Joseph’s Last Stand
By BOB WEST
(With special thanks to Harvey Chalmer II, author of “The Last Stand of the Nez Perce”, and James F. Estes, author of “Tales of the Palouse Hills”.
By the spring of 1877 an estimated 2,500 people had settled in and around the little communities of Colfax and Palouse City. Although there were no hostile Indians in the immediate vicinity there was fear of an Indian uprising. Two messengers from the Lewiston area brought news that the Nez Perce Indians were going on a rampage killing all the white people they could find.
On a warm June Sunday morning a camp meeting was being held on the bank of the river flowing through Palouse City. It was a combination revival meeting and a social event and was well attended. About halfway through the singing of a hymn, a rider came riding into the camp shouting, “The Indians are coming, the Indians are coming!” Instant panic! Women and children began screaming. Men ran to their wagons for their weapons. Farmers raced pell-mell to their homes to protect the land and animals they owned.
After the initial shock of the frightening news wore off, a meeting of Palouse City citizens was held to make plans for defending their city and homes from the imminent attack. One pioneer shouted, “There is but one way to withstand attack by the red skins, build a blockhouse.” “And what if the Indians arrive before it can be built?” a farmer asked. “We will dig rifle pits in commanding places, and man them 24 hours a day until the blockhouse is completed, ” answered the pioneer who had fought in the Civil War.
After the meeting the men of Palouse City and the surrounding area began making preparation for the defense of their city. By nightfall the city was ringed with shoulder high rifle pits. However, there was one major problem, a shortage of weapons. Two days later a small detachment of soldiers from Fort Walla Walla arrived with 45-70 caliber Springfield rifles, (I have been told there were 100) and ample ammunition to arm the defenders.
It was decided it would be much quicker to build a stockade around the existing Ragsdale Building than the building of a blockhouse. Several crews were sent to wooded areas to cut and trim 480 wagonloads of poles for the construction of a stockade. It was 125 feet in circumference and became the home for over 200 citizens for several days. The women and children were housed in the second floor of the building. The men who were not manning the rifle pits camped in tents outside the building but inside the walls. Armed guards patrolled the parapet. It can be said that Palouse City was ready for the attack of Chief Joseph that never came.
Although the Nez Perce under the leadership of Chief Joseph never went on a rampage, they had every reason to. In 1873 President Grant signed an act making the Wallowa country a sanctuary and hunting ground for this peaceful tribe. Under pressure from many high government officials the president rescinded the act in 1875. General Oliver O. Howard ordered the Indians to move to the Clearwater Reservation within thirty days. Several lesser chiefs and many warriors wanted to do battle with the whites. Their leader however thought there would be less bloodshed if they escaped to Canada and join Sitting Bull’s Sioux who had fled to Canada the year before after the Custer massacre on the Little Big Horn. With the help of Chief Looking Glass and Chief White Bird the trip was started. Knowing that horses would play an important part in their escape a large herd was rounded up for the trip.
The Snake River, still high and swift from the spring runoff had to be crossed. These natives knew the river like the back of their hands. There was a section of river where the current of an eddy would pull them to the middle of the river. Several miles down river another eddy worked in reverse, guiding them to the opposite bank. Boats made from dried and cured buffalo hides were used to cross the river. Every family had several hides using them for robes and sleeping mats. The hides, hair side up, were spread flat on the ground. Across the hide were laid green willow branches about the thickness of a thumb. The hide and the poles were bent up and lashed to other ones forming a long circular rim making a crude but safe craft. No paddles were needed. Two ropes were tied to each boat and horses, guided by braves, pulled them across the river. Two men swam beside the boats to steady it. All their possessions were ferried across the river in this manner. Children and elders rode atop the loads. The older children, wives and warriors crossed the river on the backs of the swimming horses. Once across the water the boats were dismantled, the robes dried and used for sleeping mats later on.
By the time the army realized the Nez Perce had successfully crossed the river, the fugitives were in the beautiful valley known as White Bird Canyon. They were well rested and eager for action. General Howard sent 90 confident troopers, officers, and 11 volunteers under the command of Colonel Perry to capture the Indians. The result of this battle was one of the most humiliating and crushing defeats any American army ever suffered. They left 35 of their comrades dead on the ground. Several of the many wounded died later. A few of the braves had minor wounds but none were killed.
The second battle was near the Clearwater River. General Howard with over 400 troops attacked the Indians. The U. S. military was once again soundly beaten and were forced to retreat. Chief Joseph and his followers then fled across the Lolo Pass and entered the Bitterroot Valley leaving Howard’s troops far behind. So far things were going great for the Native Americans, but things were about to change.
General Gibbons stationed at Fort Missoula was ordered to march and intercept the fleeing Indians. The Indian camp was unaware of this new danger until the attack began. Warriors, women and children were victims of the soldier’s accurate fire. Chief Joseph was in a group that was guarding the horses when he heard the sounds of the battle. With a savage yell this small group counter-attacked with fearlessness that left no room for defeat. The soldiers fell in a large number and began retreating. The arrival of General Howard with reinforcements, supplies, and ammunition gave hope for the American troops, but not for long. Chief White Bird and several braves were returning from a scouting trip. The two soldiers guarding the pack string of mules that carried food, supplies and ammunition were killed and the pack animals stampeded. With a shortage of supplies and ammunition the soldiers retreated again. The Indians, adding much needed supplies and transportation for their desperate escape to Canada, caught the stampeded animals.
To confuse the soldiers, Chief Joseph led his tribe into and through the great Yellowstone Country. Finally the war-weary tribe reached the Bear Paw Mountains less than a two days march to safety and freedom. Knowing his people could go no farther without food and rest, their leader called a halt. He estimated that the enemy was two days behind. What he did not know was General Howard using the “singing wires” telegraph, had wired General Nelson Miles, commander of a fort on the Yellowstone River, to cut off the renegade Indians from the east. The attack was a complete surprise to the Indians, and deadly on both sides. Fifty-three soldiers fell on the initial attack. General Miles retreated and waited for the arrival of General Howard’s troops. Instead of a frontal attack the two Generals brought in their artillery. There was no defense for this kind of warfare. Men, women, children and horses were being slaughtered. On the fifth day of the bombardment Chief Joseph called his chiefs together and said it was time to surrender. Gathering the survivors of his tribe together he said to them, ‘Hear me my chiefs and my people, I am tired and my heart is sick and tired. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” Thus ended the last major Indian war in the West.
After the treaty was signed, General Miles promised them they would return to the Valley of Butterfly (Lapwai) in the spring. Like most Indian treaties it was broken and they were sent to a reservation in Oklahoma where nearly half of them died from disease. Ten years later the few remaining members of Joseph’s people were transferred to the Colville reservation in Nespelem, Washington. Chief Joseph died here September 21, 1904. Many of his people believed he died of a broken heart.