Yellow Wolf, loner in the Nez Perce War

Yellow Wolf, loner in the Nez Perce War

By David M. Ballard

“Tragedy was written in every lineament of his face, his laughter was infrequent, and  was never more than a soft, scarcely audible chuckle.”


IT WAS EVENING and autumn darkness was settling on the home of Lucullus McWhorter in North Yakima, Washington.  McWhorter was known as a friend of the Indians.  An Indian was leading a horse to the house. “Sick!”—Hoss stay here?” the Indian asked.  In the dusk,  McWhorter could see the outline of a deep wire-cut in the injured animal. The man looked at the wound and then at the Indian who appeared to be middle-aged,  stocky and solidly built.  The Indian could speak only broken English so their conversation was a bit of a struggle.  However, they soon reached an understanding and McWhorter agreed to care for the horse until the Indian returned.  As the Indian rode off McWhorter wondered what the Indian’s name was and to what tribe he belonged.  Ten months later the Indian and four members of his tribe returned for the horse.  The Indian got it back without charge.


Yellow Wolf was one of the great names to emerge from the Nez Perce retreat of 1877

That’s how writer McWhorter met Heinmot Hihhih (or Whiter Thunder or White Lightning).  It was the beginning of a long friendship.  McWhorter soon learned his friend was a Nez Perce Indian known by other names as well.  The most common was Yellow Wolf, or Hemene Moxmox to the Nez Perce. Yellow Wolf was one of the great names to emerge from the Nez Perce retreat of 1877.  Yellow Wolf was returning to his home on the Colville Indian Reservation,  northwest of Spokane, Washington,  from the hops harvest at Yakima, Washington,  when he met McWhorter in October, 1907.  Until the Indian’s death in 1935,  Yellow Wolf and McWhorter spent as much time as they could talking about the Indian’s life.  The result was McWhorter’s book, Yellow Wolf His Own Story, published in 1940. The book captures much of the heart break and frustration of the Nez Perce War of 187 and the unsuccessful attempt of the Nez Perce to return from Canada in 1878. McWhorter noted early in his book an observation about Yellow Wolf.  “Tragedy was written in every lineament of his face; his laughter was infrequent, and was never more than a soft, scarcely audible chuckle.”

THE FIRST 21 years of Yellow Wolf’s life were peaceful.  He was born in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon and was the nephew of Chief Joseph.  Most of the spring, summer, and fall months were spent in the Wallowa, but occasionally the tribe would visit Lapwai, in the Idaho territory, where Christian Nez Perce lived on the reservation. Many winters were spent in Oregon’s Imnaha Valley, the rugged Hell’s Canyon. His father once helped soldiers fight hostile Indians near Walla Walla. He taught Yellow Wolf how to ride, a favorite pastime of the Nez Perce, and Yellow Wolf became an expert horseman. Once, though, a horse fell on him permanently injuring his right breast, which caused his shoulders to droop a bit.  When he was age 13, Yellow Wolf’s parents sent him into the beautiful mountains above Wallowa to find his guiding spirit, his Wyakin. Yellow Wolf had a strong belief in Wyakin and his guiding spirit came to him in the form of a Yellow Wolf. He believed his spirit gave him the power to smell an enemy far away and to make him impervious to bullets, if he followed the spirit’s instructions carefully.  His spirit told him never to be violent without a cause and to be a loner in war.

LIFE MIGHT HAVE REMAINED the same for the Nez Perce for several more years had it not been for the tragic five-month-long war in 1877.  The signs of trouble with the whiteman became clear in June of 1875 when president Grant decided that the Wallowa Valley would not have an Indian reservation but would instead be open to settlers.  The Nez Perce of Wallowa were Dreamers and they believed that one day Indians, both living and those that had once lived, would drive the whiteman from the land.  There would be plenty of fame because animals and birds long-dead would be resurrected and join living animals and Indians in a heaven-like existence.  The Dreamers and their religion clashed with the settlers of Wallowa and finally, on May 14, 1877, General Oliver Howard and Indian Agent John Monteith of the Lapwai reservation gave the Dreamers 30 days to gather their belongings and join the treaty Nez Perce at Lapwai. Chief Joseph and his people had no choice but to obey.  Certainly going to Lapwai, administered by the Presbyterians, would mean an end to their religion.  The Presbyterians did not like it when the Dreamers visiting Lapwai would not follow rules and gambled on horse races. They would have to change.  On the morning that Chief Joseph and his followers were to enter the reservation, three young Nez Perce dreamers, angry at their fate, murdered some whitemen in revenge for the murder of a Nez Perce years earlier.  Soldiers were sent to Grangeville, south of Lapwai and in White Bird Canyon, 17 miles south of Grangeville, a battle took place between approximately 100 soldiers and 60 warriors on June 17.

