Son of a Nez Percé Indian chief, Joseph was born Hinmaton Yalaktit (“Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain”) in what is now northeastern Oregon. He became known as Joseph the Younger because his father, one of the first Nez Percé to convert to Christianity, earlier had taken Joseph as his baptismal name.
In 1863, however, following a gold rush by whites in the area, the federal government repossessed some six million acres of tribal land, and Joseph the Elder renounced both the US and Christianity. When he died in 1871, his son became chief and soon had to deal with a very difficult choice.
When a US general threatened a cavalry attack in 1877, Chief Joseph at first agreed to take his people to a reservation in Idaho, now diminished in size by 90%. Before this could happen, however, a group of young Nez Percé warriors attacked white settlements along the Salmon River, and then came to hide among the tribe. Joseph, who initially had believed that resistance to the US military would be futile, now was forced to fight. Moving north through the mountains of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, the Nez Percé under his leadership conducted one of the most brilliant retreats in American history. In three months this band of 700, with fewer than 200 warriors, traveled almost 1,500 miles while fighting off a pursuing army of 2,000.
By the time the exhausted, starving Nez Percé were forced to surrender in early October 1877, just 42 miles from the Canadian border, Joseph had become famous, and was called ‘The Red Napoleon.’ In truth, his younger brother Olikut and others were the war leaders of their tribe, while he was responsible for guarding the camp. Chief Joseph, however, is best remembered today for his elegant surrender speech, which has been called the most famous statement in American Indian history. It ends, “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.”
Chief Joseph had been told that his people would be returned to their lands in Oregon, but instead they were transported to eastern Kansas, and then Oklahoma, where many died from epidemic diseases. He continued to protest their treatment, even traveling to Washington DCin 1879 to meet with President Hayes, but he and the Nez Percé were never permitted to return to their homeland. He died in northeastern Washington State in 1904, and was buried there in exile.