Big Hole National Battlefield, Montana
Photo by: Stan Hoggatt

Political Elements of Nez Perce history during mid-1800s
War of 1877


Stan Hoggatt

By the mid-1800s, the vast mineral timber and agricultural wealth of the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce Nation was under siege by miners, settlers and even the government. The Treaty of 1855 set aside much of this homeland as a reserve for the Nez Perce Nation. By 1863, the government was unwilling and unable to controll the onslaught onto Indians lands, and so it attempted to negotiate a second treaty dramatically reducing the size of the reservation established in 1855.

Many prominent Nez Perce Chiefs opposed the Treaty of 1863 including Chiefs Big Thunder, Hah-tal-ee-kin, Eagle from the Light, Looking Glass (Old), Joseph (Old), Too-hool-hool-zote, Speaking Eagle, and White Bird and a majority refused to sign the Treaty. A large number of Nez Perce Chiefs, who became known as Non-Treaty Nez Perce, left the Treaty Council after abolishing the Nez Perce Federation and the position of Head-Chief of the Nez Perce People. In their place, other signatures appeared on the Treaty document as if a majority of Nez Perce Chiefs had approved the Treaty when in fact they had not. The dramatic all-night marathon debate and vote ending the Nez Perce Federation and the position of Head-Chief occurred prior to the signing of the Treaty. Yet, in spite of this, it served the government's purpose to represent to the world that the Treaty of 1863 had been approved by the Nez Perce People when in fact less than a third supported the Treaty. Unfortunately, the government chose to ignore the democratic vote of the Nez Perce Chiefs and the stage for conflict was set.

Chief Lawyer supported the Treaty of 1863. As Head-Chief, Chief Lawyer had been challenged with the difficult task of an uncertain future for his people in the face of the relentless onslaught of immigrants and miners onto Nez Perce lands. Chief Lawyer was convinced that resistance to the "American Tide" was futile and that accommodation and reconciliation with the government, miners, and settlers was in the best interest of the Nez Perce People. He also hoped that accommodation would lead to an improved standard of living, because traditional food resources and grazing areas for Nez Perce horses and cattle were diminishing.

Chief Lawyer's own uncertain future was colored by the fact he was considered to be an accomplice of the government's deceit at the Treaty Council of 1863. John Ridge of the Cherokees, who represented a Cherokee minority, became a focal point of the political division 27 years earlier just as Lawyer had become during the Treaty process. In a similar situation to the Nez Perce Treaty of 1863, Chief John Ross of the Cherokees opposed a treaty of land cessation with the government. He was the political leader of the Cherokee people with the largest following. Yet, when the Treaty of New Echota was signed December 29, 1835, John Ross and a majority of Cherokee people and leaders were not even present. Thus, the interference into the internal affairs of a sovereign people beginning with the Treaty of 1855 by the government was a major factor in creating the divisiveness among the Nez Perce People between the Treaty and Non-Treaty political factions. The Nez Perce experience was similar in many respects to that of the Cherokees following the Treaty of New Echota. In the case of the Nez Perce, this political tragedy was compounded by the fact that the government failed to fulfill its treaty commitments. Too, these factors have obscured to some extent Chief Lawyer's own contributions to the welfare of the Nez Perce People in the midst of traumatic challenges. Still, these factors certainly influenced the thinking of the newly emerging political leadership of the Nez Perce People--especially Chief Joseph's.

Chief Joseph's father died in 1871 passing on the mantle of the leadership of the Wallowa Band to his son, Chief Joseph. In 1872, Chief Joseph became the prominent spokesman disapproving settlement in Joseph's ancestral Wallowa lands. Chief Joseph began to press forward with a "Diplomatic Initiative," and in a series of meetings with Judge Slater, Nez Perce Indian Agent, John Monteith, and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Odeneal, Chief Joseph sought to change the course of history. His "Diplomatic Initiative" proved momentarily successful and resulted in the temporary abandonment of further settlement in the Wallowa Plateau with the signing of President Grant's Executive Order issued June 16, 1873.

Chief Joseph, along with a number of prominent American leaders, made successful arguments against the legality of the Treaty of 1863; and some even considered it to be fraudulent, including Chief Joseph. The effect of this effort and debate with prominent leaders and representatives of the American Government, including David Jerome who was the Chairman of the President's Commission, publicly charged with negotiating a peaceful settlement to the Wallowa problem, was to elevate Joseph's public image and stature. As a consequence, many civilian, military and government leaders incorrectly assumed that it was Chief Joseph who made the military decisions during the Nez Perce War. As the War continued on and the government continued its frustrated efforts to subdue the Nez Perce in battle after battle, Joseph's stature and elevation continued to rise. This was due in part to the public exposure Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were receiving in America's newspapers. It has been historically unfortunate that Joseph's misinterpreted military role has detracted from his prominence as a great Native American leader since his diplomatic skills, eloquence as a Nez Perce spokesman, and humanitarianism have won him the respect and admiration of men and women the world over.

