- Series: Pivotal Moments in American History
- Paperback: 432 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (May 27, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199769184
- ISBN-13: 978-0199769186
- Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.2 x 6.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 91 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Pivotal Moments in American History) 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A distinguished scholar of American history makes a significant contribution to Oxford's excellent series Pivotal Moments in American History in this definitive analysis of the United States' 1877 war with the Nez Percé. West (The Contested Plains) integrates a broad spectrum of sources to depict the fate of a people whose history of friendship with the U.S. dated to 1805. The Nez Percé were caught up in the questions posed by the Civil War and the period of expansion that followed: who would be the Americans and what obligations would bind them together? Such questions influenced Idaho and Oregon, where the Nez Percé lived, as much as Massachusetts and Virginia. The 1877 war, the Nez Percé's epic journey to reach the Canadian border, American conquest and Indian exile is the heart of the book, and West tells it brilliantly. No less compelling is his account of the Nez Percé taking up farming and making and selling Indian trinkets, developing their image as beloved losers and negotiating their return home—on white terms, but with honor and integrity upheld. 40 b&w illus., maps. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* The so-called Nez Perce War of 1877 was one of the most unlikely, heroic, and tragic episodes in the history of the American West. Since encountering and helping to sustain the Lewis and Clark expedition, the several bands of the Nez Perce had maintained harmonious relations with the U.S. government. Then, after the government insisted that all of the bands relocate to a reservation well removed from their homeland, a band led by Chief Joseph resisted, leading the army on a 1,500-mile chase that ended just short of the Canadian border, capturing, in the process, the attention, even sympathy, of the general public. West, a professor of American history at the University of Arkansas, has written a detailed and often moving chronicle of the conflict. He lays the groundwork with an excellent analysis of Nez Perce culture on the eve of their flight. He also asserts provocatively that the effort to relocate the Nez Perce was part of the larger, post–Civil War federal strategy to overcome sectional and ethnic divisions. The highlight of the narrative is the flight of the approximately 800 Nez Perce, including the iconic figures Joseph and Looking Glass, as they strive to battle and break free of their pursuers. This is a superb reexamination of a sad but memorable story. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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That simple statement summed up what is now referred to by author Eliot West as The Last Indian War. West is referring to the war against the Nez Perce of what is now Idaho in 1877. The statement could be equally applied to any Indian tribe in North or South America.
What makes the Nez Perce story unique is the remarkable journey that about 800 Nez Perce made in their flight from Idaho to within 50 miles of the Canadian border in 1877 fighting against the US Army (and usually winning) all the way! To give some perspective their journey took them over 1500 miles all the while being pursued by the US Army. The word “epic” is over used today by their journey was truly epic.
West tells the Nez Perce remarkable story with great detail which never bogs down the narrative but rather enlivens the narrative to give greater insight to the Nez Perce culture and the events leading up to the war. From the time of Lewis and Clark to the out break of the war in 1877 the Nez Perce had always sought peace with the whites even when the whites changed the rules and cheated them. (West gets into the clash of civilizations and the prevailing white attitudes that the Indians had to change (and become Christians) their traditional ways or they would become extinct.
West also takes apart some myths especially in regards to Chief Joseph the fascinating leader of the band of Nez Perce that fought their way nearly to Canada.
For example, in Joseph’s lifetime he was referred to as another “Napoleon” given the incredible victories the greatly outnumbered Nez Perce were able to pull off against the pursuing US Army. (The Nez Perce probably never fielded more than 150 warriors.)
While Joseph was certainly a brave warrior and at one point saves the vital pony herd he was not the military genius he still is thought of today.
West points out (with detailed documentation) that the Nez Perce like other Indians were led moment by moment (especially in battle) by men of influence and war experience. This meant depending on the circumstances that one leader could lead one day only to be replaced the next day by another leader if the first leader failed in some way or circumstances changed to favor the second leader.
Indian warriors were highly individualistic in combat and would usually gather around an experienced warrior and pretty much do what they wanted. This was in contrast to the pursuing US Army whose soldiers were under orders, army discipline and authority within a defined command structure. No such structure existed among the Nez Perce or other Plains Indians.
Warriors like Yellow Wolf, Ollokut ( Joseph’s brother) and Looking Glass (and many others) seem to have had intrinsic tactical sense as they fought amazing rear guard actions that protected their young, wives and infirm as well as a vast pony herd that they needed to escape. The point is these actions were not controlled by a “Napoleon” like figure but rather by remarkable warriors doing remarkable things without a Napoleon like figure to tell them what to do!
The fact is the Nez Perce embarrassed the US Army time and time again. After the disaster on the Little Big Horn in June 1876 the army needed to find a Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse like figure with Napoleonic qualities of extraordinary skill to explain their losses and frustration with an enemy that always seemed one step ahead even when surprised.
Chief Joseph was more the diplomat than military genius. While Joseph and his band wanted to be left alone on their own land he and they resisted the idea of war even as whites continued to steal their land and change the rules. Joseph only joined the war when some young men of his tribe reacted to the murder of one of their friends and in turn murdered some whites.
The fact is the Nez Perce had been lied to repeatedly and government promises were never met. The frustration among the young men grew and grew until they lashed out at those exploiting them. All that and more is documented in The Last Indian War.
Another area of some debate is what Joseph actually said to Colonel Nelson Miles when the band eventually surrendered after being hopelessly surrounded and losing their pony herd just short of the Canadian border.
Joseph is widely noted for saying, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever” and he probably did say that or something close to it.
