we are friends to them, and that if they comply there will be no trouble.”

Everybody at this council was in good humor, except two old Dreamers who tried to make a disturbance. I told them pointedly to give good advice. My manner I will not judge of. It is my usual manner, proceeding from the kindest of feelings, and from an endeavor to behave as a gentleman to the weakest or most ignorant human being. The Indians, excepting the two I have named, made no angry remarks. We shook hands and separated, to wait as Joseph had requested.

Joseph has turned this right about in the article published in the Review where it is stated that he said, “I am ready to talk to-day,” and that General Howard would not. His account runs two days’ interviews into one. Joseph never made that interesting speech ending with “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.” And I did never reply, “You want to dictate to me, do you?” We always treated each other with the most marked courtesy.

On May 4th Joseph made a brief speech: “This is White Bird; I spoke to you of him; this is the first time he has seen you and you him. I want him and his Indians to understand what has been said to us.”

White Bird was a demure-looking Indian, about five feet eight inches in height. His face assumed the condition of impassability while in council; he kept his ceremonial hat on, and placed a large eagle’s wing in front of his eyes and nose.

The sub-chief and Dreamer, Too-hool-hool-suit, was broad-shouldered, deep-chested, five feet ten in height, had a deep guttural voice, and betrayed in every word a strong and settled hatred of all Caucasians. This man the Indians now put forward to speak for them – not that they had already decided to indorse his sentiments, but because he always counseled war; they evidently desired to see what effect his public utterance would produce upon us.

Now, instead of the mild and respectful speech attributed to this surly Indian by Joseph, a speech that was followed by my causeless loss of temper, Mr. Monteith and I heard him patiently, for quite a length of time, asserting his independence and uttering rebellious speeches against the Washington authority. We replied firmly and kindly as before, explaining everything and showing the imperative nature of our instructions. The White Bird Indians were very tired that day, and Joseph again asked for delay. The record reads: “Let the Indians take time; let them wait till Monday morning, and meanwhile talk among themselves. So, with pleasant faces and cordial handshaking, the second interview broke up.”

How different this is from Joseph’s account of the affair, in which he condenses the whole narrative into the arrest of Too-hool-hool-suit upon his first appearance, and without provocation.

Now (Monday, May 7th), we came together again. The “non-treaties” had received large accessions. The display (previous to seating themselves) gave them great boldness. Our garrison was but a handful, and the manner of the Indians was now defiant. Mr. Monteith began in the kindest manner to show the Indians that their religion would not be interfered with, nor their ceremonies, unless the peace was disturbed by excessive drumming.|

Then Too-hool-hool-suit began in the most offensive style. We listened to the oft-repeated Dreamer nonsense with no impatience, till finally he accused us of speaking untruthfully about the chieftainship of the earth.

I thought the time had come to check his tirade. I was not in the least angry, if I recall my mood with accuracy; I did not lose my temper, but I did assume a severity of tone sufficient to show that I understood the drift of the council, and that we were not to be intimidated. My first words were: “I do not want to interfere with your religion, but you must talk about practicable things. Twenty times over I hear that the earth is your mother, and about the chieftainship of the earth; I want to hear it no more, but to come to business at once.”

He then talked against the treaty Indians, and said they had no law, or their law was born of to-day; then against us white people for attempting to divide the earth, and defiantly asking, “What do you mean?”

Mr. Monteith explained: “The law is, you must come to the reservation. The law is made in Washington; we don’t make it.” Then, again, the Dreamer goes over the same ground and becomes fiercer and fiercer. The crowd of Indians are becoming excited, and I saw that I must act, and that very promptly. The record is: “The rough old fellow, in his most provoking tone, says something in a short sentence, looking fiercely at me. The interpreter quickly says: `He demands what person pretends to divide the land and put me on it?’ In the most decided voice I said: `I am the man; I stand here for the President, and there is no spirit, good or bad, that will hinder me. My orders are plain and will be executed. I hoped that the Indians had good sense enough to make me their friend and not their enemy.”

From various unmistakable signs (I am no novice with Indians) I saw that immediate trouble was at hand. Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass indorsed and encouraged this malcontent. I must somehow put a wedge between them; so I turned to this Dreamer and said, “Then you do not propose to comply with the orders of the Government?”

After considerable more growling and impudence of manner, he answered with additional fierceness, “The Indians may do what they like, but I am not going on the reservation.” After telling the Indians that this bad advice would be their ruin, I asked the chiefs to go with me to look at their land. “The old man shall not go. I will leave him with Colonel Perry.” He says, ” Do you want to scare me with reference to my body?” I said ” I will leave your body with Colonel Perry.” I the: arose and led him out of the council, and gave him is charge of Colonel Perry.

The whole tone of the Indians now changed, and the readily agreed to go with me to look at their new home; They may have thought of killing me then and there but a bold, quick, unexpected action will often save you in extreme peril. Joseph’s manner was never defiant He rode with me to look at what Mr. Monteith had intended for him. A few Indians and some white sojourners would have to remove to other lands, to put Joseph’ people together. We lunched together at Mr. Colwell’ and then returned to the fort. White Bird and Looking Glass appeared to be happy and contented. They plead ed for the release of Too-hool-hool-suit; but I told then to wait until I had shown them their land which Mr. Monteith would designate. The next day we rode to Kamiah (sixty-five miles), and the next went to the lands intended. White Bird picked his near Looking Glass’s farms, and then we returned to Kamiah, and the next day following to Lapwai.

Too-hool-hool-suit was released on the pledge of Looking Glass and White Bird, and on his earnest promise to behave better and give good advice.

Now we must have our final interview, May 14th. Joseph concluded to go, too, near Kamiah with the rest. The promises were put in writing. No objection was made to thirty days, except by Hush-hush-cute. I gave him thirty-five days because he had not had so earl notice of removal.

I withheld the protection papers from Hush-hush cute because of something he said, which indicated that he was attempting to conceal his intentions. So I left his papers with the agent. There was general joy among the treaty Indians, non-treaty Indians, and whites, at the peaceful outcome of the councils, and I returned to Portland.

This idea that General Howard caused the war is an after-thought.

That story that Joseph asked me for more time is not true. That I sent orders to the soldiers to drive them out on their return to Wallowa is, of course, untrue; that would have disconcerted everything; on the contrary, the officers and soldiers were simply to occupy Wallowa in the interest of peace, and not use constraint unless forced to do so.

The statements with reference to our losses and those of the Indians are all wrong, and Joseph does not tell how his own Indians, White Bird and his followers, who treacherously escaped, after the terms of the surrender had been agreed upon between us at General Miles’ battle-field, being permitted by himself, did in fact utterly break and make void the said terms of surrender.

These Indians were to return to Idaho, not because of any promise, but because of General McDowell’s orders, requiring all the Nez Percé prisoners to be kept in my department. This order was changed by General Sherman, or at Washington.

By Maj.-Gen. O. O. Howard, United States Army (Retired)

History, Nez Perce,


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