In “The Last Indian War,” author Elliott West serves as omniscient narrator, calling the action in the summer of 1877 as the U.S. Army, still stinging from the slaughter at Little Big Horn, is schooled in the art of war by Nez Perce warriors.
It is fascinating history, well-documented because it coincided with the dawn of mass communication, when newspapers thrived alongside railroads and telegraphy. Coverage of Chief Joseph’s surrender was the 19th-century equivalent of a viral video.
But from his 21st-century perch, West puts the war in larger social and historical contexts. He gives the Nez Perce distinction as the last nation to fall in an era of expansion he calls the Greater Reconstruction, when America ballooned by 70 percent starting with the annexation of Texas in 1845.
He takes pains to show how the contrast between two cultures was the catalyst for the war. He prefaces the story with a detailed history of the Nez Perce and takes readers on side journeys to relevant corners of Western history.
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That the Nez Perce nation was the last brought to heel by America’s policy of manifest destiny isn’t too surprising: They lived in seclusion and were America’s oldest friends in the West. The tribe rescued the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805 after its harrowing experience on the Lolo Trail, a 100-mile path through the Bitterroot Mountains so forbidding that a decent road wasn’t built there until 1962.
Sadly, the Nez Perce followed Lewis and Clark’s footsteps in reverse 72 years later on a 1,500-mile flight to freedom that ended just short of Canada.
West follows every step of that journey, stressing how the stark contrast between two cultures cultivated misunderstandings that festered into war. That theme becomes a drumbeat as he scrutinizes every detail of the Nez Perce war, flight, capture and exile.
The Nez Perce avoided reservation life longer than their neighbors – the Cayuse, Yakama, Wallawalla and Palouse – because they lived in an enormous stronghold protected from encroachment by the Bitterroot and Blue mountains. They existed as independent bands roaming a 13 million-acre paradise that covered parts of what is now Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Joseph, father of the Chief Joseph who emerged from the war with the reputation of Nez Perce warlord (West assures us he was not), signed a treaty in 1855 that preserved much of the tribal land. But a gold rush in 1860 brought hordes of settlers, and the ensuing conflict resulted in the 1863 “Steal Treaty,” which pared the reservation to 138,000 acres.
When the government set a deadline of June 15, 1877, for all Nez Perce to move to the reservation, elders of five bands who had rejected the treaty lost control of their young hotheads, who went on a rampage. When the dust cleared, 18 whites were dead, six were badly wounded, several women had been raped and 1,400 livestock were dead or missing.
The U.S. Army rode to the rescue of the beleaguered settlers and promptly got its clock cleaned at the Battle of White Bird Canyon, losing 34 of 100 soldiers.
The defiant Nez Perce knew war was futile and voted to run, hoping for refuge with their Great Plains friends, the Crow. With hundreds of women and children and thousands of horses, they led the Army on a chase that lasted nearly four months.
Despite being outmanned and outgunned, the Nez Perce kept winning battles. Their knowledge of the terrain, their uncanny marksmanship and their superb military strategy served them well, as did the Keystone Kops maneuvers of their pursuers.
But the Nez Perce had never seen a train or a telegraph pole. Running from the Army was like a speeding driver trying to outrun cops with radios. But until the end, they managed to dodge every attempt to head them off at the pass.
Denied refuge by the Crow, they veered north toward Canada to join an old enemy, the Sioux. But first they took a week to regroup in America’s first national park, Yellowstone, where easterners were terrorized on what had to be history’s worst vacations.
There’s no secret to how the chase ends. Chief Joseph’s elegant surrender at Bear’s Paw – “I will fight no more forever” – is among the most famous lines in Western history. Lesser-known is what happened next. Despite assurances they could return home, the Nez Perce were exiled to the hellish heat of the Midwest, where many died.
Joseph, whose real name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain), was savvy enough to parlay his notoriety into passage home for the survivors. But he was never allowed to return to his Wallowa Valley home. He died in 1904 in Nespelem, in Washington’s Okanogan County.
The Nimiipuu, as the tribe called itself before mistakenly being tagged with the French words for pierced nose, survive on a 1,200-square-mile reservation headquartered in Lapwai, Idaho.
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