| By Catherine DiMercurio |
“You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up.” – Chief Joseph
Some episodes in American history are more readily called to mind than others. When a book about the Nez Perce War came across my desk here at Thorndike Press, I admit that I could not immediately recall many (okay, any) details from long ago history classes. I recently learned that one of the reasons Daniel Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War was acquired for Thorndike was due to a letter written by historian Timothy Tyson. Mr. Tyson wrote that “Thorndike Press Large Print history books have been a great comfort” to his aging father, who suffers from macular degeneration. Mr. Tyson (who is also an author and whose The Blood of Emmett Till was recently published by Thorndike) additionally suggested in his letter that Thorndike publish Sharfstein’s book, which he praised on several fronts. Mr. Tyson rightly pointed out that just as the issues of race and citizenship informed the events discussed in Sharfstein’s book, so they remain as “live questions” in our current political state.
I soon found myself immersed in the opening pages of Sharfstein’s book, in which he sets the stage for the struggle he will explore. Civil War General O. O. Howard, I learned, began to see during the course of the war that “turning slaves into citizens” was his mission. He then became a pivotal figure during Reconstruction. Sharfstein notes: “General Howard emerged from the Civil War to play a key role in Reconstruction. As head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the first big federal social welfare agency in American history, he led the government’s efforts to support and protect millions of newly freed people; Howard University was named for him.” And this is what stopped me in my tracks.
I knew enough about the Nez Perce War from Sharfstein’s “Author’s Note” as well as some initial research to know that it was General Howard who was responsible for the trauma and destruction endured by Chief Joseph and his people. Yet, when seen through the filter of the Civil War and Reconstruction, General Howard appeared to be one of the “good guys.” How could this defender of liberty and equality who had championed the cause of freed slaves be the aggressor who relentlessly pursued and was responsible for the death and exile of so many Native Americans?
Over the course of several hundred pages, Sharfstein unpacks these ideas and offers complex portraits of both General Howard and Chief Joseph. But at the same time, no attempt at providing an objective, nuanced characterization of General Howard can escape the truth of the situation. General Howard ordered Chief Joseph, who repeatedly asserted his desire for peace – and for sovereignty – to remove his people to an Idaho reservation. The general gave the Nez Perce bands 30 days to make the move. Just before the deadline, a group of warriors broke rank and executed a series of killings in retaliation against the white settlers. General Howard and the troops under his command proceeded to pursue the Nez Perce – some 900 men, women, and children – through the northern reaches of the Rockies and across the Montana plains.
For about three and a half months, the Nez Perce eluded Howard and his men, who, in 1877, caught up with some of the families and butchered many women and children. Not long after, in October that year, Chief Joseph surrendered, stating “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Throughout his career General Howard, Sharfstein makes clear, defined himself by his faith and by his sense of duty to the United States. One might speculate as to the ways in which faith and duty were employed as means to an end both to justify the great good Howard attempted to achieve in the aftermath of the Civil War, as well as to justify the great evil that Howard executed in his endeavors against the Nez Perce.
In the first instance, Howard came to regard the former slaves as worthy of protection, and as valued new citizens. They were no longer other, no longer unworthy. Yet in the second instance, the general was unable to come to the same conclusion about the basic humanity of the Nez Perce community. As people, they remained other. The Nez Perce who weren’t massacred were exiled far from their home in the aftermath of the war. Worse, they were relocated not to the Idaho reservation where other members of the Nez Perce had previously been placed but were instead escorted to a reservation in the state of Washington. Chief Joseph lived the rest of his life in exile and was never allowed to return to his homeland.
As the example of General Howard suggests, it seems alarmingly easy to use laudable motivations as cover for despicable actions, yet, this is only one reader’s take on this particular historical moment. As Mr. Tyson’s letter indicates, Sharfstein’s book is accessible to scholarly and popular readers, and well-regarded by fellow historians. Check out an easy-on-your-eyes Thorndike large print copy at your local library and formulate your own conclusions.
To listen Daniel Sharfstein talk about Thunder In the Mountains, follow this link to an NPR interview: https://www.npr.org/2017/04/23/525339907/thunder-on-the-mountains-tells-tragedy-of-two-strong-opposing-leaders
For a brief overview of Chief Joseph, General O. O. Howard, and the Nez Perce war, read more at PBS.org: https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/chiefjoseph.htm
Daniel Sharfstein summarizes the conflict between the Nez Perce and General Howard briefly for the Smithsonian. For some background info before diving into the book, read Sharfstein’s short piece here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/namesake-howard-university-spent-years-kicking-native-americans-out-180963409/