Nez Percé Indian War

By the Nez Percé Treaty of June 11, 1855, that tribe of Indians relinquished to the United States their title in and to the area of territory described in said treaty, excepting the large reservation of country defined, in which reservation was embraced the Wallowa valley. Upon the 9th of June, 1863, Calvin H. Hale, Superintendent of Indian Affairs of Washington Territory, and Indian Agents Samuel D. Howe and Charles Hutchins, Commissioners on the part of the United States, concluded a supplementary treaty between the United States and the several bands of the said Nez Percé nation, the latter being represented by fifty-one chiefs, headmen and delegates, all of whom subscribed said treaty. By the latter treaty Wallowa valley was excluded from the reservation. In other words, it was surrendered to the United States and the Indian title thereto extinguished. Old Joseph subscribed the treaty of 1855. His band had participated in the Walla Walla Council.

By order of the general land-office, May 28, 1867, Wallowa valley and vicinity were surveyed as public lands and declared open for settlement. Under that order eleven townships were surveyed, and the plats approved May 9, 1868. Eighty-seven pre-emption and homestead claims were filed. The effects of the treaty of 1863 was to divide the Nez Percé nation. Those who agreed to that treaty were called “Treaty Indians.” Those who claimed that they had not been parties to that treaty, and who refused to consent to the modified reservation, or to the surrender of the territory, became known as “Non-treaty Nez Percé.” Old Joseph had died in 1871, leaving two sons, Joseph and Ollicott, who claimed Wallowa valley as the home of their band, and repudiated the treaty of 1863, by which the other bands of Nez Percé had relinquished the territory.

Young Joseph, who succeeded his father as chief, became the most prominent leader of the “non-treaties.” During the year 1871, and the years immediately following, a number of white settlers took claims in Wallowa valley. Joseph ordered them to leave, but attempted no violent demonstration. The discontent of the Indians continued to manifest itself. Their conduct became more offensive, defiant and threatening. The disaffection became more and more wide-spread, and has assumed the shape of organized opposition to white occupancy.

In 1874 the settlers complained to General Davis, commanding the Department of the Columbia, that the “non-treaties” or malcontents had congregated in large numbers in Paradise and other valleys, ostensibly for the purpose of digging roots; but that they, however, were very defiant and impudent to the settlers, and threatened mischief. General Davis dispatched two companies of troops to the vicinity, who remained till the Indians dispersed. In 1875 President Grant issued an executive order proclaiming Wallowa valley public land of the United States, and open to settlement. Two cavalry companies were sent to the valley to see that the Indians remained quiet.

After General Howard, U.S. Army, had assumed the command of the Department of the Columbia, being impressed with the belief that he could solve the Indian problem peaceably, he held several councils with the “non-treaties,” but without material result. He failed to convince them that they were under obligation to live up to the treaty, or that they should go on the Nez Percé Reservation. Finally he and Indian Agent Monteith, as commissioners on behalf of the government, informed them that the government would issue an order directing them to go upon the reservation; and that, upon their failure to comply, force would be employed to put them there. In January, 1877, the orders were received by the Indian agent at Lapwai to place the Nez Percé on the reservation. The agent communicated notice of the order to all the bands. Patiently he labored to persuade the “non-treaties” to go upon the reservation. Failing, he obeyed the instruction to call upon the United States forces to assist in the execution of the order. General Howard spent much of April and May at Wallula, Fort Walla Walla and Lapwai in interviews and talks with the disaffected, urging very argument to have them voluntarily go upon the reservation.

Finally, on the 19th of May, they pretended to assent, but asked for thirty days in which to do so. General Howard consented; but believing that the Indians had no intention to comply with his orders, and that the delay was a ruse to gain time to organize their forces and make preparations for open hostilities, he at once concentrated all his available troops in the vicinity of the disaffected country. Before the thirty days had elapsed, White Bird appeared in Wallowa valley and murdered a number of defenseless women and children. that war chief of the “non-treaties” arrayed in his war paint, rode through the country, defying the Whites and loudly proclaiming that they would not go upon the reservation, that the country belonged to them, and that they would kill soldiers or citizens who opposed their keeping it.

About the same time an outbreak had occurred at Mount Idaho, twenty white men and women having been murdered, and a number of women brutally outraged. On hearing this, general Howard sent, June 15th, two companies of United States cavalry, Captains Perry and Trimble, to White Bird cañon, where White Bird’s band was found in force. The Indians opened fire on Captain Perry’s command, which he returned. After an hour’s severe fighting, Perry was compelled to fall back on Grangeville, sixteen miles distant, the Indians pursuing and fighting him all the way. He lost thirty men and one officer, Lieutenant Theller. On June 21st, eight companies, or rather fractions of companies, amounting in all to something over two hundred effective men rank and file, were at Fort Lapwai with a small company of volunteers under Captain Paige. General Howard took the field in person.