General Oliver Howard

General Oliver Howard

Much has been written about the Dreamers’ retreat to Canada and battles with General Oliver’s soldiers.  All that needs to be said here is the yellow Wolf fought bravely in the war.  He fought because he was provoked and he served many times as a scout, true to his guiding spirits advice.   Yellow Wolf did not surrender with Joseph in October following the battle at Bear’s pay in Montana. On the cold, snowy morning after Joseph’s surrender, Yellow Wolf walked away from the camp and went to a canyon where he knew a horse was hidden.  Determined to find chief White Bird’s band, which also had not surrendered, he rode all day and discovered their camp before sunset.  His mother was among the band.  These refugees crossed the Canadian border three days later and met a Sioux rescue party sent by Sitting Bull. Elderly Nez Perce, who had reached Sitting Bull a few days earlier, tried to tell the great Sioux chief about the battle at bear’s pay.  But an apparent misunderstanding of sign language made Sitting Bull think the Nez Perce were too far away to give them immediate help, so the rescue part was delayed.  Yellow Wolf was cautious, but somewhat optimistic, about riding into Sitting Bull’s camp.  The two tribes had had disagreements in the past, and Yellow Wolf became concerned when the Sioux separated the men from the women and children.  Then an incident occurred that could have cost Yellow Wolf his life.  One Sioux brave wanted Yellow Wolf to smoke the peace pipe, but he refused.  The Sioux became angry and argued with Yellow Wolf, who explained that his guiding spirit had warned him, never to smoke. “One of the things he told me: ‘Do not smoke! If you smoke, you will find yourself dead!”  That ended the argument. Eventually, the Nez Perce formed their own village and hunted buffalo with the Sioux.  From his exile at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Chief Joseph called on all Nez Perce to surrender.  In June of 1878, Yellow Wolf and a small band of his people decided it was time to return to Wallowa.  It is not clear whether they were answering Joseph’s call of if the long, gray winter in Canada had made them homesick.  But as Yellow Wolf explained to McWhorter, the Wallowa would always be his beloved home. Following Joseph’s surrender, the Wallowa was the first thing to enter Yellow Wolf’s mind and he recalled his feelings to McWhorter.  “Thoughts came of the Wallowa where I grew up. Of my own country when only Indians lived there. Of tipis along the bending river. Of the blue, clear lake, wide meadows with horses and cattle herds.  From the mountain forest voices seemed calling.”  In June of 1878, those voices may have been calling again.

THE BAND, numbering 28 men, women and children, vowed not to seek trouble, only self-protection.  It was a vow Yellow Wolf believed they kept. The white men would think differently. Any questions of who led the group were answered once the band crossed the border.  The refugees met a group of Sioux roamers and they sat down to smoke the peace pipe, Yellow Wolf would not participate and carried his rifle.  This angered one of the Sioux, and an argument began.  In Yellow Wolf’s account to McWhorter, the argument became heated and shots were fired.  The fight ended when he took one of the Sioux’s horses. This act embarrassed the Sioux and they left.  “He is the same as a thousand soldiers!” one of the Nez Perce told the band. To the Indians this proved that Yellow Wolf had the strongest Wyakin and deserved to be leader.  His leadership was tested a few days later when some Lemhi Indians, the local name for a Bannock-Shoshoni tribe, invited the refugees into their camp.  Yellow Wolf was suspicious of the Lemhi and refused to visit their chief’s tipi.  Soon one of the Nez Perce discovered that the Lemhi had sent a rider to warn the soldiers about the returning Nez Perce.  Yellow Wolf got his people back on the tail immediately. From that point, the refugees were trailed by both soldiers and their Indian allies.  It seemed no one had forgotten the Nez Perce War of a year earlier.  Yellow Wolf told McWhorter that on a few occasions the soldiers and unfriendly Indians got so close to capturing the band that a fog, summoned by Pauh Wahyaky smoking his pipe, concealed the escape of his people. The band had to live off the land. There were days when they found cattle to slaughter, but there were days when they suffered from hunger. Whenever they found fresh horses, they took them leaving their old mounts in exchange.  Yellow Wolf believed they were not stealing because of the exchange and also because they were punishing the white men who shot at them.