David Jerome, Chairman of the Presidential Commission, was charged privately with instructions to set the stage for the removal of Chief Joseph's people from the Wallowa Plateau onto the Nez Perce Reservation with Agency headquarters in Lapwai. Concurrently, all other Non-Treaty Nez Perce living off the Nez Perce Reservation were to move onto the Reservation. The Presidential Commission Report set the political stage for this process to move forward. Following the issuance of the Presidential Commission Report and a series of diplomatic setbacks, Chief Joseph along with other Non-Treaty Nez Perce Chiefs began moving their people onto the Nez Perce Reservation. En route, young warriors (independent of the Nez Perce leadership) sought out specific settlers to avenge the deaths of Nez Perce People who had either been murdered by these people or treated badly. The attack on settlers by the young warriors was the flame that ignited the Nez Perce War of 1877.

Chiefs Looking Glass, Ollokot, Joseph's brother, Lean Elk, and White Bird played prominent roles in military leadership and decisions. Chief Joseph participated in War Councils because he was a Chief; however, he was often overruled during these councils. This may have been due in part to Joseph's pacifism and desire to avoid continued bloodshed. The Nez Perce War of 1877 was an epic military struggle and is a classic story of man's will to persevere. The Nez Perce People and their leaders fought gallantly against overwhelming odds for their beliefs (including religion), their principles, and their ancestral homelands in 18 separate engagements--4 of which were major battles.

The Big Hole Battle was one of these major battles. Big Hole Battlefield is in the picturesque Big Hole Valley near Wisdom, Montana, in the heart of the Beaverhead National Forest. Surrounding the Big Hole Valley are the majestic Anaconda Pintler, Big Hole and Pioneer Mountains; and a short distance away are the Bitterroot Mountains and the Lo Lo Pass which the Nez Perce crossed over when they fled Idaho. The Nez Perce frequently camped on the North Fork of the Big Hole River in the valley en route to the "Buffalo Country" of Montana. It was at this campsite where Colonel John Gibbon's forces attacked the Nez Perce at dawn on August 9, 1877. The camp's tipis shown on the cover photo stand as a haunting reminder of the terrible onslaught. Here, many defenseless women and children were brutally attacked and killed.

The Nez Perce continued their flight and struggle until reaching Snake Creek, near the Bears Paw Mountains nearly 40 miles south of Canada. On the morning of September 30th and the attack on the Nez Perce Village, Colonel Miles and his men awoke (around 2:00 a.m.) and were able to depart camp between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. By mid-morning they were in striking distance of the Nez Perce Village and attacked sometime between 8:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. On October 5th, Chief Joseph surrendered in order to spare his people further loss of life. Tragically for the Nez Perce People, the terms of surrender negotiated by Chief Joseph, Colonel Miles and General Howard were violated and overturned by Washington. An intense political struggle followed between Chief Joseph and his government antagonists. Chief Joseph eloquently argued for justice and honor and chastised the government and the American people for allowing Washington to overrule the commanders in the field charged with negotiating the terms of surrender. Chief Joseph was assisted in this effort when Colonel Miles, who had since become a General, stepped forward and publicly acknowledged that he had agreed to allow the Nez Perce to return to the reservation in Lapwai upon surrender. Until then, the terms of surrender had been debated only within government circles where Miles protested vigorously about the decision of the government to overturn his negotiated terms of surrender. Eventually, the debate extend beyond the inner circles of government and out into public view. General Miles arranged for Chief Joseph to go to Washington and tell "his story." Joseph did and at the Lincoln Center delivered a moving speech which was published in the North American Review in April, 1879. Religious leaders, military leaders, government officials and most importantly, the American people began to respond to Chief Joseph's plea for "Justice and Honor." The tide had begun to turn in large part due to public pressure, and eventually the Nez Perce were returned to Lapwai and the Colville Reservation.

Unlike Chief Joseph, Chief White Bird and between 150 to 200 Nez Perce escaped through the lines of Colonel Miles and fled to Canada. The Nez Perce had hoped for political asylum in Canada just as Sitting Bull of the Sioux had obtained the year before following the defeat of General Custer under the combined forces of the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Nations in 1876. The fleeing Nez Perce were given sanctuary in Canada at Fort Walsh and help by the Sioux. Eventually, they resettled in the Pincher and Fort Macleod areas and on the Peigan Reservation at Brocket, Canada, where they remain today.

The Nez Perce War signaled the end to major Indian Wars that would be as sustained and would involve as many forces as were engaged during the Nez Perce War of 1877. To be sure, America's violent settlement of the West would continue and places like Wounded Knee became etched in the American conscience forever. America's settlement of the West was sadly violent and traumatic for Native Americans and ended with the permanent disruption of Native American life and culture.

The Big Hole Battlefield, perhaps more than any other, is a tribute to the moral strength and character of Native Americans everywhere--especially, the Non-Treaty Nez Perce. The significance of the Nez Perce place in Native American and Western history has been preserved for us at places like Big Hole Battlefield and with the creation by Congress of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail which follows the Trail of the Non-Treaty Nez Perce taken during and after the Nez Perce War of 1877.


©1997 Copyright of Stan Hoggatt and Western Treasures of 4533 Palisades Park Drive, Billings, Montana, 59106. All rights are reserved. This document may not be copied in any manner or form without the express written consent of Stan Hoggatt and Western Treasures with the exception of students and educators who may use this document in their education endeavors provided they are non-commerical endeavors. The Photos presented here are for the exclusive use of viewing Western Treasures' home page on the Internet, and they may not be copied or reproduced for any other purpose without the express written consent of Stan Hoggatt, Western Treasures or other sources as noted.

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