The Causes and Conduct of The Flight of the Nez Perce

Predictably, Looking Glass’ incompetence was repeated.  Knowing that General Howard was out of range, he chose a poor camp location and ignored the advice of his warriors to properly scout the area.  For the second time, the Nez Perce, under Looking Glass, was attacked by an army separate from Howard’s.

This time the Nez Perce faced a more formidable foe.  Colonel Nelson Miles had built a reputation as the nation’s premier “Indian Fighter.”  He had won the Medal of Honor in the Civil War and had proceeded to defeat the Kiowa, Comanche and Southern Cheyenne tribes (PBS-Miles).  He bested those feats by rounding up the Sioux that had routed Custer and forcing them onto reservations.  He cunningly used the landscape to mask his approach from the Nez Perce, who did not see him coming until it was too late.  The remaining Nez Perce warriors managed to fight off Miles’ troops, forcing a sort of stalemate.  Miles had sustained heavy casualties and was unwilling to send more of his men to their deaths if a surrender could be attained once General Howard arrived.  The Nez Perce warriors could have escaped, but did not wish to leave the women, children, and elderly behind.

General Howard soon arrived with his men, which meant that the only options for the Nez Perce were surrender or annihilation.  Leaders such as Toolhoolhoolzote and Poker Joe had been killed in earlier battles and Looking Glass was killed during the siege.  With all the other chiefs dead, it fell upon the camp chief, Joseph, to decide whether to surrender.  With his famous pledge to “fight no more forever,” Joseph protected the lives of the Nez Perce by surrendering (Nerburn, 268).

Ironically, Chief Joseph became the most famous leader of battles he never fought, in a war he never wanted. The Nez Perce had never wanted to fight the Whites. However, as with every other tribe the Whites had encountered, the Nez Perce held lands settlers or the government wanted. The Whites, handicapped by a lack of knowledge of tribal customs, used any means to attain their goals, leaving hard feelings and animosity in their wake. The Whites did not know Nez Perce customs, nor did they particularly care to learn them. This, combined with the cultural condescension of the Whites, was sure to create tensions and conflicts that could not be settled with compromise. In the case of the Nez Perce, they had to surrender in the face of annihilation by a numerically superior foe. The Nez Perce were only one in a long line of tribes that were forced to pay the price for the conflicts caused by America’s cultural arrogance.


Nerburn, K. (2005). Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Public Broadcasting Station. (2001). Nelson Appleton Miles. Retrieved May 7, 2006, from <;

Public Broadcasting Station. (2001). Oliver Otis Howard. Retrieved May 7, 2006, from <;

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