GREAT are the United States of America! Infinitely diversified are the problems which confront us. Turn back to Harper's Weekly for the summer and fall of 1877. On one page you will find a romantic picture of an Indian agency in the heart of the Rocky Mountains; in the corners are portraits of painted Indians and of square-shouldered army officers. There is also a picture of a column of soldiery, with baggage-train and a few pieces of artillery, winding through the mountains; of groups of fierce savages posted behind rocks and engaged in a battle with a little band of United States troops, so far away down the valley that the men look like specks, and, but for the white smoke of their guns, would hardly be recognized as human beings, much less as men in the very heat of a battle; of a train of overloaded mules, picking their way along the narrow trail upon the rocky sides of a mountain range, and one poor animal is just losing its footing and is tumbling down over the precipice to the rocks, hundreds of feet below. At the bottom of the page will read the legend, "The Nez Perce Campaign -- General Howard in pursuit of Chief Joseph." These pictures represent one problem of the frontiers, of the undeveloped West; a problem, of which the solution is to be wrought out amid the sublime solitudes of the wilderness, and in the gloomy shadows of unmeasured mountain ranges.
Turning the page of the pictorial newspaper, we pass from the foaming rivers, the lonely valleys, the craggy precipices of the wilderness to scenes laid in the hearts of great cities. The pictures are full of intense excitement. There are tall buildings, wrapped in flames, surrounded by crowds of riotous men, preventing by force all efforts to quench the flames which have been kindled by incendiary torches. Long lines of locomotive engines, blowing off steam through their escape valves, stand on tracks, ready and impatient to move the commerce of the world, but no engineer is in the cab and no fireman on the tender. In the foreground surge excited masses of strikers, ready to kill the first man who ventures to step on the foot-boards of the waiting engines.
We see also pictures of magnificent depots, of splendid railroad bridges, and of miles of loaded freight cars being destroyed by all-consuming flames. On another page is a street scene, a riot. Dense throngs of angry men, black with soot from the furnace and the forge, bearing on their persons the world-wide badge of toil, are engaged in a conflict in the streets of a great city with soldiers, who load and fire into the raging multitude. Here and there lies on the cobble-stones forms which are cold in death. Some of these are the sons of labor, brave and honest men, who all their lives have been hard working but respected citizens. They are fresh from the factory, the shops, and the engine-room. At the bottom of these pages we may read the legend, "The Great Strike -- The Riots in Pittsburg and other Cities -- The Military driving the Mob -- The Great Incendiary Conflagrations." The pictures present another problem; a problem of cities and of civilization, of labor and capitol.
The opposite problems confronted us at the same time, and equally required solution. Each, for the time being, was confronted, worked out, and ended. For neither of them, however, was there obtained any permanent solution. The old troubles will reappear in a new guise. In this chapter we tell the story of General Howard's treatment of the Nez Percés problem.
The Nez Percés are a tribe of Indians who formerly roamed at will through the valleys of northern Idaho. Why they are called the Nez Percés, or "pierced noses," we do not know, for the nasal appendages of these Indians have no unusual deformity. In 1863 the United States Government made a treaty, which was agreed to by about nine-tenths of this tribe. This immense majority went peaceably on a reservation. But there were some of the tribe who would not, and never did, agree to any thing. Of these the principal chiefs at the time at which we write were Joseph, Whitebird, Looking Glass, and Hush-hush-cute. While these malcontents continued to wander up and down along the valleys of the Clearwater, the Salmon, and the Snake rivers, the government surveyors, with chain and compass, had pushed resolutely, laying off the regions into an endless checker-board of sections, townships, and ranges. Close behind the surveyors came the tide of immigration. Hardy settlers built cabins, fenced in fields, planted grain, and herded stock, right in the country which Joseph and his brethren had claimed as their own.
For a year of two there had been signs of trouble. The Indians grew sullen. They talked loudly of their rights. Still no real outbreak was expected. In the spring of 1877 General Howard was directed by the War Department to have a talk with Joseph, and tell him that the time had come when he and his people must move on to the reservation, and that if he would not go through persuasion, he would be driven by force. The council was appointed to be held at Fort Lapwai, the station of the Indian agency for the Nez Percé reservation.
At the time of the war, the pictorial newspapers gave a view of Lapwai. But they utterly failed to give a notion of the loveliness of the valley. On either hand are magnificent ranges of mountains. At places the range dips or bends aside, and through the openings one sees in the distance other ranges of every shade of purple. The valleys, which open their smiling recesses toward the sky, seem all the fairer, all the gentler, all the more peaceful from contrast with the rugged mountains. Lapwai is not really a fort. There is a hollow square on the west of the crystalline river which are the officer's quarters; on another, the barracks; on another, the guard-house. In front of each of these buildings marches solemnly back and forth a uniformed sentinel. The square is, in fact, a parade ground.
