In 1877, in a fighting retreat from the United States Army, the nontreaty Nez Perces—including Chief Joseph—traveled nearly 1,700 miles across some of the most rugged country in the Pacific Northwest. Joseph's surrender, only 40 miles from the Canadian border, produced one of the most famous and tragic speeches recorded in the history of the West.
Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis , written by noted frontier military historian Jerome A. Greene and the newest release of the Montana Historical Society Press, brings the epic struggle into vivid historical and emotional focus.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in praise of the Nez Perce strategy—and likely to take some of the sting out of the public embarrassment heaped on his often outsmarted army—said the tribe "fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications."
A Montana newspaper, probably relieved that the Nez Perce had spared the lives of so many settlers whom they easily could have killed, reported that the tribe's "warfare since they entered Montana has been almost universally marked so far by the highest characteristics recognized by civilized nations."
The Nez Perces were fighting against incredible military odds for their people's spiritual, cultural, and physical survival after years of federal land grabs and mistreatment by white settlers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Describing the attack on Looking Glass's Camp, one of the incidents that escalated the Nez Perce War, Peopeo Tholekt said the soldiers' attack threatened the very heart of their existence:
"Much has been carried away and many objects destroyed or badly damaged. Brass kettles always carefully kept by the women, lay battered and smashed, growing gardens trampled and destroyed. Nearly all our horses were taken."
One of the more significant parts of Greene's extensive research in both U.S. Army and Nez Perce sources untangles the Nez Perce's mysteriously circuitous route through the then newly created Yellowstone National Park and their attempts to seek refuge among the Crow Indians.
"Jerome A. Greene has crafted the most exhaustive history yet published of this story of courage, endurance, pathos, and tragedy. His contribution fills in a wealth of missing detail and immeasurably enriches the extensive literature," said Robert M. Utley, nationally known historian and author of The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull .
Historian John D. McDermott concurs. "Unlike recent treatments of the Nez Perce Indian War . . . Greene's study adds a great deal of new information, culled from an impressive array of primary sources. His book is now the standard, and it is hard to imagine that there will ever be a better one."
Between 100 to 150 of the more than 800 Nez Perce men, women, and children who took part in the 3 and 1/2 month trek were killed during the war, in one of the 17 military engagements or on the grueling journey. Another 100 died in exile in Indian Territory within a few months of the surrender, from diseases such as malaria. Army deaths numbered 113.
Using centuries-old hunting trails and intimate knowledge of the land, the Nez Perce were less than 50 miles from potential freedom in Canada, where they hoped to link up with Sitting Bull, when they fought the final battle of the Bear Paw Mountains near Chinook, Mont.
It was at the end of this heroic battle against the troops and advanced weaponry of Col. Nelson Miles that the words of Chief Joseph as interpreted by Captain John, an Indian serving with the U.S. Army, and paraphrased by Lieut. C. E. S. Wood, were etched in the memory of the West:
"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."
The 554-page book that includes 26 illustrations and historic photographs and 16 detailed maps is available for $27.95 only in paperback from bookstores, or can be ordered directly by calling toll-free 1-800-243-9900 (shipping additional).
The Alberta Bair Trust and the Montana Historical Society Foundation underwrote the publication of Nez Perce Summer, 1877 .Order