Friday, June 8, 2012

The Nez Perce War 1877: Its Origins and Outbreak

Westward the course of empire takes its way.
Bishop George Berkeley on America, c.1720s

It was the morning of June 14, 1877. A drunk man was riding in the direction of the Salmon River in Idaho territory. His name was Shore Crossing (Wahlitits) of the Nez Perce tribe, and what he was about to do was to worsen a conflict that had been in the making for a long, long time.

There was no conflict in the beginning, in September 1805, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition first made contact with the Nimiipuu tribe on the Weippe Prairie in modern-day Idaho. What to do with these strangers with bleached or very dark brown skin, with not only black but yellow and brown hair as well? the local inhabitants asked themselves. Their solution at first was to kill them, but a female member of the tribe by the name of Wat-Ku-ese convinced her fellow members that the mysterious travellers rescued her from their Blackfeet foes. Besides, they reasoned, the Blackfeet and Shoshone have rifles, something that Lewis and Clark had. Consequently, the Nimiipuu, despite having a reputation of being overbearing to everybody else (Nimiipuu translates to "real people" in English), treated the expedition amicably, offering droves of amenities with the hope of procuring rifles from Lewis and Clark in return. Mistakenly called the "Nez Perce" by Lewis and Clark, they eventually obtained the weapons, which, added with the horses they rode, greatly increased the tribe's prestige.

Other than the occasional fur traders, the Nez Perce rarely encountered the Americans. (The term "American" is used in this context to refer to people of the Caucasian race and European blood whose ancestors began settling on the East Coast of the United States in the 16th Century. The Nez Perce at this time never considered themselves Americans, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. advises that the continent's indigenous peoples be called by their tribal name if it is known.) That is, until 1836, when American missionaries established a school and a church on the Clearwater River, along whose banks resided the vast majority of the Nez Perce, many of whom subsequently became Christians. Relations between them and the Americans were cordial so long as the Americans did not settle on their lands. The Americans in turn considered the Nez Perce to be one of their few friends in the Pacific Northwest. When the Cayuse tribe massacred their missionaries in November 1847, the Nez Perce refused to help their neighbors against the United States in the ensuing Cayuse War, and when other tribes resisted being moved onto reservations and murdered American miners, beginning the Yakima War, they imparted to the U.S. Army 30 scouts.

Before that conflict, though, the Treaty of 1855 was signed. While the treaty required other tribes to cede their lands to the United States, the Nez Perce--although they had to sign it, too--were not; if settlers wanted to make a home on their land, they had to first attain the tribe's permission. The reason why Isaac Stevens, governor of the Oregon Territory, did not make the Nez Perce give up their land was due to their support in the Cayuse War and the fact that they had converted to Christianity in droves. Although Stevens had no bayonets to enforce his requirement, the Nez Perce, promised gifts by him instead, still complied. With all the gifts and their property respected, not to mention a lucrative trade with the Americans, the Nez Perce were quite content.

Not for long, though. Gold was discovered on their land at Orofino Creek in October 1860, and Americans hoping to strike it rich illegaly entered Nez Perce lands. To hinder this unathorized migration, the U.S. Army--with the tribe's consent, of course--built Fort Lapwai within Nez Perce territory in 1862. Unfortunately, the two companies that occupied the fort proved insufficient to stop the tide of gold rushers, so American authorities and Nez Perce leaders met within its walls in May 1863 to hammer out a new agreement. A new treaty, asserted the Americans, was necessary because the territory allotted to the Nez Perce was too vast to be protected by two very small formations. Suffice it to say that after further negotiations, in which most notably the Americans gave their word to give the Nez Perce gifts once more, the Christianized tribal leaders in the north, where the new boundaries would not do any harm, grudgingly put their signatures on the treaty. However, the Nez Perce to the south, whose Wallowa Valley the treaty would take away, refused to sign it. Hence, the Treaty of 1863, dubbed the "Steal Treaty" by the Nez Perce, split the tribe, with Treaty factions on one side and Non-Treaty factions on the other. For the Non-treaty Nez Perce, they ended any dialogue with the Americans and found solace in the "Dreamer Movement"; Dreamers in considerable numbers believed that some magical force would take the settlers off their property.