Here, on the appointed day, was General Howard, an interpreter, and a few other officers. As a preparation for the council, a hospital tent was pitched on one side of the parade-ground. The sides of the tent were looped up, and the flies at either end were stretched out on a temporary frame-work. This primitive pavilion had several advantages. It protected its occupants from the sun; it afforded plenty of fresh air, a thing much needed at an Indian council; and (we say it in a whisper) it made the council easy of access by the soldiers in case treachery was attempted.
Here in this tent the handsome officers lounged about, impatiently waiting for the Indians. The balmy May morning, with its floods of sunshine and cloudless sky arching the valley from range to range with its azure canopy, was well advanced before Joseph and his companions appeared in sight, some distance away. There were about fifty of them in the company, all mounted on Indian ponies, and proceeding slowly down the valley in single file. First, came a long line of warriors, wrapped in red and yellow blankets, wearing buckskin leggings and immense slouch hats. Behind them came the women and children, their faces painted a bright red and their clothing consisting of the most fantastic garments and showy decorations.
The picturesque procession moved slowly toward the hollow square. As they came nearer, it could be seen that they were unarmed, except with tomahawk pipes, which could be used at will to smoke the peaceful tobacco or to crush the skull of an enemy. Just as they reached the square the leader turned sharply to the right, followed by the others, to march around the outside of the inclosure.
This proceeding was accompanied by a wild Indian song, sung with thrilling cadence and mournful harmony in high, shrill, and quavering voices. The weird sound of the song, echoed back and forth among the mountains, caused an involuntary, shudder among the occupants of the fort. Men may be able to stifle every thrill of fear, but there lives not the soul which will not sometimes quiver as if pained, responsive to the vibrations of some subtle and soul-searching melody. The few ladies, wives of the officers, huddled together in closer groups inquiring, "Do you think Joseph means to fight?" The officers clenched their hands and breathed more rapidly. The common sentinels and soldiers looked from one to another with a startled, sickish look in their eyes. Higher and higher rose the song, swelling from the first plaintive murmurs, till it seemed like a piercing and agonizing wail. Suddenly the burden of the song changed. It consisted no longer of a wail, a cry, but short, sharp, unmistakable notes of defiance.
The circuit of the hollow square was completed, Joseph and his principal men marched under the canvas canopy. But after all this preparation it seemed that the "talk" could not be had that day. White Bird was on his way, said Joseph, and he would not talk until his friend arrived. So the meeting adjourned until the next day.
On the following morning there was the same gaudy procession down the valley, the same march around the square, and the same weird song ending with notes of defiance. As the sound died away, one of the ladies said to another, "I think their song is more warlike and bolder than that of yesterday." It was probably imagination.
Once assembled under the canvas, the Indian agent through as interpreter, explained patiently that the government demanded that Joseph, White Bird, and Hush-hush-cute, who were present this time with their people, must go on the reservation. To this the various chiefs made rather insolent replies, repeating much about the earth's being their mother, and about the Great Spirit's having given it to the Indians for a home. The most dangerous speaker, however, was an old Dreamer. He was sort of a prophet, who taught that the earth, having been created by God in its completeness, should not be interfered with, disturbed, or improved by man, and that if the Indians continued steadfast in that belief a great leader would be raised up in the east, at a single blast of whose trumpet all the dead warriors would start suddenly into life, and that the millions of braves thus collected would expel the white man from the continent of America, and repossess it for their own dusky race. The Dreamer was a person of high importance, and his influence among his people was unbounded.
As the council proceeded the chiefs became excited. "There are always two parties to a dispute. The one who is right will come out ahead. We have heard about a bargain, a trade between some of these Indians (referring to the treaty Nez Percés) and the white men concerning their land; but we belong to the land out of which we came. Who gave Washington rule over us? You have no right to compare us, grown men, with children. Grown men think for themselves. The government at Washington shall not think for us."
Such was their temper that General Howard felt that it would be well to have the company of cavalry from Walowa, and one from Walla-walla nearer at hand. The two skeleton companies of troops at Lapwai were outnumbered five to one by the hordes of well-armed Indians, who kept pouring in. So by agreement there was a further postponement of the council till the following Monday. On that day, the old Dreamer was more saucy than ever, whereupon General Howard boldly arrested him.
