Monday, October 05, 2009

Bad Days in American History: October 5, 1877

Today, I begin a new historical series, "Bad Days in American History." Mostly, this is because a publisher sent me a US history calendar with events that happened on different dates. I was looking at this the other day and thinking, "Damn, there's a lot of really depressing things there. I think I should write about it." The calendar is also key because it does a lot of my work for me, since I don't have to think of this stuff and look up the date and things like that which all take time and energy.

Let's start with this date 132 years ago. On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians surrendered to General Oliver O. Howard and the U.S. Army after the Battle of the Bear Paw, which is a battle in the same way that a massacre of fleeing innocent refugees is a battle. This was a disgusting act by the US military, pure and simple. The Nez Perce were fleeing their home in northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington, and western Idaho due to the continued influx of white settlers onto their land and being forced onto increasingly smaller and more marginal reservation land. A large group of Nez Perce decided to go to Canada instead of agree to this, although others stayed on the reservation. Why couldn't the US government just let them go to Canada. There weren't that many of them. They weren't attacking white settlers, though there were some desperate measures taken against whites at the end. On the contrary, whites were attacking them, both in their Wallowa Mountains at home and on the road to Canada.

After weaving through Yellowstone National Park, facing the US Army at the Big Hole near the Idaho-Montana border, and nearly reaching Canada, the government massacred a group of the remaining Nez Perce rather than let them cross. By this point, the Nez Perce were starving. Most had lost many if not all their family members. Continued fighting was impossible.

Now, there is the supposed famous Chief Joseph speech where he said:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on 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."

This is almost certainly not true though. A white officer probably wrote this. We don't know if Chief Joseph said much of anything at the time. We do know though that he and his people were sent to a small patch of land in eastern Oklahoma, where their population continued to plummet. Eventually, Joseph was allowed to go to the Colville Indian Reservation in northeastern Washington, which while not traditional Nez Perce land, was at least in the same universe and not in Oklahoma.

But hey, we named a dam after him!

Note as well that I have a lot of family on traditional Nez Perce land. No doubt my ancestors played a role in this shameful incident. It's a real point of family pride for me, let me tell you.