When Joseph was born in 1840 in a cave on Joseph Creek, a tributary of the
Grand Ronde River, in the northwest corner of present-day Oregon, his people
were already well known to Americans. His father, Tuekakas (one of many
spellings), was the leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce and one
of Henry and Eliza Spaulding's first Christian converts at the Lapwai mission,
founded in 1836. His mother's name survives as Khap-khap-on-imi. Spaulding
gave the Tuekakas the Christian name, Joseph, probably at his baptism in
1839. His young son, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht, 'Thunder Rolling In The
Mountains,' received the same name , probably in the early 1860s, and incoming
white settlers distinguished father and son as Old Joseph and Young Joseph.
The Nez Perce, who had maintained good relations with the Americans for virtually the entire period from their encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, remained neutral during the Cayuse War of 1847-1850, and aided the Americans militarily during the Yakima War. By then, however, Old Joseph had begun to distance himself from Christianity and return to more traditional native beliefs and practices espoused by the Wanapam prophet, Smohalla, whose followers were called 'Dreamers' by whites. Two young sons, Ollokot and Young Joseph, followed their father's inclinations. Old Joseph signed the Treaty of Walla Walla engineered by Stevens in May/June 1855, but he had grown suspicious of American intentions and sincerity. (See also: "Indian Council at Walla Walla" and "Lawyer of the Nez Perces".)
His fears were substantiated when thousands of miners invaded Nez Percez lands after gold was discovered on them in 1860, and in 1863 when government commissioners ordered the Nez Perce reservation reduced from 5000 square miles to between 500 and 600 at a treaty council held at Lapwai. The Wallowa Valley was not included in the reduced reservation. The treaty demands split the Nez Perce into treaty and non-treaty factions, more or less along religious lines; the treaty faction being led by Christians and the non-treaty by those retaining traditional beliefs. Old Joseph numbered himself among the latter, tearing up his copy of the treaty and destroying the bible Spalding had given to him.
The Lapwai treaty, known by angry Nez Perce as the 'thief treaty,' left Old Joseph's people in an untenable position. Further treaty councils affirmed Nez Perce ownership of the Wallowa Valley, but in 1875, this decision was reversed, and more settlers entered the area. Made a trespasser in his own country, Old Joseph had few allies to help him resist white demands for his people's removal. Just before his father died in 1871, young Joseph recalled his plea. "My son never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother."
In January, 1877, the Army demanded that all non-treaty Nez Perce remove themselves to the Lapwai Reservation. At stormy council meetings held in May, government officials backed by military force demanded that the Nez Perce leave the Wallowa Valley, and the chiefs consented grudgingly. General Oliver Howard gave them 30 days to make the move. Passions rose as the Nez Perce gathered their goods and stock, and in June, three young men, seeking to revenge a kinsman murdered earlier by a settler, killed and wounded several whites. Another group went on another rampage killing more people. The army intervened and in the early morning of June 17, attacked the Nez Perce in White Bird Canyon. (See also: "General Howard and the Nez Perce War of 1877" and "Nez Perce and their War".)
The army suffered a humiliating defeat in what became the opening battle of the Nez Perce War. During the next four months approximately 1000 Nez Perce men, women and children, of which somewhat less than a quarter were fighting men, encumbered by what goods they could carry and hundreds of horses, conducted an extraordinary retreat over 1700 miles of mountain and prairie, fighting several engagements against better armed and more numerous forces until they were eventually forced to surrender barely 40 miles from safe haven in Canada.
The national press covered the campaign closely, and identified Joseph as the primary war leader during most of it, but subsequent study places Looking Glass in that role after his group joined the retreat in July. Specifically, Joseph guarded the women and children, the people's hope and future, during the retreat, making him, in effect, the guardian of the people. (See also: "Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Warriors".)
His courage, intelligence and confident bearing, his empathy, tact and diplomatic skills inspired them to heroic efforts and impressed their white adversaries. After the Bear Paws battle, with most of the warriors and leading chiefs killed, it fell to him to surrender, and his speech, recorded at the site by Lieutenant C. E. S. Wood, and published in the November 17, 1877 issue of Harper's Weekly, made him the symbol of Nez Perce heroism and resistence. (See also: "Last Stand of the Nez Perces".)
Even in defeat Joseph did not lose heart, but continued to defend and support those entrusted to his care with every tool at his disposal. (See also: "Nez Perces in Exile".) During his people's fatal confinement at Fort Leavenworth and in Oklahoma, he appealed to military and civil officials, even President Rutherford B. Hayes for their return to their homeland, and he presented his case to the public at large, providing his account of Nez Perce history and their treatment at the hands of the Americans to the Reverend W. H. Hare in an interview published in North American Review in April, 1879. Eventually 268 Nez Perce of the non-treaty bands who survived captivity were permitted to return to the Northwest. About half went to Lapwai and in June 1885, Joseph led his remnant band to the Colville Reservation in Eastern Washington.
Colville encampment; Chief Joseph's village at pow wow honoring the Nez Perce battle of 1877 at Nespelem Washington, ca. 1900
Nez Perce Chief Joseph's camp, Colville Indian Reservation, Washington, ca. 1901
There he sought to live in the tradition manner and follow his Dreamer beliefs. He also continued his efforts to return his people to the Wallowa Valley but without success. The photographs made of him from 1879 onward record the effect of this ordeal.
Nez Perce chief named Chief Joseph
Nez Perce chief named Chief Joseph, Fort Spokane, Washington, possibly Oct. 1886
Nez Perce Chief Joseph, Oklahoma, ca. 1886
Nez Perce chief Old Joseph's grave marker, Wallowa Lake, Oregon
In 1899 officials allowed Joseph to return briefly to the Wallowa Valley,
and a year later he visited his father's grave. By then it had been ransacked,
and a local dentist exhibited Tuekakas' skull in his office as a curio.
As the aged son confronted the desecrated grave in the midst of a plowed
field, an observer recalled that he "melted and wept". Rebuffed in his efforts
to purchase land for a reservation, he nevertheless continued to plead for
his people's return to any sympathetic ear, and on visits to Washington.
D.C., New York, Seattle and St. Louis, he continued to make his case publically.
He returned from St. Louis for the annual July 4 celebration at Nespelem
on the Colville Reservation, and on September 21, 1904, died alone in his
lodge, sitting before his fire.