This incident and the reports of approaching troops softened the temper of the Indians. "What makes me feel like laughing this morning, General Howard?" asked Joseph in a pleasant voice. "There are," said the general, "three kinds of laughter -- one from fun, another from deceit, and another from real joy." "Mine," said the liar, "is from real joy." So the council broke up with an understanding that Joseph and his brethren were to go on the reservation within a month. General Howard and his officers packed their baggage, well pleased at the peaceful prospect, and returned to Portland, Oregon.
Still, after thoughtful consultations, it was decided that Joseph, securing allies from other roaming tribes along the Columbia River, might change his mind. It was important to check any such movement. So on the 30th of May the general again started for the Indian country. He arrived at Fort Lapwai, and found the little post as peaceful as the valley in which it was located. Towards evening the officers were sitting out in front of their quarters, when a man was seen galloping down the valley in haste. He shortly reached the post, sprang from his foaming steed, and delivered a letter to Colonel Perry, the commandant. It came from Mount Idaho, sixty miles south-east of Lapwai, and contained information from an intelligent settler that the Indians under Joseph were evidently preparing for hostilities.
At early dawn a small detachment started from Mount Idaho to collect information. At noon two friendly Indians came in with excited stories of the murder of some settlers. Later still, another messenger arrived, confirming the previous reports. The idle little post was transformed into a scene of bustling activity. Arms were examined, ammunition prepared, horses brought in, and pack-saddles adjusted. Every face wore a serious look, and the busy hum of earnest conversation was heard on every side. In the morning the officers, the ladies of the post, and a number of friendly Indians assembled in an excited group on Colonel Perry's front porch. Messenger after messenger continued to arrive with reports of Indian Outrages. Here is one of the letters received, all a-quiver with the excitement of the occasion:
"MOUNT IDAHO, 8 A. M., June 15, 1877. "COMMANDING OFFICER, FORT LAPWAI. --
"I have just sent a dispatch by Mr. West, a half-breed. Since that was written the wounded have come in, -- Mr. Day, mortally; Mrs. Norton, with both legs broken; Moore, shot through the hips; Norton, killed and left in the road six miles from here. Teams were attacked on the road and abandoned. The Indians have possession of the prairie and threaten Mount Idaho. All the people are here, and we will do the best we can. Lose no time in getting up here with a force. Stop the stage and "all through travelers." Give us relief and arms and ammunition. Chapman has got this Indian (the messenger, Looking-glass's brother), hoping he may get through. I fear the people on Salmon have all been killed, as a party was seen going that way last night. We had a report last night that seven whites had been killed on Salmon. Notify the people of Lewiston. Hurry up; hurry! Rely on this Indian's statement; I have known him for a long time. He is with us.
"L. P. BROWN."
"P. S. -- Send a dispatch to town for the express not to start up unless heavily escorted. Give the bearer a fresh horse, and send him back. CHAPMAN"
What was to be done? There were about fifty men at Lapwai. It was unsafe to weaken the garrison by a single man. Besides, a force of twenty-five men would be merely victims to the Indian warriors. Meanwhile the outrages were going on. "Hurry up; hurry!" Other troops were hundreds of miles away. Fortunately the news had also reached Walla-Walla, and sixty cavalry-men arrived at Lapwai. These, with thirty men from the garrison, all mounted, and commanded by Colonel Perry, started off into the darkness along the muddy mountain road. General Howard remained at Lapwai to hurry forward re-enforcements.
The men who went to the front, sustained by the high excitement of the hour, went forward to their fate with steady march and unflinching hearts. But those who were left behind had no such exhilaration. For them there was restlessness, impatience, and fever. "To remain at home and wait amid the pulsations of extreme anxiety -- who but woman was equal to the task?" Writes General Howard. There was one lady still at the fort, the newly married wife of Lieutenant Theller. Hard, indeed, was it for her to see the fond form, so stalwart, so confident, ride away, leaving her, only one thought burning in her heart -- that of his return.
As the little command toiled forward along the eighty miles of mountain trail, let us see what had really been happening. Joseph's band had appeared near Mount Idaho, and on the afternoon of June 13th a party of Indians stealthily advanced to a small cabin on Salmon River. This humble structure was the home of Richard Divine, an old man who, for some reason unknown, had forsaken the busy haunts of men and built for himself this lodge in the wilderness, which he occupied alone. Old Divine was quickly killed. It was at sunset, and the ruthless savages made off, leaving his unburied body on the doorstep of his cabin.
