From across a freezing Montana battlefield on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce rode into the camp of U.S. Army Colonel Nelson Miles and surrendered his rifle. ‘I am tired,’ he said. ‘My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.’ With those words he ended the war between 750 Nez Perce–500 of them women, children, and elderly–and 2,000 soldiers, a four-month battle that had ranged across 1,200 miles. ‘Our chiefs are dead,’ Joseph told Miles. ‘The old men are all dead… The little children are freezing to death.’
Joseph would never again live on the land for which he had fought. The American government sent him and the 430 Nez Perce who surrendered with him to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Those who survived the malaria there were later moved to Indian Territory. Eventually some returned to live on the Nez Perce reservation, close to their former home. In 1885 Joseph was exiled to a reservation in Washington Territory, where he died on September 21, 1904.
The origins of the war that caused Joseph and the Nez Perce so much hardship and grief lay in the Wallowa country of northeast Oregon. For generations it had been the Nez Perce homeland, but the arrival of white settlers in the region led to violence. Settlers killed as many as 30 Nez Perce during the 1860s and ’70s, yet few of the accused ever stood trial, and those who did were acquitted.
One such fatal confrontation occurred on a summer day the year before Joseph’s surrender. Two settlers from the Wallowa Valley rode into a Nez Perce hunting camp searching for missing horses. When they rode out, a Nez Perce warrior named Wilhautyah (Wind Blowing) lay dead, shot by one of the settlers. The recoil from that shot started a chain of events that led to the Nez Perce War.
At the time of Wilhautyah’s death, the Nez Perce were embroiled in a struggle to remain on their ancestral homeland. The roots of conflict stretched back to an 1855 treaty that gave the Wallowa country to the Nez Perce and an 1863 treaty that took it away after gold was discovered on Indian land.
Old Joseph, Chief Joseph’s father and the leader of the Wallowa band, refused to sign the second treaty. His Nez Perce considered the valley their home, even as homesteaders began building cabins and planting crops there. Other Nez Perce did sign the treaty and agreed to live on the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho Territory. They were known as the treaty Nez Perce.
In 1873 President Ulysses S. Grant issued an Executive Order that divided the valley between homestead sites and an Indian reservation. Two years later, Grant gave into pressure from whites wanting to settle there and revoked the order, reopening the entire valley to settlement and sealing the fate of the Nez Perce. It was only a matter of time before they would be forced from the Wallowa Valley and onto a reservation. Unaware of what lay ahead, Indians and whites lived as reluctant neighbors until the day Alexander B. Findley noticed five of his horses were missing.
According to Union County Circuit Court records, Findley, one of the valley’s first settlers, spent several days ‘thoroughly searching all the range my horses had run on since I had them.’ When on June 22, 1876, he came across a Nez Perce camp in the northern foothills, he decided his’suspicion that my horses were stolen were confirmed. I immediately returned to get assistance to search for my horses or their trail and try to recover them.’
He got help from three men, including Wells McNall, a 21-year-old known as an Indian-hater and troublemaker. Though the men saw no horses when they returned to the camp, Findley remained convinced he had found horse thieves. ‘We found tracks comparing or corresponding with my horses,’ he said. He and McNall went on alone, following the tracks to a hunting camp containing a cache of venison. Findley ‘told Mr. McNall we would return home and get more help.’
The next morning, however, Findley and McNall rode back to the second camp alone and watched from a distance. After about 90 minutes a Nez Perce approached from the woods, and the two white men rode down to meet him. By the time they reached the camp, three Nez Perce were there. One of them was Wilhautyah, a close friend of Chief Joseph of the Wallowa Nez Perce band. Exactly what happened next is subject to debate.
Findley said he dismounted and grabbed a Nez Perce weapon leaning against a tree, one of three hunting rifles in the Indian camp. ‘[I] told the Indians I believed they had stolen and we wanted them to go to the settlement until we had an understanding about the matter. They did not consent to go.’
According to Findley he then put the Nez Perce rifle beside one that had been lying on the ground, and McNall laid a third rifle that had been near him beside the others. With the Indians unarmed, Findley and McNall again tried to persuade them to go to the settlement. The Nez Perce again refused, an argument erupted, and Wilhautyah and McNall ended up wrestling for McNall’s rifle.
