Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War, by Daniel J. Sharfstein, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2017, $29.95
The Nez Perce War of 1877—which saw its share of fighting but was more about the tribe’s flight to freedom—has been much written about, including hundreds of pages by Oliver Otis Howard (aka the “Christian General”), one of the major participants on the soldiers’ side. On the other side was the celebrated Chief Joseph, who was no war chief (though falsely labeled a “red Napoléon”) but successfully led the 1,200-mile trek and was an eloquent spokesman for his people before and after the war. Other fine books on the subject include Nez Perce Summer, 1877, by Jerome A. Greene; Children of Grace, by Bruce Hampton; Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce, by Kent Nerburn; The Last Indian War, by Elliott West; The Long Journey of the Nez Perce, by Kevin Carson; Yellow Wolf: His Own Story, by L.V. McWhorter; and Chief Joseph, by Candy Moulton.
Even those who’ve delved into those other titles should make room on the shelf for Thunder in the Mountains, for while authors keep churning out books about George Custer, Sitting Bull and the Little Bighorn, the Nez Perce flight/fight and its participants pack as much punch and human drama and nearly as much name recognition. The words of Chief Joseph are better known than anything Sitting Bull ever said, and in his own way Joseph fought just as hard as the Lakota leader for what he believed and how his people should be treated. No Indian wars general can draw attention like Custer, but Howard had already made a name for himself in the Civil War and his peacemaking efforts with the Apache Cochise, and joining him in the Nez Perces’ final battle (Bear Paw) and Chief Joseph’s surrender was General Nelson Miles, who would later accept the final surrender of the defiant Apache Geronimo. In short, publishers recognize a compelling story and have made certain the Nez Perce War won’t be forgotten.
This latest offering by Daniel Sharfstein, a professor at Vanderbilt, interweaves the stories of Howard and Joseph, who negotiated with one another in an attempt to avoid war, crossed paths on the Idaho and Montana battlefields and afterward shared on occasion their memories and thoughts. The author also breaks away for several long and interesting asides. For example, he devotes many pages to Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who became an aide to friend and mentor Howard and later advocated for civil liberties and spoke out against imperialism. Scharfstein also has much to say about the equally engaging Nez Perce Yellow Wolf, who fought bravely during the war, escaped to Canada (where Sitting Bull was residing) instead of surrendering with Joseph, and later related his own story with the help of L.V. McWhorter. At one point during the fighting Yellow Wolf spirited Joseph’s younger wife, Springtime, and their daughter out of harm’s way. Yellow Wolf himself didn’t die until 1935, 31 years after Chief Joseph died alone in his tepee of what his doctor said was a “broken heart.”