Chief Joseph—also known as Young Joseph, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain), In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder-traveling-over-the-mountains) and sometimes spelled Hinmatóowyalahtq’it—was a Nimiipuu (or Nez Percé) leader who commanded a band of followers in the Wallowa Valley of northeast Oregon. Chief Joseph’s father, Joseph the Elder, had worked with many other Nimiipuu chiefs to negotiate a treaty with the United States in 1855, which reserved around 7.5 million acres of land in the Idaho and Oregon region for the Nimiipuu people. In 1863, however, the United States began a new treaty negotiation that would leave Nimiipuu chiefs like Joseph the Elder and his son, Young Joseph, feeling betrayed.
Driven by a lust for gold and land, the United States’ new treaty in 1863 reduced the earlier sprawling 7.5-million-acre reservation to only around 750,000 acres in Idaho. This greatly-reduced reservation was further divvied up to U.S. settlement by the Allotment Act, which opened up certain parcels of land in the reservation region to non-Nimiipuu settlement. Joseph the Elder, whose land was not in the reservation, rejected the new treaty, and when Young Joseph took over leadership of the Wallowa Valley band in 1871, he staunchly continued his father’s policy of resisting the 1863 treaty. The United States briefly and temporarily considered allowing Chief Joseph and his people to stay in the Wallowa Valley, going so far as to ban settlers from entering Chief Joseph’s land in 1873, but the US quickly reversed its decision and allowed settlement of the Wallowa Valley region to resume before the year 1873 was over. From then on, the United States ramped up the pressure on Chief Joseph and other dissident Nimiipuu leaders, demanding that they relocate their people to the reservation in Idaho. By 1877, the United States had run out of patience, and the earlier urgings now turned into ultimatums. General Oliver Otis Howard was sent to inform Chief Joseph and other Nimiipuu leaders outside of the reservation that it was time to move or be moved.
General Howard and the non-reservation Nimiipuu chiefs met for a multi-day negotiation in early May, 1877. It was a tense meeting with a great deal of posturing on both sides. Chief Joseph and General Howard both wrote accounts of this negotiation, each accusing the other side of behaving in a threatening and obstinate manner. Chief Joseph’s complaints were mainly against the conduct of the general, portraying him as a haughty and self-righteous individual. Gen. Howard, on the other hand, accused the chiefs of not respecting the power and authority of the United States, and of otherwise being intimidatory before and during the negotiations. The general, however, was not there to negotiate, per se, but instead to explain, answer questions, and prepare a schedule for the future—he already had his orders to move Chief Joseph and the other chiefs to their reservation by any means necessary. Instead of a new treaty, this was to be an eviction notice.
Chief Joseph and General Howard began their accounts of the meeting differently, the chief immediately describing the speeches and dialogue, whereas the general began with the arrival of the Nimiipuu chiefs at the meeting location. It is a shame that Chief Joseph did not describe the manner in which he appeared at the negotiation site, for the general colorfully described the scene as a hostile act of intimidation, with Chief Joseph and his colleagues circling around the Americans, singing and chanting while armed with tomahawks. General Howard described the scene as follows:
“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 ‘tomahawk-pipes’ that could be smoked with the peaceful tobacco or penetrate the skull-bone of an enemy, at the will of the holder…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” (General Howard’s Comment On Joseph’s Narrative, approximately paragraph 26).
Next, once the meeting began, it was General Howard’s turn to start misbehaving. From Chief Joseph’s perspective, the general barraged the Nimiipuu chiefs with such impudent statements as “You deny my authority, do you? You want to dictate to me, do you?” and “law says you shall go upon the reservation to live, and I want you to do so, but you persist in disobeying the law…If you do not move I will take the matter into my own hand and make you suffer for your disobedience” (Chief Joseph’s Own Story, paragraphs 27 and 29). General Howard, for his part, denied that he behaved rudely or arrogantly, yet his phrasing that he strove “to behave as a gentleman to the weakest or most ignorant human being” (General Howard’s Comment, approximately paragraph 33) makes one wonder about how his tone might have sounded during the negotiations. General Howard added further corroboration to Chief Joseph’s interpretation of the meeting when the general admitted to stating curious lines such as, “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” (General Howard’s Comment, approximately paragraph 44).
One of the tensest moments of the multi-day meeting was an exchange between General Howard and Chief Toohoolhoolzote—an outspoken Nimiipuu leader who was as zealous and self-sure as the US general. Of all the Nimiipuu chiefs who attended the meeting, General Howard considered Toohoolhoolzote to be the most troublesome. Gen. Howard described listening to the forceful oratory of this fellow, writing, “I heard him patiently, for quite a length of time, asserting his independence and uttering rebellious speeches against the Washington authority” (General Howard’s Comment, approximately paragraph 44). The chief’s impassioned defenses of the Nimiipuu people’s claim to the land and his vociferous criticism of the United States’ uninvited encroachments into the tribe’s territory ultimately led to Toohoolhoolzote being arrested and detained by General Howard in the middle of the meeting. This event was mentioned in both accounts. Chief Joseph claimed that it was an arrest made out of anger, with General Howard telling Toohoolhoolzote, “You are an impudent fellow, and I will put you in the guard-house” (Chief Joseph’s Own Story, paragraphs 31). The general, on the other hand, proposed that the arrest was a calculated move, and in no way done out of a lost temper. Instead, General Howard argued, “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” (General Howard’s Comment, approximately paragraph 44). The wedge he concocted was to forcibly detain Toohoolhoolzote away from the other Nimiipuu chiefs for several days. While he remained under arrest, the rest of the group were escorted to the reservation to inspect potential spots for their new homes. Toohoolhoolzote was released when the other chiefs returned from their tour.
At the conclusion of the meeting, General Howard gave the Nimiipuu chiefs an ultimatum that if they had not moved in 30-35 days, then he would send in the troops to remove them. Chief Joseph wrote down his recollection of the comment: “General Howard replied, ‘If you let the time run over one day, the soldiers will be there to drive you on to the reservation, and all your cattle and horses outside of the reservation will fall into the hands of the white men” (Chief Joseph’s Own Story, paragraphs 38). General Howard, in his response, admitted to having his soldiers on standby to occupy Wallowa Valley, and he made no defense against Chief Joseph’s claims of potential livestock loss; the general only felt the need to comment that none of the Nimiipuu chiefs raised any objection to his 30-35 day time period.
As a meeting meant to bridge divides and ensure a peaceful resolution to a complicated situation, this peculiar gathering at the beginning of May, 1877, in no way fulfilled its mission. Instead, General Howard left exasperated with the dissident Nimiipuu chiefs, whereas Chief Joseph and his comrades were pushed even further into a corner, faced with making the weighty choice between relocation or war. Yet, it was not only the decision-making chiefs who were influenced by the anger of the moment. The Nez Percé War that would soon emerge was not brought on by Chief Joseph and his fellow chiefs, but by a rogue group of Nimiipuu warriors who attacked United States settlers while the chiefs were reportedly still debating what to do next.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Left side: Photograph of Chief Joseph in 1879 (digitized by the MET). Right side: Photograph of Oliver Otis Howard in 1864 (digitized by the Smithsonian Institute), both photographs are [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Chief Joseph’s Own Story, by Chief Joseph, originally published in 1879; republished with an introduction by Bishop W. H. Hare and General Howard’s Comment in The North American Review (1879). Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, 2010.