Yellow Wolf admitted to McWhorter that he had two encounters with whitemen which ended in a killing. The first came just a few days after they had crossed the border. The Nez Perce had caught some cattle and were in the process of slaughtering the animals when three whitemen rode up to them yelling and cursing. They pulled out their guns and yellow Wolf reacted quickly.  He charged the first man and, dodging the butt of his gun, knocked the dismounted man down.  As the man struggled to his feet, Yellow Wolf hit him over the head with his war club and killed him.  The other two men stopped in their tracks, stunned at the demise of their friend, Yellow Wolf ordered the pair to give him and the other seven braces flour, which they willingly did.  The men told the Indians that they had recently been discharged from the army. The Indians, fortunately for the two men, decided to let them go.  A few days later, somewhere north of Missoula, Montana, Yellow Wolf killed another man.  While leading a small scouting party, Yellow Wolf and his braves came upon a home.  Finding no one inside, they searched the area and discovered an open mining pit nearby.  Working below them was a miner, who hadn’t noticed his unwanted guests.  “Hello!” called Yellow Wolf and the surprised miner scrambled to the surface.  Realizing he was outnumbered, the man offered his visitors breakfast, which the readily accepted.

WHILE THEY ATE, a whiteman rode by the house. Yellow Wolf told McWhorter that all strangers, white or Indian, had to be checked out. Anyone could warn the soldiers. A few of the Nez Perce called to the man to stop, but he kept riding. Yellow Wolf burst from the house and ran after the man. To the Indians, anyone who did not dismount when meeting them was committing an unfriendly act, so Yellow Wolf tried to pull the man off his horse. The man reached for his gun and Yellow Wolf managed to yank him off the horse and hit him with his war club. The blow was hard enough to kill the rider. The miner watched all this in horror. Yellow Wolf searched the dead man’s pockets and found some money, which he gave to the miner. He told the miner to bury the man, “We did not want to kill that man,” he said, being translated by one of the Nez Perce. “You can say it was Indians that killed him.” The band rode away, but their reputation preceded them. Some white people ran from them; others fired shots at the refugees. There was even another killing. Some of the younger braves were being treated to breakfast at a home when one of them got into an argument with a white man and killed him. Yellow Wolf learned of the incident hours later.

As the band neared the Idaho Territory, it became clear that soldiers were closing in on them. One afternoon, while camped at a spring, Yellow Wolf took the moment to relax and soon fell asleep. In a dream his future was presented to him. He could see smoke, like smoke from a battle, and through the smoke a small opening appeared and revealed to him his beautiful Wallowa. A voice called to him. “Your life has escaped through where you are looking. You will not die.” He suddenly woke up and sensed that soldiers were near. In the distant meadow he saw some Salish Indians driving off the Nez Perce’s horses. He told McWhorter that he knew a fight with the soldiers was near. “I know painted my hair with the white earth, preparing for war. That smoke-filled cloud was still over me. I did not try to move from it. Nothing could now go through my body. No bullets from the enemy could hurt me. For this purpose I did paint. I understood the voice.” Yellow Wolf mounted his horse and chased after the other horses. Soldiers were hiding behind some of the small pine trees that were scattered about the area. Shots were fired at him and one struck his horse. Yellow Wolf fell off the animal, luckily landing on his feet. He realized he was at a disadvantage and ran towards the Nez Perce. Dashing across some rugged terrain, he made it safely back to his camp.


Among the Nez Perce, Yellow Wolf was reputed to be the equal of a thousand warriors.

That night, while the soldiers camped around a roaring fire, Yellow Wolf and a few other braves quietly made their way to the place where the horses were tied. Yellow Wolf was hurting from an injured knee, a result of his run earlier in the day. They successfully drove the horses back to their camp without much trouble from the soldiers, who were caught by surprise. By morning, the Nez Perce were far away. A few days later, the band was close to Lapwai and they camped at a place called Clear Creek. Here, three Nez Perce from Lapwai, including two policemen, rode into camp and got into a heated argument with some of the braves. The visitors wanted the band to surrender and Yellow Wolf decided to stay away from the trio. He hated these men, but he knew they offered life for some of his people. “You and the other women better go with these, General Howard’s men,” he told his mother. “For me, I will stay in the prairie like a coyote, I have no home.” Five women, including Yellow Wolf’s mother, went with the Christian Nez Perce. The rest of the band traveled on to the Salmon River. There more of the refugees decided to go to Lapwai.

When he reached the Nez Perce’s ancient tribal gathering spot at Lahmotta, Yellow Wolf’s spirit finally broke. He felt only hatred for General Howard and agent Monteith and blamed them all for the bloodshed because they would not let the Dreamers practice their religion. “My friends, my brothers, my sisters. All were gone. No tepees anywhere along the river. I did not think I would die by the gun. The only way I could be killed was by hanging. That Church agent! That brave General Howard! They could see how I could die.”

