Surrender Speech

“I Will Fight No More Forever” is a surrender message attributed to Nez Perce leader Hinmatóowyalahtq?it, also called Chief Joseph, which was delivered to US Generals Nelson A. Miles and Oliver I. Howard at the conclusion of the Nez Perce War. There remains some controversy as to the authenticity of the words spoken in this speech. Part of the controversy comes from the method by which Chief Joseph supposedly conveyed his message to the awaiting generals. Chief Joseph spoke his words in his own language to two Nimíipuu scouts sent by General Miles, called Captain John and George.

They had come with the army to find their daughters, whom they believed were in Chief Joseph’s camp. In some accounts, they carried the message from Chief Joseph’s camp back to the awaiting generals. Arthur Chapman is credited with the translation of the message and General Howard’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant C. E. S. Wood, transcribed the surrender speech.

Because of the issue of translation and because Lieutenant Wood went on to become a published poet, some scholars question the faithfulness of the transcribed speech. Many accuse Wood of taking poetic license. Some question whether the message sent with Captain John and George was meant to be a formal message of surrender at all, claiming that the details read more as a message relaying the state of the camp and a desire for a truce to locate the dead, rather than a formal surrender.

However, Chief Joseph did ride into camp later that afternoon and turn over his gun as a formal sign of surrender to the US Army. This study guide refers to a version of the speech quoted in the November 17, 1887, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Because the words are traditionally attributed to Chief Joseph, this study guide will follow this convention.

Chief Joseph composed the message after nearly five days of artillery fire and skirmishes at the foot of the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, in the cold and snowy beginnings of October 1877. This surrender marked the end of the Nez Perce War, a conflict beginning with General Howard’s forced eviction of Chief Joseph and his band of Wallowa Valley Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) from their homelands to Fort Lapwai in Idaho. Chief Joseph and his band left reluctantly, feeling that resistance was too dangerous, and moved toward Fort Lapwai as instructed. Upon the arrival of warriors from a separate band who had killed some white settlers in a town called Shore Crossing, Chief Joseph and his band feared everyone in the group would be punished and determined to flee in search of allies among the Crow and Sioux. This resulted in a flight and skirmish war that lasted from June to October 1877.

At the time of the speech, the Nimíipuu had been pursued 1,170 miles from their lands in the Pacific Northwest into Montana, evading General Howard whenever possible and fighting when necessary. They were only 40 miles from safe refuge with Sitting Bull in Canada. Nevertheless, Chief Joseph’s group, consisting mainly of civilians who were exhausted, ill-provisioned, and managing the impact of losses, suffered in their long flight from the US Army.

Chief Joseph’s speech opens with a reference to an earlier deal made with General Howard. The phrase “Tell General Howard I know his heart” is not explained in the speech but refers to Howard’s original eviction notice and order to move the remaining Nimíipuu to the Idaho reservation near Fort Lapwai (Line 2). With this important condition of surrender noted, Chief Joseph signals that he is ready to accept these terms. He then admits that he no longer has any desire to fight. He next details the miserable conditions of his besieged camp that have led him to make the difficult decision to agree to these terms.
Candidly, with few words, he recounts the loss of key elders and war leaders. He indicates that those who might have given him counsel and who might have helped him come to a different decision than surrender have died. He says that without these leaders, he and the other youth are left to make the hard decisions. Chief Joseph then explains that his band of civilians is unable to go on in the freezing conditions of the Montana mountains. He notes that they have no food, shelter, or blankets to protect them from the cold. He acknowledges that many civilians have fled during the skirmishes and that he does not know where they are, or even if they still live. Chief Joseph indicates his primary desire is to be done with the fighting so that he might locate his missing people. He fears that they are starving or freezing and alone in the hills. In closing, he states again that he is exhausted by the conflict and surrenders, claiming that he will no longer oppose the US Army.

 

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