Chief Joseph (ca. 1840–1904)

Painted portrait of Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph (ca. 1840–1904) by Cyrenius Hall (1830–1904) / Oil on canvas, 1878 / 22 x 18 1/8 in. (55.9 x 46 cm) / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

About the Sitter

Born in the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon among the Nez Perce, Chief Joseph was also known as Young Joseph. His Native American name means “Thunder Rolling in the Mountains.” His father, Old Joseph, gave up cooperating with the whites when they attempted to drastically reduce his reservation during the gold rush. Young Joseph carried on this policy after his father’s death in 1871.

Although celebrated for his skill in battle, Joseph worked tirelessly for peace with U.S. government authorities. In 1877, under the threat of forced removal from his traditional homelands in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, Joseph reluctantly began leading his followers toward a reservation in Idaho. However, after a group of angry warriors killed several white settlers in retaliation for earlier violence, Joseph redirected his party toward the lands of the Crow, an allied tribe in Montana. In response, federal soldiers began their pursuit of them. The outnumbered Nez Perce embarked on a skillful retreat, at times eluding American forces and at other times repulsing their military advances. General William Tecumseh Sherman remarked that “the Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise. . . . [They] fought with almost scientific skill.”

When the Crows refused to come to their aid, Joseph decided to seek sanctuary in Canada. After traveling 1,170 miles with his band of followers, Joseph was intercepted only miles from the Canadian border. He surrendered there on October 5, 1877, stating, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Joseph and his people were taken to a reservation in Oklahoma. Although Joseph visited President Rutherford B. Hayes to demand that his people be returned to the Northwest, this did not happen until 1885. Joseph died on the Colville Reservation in Washington State in 1904.

About the Portrait

This portrait depicts Chief Joseph in 1878 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, only a year after his surrender. It was painted by Cyrenius Hall, an itinerant artist who traveled the Oregon Trail, painting landscapes and Native American scenes.

In French, nez percé means “pierced nose.” Famed American explorers Lewis and Clark bestowed the name on the tribe, although nose piercing was uncommon. In this portrait, Joseph wears gold earrings, two strands of beads, and detailed bead ornaments.

Learning to Look

  • How would you characterize Chief Joseph’s facial expression? How would you relate his expression to the events of 1877? (Teachers may choose to read Joseph’s surrender speech to facilitate discussion; a link may be found in the Resources section.)
  • Looking at the portrait, what kind of leader do you think Chief Joseph was? How do you think his tribe perceived him?
  • Many photographs of Chief Joseph exist. How would a photograph of him differ from this painting? Why do you think Chief Joseph was photographed and painted so frequently, and how do you think these images were used?
  • How do you think the public perceived Native Americans during Chief Joseph’s lifetime? How would the views of gold prospectors, settlers, missionaries, generals, and the U.S. government differ?
  • In the literature, artwork, and media of this time period, Native Americans were often depicted as “wild savages” who were becoming extinct.

In what ways does this portrait reflect or reject this point of view? Is Chief Joseph depicted as a person who is in charge of his own fate, or does he simply react to the decisions of whites? In what ways is he presented as an individual or as a generalized, stereotypical Native American?


The Trail of Westward Expansion

Conflicts between Native Americans and whites were often rooted in geography. Introduce students to the concept of trails through the West, and have them think about who used these trails and how settlers and Native Americans might have interacted on them. The teacher can provide examples of actual National Historic Trails, using the National Park Service’s online resources. Then explain that students will create their own National Historic Trail.

The teacher should first decide if the trail should include only events in Chief Joseph’s life or include other westward expansion events and interactions between Native Americans and whites. Next, create a list of locations or regions that are important in telling this story, or have students make their own list.

Each student should select a location or region from the list and have him or her create a guide to that “stop” on the trail. Projects could take the form of a visitor’s brochure, interpretive sign, slideshow, or Web site. Students should include at least three of the following components in their guide:

  • Narrative description of the westward expansion–related event that took place in this area
  • Brief biographical information about the individuals associated with the spot
  • A map
  • A description of the way of life of those associated with this spot
  • Brief description of the landscape and wildlife and their influence on the historical events that transpired there
  • If possible, a photograph or illustration from the time period As an extension activity, create a class National Historic Trail map that includes all the sites chosen and the path one would follow between them.


Created in 1986, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail follows Chief Joseph’s route toward Canada:

Chief Joseph’s surrender speech may be found on PBS’s New Perspectives on the West Web site:

The National Park Service has many resources relating to National Historic Trails on its Web site:

© 2008 Smithsonian Institution. This project has been supported by the Smithsonian School Programming Fund.