They [Nez Perces and Flat-heads] were friendly in their dispositions, and honest to the most scrupulous degree in their intercourse with the white men. . . . Simply to call these people religious would convey but a faint idea of the deep hue of piety and devotion which pervades the whole of their conduct. Their honesty is immaculate; and their purity of purpose and observance of the rites of their religion are most uniform and remarkable. They are certainly more like a nation of saints than a horde of savages.
So they were described in Captain Bonneville's narrative after his visit in 1834.
They were first officially noticed in the report of the Indian Commissioner for 1843, where they are described as "noble, industrious, sensible," and well disposed toward the whites, while " though brave as Caesar," the whites have nothing to dread at their hands in case of their dealing out to them what they conceive to be right and equitable. - (14 Ann. Rep. Bur. Ethn., p. 712).
About the middle of the last century their chief was Hinmaton-Kalatkit (Thunder-rolling), known more generally as Chief Joseph.
He was a splendid example of the best type of Redman, of superb physique, clinging to the ancient way, beloved by his people, feared by his enemies and, as it proved, a leader of tremendous power and resource.
In 1877, after they had sustained innumerable encroachments and flagrant violations of their treaty, a quarrel broke out between them and the whites and an Indian was killed.
Chief Joseph restrained his men and appealed for justice. For reply a band of whites raided the Indian reservation, ran off their cattle and killed the Indian in charge. So the war broke out. The first three fights were defeats for the whites, but more troops were soon rushed up. Joseph had barely one hundred warriors and three hundred and fifty helpless women and children. General Howard was behind him, General Miles in front, Colonel Sturges and the Crows on his flank. He was obliged to retreat, and did so for one thousand miles. "A retreat worthy to be remembered with the story of the Ten Thousand".
After four months his starving band of warriors, now reduced to half, surrendered to General Miles on condition of being sent back to Idaho in the spring.
It was promised Joseph that he would be taken to Tongue River and kept there till spring and then be returned to Idaho. General Sheridan, ignoring the promises made on the battlefield, ostensibly on account of the difficulty of getting supplies there from Fort Buford, ordered the hostiles to Leavenworth . . . but different treatment was promised them when they held rifles in their hands. - (Sutherland, 1).
Seven years passed before the promise was kept, and in the meantime the band had been reduced by disease and death in Indian Territory from about 450 to about 280.
This strong testimony to the high character of Joseph and his people and the justice of their cause comes from the commissioner at the head of Indian affairs during and immediately after the outbreak:
I traveled with him in Kansas and the Indian Territory for nearly a week and found him to be one of the most gentlemanly and well-behaved Indians that I ever met. He is bright and intelligent, and is anxious for the welfare of his people. . . . The Nez Perces are very much superior to the Osages and Pawnees in the Indian Territory; they are even brighter than the Poncas, and care should be taken to place them where they will thrive. ... It will be borne in mind that Joseph has never made a treaty with the United States, and that he has never surrendered to the government the lands he claimed to own in Idaho. ... I had occasion in my last annual report to say that "Joseph and his followers have shown themselves to be brave men and skilled soldiers, who, with one exception, have observed the rules of civilized warfare, and have not mutilated their dead enemies." These Indians were encroached upon by white settlers on soil they believed to be their own, and when these encroachments became intolerable they were compelled, in their own estimation, to take up arms." - (Comr. 27a).
In all our sad Indian history there is nothing to exceed in pathetic eloquence the surrender speech of the Nez Perce chief:
"I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking-Glass is dead. Toohulhulsote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young 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 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." - (Sec. War. 3.) (Ann. Rep. Bur. Ethn. 14, p. 714-15).