The Nez Perce War, 1877
One of the last major Indian Wars, the 1877 Nez Perce conflict was small in scale but intense in its human drama. The Nimiipuu people - to give their real name - were traditional friends of the white man from their meeting with Lewis and Clark in October of 1805.
During the Civil War, gold was discovered on the land that had been reserved for the Nez Perce. Neither the presence of a Federal garrison nor the impassioned protests of the Indians were able to prevent the subsequent influx of rowdy miners on their territory. The United States' treaty with the Nez Perce was revised in 1863, reducing their territory to a fraction of what it had been. The Nez Perce afterwards referred to this as the 'Steal Treaty', and a 'Non-Treaty' faction became increasingly hostile in their attitude towards the whites.
Open war was finally sparked in June of 1877 by the actions of Chuslum Moxmox - 'Yellow Bull' - a Nez Perce warrior who led a small party on an orgy of violence targeting white settlers on the Salmon River. From here, the saga is a familiar part of western legend. Attempting to flee into Canada, the Nez Perce were pursued by an American army under the command of Oliver Howard, a Civil War veteran of mixed abilities. After several running battles, the Nez Perce were forced to capitulate just forty miles from the Canadian border.
The plight of the Nez Perce has been romanticized historically, and perhaps at the expense of the facts surrounding the incident. Though the Indians' resentment was fully understandable, it was they and not the whites who fired the first shots of the War, in Yellow Bull's brutal Salmon River raids.
Much has been made of the personality of Chief Joseph, leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce. Though he was indeed the dignified and noble orator of tradition, he did not exert full control over the Nez Perce. Indeed the leadership of both sides in this small war often appears ineffectual; many of the army officers involved were Civil War veterans who expected to fight the Nez Perce with the linear tactics they knew best. The guerilla methods used by the Indians - whose warriors never numbered more than 200 men - proved a rude awakening for them.