Yellow Wolf rode to the home of his cousin, Amos Chely. Chely was happy to see yellow Wolf and promised him that he would take him to Lapwai the next morning. At breakfast that fateful morning, one of the Christian Nez Perce came to Chely’s house and saw Yellow Wolf. “You warriors so proud! Too proud to listen! Los of you killed on the trail. Lots of you rotted on the trail,” the Indian, James Reuben, said to Yellow Wolf. The fact that Yellow Wolf’s gun was in Chely’s attic probably saved Reuben’s life. Chely and Yellow Wolf reached Lapwai and were instructed to wait at the agency store. Charles Monteith, the agent’s brother, and a few Nez Perce policemen encouraged Yellow Wolf to tell the truth and hide nothing. Yellow Wolf became irritated. “Shut up! Say no more,” he told them. If the old Agent makes his mind to hang me, I will take it.”

Later that afternoon, the door to the store creaked and in walked the hated agent. Yellow Wolf refused to look at the man. Monteith had no power to execute Yellow Wolf, but the young warrior believed he was headed for the noose. “Look at me!.” Monteith ordered Yellow Wolf, who still refused. “I know you. You are a very good boy. I would not bother you.” Monteith extended his hand to Yellow Wolf and the two shook hands. Monteith told him to describe a battle that occurred four days earlier in which six Nez Perce were killed. Yellow Wolf refused. “No! I do not want to speak of such things as that Everything is over! The war is quit.” Soon several soldiers walked into the store looking for the Indian who had surrendered. They shook hands with Yellow Wolf and led him to the guard house. Among the soldiers was Captain William Falck. Falck promised Yellow Wolf protection if he told the truth and cooperated. A strong trust grew between the two. Falck questioned Yellow Wolf about some of the incidents that occurred on the trail back to Idaho, including some stolen cattle and horses. Yellow Wolf answered his question and explained that the Indians wanted no trouble because the war was over. “We made no trouble as we came along,” he told Falck. “But some took shots at us. Would that make you mad? What would you think? Would you shoot, or just say, ‘I am going to die’?” “I want you to tell the truth so the government will protect you, Falck replied, “Anybody will shoot in self-protection. I would do that.” Yellow Wolf admitted to Falck that the Indians engaged in a battle with soldiers a few days prior to his surrender, but they had suffered no casualties. Falck was satisfied with Yellow Wolf’s answers and told him that he would be safe. An incident occurred several days later while Yellow Wolf and others awaited transfer to the Indian territory. Some unidentified men tried to attack the Indians, who were being held in jail at Fort Lapwai, but alert guards drove the men away. More Nez Perce surrendered as the days went by, and Yellow Wolf said the soldiers treated his people well. Eventually, Yellow Wolf and nine others were sent to live with Chief Joseph on the Quapaw Reservation in Kansas. In 1879, the Nez Perce were allowed to move to northeast Oklahoma where farming and hunting would be better.

YELLOW WOLF said his people were basically allowed to be free on the reservation, as long as they didn’t return to the Northwest. They had their own villages and schools, but they couldn’t escape the harsh climate, which killed many of the babies. In 1885, the Nez Perce exile ended. When they arrived at the Wallula Junction, near Walla Walla, Yellow Wolf told McWhorter that they were given an option. “Where you want to go? Lapwai and be Christian, or Colville and just be yourself,” an interpreter asked them. As Yellow Wolf understood it, those who went to Lapwai would have to cut their hair and accept Christianity. Old agent Monteith was dead and his brother Charles was agent at Lapwai. Some Dreamers went to Lapwai, but many followed Joseph, who was give no choice. Yellow Wolf told McWhorter that the 150 Nez Perce were treated kindly by the Sinkiuse Indians living at Colville, although Alvin Josephy, in his book on the Nez Perce, reported that Salish and Sahaptia Indians did not like the Dreamers coming to their reservation, and soldiers from Fort Spokane had to be called in to keep the peace. The remaining years of Yellow Wolf’s life were uneventful. There were the annual hops harvest and the meetings with McWhorter. In the winter of 1916-1917, he headed a petition asking the Washington State Legislature for help in stopping bootleggers on the reservation. Nothing came of the request. In the early 1920s, Major General Hugh Lenox Scott visited Colville and talked in sign language with Yellow Wolf about the Nez Perce war.

Yellow Wolf had two sons, Jasper and Billy. McWhorter described the younger son, Jasper, as being of “delicate constitution.” He died several years before his father. On August 21, 1935, Yellow Wolf, his body down to a pathetic 65 pounds, died. His son Billy said his father knew his time had come. “I am now going! My old friends have come for me! They are here! Do you not see them? There stands Eshawis (Crow Blanket), and there Peopee Howisthowit (Curlew), and Diskoskow (Sun Faded). They have come to take me to Ahkunkenekoo (Land Above; Happy Hereafter).” Yellow Wolf is buried beside Chief Joseph on the Colville Reservation in the small town of Nespelem, near Grand Coulee Dam. It is a fitting resting place for Yellow Wolf, who had followed his beloved uncle in war, exile and everlasting peace.

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