Born in the Wallowa Valley of present-day Washington state, Chief Joseph’s Native American name was Hinmaton Yalaktit (“Thunder Rolling in the Heights”). The son of a Nez Perce (NAY-per-SAY) Indian chief, he became a chief after his father died around 1862.
American settlers flocked to the Pacific Northwest region in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1863, the U.S. government negotiated a treaty that confined the Nez Perce to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, removing them from their lands near the shores of the Pacific Ocean. From that day forward, the Nez Perce were divided into two groups: the “treaty” and “non-treaty.”
Chief Joseph became the leader of the “non-treaty” population which refused to be confined to any reservation area.U.S. General Oliver Howard went to par¬ ley with the Nez Perce at the council at Fort Lapwai in the spring of 1877. He and Joseph commenced negotiations when a small band of Nez Perce murdered four white settlers.
The negotiations ended, and the Nez Perce War began, despite the best efforts of Howard and the chief.Joseph led his band of 300 warriors to a victory at White Bird Canyon. Far from exul¬ tant over the win, Joseph persuaded his fellow chiefs to begin a march to elude the U.S. troops and reach the safety of Canada.
He led approximately 750 men, women and children in a grueling march over the Rocky Mountains and across the Missouri River, seeking the safety of “Grandmother Victoria’s,” Canada — the land ruled by Queen Victoria of England.
Along the march, Joseph defeated General John Gibbon at the Battle of Big Hole (Wisdom River, Montana) and also won encounters such as the Cottonwood skirmish and the Battle of Canyon Creek. By late September, Joseph and his people reached the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, a mere 40 miles south of the Canadian border.
Unbeknownst to Joseph, another U.S. cav¬ alry group had entered Montana from the East. General Nelson A. Miles and 350 troopers found the Nez Perce and attacked them. Joseph arranged his men in trenches so cleverly that they foiled all attacks, but the Nez Perce had been stopped. More U.S. sol¬ diers arrived over the next five days, and on October 5, 1877, ChiefJoseph made his sur¬ render.
A total of 431 Nez Perce were taken as prisoners to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, including 87 Indian warriors. A well-known figure in his later years, Joseph survived his time in prison and he sent numerous petitions to Washington, D.C. asking to return to his tribal homeland. They were refused. He died at Nespelim on the Colville Reservation in Washington.