From this place the Indians proceeded to the cabin of Henry Elfers, Robert Bland, and Henry Becknoge. These, too, were killed, and their horses taken by the murderers. Samuel Benedict was out looking for his cattle. A bullet was planted in his side. He managed to remount his horse, and the faithful animal bore him at the top of its speed to the cabin where he lived. He had lain there wounded and helpless for an hour or two, when a rude hand burst open the door, and a terrible tomahawk was struck into his skull.
Besides these outrages others, many others, of the settlers, pioneers of civilization, fell victim to their own courage. Mrs. Norton, Hill Norton, Miss Bowers, Joseph Moore, John Chamberlain, with his wife and two children, proprietors of the Cottonwood House, a small frontier inn, learning of the danger from a passing messenger who had started to Lapwai, but had been attacked by Indians and driven back, hastily prepared for flight to Mount Idaho, eighteen miles away. It was ten o'clock at night, and they were all in bed when the alarm reached them. Two of the party rode horseback and the rest were packed into a farm wagon. In this order they took up their journey without delay. Ten miles, more than half the distance, had been made when they heard behind them, clattering down the stony trail, the hoofs of hurrying horses.
On they passed in their lumbering coach, but the pursuers gained rapidly. They began to fire on the little party of refugees. Norton and Moore, who were on horses, were each terribly wounded, and had to be taken into the wagon. In a few moments the balls, which whistled over the party lying flat in the wagon without injury, struck and killed the horses composing the wagon team. Further progress was impossible. The party sprang out of the wagon in an attempt to escape on foot. Miss Bowers and little Hill Norton got away in the darkness. The Chamberlain family fled in another direction, but were discovered and pursued. The husband and father was shot dead. The boy was murdered, according to the mother's statement, by having his head placed beneath the knees of a powerful Indian and crushed. The other child was torn from its mother, a piece of its tongue cut out, and a knife run quite through its neck, and left sticking there. Mrs. Chamberlain was repeatedly outraged by the Indians, and received severe injuries. The remainder of the party, despairing if escape by flight, had undertaken to conceal themselves behind and beneath the dead horses. Here Norton was killed. Moore was shot through the hips, Day through the shoulder and leg, and Mrs. Norton through both legs. Day and Moore subsequently died.
The Indians were frantic with delight. "See this fine horse, this rifle, saddle, and these good clothes! Why remain here talking forever? The war has begun! I am mad! I have killed our enemies! There is blood! Come on; there is plenty of every thing, if you only work!" Such was the speech of a chief to his braves.
The Salmon is a torrent with mountain shores. White Bird is a creek flowing into the Salmon through a cañon which it has channeled out for itself transversely through the mountain. A narrow trail leads down the side of this cañon, commencing at its head where the first cut begins, and winding down by a long descent to the rolling country which forms the bottom of the cañon.
Here, at the head of this trail, Colonel Perry's command halted an hour before dawn on the morning of the 17th of June. As the sweet mountain air was transfused with a mellow radiance from the coming day, and the dark abysses of the cañon stood forth in the sunlight stripped of their blacker shadows, there could be seen, four miles away, on the bottom of the vast ravine, the Indian camp. As the officers scrutinized the scene with their field-glasses, now and then some sleepy warrior would come out of his lodge wrapped in his blanket and, rubbing sleepy eyes, would begin to search for his horse.
The sunlight, which at first had tinged the highest peaks with ruddy glow, until they seemed like pyramids of fire against the morning sky, gradually painted the broad edges and sloping surfaces of the west side of the cañon with warmth and beauty. At that moment Chief Joseph himself came out of the principal lodge. His quick eye instantly discovered the groups of horsemen standing up at the head of the cañon outlined against the sky like figures carved in ebony. "Get the white man's glass! Tell White Bird. Horses! The soldiers are here," he shouted in the sharp accents of command.
Shortly busy hands were at work pulling down the lodges and loading the mules. The women and children were hurriedly conveyed across the Salmon River. The warriors quickly hid themselves behind rocks and knolls. White Bird, with his band took a position behind a ridge somewhat in advance of the others and on the right side of the trail. On came the column of devoted troops down the side of the cañon toward the fatal spot. Every rider held his glittering carbine ready for instant use. Not an Indian was to be seen.
Suddenly, as they were about to reach the ground lately occupied by the Indian camp, dark and hideous faces popped out everywhere, from behind stones and out of gulches and ravines. At the same moment White Bird's flanking party appeared two hundred yards to their left.
