I went to Idaho and Montana in search of Chief Joseph—and like the U.S. Army back in 1877, I bungled it. I thought I knew the story—or at least the headline: For four months in the spring and summer of 1877, the Red Napoleon, as the American press dubbed the striking 37-year-old Nez Perce chief, evaded a ragtag collection of befuddled regulars and hopped-up volunteers on a thousand-mile “fighting retreat” through some of the most spectacular and treacherous scenery in the West.
Only it turns out that the press got it wrong. As I stood beside my idling rental car in the blast of summer’s first heat wave, it dawned on me that I had come looking for the wrong guy. The historic marker by the Clearwater River at the eastern edge of Idaho’s Nez Perce reservation proclaimed “LOOKING GLASS” in letters big enough to make out at 50 miles an hour, so I braved the heat to get out and read the rest. That was when I realized it was Looking Glass—the tall, gaunt, tragically flawed chief of another Nez Perce band—I should be tracking down instead of Joseph.
History, or rather mythology, credits Joseph with leading the Nez Perce into battle against U.S. armed forces under the command of Civil War–hardened General Oliver O. Howard, but in fact, for six weeks in the summer of 1877, Looking Glass devised the strategy and set the pace. Joseph was the spokesman, the conciliator, the humanist with the handsome face—but from the start of July to the middle of August 1877, Looking Glass was the commander in the field.
Ironically, he was a warrior who wanted no part of this war. When Joseph and his people were forced from their traditional homeland in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley in May, triggering a chain of events that led to the exile and eventual death of a large part of the Nez Perce people, Looking Glass and his band were living peacefully inside the confines of the reservation. “My hands are clean of white men’s blood,” Looking Glass told the warring chiefs. “I wish to live in peace.”
It took some poking around, but I finally found the Looking Glass campsite outside the somnolent town of Kooskia (a Nez Perce reservation town about midway between Walla Walla and Missoula) off a dead-end road across from the fish hatchery. A grove of ponderosa pines shimmered in the sunlight; the sound of rushing water mingled with birdcalls and the whine of a distant lawn mower; dry hills spattered with conifers rose before and behind me. The shoulders of the Bitterroot Mountains were right behind the hills. I had the place to myself and I took my time piecing the story together from the interpretive signs.
On July 1, a Sunday, Looking Glass and his people were going about their business here when a detachment of General Howard’s troops came at them from the hills to the south. With no provocation, the soldiers opened fire and forced the natives to flee. A woman and child drowned trying to cross the river. The soldiers fell on the deserted camp, torching teepees, trampling vegetable gardens, and making off with some 700 prize Appaloosa horses.
By the end of the day, Looking Glass had thrown in his lot—and his 40 warriors—with Chief Joseph’s Wallowa exiles and the other warring bands.
The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is one of the finest—and most elaborately scripted—monuments to the history of the American West. Five federal offices in conjunction with the Nez Perce tribe manage the 1,170 miles of hiking trails, auto routes, monuments, and battlefields. Eight glossy brochures (published by the U.S. Forest Service) lay out auto tours from Joseph’s father’s grave site outside Joseph, Oregon, to the Bear Paw battlefield in Montana, 40 miles from the Canadian border, where the war came to its horrific end.
I had four days and a rented Toyota Corolla, so obviously I had to do some strategizing. The brutal heat and time constraints pretty much ruled out hiking, which is really the only way to walk in the footsteps of the Nez Perce. Zipping along paved highways with the air conditioner turned to max, I knew I was far removed from the authentic experience. Still, I was able to walk the major battlefields—usually in utter solitude—and match up old testimony to the stirring vistas before me. Whenever I turned off my car, the silence was so deep that I could almost hear the echoes of the past.
Early the first morning I headed out of the breezy little town of Grangeville, Idaho, into the surrounding farm country and pulled up at Tolo Lake. Though it’s little more than a glorified pond—brownish, shallow, rimmed by willows and goose droppings—this was the spot where the Nez Perce gathered in early June 1877 to breathe the air of freedom one last time before relocating to the reservation. On June 14, a couple of angry young warriors slipped away from the lake and went on a killing spree that turned the Nez Perce exodus into a bloody war.