‘The next thing I knew,’ Findley said, ‘McNall called on me to shoot.’ Then McNall’s rifle fired. ‘About the time of the report,’ Findley said, ‘I cocked my gun and held it ready, waiting to see the result of the scuffle over the gun of McNall. Resolved not to shoot until I saw our lives were in danger.’ When Findley fired, it seemed to surprise him. ‘I had not decided to shoot when I heard the report of my gun,’ he said. ‘I was not conscious of pulling the trigger.’
When recounting the story years later, Findley’s son, H.R. Findley, described a different ending, saying that the fight started when Wilhautyah grabbed McNall’s rifle, and the struggle lasted until a desperate McNall began cursing Findley, demanding that he shoot. ‘It was then that [my father] took careful aim and killed Wilhautyah,’ the younger Findley said. Whether the killing was accidental or deliberate, the two white men quickly left the scene. When word of the incident spread settlers feared Nez Perce retaliation. Some barricaded themselves in McNall’s blockhouse-like cabin.
The next morning, the settlers persuaded McNall to ride to the county seat of Union and report the incident to County Judge E.C. Brainard. Unsure of how to handle the situation, Brainard wrote a letter to Colonel Elmer Otis, the commander of Fort Walla Walla. ‘More trouble in the Willowa,’ Brainard wrote, ‘one Finley and McNall accuse the Indians of stealing horses, and have managed to kill one of Joseph’s band. The settlers are sufficiently alarmed to mass in the valley.’
To make matters worse, three days after the killing Findley found his missing horses grazing near his home. ‘Blowing Wind was an honest man,’ said Peopeo Tholekt of the Looking Glass band of Nez Perce, ‘and the horses being found proved him innocent.’
His killers, however, were still unpunished, and as Wallowa settlers prepared to defend themselves, John Monteith, the Indian agent at the Lapwai Reservation, met with Joseph to hear the Nez Perce version of the story. Afterwards, Monteith wrote to General Oliver Otis Howard, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Columbia, which had jurisdiction over the Wallowa country. Monteith’s letter called the killing ‘willful, deliberate murder.’ Yet he advised Joseph to let white law determine justice. ‘I told him to keep his people quiet and all would end well.’
Howard, a veteran officer who had lost his right arm in the Civil War, was a religious man who gained the nickname ‘Old Prayer Book’ for his distribution of tracts and Bibles to his troops during the war. He sympathized with the Nez Perce cause and sent Major Henry Clay Wood, his assistant adjutant general, to Lapwai. As a lawyer, Wood had studied the Nez Perce case and concluded that ‘The nontreaty Nez Perce cannot in law be regarded as bound by the treaty of 1863.’ He was also critical of President Grant’s revocation of the 1873 Executive Order, saying, ‘If not a crime, it was a blunder.’
At Wood’s request, 40 Nez Perce rode from Wallowa to Lapwai for a council on July 22-23. During the meetings, Joseph spoke of how among Indians, the chiefs were responsible for controlling their young men and preventing them from doing ‘wicked things,’ and if the chiefs did not restrain or punish unruly Indians, the chiefs were held accountable. To Joseph, then, white authorities were responsible for the killing of one ‘much respected by the tribe.’
Joseph also cited the killing as one more claim the Nez Perce had to the land. ‘Since the murder had been done,’ Wood reported Joseph saying,’since his brother’s life had been taken in Wallowa valley, his body buried there, and the earth there had drunk up his blood, the valley was more sacred to him than ever before . . . and that all the whites must be removed from the valley.’ Ollokot, Joseph’s brother, added that ‘he did not want the whites, Findley and McNall, tried and punished for their crime, but wished them to leave that section of country that he might never see them more.’
Wood told the Nez Perce that Howard had proposed that the U.S. Government appoint a commission to settle once and for all the ownership of the Wallowa country, and he asked the two Indians to let white law deal with Findley and McNall. Both Joseph and Ollokot agreed to this, and the Nez Perce returned home. Afterward, Howard wrote to Brainard to insist that the two men be tried for murder. But in August, Findley and McNall were still free.