The troops quickly formed in line, each man seeking some cover behind which to hide. The Indians greatly out numbering the whites, continually overlapped the latter's flanks. The troops extended their line, making it thinner and thinner. For ten minutes they held their ground. Then a band of Indian flankers on the left suddenly forced the men to fall back. The soldiers, catching the alarm, instantly deserted their hiding places in the rocky cañon, and ran backward toward higher ground in the rear. But they could not stop here. The men were falling on every hand, while swarms of savages were already surrounding the spot and pouring in deadly volleys. The air was full of noise and smoke, and everywhere was heard the sharp commands of officers and the excited cries of the men.
Back they fled, faster and faster, stopping every minute or so in a vain attempt to rally behind some knoll, only to be driven to seek other refuge. White Bird's flanking party dashed out of a little transverse ravine, heading off the men just as they reached the foot of the narrow trail. Here was a desperate conflict. Such as could do so dashed through the midst of the Indians at the top of their horses' speed, and made their way up the trail toward the head of the cañon. The rest were left dead or dying in the lonely White Bird Cañon. Among those who fell was Lieutenant Theller. It became General Howard's duty, when the remnant of the men made their way back to Lapwai, to inform the young wife of her husband's fate. "I endeavored to control myself and break the tidings gently. But Mrs. Theller read it in my face before I could speak, and words had no place. 'Oh my husband!' "
Such was the fate of the first expedition, and the worst apprehensions of danger to the settlers from the victorious savages were indulged in. The work had now to be begun anew. Meanwhile every possible effort had been making to secure troops. One messenger had been dispatched to Fort Wallowa, with orders for two cavalry companies to march to Lapwai, stopping neither day nor night. Similar orders were sent to the infantry at Walla-walla one hundred and ten miles distant. From this point also, being the nearest line of telegraph, dispatches were sent to San Francisco for twenty-five scouts, and to Portland for three months' supplies.
This done, the only thing to do was wait. Slow indeed seemed the advance of the expected succor. Slow, although the messengers had ridden day and night at a break-neck rate, killing two horses on the way; slow, although not a moment was lost in getting the troops under way, and not an hour's rest was had as they hurried forward. Yet this took days and days. Rumors of the terrible defeat at Lapwai, and yet no re-enforcements were in sight. The broken fragments of the little army, which had gone forth, fell back bleeding and stricken, and yet there were no others to take their place. Four days after the news of the disaster amid the shadows of White Bird Cañon, there were but two hundred soldiers at Lapwai. Besides these there were twenty volunteers.
Further delay for re-enforcements was desirable, yet impossible. The little band of men, cavalry and infantry, together with an old mountain howitzer and two Gatling guns, are drawn up in marching order. The train of pack-mules, with their immense loads of ammunition and provision, move restlessly back and forth on the parade-ground. The trained white mare, with the tinkling bell attached to her neck, stands thoughtful and attentive, ready to lead her restless followers along the stony trail. "The moment of starting is solemn. The air is full of rumors. The few daring messengers, bearing news of the defeat, had skulked through by night to Lapwai. The road wound through ravines and over mountains. It passed the mouths of black and awful cañons and lay for a long distance over a range covered with rugged forests. The whole route is full of traps, pitfalls, and natural ambuscades."
The last farewells are said. The last mule-pack is adjusted. The last red-shirted artillery-man takes his stand by his gun. There is a moment of quiet. Suddenly the commanding officer shouts "Attention!" and then, a moment later, "Column, march!" Every man steps off with the right foot. The cavalry are in front. The proud bell-mare, with her cavalcade of mules stubborn to all else, but to her yielding the most perfect obedience, follow, and behind them, in column of fours, come the infantry.
At half past one o'clock the troops reached the deserted Cottonwood House. Doors and windows were open wide. Immediately after the ill-fated Norton family and their companions, the Indians had ransacked the entire house. Every where found broken chairs, open drawers, and ruined furniture. In their senseless destruction the Indians had taken the very flour, sugar, and salt, and thrown it around on the floors. Inside was this scene of desolation and tragedy; outside, a country as well watered as Eden and richer than any garden in the world. Thus does nature, great, calm, and peaceful, offer her balm to heart-sick and suffering humanity.
In time the troops reached the head of the blood-stained White Bird Cañon. The Indians were no longer there. Slowly and cautiously the soldiers made their way down the narrow trail toward the trap into which Perry's command had fallen. There they found the bodies of the brave boys, stripped of their clothing, and lying unburied beneath the summer's sun. Reverent hands wrapped the dead in soldier's blankets, and buried them on the spot where they had fallen.
