Chief Joseph was born in the Wallowa Valley of what is now northeastern Oregon. He was given the name Hinmaton-Yalaktit (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt) or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain but was known as Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, because his father had been baptized Joseph by a Christian missionary in 1838.
In Glimpses of California and the Missions, Helen Hunt Jackson recorded one early Oregon settler's tale of his encounter with Chief Joseph:
In 1871, Chief Joseph succeeded his father as Chief of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce. He inherited a volatile situation because some Nez Perce resisted the federal government's efforts to force them into a small Idaho reservation one tenth the size of their native lands. In 1877, after the cavalry threatened to attack, Chief Joseph and other leaders began the journey to the reservation. On a night that Chief Joseph was away from camp, a young Nez Perce man and his friends, avenging the killing of his father, attacked and killed a white settler. Immediately, the cavalry began to pursue Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce, and although he opposed war, he sided with the war leaders.
In 1873, Chief Joseph negotiated with the federal government to ensure his people could stay on their land in the Wallowa Valley as stipulated in 1855 and 1863 land treaties with the U.S. government. But, in a reversal of policy in 1877, General Oliver O. Howard threatened to attack if the Indians did not relocate to an Idaho reservation. Chief Joseph reluctantly agreed.
As they began their journey to Idaho, Chief Joseph learned that three young Nez Perce men, enraged at the loss of their homeland, had massacred a band of white settlers. Fearing U.S. Army retaliation, the chief began what is now known as one of the greatest American military retreats.
With 2,000 U.S. soldiers in pursuit, Chief Joseph led fewer than 300 Nez Percé Indians towards freedom at the Canadian border. For over three months, the Nez Perce outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers traveling over 1,000 miles across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. General Howard, leading the opposing cavalry, was impressed with the skill with which they fought using advance and rear guard, skirmish lines and field fortifications. Finally, after a devastating five-day battle during freezing weather conditions with no food or blankets, Chief Joseph formally surrendered on October 5, 1877 in the Bear Paw mountains of Montana, 40 miles south of Canada.
By the time Chief Joseph surrendered, more than 200 of his followers had died. His plight, however, did not end. Although the fearless leader negotiated a safe return home for his people, the Nez Percé instead were taken to eastern Kansas and then to a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). In 1879, Chief Joseph went to Washington, D.C to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead the case of his people. Finally, in 1885, Chief Joseph and his followers were allowed to return to a reservation in the Pacific Northwest, yet it was still far from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.