The march commenced at noon on the twenty-second. Detachments of troops were sent in several directions, all of which were to concentrate at Johnson’s Ranch, near Grangeville. From there the column moved to the head of White Bird cañon. Preparations were now made to cross the Salmon river. Joseph with his Indians had avoided an engagement. Several skirmishes had taken place, the little detachment commanded by Lieutenant S. M. Rains having all been murdered on scouting service. On the 11th of July the Indians were discovered encamped on the South fork of the Clearwater. In Joseph’s camp were three hundred warriors, perhaps an equal number of squaws, who rendered most efficient assistance in providing spare horses and ammunition, and many boys bearing arms. General Howard’s fighting force was four hundred men. The battle of Clearwater continued for two days, when the Indians scattered and fled in every direction, closely pursued by the troops. Joseph lost twenty-three killed, forty wounded, many of whom subsequently died; and forty were taken prisoners. General Howard’s loss was thirteen killed and twenty-two wounded.

The Indian camp was abandoned in haste; and the lodges were left standing, filled with their effects, blankets, buffalo robes, cooking utensils, food cooking on the fires, flour, jerked beef and plunder of all descriptions 1

General Howard renewed the pursuit the next morning, in the direction of Kamiah. The Indians crossed the Clearwater and reconcentrated at We-ipe creek; and on the fifteenth Joseph started for Montana and the buffalo country by the Lolo trail. On having ascertained this, General Howard sent couriers to the nearest telegraph station to advise General Sherman and the posts east of the Bitter Root Mountains of the flight of Joseph and the hostiles. He also sent notice to General John Gibbon, commanding the District of Montana, reporting the situation, that Joseph had started across the Lolo trail, and requested the sending of troops to intercept the hostiles, if possible; while he should follow them with such force as could be available.

General Gibbon at once sent orders to Captain Rawn, commanding Fort Missoula, to watch the fugitives, head them off, hold them if possible, or turn them back. Captain Rawn’s command consisted of his own and Captain William Logan’s company of the Seventh Infantry; and they were reinforced by a hundred Montana citizens. Advised of the approach of the Indians, they took a position at the mouth of a cañon on Lolo creek, which they fortified. Joseph advanced the next day, and sent a flag of truce, asking to pass quietly into the valley. Captain Rawn demanded the surrender of the arms of the party, which occasioned two days parley. Many of the citizens urged the granting of Joseph’s request. At the end of the second day, Joseph notified Captain Rawn that he was going into the valley the next morning. At daylight firing was heard along the skirmish line, as though the Indians designed attack. While all were intent on watching the front, it was ascertained that Joseph had left a few men to skirmish with the pickets; while the main body, through gulches, has passed the lines of works. Captain Rawn pursued the fugitives as quickly as possible, but failed to overtake them before they reached Bitter Root valley. He found them encamped in a strong position on a ridge in a body of timber. As it was the height of rashness with his force to attack them, he returned to his post to await reinforcements.

On the 30th of July, General Howard, his force now strengthened to seven hundred men, began the march across the Lolo trail. General Gibbon, having received General Howard’s dispatch, with a force of one hundred and forty-six United States troops and seventeen officers, and thirty-six citizen volunteers, who joined him on the march, proceeded to Fort Missoula. Joseph had been reinforced by eighteen lodges of renegade Nez Percé under the chieftainship of Poker Joe. Joseph had with him four hundred warriors and one hundred and fifty squaws. General Gibbon came up with the enemy on the 8th of August. At early daylight on the next morning he surprised the hostile camp, charged it, and drove the Indians out. Throughout the day the fight continued, and part of the next day; when General Howard with a party, coming up, the Indians fled. The loss of General Gibbon was thirty-one killed, among whom were Captain William Logan, First Lieutenant James H. Bradley, First Lieutenant William L. English and Second Lieutenant C.A. Woodruff; thirty-six wounded, among whom were General John Gibbon, Captain Constant Williams, First Lieutenant C.A. Coolidge.

The Indian loss was eighty-nine buried. Joseph subsequently admitted a loss of two hundred and eight. Among the Indian slain were the war chief and diplomat Looking-glass, and Tups-sis-il-pilp and Wallitze, two of the three Indian murderers who precipitated the war. General Howard resumed the pursuit as soon as practicable. He followed the hostiles through the mountains. Having learned their intention to escape into the British possessions, he sent a courier to General Miles at Fort Keogh; and that efficient officer and brilliant Indian fighter headed off the fugitives at Bear paw Mountain. Before reaching that last battle-ground, Joseph had attacked General Howard on the 19th and 20th of August, at camas Meadows, but had been beaten off. General Sturgis had struck him on the 13th of September. Desultory firing lasted four days. On the 4th of October, he surrendered to General Miles. In that battle Ollicott and old Too-hul-hul-sote were among the slain. White Bird escaped with a small band, and crossed the British boundary. The remainder, between three and four hundred men, women and children, were transferred to the Indian Territory, and located on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas river. Congress passed an act March 3, 1885, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to send them to any Indian reservation which he might choose, they have since been escorted by troops back to Idaho. A portion has returned to the Nez Percé nation. Joseph and the remainder are on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington.Citations:

  1. O. O. Howard, Chief Joseph: His pursuit and Capture.[]

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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