From the Archives - ". . . I Will Fight No More Foreve"
In 1871 the Nez Perce elected a new chief, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt ("Thunder Rolling up the Mountains”), known among the whites as Chief Joseph (c. 1840-1904), after his father, who had been a baptized Christian. Years before the Nez Perce had been granted a large reservation in Oregon. But by 1871 white settlers had been infiltrating their lands, and there was agitation to resettle the tribe. Joseph proved an effective champion of his people’s rights, and in 1873 had actually secured a federal order to remove white settlers. But within a few yeas the federal government had changed its mind. In 1877 Washington ordered the tribe to relocate to a smaller reservation in Idaho, and sent troops under one-armed Civil War hero Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard to enforce the decision. Considering the odds, Joseph reluctantly concluded that resistance would be hopeless, and decided to lead his people to the new reservation. But hardly had the tribe set out, in July, when a small band of young warriors decided they could not abandon their lands without striking a blow. They then proceeded to kill a few white settlers. The army promptly began a pursuit of the Nez Perce. And Joseph promptly proved himself one of the finest rear-guard fighters in history.
Over the following three months, Joseph led his people – who numbered only about 700, hardly 200 of whom were warriors – on 1,400 mile trek across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana in the hope of reaching Canada. In the process, they managed to elude several columns of troops and Indian scouts who numbered in excess of 2,000, while fighting four major battles and many skirmishes. It was a performance that impressed even General-in-Chief William Tecumseh Sherman, who wrote "the Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise... [they] fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications."
But by early October the Nez Perce were spent, while the troops were still relentlessly in pursuit. Finally, on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph responded to a message from General Howard,
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is 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.