Tensions grew. Some believed the Nez Perce were preparing for war; warriors spent their days shooting arrows at targets set up near the Findley home. ‘Several war dances were held,’ H.R. Findley said, ‘and the beating of their drums or tom-toms could often be plainly heard from their [Findley] cabin.’ Yet some white settlers continued to harass the Indians by stealing livestock, and against Joseph’s advice a few Nez Perce retaliated in kind.
During councils held at Indian Town, the Nez Perce summer encampment at the confluence of the valley’s two rivers, Joseph and the older chiefs advised against doing anything that would give whites an excuse to force them onto a reservation. The young men, however, had lost patience with white justice. The time had come for retribution. They agreed to move slowly and avoid force for as long as possible. When the meetings ended, the Nez Perce had decided on a course of action.
On September 1, Nez Perce riders traveled through the valley, stopping at every settler’s cabin and delivering the message that all whites, including Findley and McNall, were to attend a council the next day at Indian Town. Seventeen settlers showed up, but Findley and McNall stayed home. At the meeting, the Nez Perce insisted that the whites leave the valley and turn over McNall and Findley. When the settlers refused, the meeting ended with an angry agreement to meet the next day at the McNall cabin.
The next morning 60 warriors rode to the cabin, where a number of settlers waited with the Findley and McNall families. When the Nez Perce repeated their demands and the settlers again refused, Joseph warned that if they did not turn over the two men and leave the valley in one week’s time the Nez Perce would drive them out and burn their houses. Then the Indians rode away. The clock started ticking toward Sunday, September 10.
After dark, a few settlers rode through the valley to warn others, and Ephraim McNall, father of Wells, traveled to Fort Walla Walla to plead with Lieutenant Albert Gallatin Forse to send troops to Wallowa. Forse refused.
Denied military assistance, McNall headed back to Wallowa, stopping along the way to recruit armed volunteers. When Forse learned about this new development he changed his mind about sending troops. On September 7 he rode out of Fort Walla Walla with a company of 48 cavalrymen to protect the Nez Perce and prevent a war.
After riding all night, 22 volunteers from the Grande Ronde Valley reached McNall’s cabin on September 9 and joined with the settlers to form a force of 43 men. Because the Nez Perce had moved their main camp close to Wallowa Lake for the beginning of the salmon run, 15 men rode that way to help settlers there. The next day they moved on to a nearby ranch, where many settlers had agreed to gather.
Forse’s troops had already arrived at the ranch at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, the day of Joseph’s deadline. ‘I found about 50 armed men,’ Forse noted of the gathering, ‘also several families, who there sought protection.’ Later, even more families and volunteers arrived.
After leaving some militia at the cabin for protection, Forse moved his men and most of the volunteers up the valley to Alder and the home of Thomas H. Veasey, who was friendly with the Nez Perce and spoke their language. Forse and Veasey then continued on alone to meet with Joseph at his camp, seven miles away.
According to a local newspaper report, Forse and Veasey found Joseph ‘at the head of 100 painted warriors on the summit of a hill near his camp, drawn up in line of battle, his men divested of all their superfluous blankets, well armed and mounted on their best war steeds, all decorated with war paint and presenting a formidable appearance.’
Forse was looking for a solution, not a fight, and he recognized the Nez Perce advantage. ‘Joseph could have fallen upon the settlers in detail, killing them and destroying their property,’ he said. ‘An enemy could not approach him without being under his fire for the distance of more than a half-mile.’
Forse got down to the business of negotiating. He asked to see Joseph, whose appearance and character made an immediate impression on the lieutenant. ‘I thought he was the finest Indian I had ever seen not only physically but intelligently,’ Forse said. ‘He was about six feet in height, powerfully built, and strength of character written on every feature.’
With Veasey interpreting, Forse ‘asked him if he would be satisfied if McNall and Findley were tried by the civil authorities,’ and ‘He said he would.’ In an attempt to avoid future trouble, Forse requested that the Nez Perce stay away from the settlers and confine themselves to the Wallowa Lake side of Hurricane Creek. Joseph agreed, and to show his good faith he and his men discharged their guns into the air. A truce had been called.
The next day Forse’sent word to McNall and Findley by two of their friends advising them to go to Union and surrender themselves.’ They followed his advice. Three days later, on September 14, the court released McNall after ruling he had acted in self-defense, but Judge Brainard issued a warrant for Findley’s arrest, charging him with manslaughter. After his arrest Findley was released on $250 bail.