Meanwhile from the top of a lofty mountain scouts had discovered Joseph and his people on the opposite side of the swift running Salmon River, behind some curious hills. "The leadership of Joseph," says General Howard, "was indeed remarkable." The whites must cross the rapid river in front of him. He could either oppose this crossing, or retreat to the rear, or turn south up the Salmon, or north, and down that river. In case he chose the latter course, he would be marching toward Mount Idaho on a line east of the Salmon River, parallel with that along which the soldiers in their march had come. This would bring him between the soldiers and the settlements.
The soldiers made ready to cross the Salmon River, an undertaking of great danger, both by reason of the furious flow of the torrent and of the red enemies on the further side. During the night Joseph fled, taking the course down the Salmon River and toward the settlements. The troops were ordered to cross the river and commence pursuit. At the first attempt the raft was swept away. It was determined to retrace their steps along the course they had come and head off Joseph should he attempt to cross the river toward the settlements.
Leaving the main force for a moment, let us turn to the little detachment which had been sent back under Captain Whipple to look after Looking Glass, who had not yet joined the malcontents. Somewhere near Mount Idaho Whipple discovered the enemy. He sent forward Lieutenant Rains, with ten picked men and a scout, to ascertain the strength of the Indian forces. Following this advance-guard at a distance of a mile with his main force the sound of firing was heard at the front. Hurrying forward Whipple and his command were horrified to find that Rains and EVERY MAN in his detachment had been killed.
All this took place in the neighborhood of the desolate Cottonwood House, where, on the 5th of July, the men were encamped. Toward noon two mounted men were seen approaching the camp at full speed. "Some citizens," said they, "a couple of miles away on the Mount Idaho road, are surrounded by Indians and being cut to pieces." The little company of troops at once set forward in double quick toward the scene of the conflict. The victims were a company of seventeen volunteers. Several had already fallen, but on the approach of Whipple's soldiers the Indians galloped off and were lost to sight behind the hills.
It was the 11th of July before Howard with his main force again caught sight of Joseph. The troops were on a high bluff overlooking the Clearwater River. The hostiles were discovered below on either side of the stream, a position from which they were quickly driven by showers of balls from the Gatling guns. For some distance down the stream, on the side occupied by the soldiers, there was a rough, rocky plateau terminating in a bluff overlooking a large ravine or cañon, leading up from the river. The Indians' attempt was to escape from between the high, perpendicular walls along either side of the river through the opening made by this cañon. They were, in fact, just hurrying up the ravine when the whites discovered the movement and sought to prevent it. A fierce battle followed. The Indian sharp-shooters, planted behind lofty rocks, picked off the soldiers, while the latter fired into the ravine from the bluff or made charges down the slopes of smaller ravines leading into the main one. At nightfall the position of the two forces was unchanged.
On the following day the battle was renewed. About half-past two a furious charge was made into the ravine. For a few minutes the Indians fought desperately from behind their rocky covers, but at length gave way and fled in all directions, bounding from rock to rock through the ravines or plunging into the river out of sight only to reappear when its rapid current had borne them out of gunshot. The Indian camp, with all its blankets, buffalo robes, cooking utensils, and provisions, fell into the hands of the victors.
Joseph and his band fled toward the east. Nothing remained but pursuit. Without pausing for a rest, General Howard and his troops, now four hundred in number, plunged into the wilderness, only to be heard of by the outside world at occasional intervals. Now they hurried on by steep and slippery paths toward the crest of a mountain range. Now, along crooked and narrow trails, deep with slimy mud, they slipped and floundered for hours at a time. Sometimes the trail led them into vast masses of fallen timber, inextricably interlaced so that no passage could be had until a way had been chopped with axes. In crossing from range to range, the descent and ascent were often so precipitous that no human being could make the journey. In such cased they kept to the "Hog Back," a narrow, crooked ridge connecting the two ranges.
Along these almost impassable paths the Indians had fled. They had jammed their ponies between rocks and over trees, leaving many a splotch of blood and dead animal to mark their way. Meanwhile a tall messenger reached the camp of the pursuers. General Gibbon, from Helena, Montana, had started west with two hundred men, and sent an urgent call for re-enforcements. Joseph was now between the two forces, one from the east, the other pursuing him from the west. a sergeant named Sutherland with an Indian guide was at once dispatched to inform Gibbon of the progress of the pursuers. His journey was solitary and dangerous; he was to rest neither by night or day. Once he came to a perpendicular mountain blocking his way. The trail led along a narrow shelf in the side of the precipice, covered with lose rocks, and scarcely eighteen inches wide. Below him yawned an awful abyss, hundreds of feet in depth. Dismounting, the white man and his guide slowly and cautiously led their animals around this narrow pathway, without slipping off the shelving rock, till, at last, they reached the other side. It had taken half the night to make the passage. The Indian guide soon deserted Sutherland, but the latter pressed on his way, lame and sore, bearing the news to General Gibbon.
