Bear Paw Battlefield: The Nez Perce Surrender
One of the most remarkable events of the Indian Wars culminated at the Bear Paw Battlefield (tel. 406/357-3130), a unit of the Nez Perce National Historic Park (www.nps.gov/nepe), located 26 miles south of Chinook on County Road 240.
In 1877, in what is now northeast Oregon, the Army tried to force a band of Nez Perce Indians under the leadership of Chief Joseph onto a reservation far from their native lands. The Nez Perce decided to escape, trying to reach Canada where they hoped to join Sitting Bull's Lakota, who had already found homes there.
Joseph led 800 of his tribal members on a 1,700-mile flight through Yellowstone National Park and eventually north to this site, a mere 45 miles south of the Canadian border and freedom.
The U.S. Army under Gen. Oliver O. Howard pursued the tribe as it fled. A Civil War hero known as "the praying general," Howard, a deeply religious Christian, developed considerable hostility toward some of the Nez Perce leaders because he considered them heathens. Through a series of brilliant maneuvers, Joseph and his band of warriors, women, children, horses, and cattle escaped or defeated the army at every turn. Even Howard was forced to admit in his memoirs about the chase, "The leadership of Chief Joseph was indeed remarkable. No general could have chosen a safer position or one that would be more likely to puzzle and obstruct a pursuing foe."
They fought several battles along the way, but Col. Nelson A. Miles finally caught Joseph and his band in a snowstorm at Bear Paw, a rolling, grassy landscape achingly close to the freedom promised by the Canadian border. After a 6-day fight, Joseph surrendered on October 5, 1877. The chief's rifle is now in the Museum of the Upper Missouri in Fort Benton.
Chief Joseph is believed to have delivered this famous speech, translated by an interpreter:
"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhootze is dead. The old men are all killed. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are -- perhaps freezing to death. I want time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun stands now, I will fight no more forever."
That night, White Bird and 200 of his followers slipped away to Canada. Of the 431 remaining, 21 died by the end of spring. The survivors moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, where another 47 of Joseph's people died and many more became ill. Finally, in 1885, 118 Nez Perce who agreed to convert to Christianity were allowed to relocate to the Lapwai Agency near Lewistown, Idaho. The rest, including Joseph, were settled on the Colville Reservation in Nespelem in northeast Washington State.
Joseph never gave up hope of a return to his homeland in the Wallowa Valley. He met with Pres. William McKinley in 1897, and tried unsuccessfully to purchase the land in 1900. He died at Colville in 1904 at age 64. Even in death, he wasn't returned to the Wallowa Valley, but was buried at Nespelem.
For more insight into the flight of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, stop at the Blaine County Museum, 501 Indiana St., Chinook (tel. 406/357-2590), and take a look at the interpretive displays and the 20-minute film Forty Miles from Freedom. Admission is free.
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