The temperature was pushing 80 degrees at 8 in the morning as I crested the steep rise of White Bird Hill a few miles south of Tolo Lake and descended into the brown corrugated grasslands of White Bird Canyon. I knew from reading the history that this was the site of the war’s first battle—a disastrous rout for the army “scarcely exceeded by the magnitude of the Custer Massacre,” in the words of Captain David Perry, who led the attack. What I did not know was how hauntingly beautiful the spot is.
To the sound of crickets and meadow-larks, I hiked alone up a grassy path to a series of signposts that laid out in almost cinematic detail what transpired here at daybreak on June 17, 1877. Though Captain Perry’s soldiers commanded the rim of the open bowl to the north, the Nez Perce (many of them hung over on boosted whiskey) outflanked them by creeping up into the ravines. The battle was over in minutes: 34 soldiers lay dead on the hillside as Perry beat a disorderly retreat back to Grangeville. The Nez Perce had not lost a single man.
A month later, after a series of skirmishes north of Grangeville, the Nez Perce gathered on the Weippe Prairie, east of the Clearwater River, to debate their next move. Joseph wanted to stay put and fight. But Looking Glass, now the military leader of the Nez Perce, argued that it made more sense to cross rugged Lolo Pass into Montana and join their allies, the Crow, hunting buffalo on the prairie.
It was a decision that sealed their fate.
That afternoon I stopped at the visitor center of Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho, just outside the forlorn reservation town of Lapwai. With temperatures pushing 110 degrees, I skipped the short trail down to the river and sat in the air-conditioned auditorium chatting with Bessie Blackeagle, a young Nez Perce woman on the staff there, and her grandfather Wilfred “Scotty” Scott, who served for six years as the chair of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
I was hoping Bessie and Scotty could shed some light on the question of why Joseph became so famous while the chiefs who actually conducted the war—not only Looking Glass but White Bird and Lean Elk—are largely unknown today, except to historians and members of the tribe. “Joseph was eloquent,” Scotty told me. “He never stopped pleading for his people to return to their homeland. At Bear Paw, he was the one who stayed and took the heat. He gave the others a chance to escape to Canada.”
Bessie, who is 21, added that when she studied Idaho history in high school, “There was one paragraph on the Nez Perce, and we were done. But now Joseph’s fame is helping to bring the story to a wider public.” People come for Joseph; but once they walk or drive the trail, they learn how much more there is to the story.
I spent that night at a motel in Kamiah, not far from the camas meadows where Looking Glass convinced his people to head over Lolo Pass, and the next morning I followed their path east on Highway 12 into Montana. It’s a drive to stir the soul. The land rises steadily into tier after tier of conifer-clad cliffs, the river narrows and amplifies its roar, ponder-osa pines give way to Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir, traffic thins as the air cools. Every few miles a sign points to an enticing trailhead or dappled woodland campground.
I asked Otis Halfmoon, a Nez Perce tribal elder who currently serves as director of the National Park Service trail system, which part of the trail speaks to him most powerfully. He told me it was the crest of Lolo Pass, right before you go from Idaho into Montana: “I think of the people who went that route and looked back, knowing that they might never come again. They hear the chatter of chipmunk and wind and they’re thinking this is the last time they will be free in their homeland.”
Looking Glass slowed the pace once they got to Montana’s wide mountain-girt Bitterroot Valley on July 28. Now that they were in a different territory, he figured the war was behind them. Some 800 Nez Perce men, women, and children paraded their caravan of 2,000 horses past—or through—the towns strung along the Bitterroot River. They traded for supplies in Stevensville.