Meanwhile the two hundred cavalry, pressing forward to cooperate with General Gibbon, had left the infantry far behind. As the days progressed it became evident that even this would not suffice. Twenty men, on the strongest horses in the company, were dispatched to hurry forward in advance of the others. Soon they met messengers carrying news of battle, which had been fought between Joseph and General Gibbon's troops. On the 11th of August the squad of picked cavalry-men, with General Howard at their head, galloped into the fortified camp of General Gibbon. On the previous day they had a severe engagement with the enemy, losing a howitzer and about thirty officers and men. Again the wily Joseph had escaped from the grasp of the pursuers. It remained only to begin the chase. Almost every hour some panic-stricken settlers met the troops, with wild reports of outrages and alarms. The cry was, "Hurry, hurry, hurry!"
On the night of the 19th of August 1877, General Howard's command encamped in a large grassy meadow. The night was starlight. Nothing could be heard in the camp but the regular footfall of a sentinel, or a noise among the animals. Suddenly a terrific roar of musketry, mingled with terrible yells, burst upon the startled camp. The men were instantly upon their feet, adjusting accouterments, and searching in the darkness for their guns.
How had the Indians approached so near without discovery? The shrewd Joseph had drilled a band of them to march by fours, keeping steady step. In the darkness this company advanced to the very lines of the camp, being mistaken by the sentinels for a returning detachment of their own troops, which had been out on a special duty. In the confusion of the moment the mules broke loose and fled.
The Indians did not press their attack. The pursuit was therefore not ended. Within two or three days more, it became more impossible to proceed. The stout army shoes with which the men had started to wear out were now shapeless masses of worn leather. Most of the men were barefooted. Their uniforms torn and ruined by the rough journey through the mountains, had become rags and were held together by strings. The blankets were falling to pieces, while the nights were becoming exceedingly cold. What could be done? A halt was ordered. General Howard and a companion had a team hitched to a rough lumber wagon, and started on a gallop, over a country literally covered with bowlders of every size and shape, toward Virginia City, seventy miles a way. When the rough mining town was reached the traders were made supremely happy. All the shows, clothing, blanket, and provisions in the place were brought up. All the shoes, clothing, blankets, and provisions in the place were bought up.
On his return to the camp with welcome supplies, General Howard says, "We found telegrams from the war department like the following: 'Where Indians can subsist, the army can live; continue the pursuit. If you are tired, general, put in a younger man and return to Oregon, but the troops must go on!'" The army did go on, on toward the south, on until the wonderful geyser landscape, "with its vast seas of almost barren sulphur crust, was reached." Looking out over the waste expanse, the men discovered a black object, a speck. An hour's march enabled them to discover that the object moved. Another hour, and they discovered that it had semblance of a human being, a man. He was breathless, hatless, almost naked, and nearly starved. His feet were wrapped in rags. His face had the wild aspect of a maniac. His hair and beard, long and disheveled, made him look like a wild man. His talk was almost unintelligible.--"Indians, O God! I got away. O Heaven, the rest are killed, all killed." Continually repeating these words, he varied them only by vague and incoherent mutterings.
Farther on, the troops picked up another man. He was shot through both cheeks. The summer sun had scorched the wound, and inflammation had so swollen and discolored the surrounding flesh that the poor man's face had lost every aspect of a human countenance. His head, bloody and misshapen, looked like that of a monster. Swarms of flies gathered upon the wounded parts. The man could not speak a word, but could communicate with his rescuers only by means of a few agonized signs.
Not far away was found a third unfortunate. He was twice wounded, but still was able to talk intelligently. He was a lawyer. His name was Cowan. He with his wife, sister-in-law, and children, together with four or five gentlemen, including one or two trusty guides, had been on a pleasure trip through this wonderful region. The novelty of travel in covered wagons had been delightful. One morning, little dreaming of danger, they were suddenly attacked. The travelers fought as well as they could. In vain. Besides the three men which had been found, the rest of the party had been killed, with the exception of two ladies, who were taken prisoner.
On the 9th of September, messengers brought word that General Sturgis with a strong force of cavalry was coming from the south. Joseph was now between the two forces. Could the Indian chieftain again escape? Yes, this man or savage, with a genius for war would have made him eminent among the military leaders of the age, made a feint toward the west, fooling Sturgis, and sending the latter off on a wild goose chase, while he and his people, under cover of a dense forest, made their was into a narrow and slippery cañon. This was immensely deep. The high, narrow walls were but twenty feet apart. Down into this dark cañon at a practicable point slipped and floundered the cavalry and infantry. It was a strange sight, as the column wound along the bottom of the defile, men, horses, pack mules, and artillery, with only a narrow ribbon of sky just above them. All in vain. Joseph escaped again.
