Chief Joseph’s heartbreaking epic made him a legend in American history. The U.S. government had promised him and his people millions of acres of land in Oregon. After gold was found there, government officials broke their promise, taking back 6 million acres and leaving the Nez Pierce tribe with only a tenth of their original lands. Joseph led his people on an exodus of over 1,700 hundred miles as they attempted to flee to Canada.
- Joseph was born in 1840 in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. His parents named himHin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, which means Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. His father had converted to Christianity and taken the Christian name, Joseph the Elder; Joseph also went by this name.
- Joseph’s father worked hard to build peaceful relationships with the American people. He signed a treaty with the U.S. government that promised land to the Nez Pierce Indians in Oregon.
- Joseph’s father died and Joseph was made the chief. At the same time, the U.S. government broke its treaty, taking back much of the land it had promised Joseph’s tribe and moving the Nez Pierce people to land in Idaho.
- Joseph knew that fighting back would be futile. He sadly prepared to lead his people to Idaho. A group of enraged warriors killed several white settlers. U.S. troops prepared for swift, harsh retaliation.
- Joseph gathered his people and fled, first to Idaho and then into Montana. He hoped to find help from the Crow Indians there and eventually reach Canada. Along the way, his warriors fought several skirmishes against U.S. troops.
- Finally, on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to the army. Many members of his tribe had been killed in battles or had died from starvation and cold. Only 40 miles from the Canadian border, Joseph’s people couldn’t go on any longer.
- Chief Joseph’s surrender speech was sad and powerful. He said, “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed…The old men are all dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
- After Chief Joseph’s surrender, his tribe was moved to Kansas and then a reservation in Oklahoma. Many of them died from diseases there.
- In 1885, Joseph’s tribe was allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest (Washington) although Joseph never returned to his homeland.
- Legend: a famous story, usually based on a true story
- Exodus: a mass departure of people
- Treaty: an agreement between two nations or people
Questions and Answers
Question: What did Chief Joseph do after he was taken to Oklahoma?
Answer: Joseph never gave up the hope that his people would be given back their land. In 1879, he plead his case before President Rutherford B. Hayes. He continued to speak out for Native American rights until his death in 1904. His doctor said he died of a broken heart.
Visit PBS to learn more about Chief Joseph’s life.