From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.

Nez Perce Indians spent eight month at fort

Times Weekend, Sunday, April 10, 1988

by J. H. Johnston III


For eight months spanning the winter of 1877 and summer of 1878, Fort Leavenworth was an interim prisoner of war camp. In the bottoms near the Missouri River, on the site of a former race track, the army confined about 400 of the Southern Nez Perces and their leader, a chief among chiefs in American Indian history: Chief Joseph.

A plaque erected near the site by the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society traced the story of the tribe from May 1877, when the Nez Perces were ordered to leave their homeland in the Northwest for a new reservation. When some of the young braves resisted and killed about 20 settlers. Chief Joseph led his tribe in a flight covering more than 1,600 miles, interspersed by 13 clashes with several hundred pursuers under the command of Gen. Nelson A. Miles.

The Indians were camped within 30-40 miles of the Canadian border, on the slope of Montana's Bear Paw Mountains, on Sept. 30, 1877, when the army and the Nez Perces fought for the last time. After four days of fighting the Indians raised a surrender flag. Chief Joseph said, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Joseph was promised his tribe would be moved back to the reservation. "I believed General Miles, or I never would have surrendered," Chief Joseph said afterward. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman spoke highly of the Nez Perces retreat, calling it "one of the most extraordinary Indian wars of which there is any record."

But Sherman disavowed Miles' pledge to Chief Joseph, declaring the Nez Perces should not be permitted to return to Oregon, and lodged instead in the Indian Territory. From Gen. Phil Sheridan's headquarters in Chicago it was ordered that the tribe be held prisoner at Fort Leavenworth until the Indian Bureau could relocate them in the Indian lands. Miles protested but was outranked, and in late November, 1877, Chief Joseph and over 400 of his tribe were loaded into a dozen railroad cars and moved to Fort Leavenworth.

In anticipation of their arrival 108 tents were pitched at the campsite, where they would use river water for cooling and drinking during the winter, spring and summer to follow. Later Chief Joseph wrote that it had seemed that "The Great Spirit Chief who rules above seemed to be looking some other way, and did not see what was being done to my people."

On Nov. 27 The Leavenworth Times reported quite a crowd of spectators from the garrison and from Leavenworth gathered to see the arriving captives. As members of two companies of the First Infantry looked on, Joseph, now about 37 years of age, stepped from the train.

A Times reporter described him as about five feet, eight inches tall, his face a dark copper, his eyes sparkling. He wore a long striped blanket wrapped tightly around his shoulders and a bright blue breech cloth and green leggings. A beaded pouch hung from a belt encircling his waist. His hat had a narrow rim and pointed crown, stripe with bright green and black. On his left arm was a gray wolfskin which trailed eagle's feathers. Beaded moccasins completed the attire.

The interpreter, A. I. Champan, told Joseph to assemble his people at a point a little distance from the rail cars. According to the account 130 warriors, 25 of them wounded, complied, followed by the women and children. The prisoners were then moved to the campsite "where they will fare much better than they did while fighting the whites on the frontier," editorialized the reporter.

The following edition of The Times said Chief Joseph "retains his dignity by remaining alone, and is permitted to converse with such chiefs as he may desire." All instructions for his people were given first to the chief, and be in turn relayed the orders to sub-chiefs.

On Nov. 29, The Times reprinted a dispatch from the Chicago Times which consisted of an interview with General Miles in which the general spoke with respect of Chief Joseph, "a commanding figure (with) as handsome a pair of black eyes as ever shone from a human skull."

While the chief's command of English was understandably limited, he uttered "good morning" and "goodbye" clearly. Miles said Chief Joseph's fight was not one of hostility to whites, but one of principle. The Nez Perces had been grossly wronged, he believed.

On Dec. 1 The Times reported the lodges or teepees of the Nez Perces arrived at Fort Leavenworth and were promptly set up in the encampment.

On Dec. 5 The Times reported the Indian children were spending a great deal of their time spinning tops. "They can discount city boys. They start a top and keep it going by lashing it with a whip until they are tired and the last one who strikes it wins the game."

On Dec. 7 The Times announced "The time for visiting the Indians at Fort Leavenworth has been fixed for Sundays and Wednesdays. The hours are from one o'clock in the afternoon until four."

The presence of the Nez Perces created interest in Leavenworth and beyond, and most weekends found the Indians under the curious scrutiny of "excursionists" from miles around.

A Leavenworth Times reporter visited the camp in mid-December, 1877, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The Indians had offered a prayer

for the welfare of Capt. C. S. Isley of the Seventy Cavalry, who was present and expressed his appreciation through an interpreter. The reporter found a number of men and women gathered at Chief Joseph's tent, where the chief was reclining on a half couch composed of furs. Nearby were Joseph's wife and child.

After shaking hands the reporter took out a notebook. Chief Joseph watched for a short time and then made signs indicating he could write. He reached for the reporter's pencil and book on which he scrawled: (Chief Joseph's signature)

Pointing to himself, the chief said "Joseph."

A few days later The Times reported a war dance was held in memory of one of the tribe killed at the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain. Joseph and his followers were "decorated in the most gorgeous style, their dresses being something new and in the most varied colors."

Several horses borrowed from officers at the garrison were arrayed in strands of bells and beadwork, eagle feathers and animal skins. Captain Isley's mount was among them, and was ridden "by a grandson of the last survivor of the original tribe," according to the account.



Photo Captions


During his enforced stay at Fort Leavenworth Chief Joseph gave his autograph to a Leaven wroth Times reporter who visited the Nez Perces and described their village on the Missouri River.


In 1979 Hallmark Cards produced this Chief Joseph cloth doll, measuring about seven inches tall. It is one in a series depicting famous men and women in American history. The doll is from the author's collection.

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