I Will Fight No More Forever

On this day in 1904, the remarkable Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph dies on the Colville reservation in northern Washington at the age of 64. The whites had described him as superhuman, a military genius, the Indian Napoleon. But in truth, the Nez Perce Chief Him-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or “Thunder Rolling Down from the Mountains,” was as much diplomat as warrior.

The Nez Percé tribe was one of the most powerful in the Pacific Northwest and in the first half of the 19th century one of the most friendly to whites. Many Nez Percé, including Chief Joseph’s father, were converted to Christianity and Chief Joseph was educated in a mission school. The advance of white settlers into the Pacific Northwest after 1850 caused the United States to press the Native Americans of the region to surrender their lands and accept resettlement on small and often bleak reservations.

When the U.S. attempted in 1877 to force the dissenting Nez Percé to move to a reservation in Idaho, Chief Joseph, who had succeeded his father in 1871, reluctantly agreed. While preparing for the removal, however, he learned that a trio of young men had massacred a band of white settlers and prospectors. Fearing retaliation by the U.S. Army, he decided instead to lead his small body of some 200 to 300 followers on a long trek to Canada.

Throughout the Summer months of June to October, 1877, Chief Joseph and his hot-headed brother Olikut led their people on a retreat of 1,600–1,700 miles across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, outmaneuvering the hoard of pursuing troops, who outnumbered Joseph’s warriors by a ratio of at least ten to one. At several turns the Nez Perce bested their pursuers in full combat, and Chief Joseph won the admiration of many whites by his humane treatment of prisoners, his concern for women, children, and the aged, and his insistence on paying or trading for supplies versus simply pillaging.

The Nez Percé were finally surrounded in the Bear Paw mountains of Montana, within 40 miles of the Canadian border. On October 5 Chief Joseph surrendered to Gen. Nelson A. Miles, delivering an eloquent speech that was long remembered: “Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph and his band were sent at first to a barren reservation in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma); there many took sick and died. Not until 1885 were he and the remnants of his tribe allowed to go to a reservation in Washington—though still in exile from their valley. Meanwhile, Chief Joseph had made two trips to Washington, D.C. When presented to President Theodore Roosevelt, Chief Joseph simply pleaded for the return of his people to their ancestral home; this never came to be.

Chief Joseph lived out the rest of his days in peace, a popular romantic symbol of the noble “red man” who many Americans admired once they no longer posed any real or imagined threat.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.