March 3, 1840 - September 21 - September 21, 1904 (aged 64)
He is commemorated in dozens of ways. His likeness is everywhere, it seems, and his name is ubiquitous.
A town is named after him, as is a hotel, a rodeo and a mountain. Thousands of faces and names have faded into the past, but his endures, and will continue to endure as long as we honor factual history and remember the suffering of Indians.
Their name for themselves is Nimíipuu (pronounced [nimipu]), meaning, “The People”, in their native language. In fact, Nez Percé is an exonym that was given by French Canadian fur traders who visited the area regularly in the late 18th century. It’s literally meaning is “pierced nose”; an erroneous identification as nose piercing was never practiced by the tribe.
Chief Joseph’s Nimíipuu name was Hinmut-too-yah-lat-kekeht, which, when translated into English, means “Thunder Rolling In the Mountains.” He was born in 1840, probably in the Wallowa Valley. He grew up to become a chief. In his manhood, he came to be known to white men as “Young Joseph.”
White men had been coming to the Valley of the Winding Waters since about 1834. These first ones were explorers, trappers and missionaries. They represented only a trickle; but the trickle grew, became a stream; and in the end, the stream grew into a madly-rushing river, flooding its own banks and destroying all things that had been.
In 1855, Hinmut-too-yah-lat-kekeht’s father, the man known to white men as Old Joseph, entered into a treaty with Isaac Stevens, governor of Washington. Old Joseph and a number of other chiefs gave some of the land they had always called their own to the white man, but they made sure that the Wallowa Valley was left to them. It would never be given away or sold to “The Hairy Man” from the East.
The treaty of 1855, the first ever signed by White men and Nez Perce, was quickly broken. Annuities promised by the government either arrived late or never arrived at all. The Nez Perce were justifiably upset.
In 1863, the government decided to negotiate yet another treaty. Old Joseph attended the negotiations, but when he discovered the white men wanted possession of his valley, he refused to sign. Others, however, did sign, and the government laid claim to the sacred land. The treaty caused a split among the Nez Perce. And on all horizons, war clouds, black and angry, were gathering.
Young Joseph grew up in the cold shadows of those clouds, and when his father died, leadership became his burden. He had been taught that to honor the treaty of 1863 would be to dishonor the memory of his father; he vowed to keep the Wallowa for his own people.
The first white settlers appeared in the Valley of the Winding Waters in 1871. They had been living in the Grande Ronde Valley and were in search of more and better rangeland. They looked things over, left, and returned with others. Homesteads began to dot the land; tensions between white men and Nez Percé grew. The clouds were getting darker all the time.
Young Joseph was not a war chief. He was a statesman and an orator, and according to record, he counseled his people to keep peace with the newly arrived settlers. His wisdom held for five years, from 1871 to 1876. But in the summer of 1876, the dark clouds rumbled and first blood was spilled.
The first episode involved a pair of white settlers and a Nez Perce brave named Wil-lot-yah. The settlers, Finley and McNall by name, came upon a Nez Perce camp and searched it, believing they might find some horses that had been stolen. A scuffle ensued and Finley shot Wil-lot-yah.
Joseph and his band sought justice, but found none. The two men were tried for the killing and acquitted. Animosities on both sides grew; more incidents occurred, and finally the government took a hand.
A commission set up to study the problems in the Wallowa Valley recommended that the region be cleared of Nez Perce by force, if necessary.
Young Joseph undoubtedly saw there was no holding back the flood. In May, 1877, he did what he vowed he would never do; he led his people away from the Wallowas toward Idaho and the Lapwai Reservation, which was to be their new home.
But the young men were bitter. Along the way, three of them broke off from the band and in rage killed four white settlers. The storm that had been brewing for so many years broke.
Joseph knew the white man would seek retribution, and so determined to lead his band to Canada. He took over 800 of his people in that direction, pursued by General O.O. Howard, the famed one-armed Indian fighter.
Howard ran the Nez Perce into the ground, finally, up in Montana. Joseph surrendered his band at a place called Bear Paw Mountain some 50 miles from the Canadian border, in October, 1877.
The fighting lasted for six days. When it was over, 275 people were dead, 150 Nez Perce and 125 U.S. Soldiers.
Following his surrender, Chief Joseph and his people were escorted, first to Kansas, and then to what is present-day Oklahoma. Joseph spent the next several years pleading his people’s case, even meeting with President Rutherford Hayes in 1879.
At the end his people were put on reservations in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Washington.
Finally, in 1885, Joseph and others were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest, but it was far from a perfect solution. So many of his people had already perished, either from war or disease, and their new home was still miles from their true homeland in the Wallowa Valley.
Chief Joseph did not live to see again the land he had known as a child and young warrior. He died in exile at the age of 64, on September 21, 1904, and was buried in the Colville Indian Cemetery on the Colville Reservation in the state of Washington.
Today he is well remembered throughout Wallowa County. His picture is displayed in businesses, the post office, restaurants, vacation rentals, and many other places to honor a man who wanted nothing but peace for his people.
He’s the man who said: “The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.”
“Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose. Let me be free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.”