Meanwhile, that same day Forse met again with Joseph to persuade him to send the two Nez Perce witnesses to testify at the trial. Forse offered to send along one of his noncommissioned officers as an escort. Joseph consented, but only with great reluctance. ‘He was afraid that whites would harm them,’ Forse said. Joseph might also have realized that sending witnesses would accomplish nothing.
The next day, Forse sent a corporal to escort the Nez Perce witnesses. He also sent a letter to Brainard, ‘requesting him to see that they were taken care of.’ Less than a week later, however, Brainard dismissed the charges against Findley. The two Nez Perce witnesses had refused to testify. Perhaps they feared reprisal or felt their cause was doomed anyway. Either for personal or diplomatic reasons, Findley requested that his case continue, and he faced a grand jury in October. Once again, the charges were dismissed.
Because of the missing testimony, the Nez Perce version of the events remains obscure. Battle, imprisonment, and disease later killed many in the band. Yet one eyewitness who survived, Eskawus, said years later that the Nez Perce hunting party was headed home that day when they stopped to pick up the deer they had hung in the tree.
‘So Wilhautyah was told to climb the tree,’ Eskawus recalled, ‘because he was a small man, and while up the tree, unloosing the ropes, the Indians on the ground saw two white men coming at full speed. A little way off they stopped and got off their horses and shot Wilhautyah.’ Whatever occurred that day, Findley’s and McNall’s pleas of self-defense prevailed in court.
Forse and his men headed back to Fort Walla Walla on September 26, 1876. On his ride back through the valley, Forse ‘found everything quiet.’ The peace was not to last. Earlier that summer Sioux and Cheyenne warriors had wiped out troops under Lieutenant Colonel George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The disaster put an end to the army’s patience and to much of the public’s sympathy for Indian rights.
To avoid future confrontations, the government had to attend to the issue of removing the Nez Perce from the Wallowa country. Howard used the Wallowa incident to press for a five-member commission to decide how to get the Nez Perce onto a reservation. On October 3, 1876, the secretary of the interior appointed General Howard, Major Wood, and three easterners, David H. Jerome of Michigan, A.C. Barstow of Rhode Island, and William Stickney of Washington, D.C., to the commission. According to Mrs. John Monteith the last three members were ‘excellent men… all kings of finance, but with not a speck of Indian sense, experience, or knowledge.’
Joseph met with the commission at Lapwai in November and rejected its offer to buy what remained of Indian land, arguing eloquently that the Nez Perce should be allowed to stay there. But the commission’s recommendation to the Department of the Interior stated, ‘That unless in a reasonable time Joseph consented to be removed [from Wallowa], he should be forcibly taken with his people and given lands on the reservation.’ Major Wood, however, refused to sign the document. Joseph, unaware of the commission’s report, went with his people to their winter encampment in the Imnaha canyon.
In April and May 1877 Joseph and his brother Ollokot met three times with General Howard and others trying to convince them that although the Nez Perce did not want to fight, they had the right to stay in the Wallowa Valley. By May 14, an impatient General Howard decided that ‘reasonable time’ was up, and he gave the Wallowa band 30 days to move to the reservation. ‘If you are not here in that time,’ he said, ‘I shall consider that you want to fight, and will send my soldiers to drive you on.’
To avoid war, the Nez Perce were prepared to do as Howard ordered, but violence found them anyway. On their way to the reservation, with 10 days left of freedom, the five nontreaty bands came together in a gathering of about 600 Indians. The young men staged war parades and rode around simulating battle. On June 13, two days before they were due at the reservation, a warrior named Wahlitits and two companions decided to seek revenge on a white man, Larry Ott, who had killed Wahlitits’ father two years earlier. When they couldn’t find Ott they waited a day then went to the cabin of a man known to be cruel to Indians and shot him. Roused by this first act of vengeance, they killed four more settlers and wounded one other. Soon other warriors joined them in a series of raids.
‘For a short time we lived quietly,’ Joseph later said about the pre-war days. ‘But that could not last.’ One shot from a settler’s rifle helped shatter a fragile peace and set the Nez Perce on the path to war.
This article was written by Mark Highberger and originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of American History. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!