I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzoote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Ollokot] 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 to have 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 now stands I will fight no more forever.
Purported speech of Chief Joseph at the surrender of the Nez Perce on October 5, 1877
The epic attempt of 750 Nez Perce to escape to Canada in 1877 is the stuff of legend. General Sherman, never accused of being overly sympathetic to Indians to say the least, paid a high professional tribute to the Nez Perce conduct in this conflict in the closing sad saga of the conquest of the West:
Thus has terminated one of the most extraordinary Indian wars of which there is any record. The Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise; they abstained from scalping, let captive women go free, did not commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families which is usual, and fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish-lines and field-fortifications.
The conflict began as usual over land, with the Nez Perce tribe divided by factions that had signed treaties granting land to the US government and factions which refused to sign. The Army in May of 1877, in the midst of rising tensions between the Nez Perce and settlers, ordered the non-Treaty faction to a reservation. The Nez Perce began to make preparations to make the move. Small raiding parties of Nez Perce murdered some 21 settlers, allegedly in retaliation for murders of Nez Perce by settlers. This was done without the approval of the leaders of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph, the leader of one of the non-treaty bands, considered an appeal to Brigadier General O.O. Howard, but decided that after the raids a peaceful resolution was impossible. Hence the decision to flee to Canada.
Over 1,170 miles, through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, against US troops eventually numbering 2000 soldiers, the 250 combatants of the Nez Perce fought eighteen engagements, including four pitched battles, from June-October while protecting 500 noncombatant women and kids. Incredibly some one hundred and fifty of the Nez Perce did escape to Canada. The majority of the Nez Perce, some 418, surrendered on October 5. The speech by Chief Joseph is poignant and is well remembered. However, how much of it he actually said is open to question. The speech was taken down by Lieutenant C.E.S. Wood, later a poet and writer, as well as an attorney of note. The two men became good friends and it is possible that Wood embellished what Chief Joseph actually said.
Hailed by the press, which had eagerly followed the conflict, as a “Red Napoleon”, Joseph was not a war chief and most of the fighting had been commanded by other chiefs who had died during the conflict. In later years Chief Joseph became a celebrity and met with Presidents and other notables around the country. He was a tireless advocate for the return of his people to the Wallowa Valley, something which was never granted. He died in 1904, an exile from his home.