ar forges unlikely friendships. Civil War General Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce Tribe’s Chief Joseph were enemies during the Nez Perce War, but their mutual respect eventually led them to reconciliation.
General Howard was an important Union officer in the Civil War’s western theater. During Reconstruction, he allied with Congress’s Radical Republicans before becoming the third president of his namesake, Howard University. Chief Joseph was a high-ranking Indian leader who led his tribe during their forced removal from Oregon’s Wallowa Valley. These two prominent figures came face-to-face during the Indian Wars. Howard, in stark contrast to his abolitionist legacy, led the offense against Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in an ignoble war of bloodshed and tragedy. It opened a new chapter in American history that many wish to forget.
Daniel J. Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War, is a detailed study of General Howard and Chief Joseph’s relationship and war. The author, a law and history professor at Vanderbilt University, won the 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Prize for his first book, The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America. Thunder in the Mountains suffers from some sappy political correctness, but not to the point of marring Sharfstein’s insightful analysis.
General Howard’s once-stellar reputation “had been transformed in the public eye” after the Civil War ended, and not in a good way. The man once known as the “Christian general” who “devoted himself to the health, prosperity, and rights of the freedpeople” was now “painted as the head of the ‘Freedmen’s Ring,’ a feast of graft that differed from the Crédit Mobilier scandal only in magnitude.” His financial status was also in shambles; he lost heavily in Washington’s real estate market during the depression caused by the railroads.
Hence, Howard opted to return to the army and take command of the Department of the Columbia. He was directly responsible for territories in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and newly acquired Alaska. He viewed this opportunity with the “prospect of redemption” but, as Sharfstein noted, he would soon learn this “was not the same as actual redemption.”
Howard and Joseph formally met in April 1875 to discuss the Wallowa Valley. A few dashes of artistic liberty were used to describe their first encounter:
They stood still, hand in hand, until the time began to stretch. Though Joseph towered over Howard, the general did not feel threatened or intimidated. The chief’s gaze did not strike Howard as an “audacious stare.” Instead, the general felt something else. It was hard to define. Joseph was showing strength, Howard thought, but also vulnerability. “He was trying to open the windows of his heart to me,” Howard later wrote of that moment, “and at the same time endeavoring to read my disposition and character.”
It appears that Howard genuinely believed at the time, “I think Joseph and I became then quite good friends.” There had obviously been no resolution of the treaty—Joseph felt, and always felt, it was illegitimate—but the general thought he had “little to fear from the chief.”
Famous last words. Thunder in the Mountains details the gradual breakdown in relations between the U.S. government and the Nez Perce—and, in turn, Howard and Joseph’s relationship.
The political elite were often puzzled by the chief. “Every one of Joseph’s conversations with government officials,” wrote Sharfstein, “seemed to end in the same way: with a vague reference to ‘higher authorities’—the only people who could definitively settle the Wallowa question—yet no sense of who they were or how to reach them.” As U.S. officials tried unsuccessfully to determine whether he meant something like a court of law or a deity, tensions continued to mount. Some of Joseph’s early allies, like James Monteith, the Indian agent assigned to the Nez Perce reservation, even began to turn from a position of “sympathy to disregard.”
Many other factors were also at play. Sharfstein notes that “American opinion roughly divided between those who wanted to annihilate the Indians outright and others who supported peaceful methods to force them onto reservations.” Meanwhile, a large majority of white farmers in the territories perceived the Indian tribes as inferior—and continually feared for their land, safety and continued existence.
What about Howard? He was on side for a spell. “I think it is a great mistake to take from Joseph and his band of Nez Perces Indians that valley,” he wrote, and believed Congress could be “induced to let these really peaceable Indians have this poor valley for their own.” Howard was also a strong believer in President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy, “which envisioned the government coming to fair terms with tribes for their land and then providing ample services to help Indians adopt new lives as Christian farmers on reservations.”
Joseph didn’t see things the same way as Howard. The chief viewed churches as “monuments of disruption” where the Indian tribes “were exhorted to see the world in new and damaging ways.” Moreover, Joseph saw himself as “an equal” before the law, “and in the end more similar to the commissioners than different.” While it was a position that Howard the Civil War abolitionist would have likely understood a decade before, Howard the territorial commander didn’t see “Joseph’s rhetoric as presenting any kind of opportunity for redemption…he only saw opportunities slipping away.”
The Nez Perce War was fought between June and October 1877. Howard was depicted as “at heart, a fighter, determined to close an unfortunate episode with lethal dispatch.” At the same time, he also knew that “an untrained and untested army,” like the one he was leading, “could fail spectacularly in battle” based on his experiences at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
In contrast, Joseph was depicted as a “master strategist” and the Nez Perce as “warriors.” Several members of the roughly 200-member tribe, including White Bird, Looking Glass, and Yellow Wolf, the chief’s nephew, played significant roles in the war, especially during the Battle of the Big Hole. Their bravery and determination helped them defeat, hold off, or fight Howard’s troops to a stalemate in battle after battle.
The U.S. army would ultimately prevail. Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles’s surprise attack, followed by a three-day stalemate and Howard’s triumphant arrival, was the final blow to the Nez Perce. Joseph “surrendered his weapon” and “hundreds more followed.” The chief’s speech with the memorable concluding line, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever,” ended a war that left 125 dead and 146 wounded on the blood-stained battlefield.
Howard and Joseph would briefly cross paths a few times after the Nez Perce War. Yet, it was their meeting at the Carlisle Indian School in 1904 (several months before Joseph’s death) that truly stood out. The “two old foes sat side by side” and made poignant speeches. Howard, who had never previously expressed any guilt for his role in the war, “came as close as he ever would to admitting that the experience had haunted him” and “called on Congress to pay reparations to Joseph’s band.” In turn, Joseph noted that while “I used to be anxious to meet” Howard, and “wanted to kill him in war,” he was “glad…to be friends” with him.
Joseph gave Howard a sense of “unconditional forgiveness,” an important moment for both men. But while the final chapter in their complicated history had been written, their thunder in the mountains can still be heard to this day.