It took me an hour to drive the 45 miles south from Missoula to Hamilton—the largest town in the Bitterroot Valley—and another three-quarters of an hour to climb from Hamilton to the continental divide at 7,000-foot Lost Trail Pass. I pulled over at an immense green meadow nine miles shy of the Big Hole battlefield. The historic marker noted that when the Nez Perce came this way in the first week of August, some young men wanted to scout back to make sure they were not being pursued by Howard’s forces. But Looking Glass refused. “Whatever the gains, whatever the loss, it is yours,” one of the other warriors warned him.
Scotty had told me that Big Hole is scarred and sacred ground: “People who walked that battlefield said they could hear gunshots, babies screaming, cannon fire.” When I got there, I knew what he meant. Looking Glass had taken the people to what appeared to be the perfect resting spot. A stream purls through lush meadow grass; lodgepole pines stand in scattered groves on the surrounding hills; huge blue snow-flecked mountain ranges etch the sky on either side. Wandering—alone again—amid the skeletal poles of 56 teepees that have been erected on the site of the Nez Perce campsite, I tried to summon up the slaughter that took place here 136 years ago.
On August 9 before daylight, 183 soldiers and volunteers from the Seventh Infantry, under the command of Colonel John Gibbon, crept down the hillside across from the campsite and opened fire on the Nez Perce teepees. They shot three volleys low to the ground with the express aim of killing the maximum number of Indians. In the hand-to-hand combat that ensued, babies had their heads stomped in, mothers were shot clutching their infants, children were burned to death in their teepees. When the infantry finally retreated, the army had lost three officers and 22 enlisted men. The exact number of Nez Perce casualties is still unknown—but estimates run as high as 90, more than 10 percent of their total number, many of them women and children.
Along with the deaths of their people died the last shred of the Nez Perce trust in nonnatives. “After Big Hole, all non-Indians became enemies,” Scotty said.
It was Looking Glass who had guided his people here and urged them to relax while Howard’s army overtook them. When the traumatized survivors packed up and fled south, Looking Glass was no longer leading the Nez Perce warriors.
The war dragged on for another month and a half before finally ending in a bitter, freezing weeklong bloody siege at Bear Paw. Among the Nez Perce warriors who died holding off the 520 troops under the command of Colonel Nelson A. Miles was Looking Glass: An army sharpshooter (in some accounts a Cheyenne scout fighting with the army) cut the chief down when he rose from his rifle pit to scan the prairie for a messenger from Chief Sitting Bull. “Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead,” Joseph intoned in his famous, possibly embellished speech of surrender. “My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Colonel Miles promised Joseph that the survivors could settle on the reservation in Idaho—but this promise, like so many others, was broken. As prisoners of war, the Nez Perce were sent to a reservation in Oklahoma, where many of them died of disease over the course of eight miserable years. Finally, in 1885, the Nez Perce were permitted to return to the Northwest—not to their beloved Wallowa homeland, but the desolate multitribal Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington.
During the long years of exile, Joseph, now a national celebrity, pleaded his people’s case to President Rutherford B. Hayes, but to no avail. He delivered his oft-repeated speech in Seattle in 1903, begging white audiences to help him “return to the home of my childhood.”
Broken and grieving, Joseph died on the Colville Reservation in 1904 at the age of 64. His dream of being buried next to his father beside Wallowa Lake was also denied him.
History remembers Chief Joseph because of his eloquence, his noble countenance, his undying dream of returning to the Wallowa Mountains—but “Looking Glass was thrown under the bus,” in the words of a park service worker at Big Hole. Today, Joseph gets the glory; Looking Glass, if he is remembered at all, gets blamed. Yet for all his flaws—common human flaws of vanity, credulity, stubbornness, bad luck—Looking Glass was a fierce, pragmatic leader who preferred peace to war, but fought to the death when he had to.
As I followed Looking Glass from his idyllic village beside the Clearwater River to the Big Hole battlefield—a place sanctified, as one Nez Perce put it, by “the blood flowing down the river that day”—I felt inspired, almost exalted. Part of it was the stupendous Western landscape. But part of it was the rare opportunity the trail affords to visit the scene of one of our great tragedies—and to channel the spirit of a tragic hero who lived and died at the center of it.
Published: September 2013