However, Joseph did not speak English and the surrender was negotiated with two Nez Perce interpreters (who did not go to war) and one white interpreter. Whatever he said had to go through three interpreters and that’s problematic. The surrender was witnessed by a number of Army officers, one of whom became a well-known writer/poet as well as an admirer of the American Indians and of the Nez Perce in particular. This writer may have embellished the “fight no more forever” speech reproduced below.
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are dead; He who led the young men my brother, Alikut is dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. 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.
To some extent it doesn’t matter whether Joseph actually said all that at the surrender or not for it certainly must have summed up exactly how he felt.
The book is divided into three main parts.
Part I deals with the prewar situation starting with the Lewis and Clark expedition that first made contact with the Nez Perce in 1805 and ending just before the start of the war in 1877.
Part II deals with the war itself.
Part III deals with the surrender, the Nez Perce removal to Indian Territory in Oklahoma (an ordeal in an of itself) and their partial return to Idaho (although not to their original land).
The book was hard to put down and for this reason I give it 5 stars.
The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Pivotal Moments in American History)
In reading this book, I often felt the same. Elliott West has a tendency to lump: "A postwar Washington set out to consolidate into a tighter truer union..." and occasionally the narrative devolves into something bordering on rant. The lumping is often undermined by some of the more finely detailed evidence Elliott West provides.
The usual effigies are burned here. Custer gets numerous mentions though he was never more than a pawn. Kit Carson comes up once and that is regarding his "devastating campaign" against the Navajo. William T. Sherman gets a full page photograph but not a proper treatment. This is like blaming army generals for the Iraq war while leaving out names like Rice, Rumsfeld, and Cheney.
So who was "Washington"? Some armchair research suggests that the name Columbus Delano might be worthy of imfamy. Delano was the Secretary of the Interior who ordered the exploration (lead by Custer) of the Black Hills in 1872 "as it is supposed to be rich in minerals and lumber, it is deemed important to have it freed as early as possible from Indian occupancy." Delano had replaced President Grant's first pick, Jacob Dolson Cox, who resigned after feeling insufficient support from Grant to take on the widespread corruption under his post. The Department of the Interior was in charge of both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Geological Survey. Elliot West does an excellent job of showing how devastating a gold strike on treaty lands could be in writing about the 1860 discovery on Nez Perce land. That discovery was illegal and opposed by Indian agents but they were powerless to keep the rush in check. So it is easy to imagine how much worse such exploration would be when officially sanctioned. Grant's pick to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Native American Ely Parker, also resigned in disgust over the same issues about six months after Cox. Like Delano, Parker and Cox are not mentioned in Elliott West's book, but their complaints seem necessary to understand the events that lead up to the Nez Perce War.
In reading primary documents from this era, one finds an ongoing debate about whether Indian Affairs should be placed under the Department of Interior or the Department of War. Elliott West mentions the debate only once near the end, in quoting someone who posed the question to Chief Joseph. Those who argued in favor of the Department of War present a picture of widespread corruption among Indian Agents in which both Indians and taxpayers were robbed outright. Elliott West presents a fair amount of evidence that the War Department might have been better custodians, presenting many instances in which the Army officers sympathized with Indians and were disgusted by treacherous and illegal acts of "Washington", territorial governments, and local whites.
Unfortunately it may not have mattered which department was in control in the 1870s, as Secretary of War Belknap was indicted for corruption in 1876. Elliott West does not mention Belknap but calls Sherman "the man most responsible for sending the Nez Perces into exile." This doesn't seem accurate. According to Sherman's memoir, his position as the nation's top general was rendered powerless by the Secretary of War under U.S. Grant. Sherman seems to have gone into a form of early retirement, spending over a year in Europe (1872) remodeling his house in D.C. (1873) and finally moving to St. Louis to write his memoirs of the Civil War (1874-5). Prior to this, in 1868, Sherman had granted Navajo return to their native lands, writing: "Mr. Tappan and I found it impossible to prevail on the Navajos to remove to [Oklahoma]." This has an undeniable sweetness coming from the man who made Georgia howl. (For more on this, see Hampton Sides "Blood and Thunder.") Today the Navajo reservation is the largest, four times larger than the next on the list. In 1868, Sherman was one of those who offerred the Sioux an area that included all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. It almost begs the question whether Delano, Belknap and their minions were deliberately undoing Sherman's work. But regardless, when Sherman came back to power in 1876, the Black Hills were crawling with miners, the buffalo were nearly extinct, and it was his job to fight the Sioux and Nez Perce. With the middle name "Tecumseh," Sherman has always been the favorite punching bag of anyone searching for a quick, cheap irony.
Another name curiously missing from Elliott West's book is Fremont, whose career was derailed by political overreaching before and during the Civil War. Tragic, as he was probably the most qualified to handle these issues of the 1870s. Fremont was a strong proponent of Westward expansion, but also loved diversity and was not overwhelmed by it. In 1843, Fremont was already worried about sharply declining populations of buffalo and the negative effects this was having on the Sioux Indians of the Upper Platte, leaving them the choice of either starving or raiding the stockpiles of others. Elliott West depicts the "Great Hunt" of buffalo in 1872 as being primarilly motivated by greed and quotes one hunter who was making an annual salary 3x that of the U.S. President. This rings true to anyone who lived through the recent housing debacle of 2004-8: smalltime greed and two-bit opportunists, writ large over the plains. Fragile populations required fair treatment and protection to survive, and the will was not there, either because those in charge were ineffectual leaders (like Grant) or were busy getting rich (Delano, Belknap).
Elliott West has done some great work here but it is questionable how much the book adds to the numerous tellings that have come before, and it does not fulfill its promise to deliver a full picture.
Most recent customer reviews
This is an excellent source for the back ground on the Nez Perce nation.