Still the settlers arrived, even when the gold rush petered out. However, and fortunately for the Nez Perce, the U.S. Government was slow to move the tribe to the reservation. Also, two cooler heads entered the stage: Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard and Joseph the Younger (Hinmuuttu-yalatlat). Howard- the same New Englander who poorly led the Union XI Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, headed the Freedman's Bureau, and helped to establish the university that bears his last name- took over as head of the Department of the Columbia in 1874 after his predecessor, Edward Canby, was killed by native Modocs; he felt that "these really peaceable Indians... have this poor valley [the Wallowa] for their own." Three years before Howard was given the job of dealing with the Non-Treaty Nez Perce, Joseph became chief of the Wallowa band upon the death of his father, Old Joseph; he called for mutuality. True, he did not want to concede the territory he had inherited from his father, but he understood that to wage war against an industrialized U.S. Army was pure and utter folly.
Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, when young
Sadly, working with the Americans was easier said than done. The settlers started farming, angering much of the tribe, who stated the practice "profaned the Earth Mother." Then, on June 22, 1876, a settler murdered Wind Blowing (Wilhautyah) when the two were bickering. On September 2, Ollokot, Joseph's younger brother who apparently possessed a much hoter head, demanded the criminal be turned over to the Nez Perce and that all Americans must vacate their Wallowa Valley in a week's time lest they want to face reprisals. Settlers said no, and started forming a militia. If that is the case, Ollokot replied, then the band would use force to get them to leave and immolate their homes.

Thankfully, like many 20th-century American western films, the cavalry literally came to the rescue. Just when a fight was about to begin, a company of cavalrymen made it to the scene, and the company commander cooled passions by forging a compromise. Promised that the murderer would be tried, Ollokot took back his ultimatum. Nevertheless, the case of Wind Blowing's death was dismissed because everybody sent by the Nez Perce, who were skeptical that the court would bring the convicted person to justice in the first place, failed to testify. The war clouds did not unleash their fury.

But the fact that they had even gathered worried Howard. Fortune, he thought, might frown the next time... if there's a next time. To prevent another such crisis between the Non-Treaty Nez Perce and the Americans, he decided to enforce the 1863 Treaty. Also, Custer's defeat in the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 hardened the hearts of many an American towards rebellious indigenous tribes; ultimatums like Ollokot's could not be tolerated anymore. So, on November 13, Howard met with the leaders of the Non-Treaty factions at Lapwai Agency. He told them that they would have to move to the Lapwai Reservation. To capitulate the Wallowa Valley and go to the reservation, Joseph answered, could not be done; tribal customs prohibited it. Unready for an outright response in the negative, there were no talks for six months while Howard contemplated his next move.

The Nez Perce, believing that it was just a matter of time before he made up his mind, moved for him. On May 4, 1877 the chiefs of the Non-Treaty bands--Looking Glass of the Alpowai, White Bird of the Lamátta, Toohoolhoolzote of the Pikunan, Joseph of the Wallowa, and Hahtalekin of the Palouse tribe (it was a relative of the Nez Perce)--arrived at Fort Lapwai to resume negotiating. Toohoolhoolzote did the talking for all of them, but his undiplomatic manner only served to anger Howard, who lost all of his willingness to continue the discussion; they must be on the reservation by June 15, he informed Toohoolhoolzote. "You will come on the reservation within the time I tell you," Howard shouted at him. "If not, soldiers will put you there or shoot you down!" For his obduracy, Toohoolhoolzote was imprisoned by Howard for a week.

You will come on the reservation within the time I tell you. If not, soldiers will put you there or shoot you down! That threat caused the other chiefs to comply with Howard's ultimatum. The Non-Treaty Nez Perce gathered their livestock and clothing, took down their tepees, and took along tools, both practical and spiritual. Then the Nez Perce- some mounted, some walking- embarked for the Tolo Lake, where they planned on conducting their customary Dreamer rituals before heading to their new home at the Lapwai Reservation.

Perhaps 590 Non-Treaty Nez Perce reached the Tolo Lake on June 3. Since the deadline for being at their new home was twelve days away, many of them opted to make the most of their freedom before it would be lost, which in some cases came in the form of binge drinking. Alcohol, as all world well knows, causes restraint to be virtually nonexistent for a time, and the Nez Perce were no exception, the chiefs temporarily losing their authority. One of those who drank too much was Shore Crossing of the Lamátta band.

Chief Yellow Bull, Nez Perce
So it was that as the sun rose over the hills, mountains, rivers, and valleys of Idaho on the day before the tribe had to be on the reservation that Shore Crossing and his friends Red Moccasin Tops (Sarpsis llppilp) and Swan Necklace (Wetyetmas Wahyakt) were headed for the Salmon. Drunk Shore Crossing wanted to avenge the death of his father Eagle Robe (Tipyahlanah) by killing his killer, Larry Ott, an American miner, but Ott was nowhere to be found; Shore Crossing quenched his thirst for retaliation by killing Richard Devine in his bed along with three others settlers whom he thought had harmed his people. His act inspired other members of the tribe to assail the Americans, and Yellow Bull (Chuslum Moxmox) led 15 fellow warriors of the Lamátta band rampaged the countryside in an orgy of murder, rape, and immolation. When Yellow Bull decided to end his bestial work, 14 Americans, including two infants, were dead and four women had been raped.

So began the Nez Perce War.

Recommended Reading:

Forczyk, Robert. Nez Perce 1877: The Last Fight. Botley, Oxford ; Long Island City, NY: Osprey Pub. Co, 2011.

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