Nez Perce
National Historical Park
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National Battlefield


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 behave—but stung by outmaneuvering and humiliating battlefield defeats by the tribal leaders and warriors—agreed 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 nations."

The Nez Perces—the Nee-Me-Poo, or the real people in their own language—had 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.


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/foreword.htm — 07-Apr-2002