A junction was soon formed with Sturgis, and the latter's fresh cavalry at once hurried forward in the unending pursuit. On the evening of the 13th of September, word reached General Howard that a battle was being fought. Taking fifty cavalry-men he at once hurried forward in the bitter cold and darkness of the swamps. "At sunrise," says he, "we crossed the Yellowstone, and by half past ten reached the battle-field. It was the most horrible of places, sage brush and dirt, and only alkaline water, and very little of that! Dead horses were strewn about and other relics of the battle-field. A few wounded men and the dead were there. To all this admixture of disagreeable things was added a cold, raw wind that unobstructed swept over the country."
Joseph again got away. Sturgis was already twenty miles beyond the battle-field, but every hour the pursuers were losing ground. The Indians were running night and day. They were now moving directly north, through the heart of Montana, having traveled more than two hundred and fifty miles due east of the region where the pursuit had begun, while the journey actually accomplished had been more than six times the distance. The British frontier was but a hundred miles away. To reach that line of safety Joseph was straining every nerve. It was evident that the pursuers could never overtake them.
There was yet one hope. Days before, a messenger had embarked in a canoe and started down the Yellowstone River to Fort Keough, sixty miles from the Dakota boundary, to apprise General Miles, who was in command at that point, of the situation. The hope was that Miles would at once set out in a diagonal line to the north-west and head off Joseph before he reached the British frontier. Meanwhile, General Howard kept on after the fugitives. He says, "I in my heart, earnestly petitioned for God's help, expressing a sentiment that I hope was sincere: 'If thou wilt grant my request, do so, I beseech thee, even at the expense of another's receiving the credit of the expedition.' "
At last two messengers were seen approaching in hot haste. They brought word that Joseph had crossed the Missouri at Cow Island, while Miles had crossed it twenty miles below, and was still pressing forward to intercept the enemy. Of his movement Joseph was yet in ignorance. Another messenger came, a curious and solitary frontiersman, known as Slippery Dick. He reported that just inside the British dominions, not fifty miles away, was the great chieftain, Sitting Bull, with twelve hundred warriors. Joseph was making his way toward that refuge. On the 4th of October, General Howard with a small detachment, suddenly came within sight of General Miles's camp.
The most remarkable series of events had taken place. Joseph, ignorant of Miles proximity, had encamped near the mouth of a ravine. The American commander, hurling his men upon the enemy with terrific force, drove the Indians into the ravine. In a short time all escape from the ravine was cut off. Yet, penned up in this death-trap, encumbered by women and children, his braves sick, wounded, lamed, and dying from the hardships of the awful chase, Joseph bravely proceeded to erect intrenchments and prepare for a siege. In a few days, however, he surrendered.
By his performances he became entitled to be recognized as one of the remarkable men of the age. One more day's march would have placed him inside the British dominions. For four months he had eluded his pursuers, having traveled more than fifteen hundred miles through the wildest, rockiest, and most mountainous region in America. He had crossed ranges, leaped cañons, and swam mountain torrents; all this while carrying with him, on this remarkable flight, the women, children, and property of his tribe. He had been pursued altogether by four armies, any one of which far outnumbered his force. He had fought five battles against an enemy supplied with all the resources of modern warfare, and each time he had been practically victorious. Had he had the least suspicion of Miles's approach, it is evident that this fertile genius would have eluded his enemies once more, and have been able to laugh at all their toil.
While General Miles stepped in at the last moment and carried off the fruit off all the labors of the pursuers by a brilliant military victory, it is but fair that history should accord to General Howard the chief laurels of the triumph. In all our Indian warfare we have no record of any achievement at all comparable with the pursuit the pursuit of Nez Percé Joseph.
The great leader, with the broken remnant of his people, has been transported by the United States Government hundreds of miles away from the beautiful country which was their own, to the Indian Territory. There, let us hope that, under other skies and happier auspices, the invincible bravery, the strategic genius, the fertile intellect, with its inexhaustible resources, the proud spirit, with its unconquerable determination, of Chief Joseph, may be transmitted by him to other generations, and there find employment in the busy tasks of civilized society.
Retyped and reformatted by Ray and Kathy Leigh
Joseph and His Brethren
Created October 26, 2001
Web design and graphics by Kathy Leigh