The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, Part I


In the fall of 1805, Lewis and Clark arrived on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains where they encountered the Nez Perce Indians and found them to be friendly and exceptionally hospitable.

In fact, had it not been for the Nez Perce, the Corp of Discovery may well have failed to reach the western coast of the continent. At the Nez Perce village, Lewis and Clark received much needed provisions, assistance in building suitable canoes for river travel and were gifted with horses of the beautiful Appaloosa breed.

Other than the long winter encampment along the Pacific coast, the Corp of Discovery spent more time with the Nez Perce, during 1805 and again on their return in 1806, than with any other tribe they encountered.

In Washington Irving's book, "The Adventures of Captain Bonneville" published in 1837, Irving related that; "Captain Bonneville, ... who resided much among them [Nez Perce], and had repeated opportunities of ascertaining their real character, invariably speaks of them as kind and hospitable, scrupulously honest, and remarkable, above all other Indians that he had met with, for a strong feeling of religion. In fact, so enthusiastic is he in their praise, that he pronounces them, ... one of the purest hearted people on the face of the earth."

This friendship between the Nez Perce and whites continued for several decades as the Nez Perce leaders endeavored to accommodate the influx of whites and maintain their own way of life. However, not unlike the other native tribes of the mountains and plains, there came a time when the white man's greed overshadowed the desires of the Nez Perce to preserve their lands and culture while living in peace with the growing numbers of immigrants.

In 1855, Washington Territory governor Isaac Stevens led the formation of a council that would establish separate areas for the natives and the ever increasing population of settlers. To that end, the Nez Perce, under the leadership of Tuekakas and other chiefs, agreed to a treaty that established a reservation of about 7.7 million acres encompassing portions of present day Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The treaty was well accepted since the designated area contained most of the land that had always been the home of the Nez Perce.

Tuekakas, known to the whites by his Christian name Joseph the Elder, was not a warrior chief but more of a spiritual leader of Nee-Me-Poo, "The People." In 1840 the wife of Tuekakas, Khapkhaponimi, meaning "Strong Leader of Women," bore a son who was named Hinmatoowyalahtqit translating to "Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain." To the whites he was known as Joseph the Younger, and later would be known across the continent as Chief Joseph.

As was the case with all treaties between the Indians and whites, the treaty of 1855 was soon deemed obsolete. The discovery of gold in the land of the Nez Perce in 1860 flooded the reservation with thousands of prospectors who ignored the boundaries established by treaty. Rather than enforcing the rights of the Nez Perce, it was easier for the government to make a new treaty, the Lapwai Treaty of 1863 – also known as the "Thieves Treaty" – that decreased the size of the reservation from the 7.7 million acres of Nez Perce land to a reservation of about 760,000 acres, a mere tenth of their rightful lands.

In an act of defiance, Joseph the Elder refused to sign the new treaty and created a rift between the treaty and non-treaty factions of the tribe. Those leaders who signed the treaty moved their people to the confines of the smaller reservation while Joseph the Elder remained, marking the original boundaries with wooden poles, declaring that, "Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man."

Until his death in 1871 Joseph the Elder refused to move his people to the smaller confines of the Lapwai Treaty reservation. Before Tuekakas death the people had chosen Joseph the Younger to be the successor of his father as a leader of the people. And as he lay dying, Joseph the Elder gave this counsel to the son:

"My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your fathers body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother."

In later years, Joseph the Younger, Chief Joseph would recall that, "I clasped my father's hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father's grave is worse than a wild beast."

Joseph honored the wishes of his father and continued to reside with his non-treaty people outside the confines of the Lapwai Treaty reservation. While they remained on the original lands of the Nez Perce, land seeking settlers and gold hungry prospectors continued to overrun the Wallowa Valley while Chief Joseph guarded the graves of his ancestors.

Despite the injustice they endured at the hands of the invading whites, Chief Joseph continued to remain a peaceful leader and did not allow any acts of violence against the intruders.

Time and again the Nez Perce would concede to the whites in the hope of one day regaining their tribal lands and securing a lasting peace, a hope that would never be fulfilled. Although, for a time, it looked as though Chief Joseph had reached a lasting agreement.

In 1873 he successfully negotiated with the federal government and reached an agreement that allowed the non-treaty signers and their people to remain in the Wallowa Valley on the land that lay outside the boundaries of the Lapwai reservation. Upholding the promise he had made to his father, Chief Joseph and his people could now live in peace in the land where their ancestors were buried. That agreement, like the original treaty before it, was short-lived. In 1877 the U.S. Government reversed its decision and once again demanded that the non-treaty signers of 1863 must move out of the Wallowa Valley and onto the confines of the Lapwai reservation.

U.S. Army General Oliver Howard was charged with executing the order for removal. General Howard held a council with Joseph and other Nez Perce leaders at Fort Lapwai and informed Chief Joseph that he would no longer be allowed to remain in the Wallowa Valley and must relocate his people to the reservation. In response, Chief Joseph expressed his inability to understand how it could be that the Great Spirit would give one race of men the right to tell another race of men what they must do.

General Howard blustered at the implied challenge and informed Joseph that if he did not move to the reservation he would order his troops to attack. Under the threat of attack Chief Joseph, concerned for the safety of his people, reluctantly agreed to relocate to the Idaho reservation where the other Nez Perce had gone nearly 15 years earlier.

After the council, Chief Joseph, White Bird and Looking Glass accompanied Howard onto the reservation to find a location where the Wallowa band would settle. One parcel of land that General Howard offered to Joseph and his people was already occupied by a mixture of whites and Indians.

General Howard offered to have the current residents removed but Joseph refused citing his people's belief that it was wrong to take from others what already belonged to them. Frustrated and angry, General Howard demanded that Joseph gather his people and livestock, find a suitable place, and move onto the reservation within 30 days. Failure to do so would constitute an act of war. Joseph asked for more time but his request was denied.

Calling a council of his people and the other leaders of the tribe, Chief Joseph spoke for peace even though it meant breaking his promise and abandoning the graves of his father and mother. Others advocated war rather than giving up the land of their ancestors. While the council was still in session a young warrior, whose father had been killed by white trespassers, rode into camp announcing that he and other warriors with him, had attacked and killed four white men.

Fearing reprisal, Chief Joseph, along with Nez Perce leaders White Bird, Looking Glass and Tuhulhulsote, determined to avoid further bloodshed and gathered together their people and fled the land of their ancestors.

Like thunder rolling down the mountain, Chief Joseph's solemn promise to his father and his pleas for justice faded away in a dying echo that rumbled across the Wallowa Valley.

Next week: The Nez Perce War, Part 2.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Contact Tim via email at


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