It was "one of the most extraordinary Indian wars of
which there is any record," reported William Tecumseh Sherman,
commanding general of the U. S. Army, about the war waged by the
government against Nez Perce Indians in 1877. "The Indians throughout,"
said Sherman, "displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal
praise. They abstained from scalping; let captive women go free; did not
commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families, which is usual, and
fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards,
skirmish lines, and field fortifications."
Many others, nursing border mentalities like
Sherman's about how Indians were expected to behavebut stung by
outmaneuvering and humiliating battlefield defeats by the tribal leaders
and warriorsagreed with the general. Even in Montana, a principal
theater of the war, the frontier newspaper New North-West heaped
praise on the remarkable Indian adversary. "Their peaceable, leisurely
and audacious march through the Bitterroot Valley," the paper wrote,
"their quick recovery from surprise on the Big Hole, and tremendous
fighting thereafter; their inexplicable conduct in killing without
scalping or mutilating . . . their surprise of the vastly superior force
of Howard's cavalry and capture of a large portion of his train at Camas
Meadows, are incidents that go to make up the inexplicable features of
this most wonderful of Indian wars. . . . Their warfare since they
entered Montana," the paper proclaimed, "has been almost universally
marked so far by the highest characteristics recognized by civilized
The Nez Percesthe Nee-Me-Poo, or the
real people in their own languagehad won the admiration of whites
from a time early in the nineteenth century when the two peoples,
Indians and whites, had first met each other and the Indians had rescued
the Lewis and Clark Expedition from starvation. Thereafter, through
three-quarters of the nineteenth century, the Nez Perces, though
subjected to numerous sins and injustices by the whites, remained
stalwart friends and on occasion even military allies of the Americans
in the Northwest. There came a time, however, when some of the affronted
Nez Perce bands, including one led by Chief Joseph, could take no more,
and the traditional relationship of friendship and alliance exploded
into "the most wonderful of Indian wars."
The great fighting retreat of the patriotic Nez
Perces, struggling for their lives, lands, and freedom, outwitting and
battling off one pursuing force after another, is one of the giant epics
of the American West, and the literature about it is immense. But there
is no volume like this monumental account of the war by Jerome A.
Greene, the distinguished National Park Service historian who has
published in the past numerous authoritative works on other Indian wars
of the West. Reflecting again a wonderfully massive job of research,
Greene provides us now with just about every relevant detail pertaining
to the Nez Perce war. In a sense, he has done a good deal of the
homework for future historians of that sad and super-dramatic chapter of
our western expansion.
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.