The Causes and Conduct of The Flight of the Nez Perce

General Howard arrived with a mixed combat record.  He was a courageous soldier, having lost an arm in the Civil War at Fair Oaks (PBS-Howard).  However, it was his flank that Stonewall Jackson annihilated at Chancellorsville.  He did make up for this with his important role at Gettysburg and his work with the Freedman’s Bureau following the war.  He was essentially a man of peace, but would prove to possess too little patience to peacefully conclude this conflict.

After several unsuccessful meetings, Howard called one last assembly. Among the Nez Perce were several chiefs who would soon lead the Nez Perce on their trek across Montana.  There was Looking Glass, a renowned warrior and hunter and son of an influential chief.  There was Toolhoolhoolzote, the Nez Perce speaker for this council.  There was also Chief Joseph, a chief who had gained the respect of General Howard with his clarity of thought and predisposition towards peace.

It was at this council where Howard made one final cultural blunder: He interrupted the Nez Perce speaker.  His exasperation with the process is easily understood.  He had likely heard the story of how “the land is alive” countless times.  Unused to that type of disrespect, Toolhoolhoolzote and Howard got into a heated dispute in which Howard detained Toolhoolhoolzote and made the severe cultural error of threatening violence at a peace negotiation (Nerburn, 80-81).  Howard stated that if the Nez Perce were not at the reservation in thirty days, he would put them there.  After a great deal of deliberation, the non-treaty Nez Perce, knowing they could not defeat the US Army, decided to go to the reservation.

However, before they reached the reservation, the worst fears of the Nez Perce were realized: They were at war with the Federal government.  In the night, a group of vengeful braves, perhaps fueled by alcohol, killed the inhabitants inside the house of the man who murdered the father of one of the braves.  This action, while enough to incite the wrath of the US Army, was not the end of the killings.  Nez Perce warriors released all the aggression they had been harboring for so long (Nerburn, 96).  After the carnage ended, the Nez Perce were stuck with a war no one wanted.

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