Chief Joseph: Tagged ‘The Red Napoleon’ by American Press

Chief Joseph portrait
Photo of Chief Joseph taken in November 1877 by O.S. Goff in Bismarck. Public Domain

Chief Joseph, known to his people as Young Joseph or simply Joseph, was the leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce people, a Native American tribe that lived on the Columbia River Plateau in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States from the early 18th century to the late 19th century. He succeeded his father Chief Joseph the Elder as chief in 1871 and continued to lead the Nez Perce until his death in 1904.

Primarily due to his passionate leadership during the forced removal of his people from their ancestral lands by the United States government, Chief Joseph remains an iconic figure of American and Native American history.

Fast Facts: Chief Joseph

  • Full Native Name: Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (“Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt”)
  • Known As: Chief Joseph, Young Joseph, The Red Napoleon
  • Known For: Leader of the Wallowa Valley (Oregon) band of the Nez Perce native peoples (1871 to 1904). Led his people during the Nez Perce War of 1877.
  • Born: March 3, 1840, in Wallowa Valley, Oregon
  • Died: September 21, 1904 (aged 64), in Colville Indian Reservation, Washington State
  • Parents: Tuekakas (Old Joseph, Joseph the Elder) and Khapkhaponimi
  • Wife: Heyoon Yoyikt Spring
  • Children: Jean-Louise (daughter)
  • Notable Quotation: “I will fight no more forever.”

Early Life and Background

Chief Joseph was born Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (“Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt”), meaning “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain” in the Nez Perce language, in the Wallowa Valley of what is now northeastern Oregon on March 3, 1840. Known as Young Joseph during his youth and later as Joseph, he was named after his Christian father Tuekakas, baptized “Joseph the Elder.”

As one of the first Nez Perce chiefs to convert to Christianity, Joseph the Elder initially worked to maintain peace with early white settlers. In 1855, he peacefully negotiated a treaty with the United States establishing a Nez Perce reservation on their traditional lands in the Wallowa Valley.

However, when the gold rushes of the 1860s attracted a new influx of settlers, the U.S. government asked the Nez Perce to move to a far smaller reservation in Idaho in return for financial incentives and a reservation hospital. When Joseph the Elder, along with his fellow Nez Perce leaders, chiefs Looking Glass and White Bird, refused to agree, conflict seemed inevitable. Joseph the Elder erected signs around the tribe’s lands proclaiming, “Inside this boundary, all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

Nez Perce War
Nez Perce group known as "Chief Joseph's Band", Lapwai, Idaho, spring, 1877. Public Domain

Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War

Chief Joseph assumed leadership of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce when Joseph the Elder died in 1871. Before he passed away, his father had asked Young Joseph to protect the Nez Perce lands and guard his grave. To the request, Young Joseph replied, “I clasped my father's hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father's grave is worse than a wild beast.”

In 1873, Joseph convinced the U.S. government to allow the Nez Perce to remain on their land in the Wallowa Valley. But in the spring of 1877, as violence between the Nez Perce and settlers grew more commonplace, the government sent the Army to force the Nez Perce to move to the smaller reservation in Idaho. Rather than being relocated to Idaho, Joseph’s band of the Nez Perce decided to flee the U.S. seeking asylum in Canada. Over the next four months, Chief Joseph led his band of 700 Nez Perce—including only about 200 warriors—on a 1,400-mile trek towards Canada.

Fending off repeated attacks by U.S. troops, the march of Joseph and his people became known as the Nez Perce War. Along the way, the greatly outnumbered Nez Perce warriors actually won several major battles, leading the U.S. press to declare Chief Joseph “The Red Napoleon.”

However, by the time they neared the Canadian border in the fall of 1877, Chief Joseph’s beaten and starving people were no longer able to fight or travel.

On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry General Oliver O. Howard, delivering one of the most famous speeches in American history. After recounting the suffering, starvation, and death his people had endured, he memorably concluded, “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph burial site
Three men in full ceremonial dress and a man in military uniform stand before the new tombstone of Chief Joseph, of the Nez Perce people. Tombstone inscription facing the camera reads: He led his people in the Nez Perce War of 1877. Died Sept. 21, 1904. Aged about 60 years. Public Domain

Later Life and Death

Rather than being returned to their Wallowa Valley home in Oregon, Chief Joseph and his 400 surviving people were loaded on unheated railcars and shipped first to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then to a reservation in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. In 1879, Joseph met with President Rutherford B. Hayes in Washington, D.C., to request that his people be returned to Idaho. While Hayes respected Joseph and personally favored the move, opposition from Idaho prevented him from acting.

At last, in 1885, Chief Joseph and his people were taken to the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington, far from their ancestral Wallowa Valley home.

Sadly, Chief Joseph never again saw Wallowa Valley, dying at age 64 of what his doctors called “a broken heart,” on the Colville Reservation on September 21, 1904.


Bearing his name as a tribute to his leadership, the Chief Joseph band of Nez Perce still live on the Colville Indian Reservation. While he is buried on the reservation, he is also honored in the Pacific Northwest at the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River; at Chief Joseph Pass on the Idaho-Montana border; and perhaps most fittingly, at Chief Joseph Mountain, which overlooks the town of Joseph in the Wallowa Valley.

Sources and Further Reference

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Chief Joseph: Tagged ‘The Red Napoleon’ by American Press." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). Chief Joseph: Tagged ‘The Red Napoleon’ by American Press. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Chief Joseph: Tagged ‘The Red Napoleon’ by American Press." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).