Saturday, January 7, 2017

Exploring the Death of Chief Joseph in Chronicling America

The Spokane Press judged Joseph a "Great Indian Chief" at his death, 
but other opinions would differ. Image courtesy of Chronicling 

On September 21, 1904, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce died. He was among the best-known native leaders in North America, famous for his oratory and for his leadership during the long retreat of his band during the 1877 Nez Perce War. (Short biography here.) He passed away on the Colville Indian Reservation in north-central Washington, far from his ancestral home in the Wallowa Valley of eastern Oregon. Newspapers around the country took notice of the passing of the old chief.

The death of Joseph is a useful event to use to explore Chronicling America, a digital repository for newspapers from the Library of Congress. Chronicling America launched in 2005. At first it was a digital home for the library's huge and still-useful index of every known newspaper published in the United States. In recent years, the Library added digitized newspapers to the collection, and today there are over 2000 newspapers totaling 11 million pages. And unlike the abandoned Google News Archive project, the newspapers are keyword searchable with sophisticated Advanced Search features. Due to copyright and technical concerns, the collection stops in 1922, and is strongest for the early 20th century.

Joseph in 1877 at the Ellensburg Rodeo,
wearing regalia lent him by Chief Moses.
Photograph courtesy of Steven Heiser.
I have been thinking about how to use Chronicling America in my classes, as it seems a great way to immerse students in a huge data set of primary sources. My thought is to have students explore one incident from their textbook that occurred sometime between 1890 and 1922. So let's go looking for newspaper coverage of the death of Chief Joseph, and see how this works.

Here is the search I used--the phrase "Chief Joseph," search all states, limited to the years 1904 and 1905. I got 473 results--too many, really. The very first page of results shows the richness of the tool, with relevant results from big city papers like the Los Angeles Times but also from tiny, long vanished regional newspapers like the Heppner Gazette and the Athena Press (of Athena County, Oregon, of course).

I was surprised to find that even a quarter-century after the events of 1877, opinions concerning Joseph were sharply divided. Many newspapers, particularly those in the East or in larger cities, lauded the man. "Chief Joseph Was a Great Indian" declared the Indian Advocate, in a long article that reviewed his history and mistreatment at the hands of the government. The Seattle Star ran a sympathetic (and also demeaning and maudlin) piece about how "the great Indian general" was mourned by his widow. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, published in Honolulu, referred to Joseph as the "Great Chief of the Nez Perce."

Some newspapers, however, particularly those in the rural west, took a dim view of Joseph and of those who would honor him. These often-hostile accounts from communities that might have been settled by white people who took and active part in fighting the Nez Perce in 1877, sometimes include additional information that might not be in any other historical source. The Havre Herald refers to Joseph's band as "murderous savages" and then goes on to provide a detailed account of the fight at Cow Creek, including the names of local volunteers who participated in the battle. In an article titled "Don't Want to Honor Chief Joseph," the Heppner Gazette shares the war reminiscences of Lew P. Wilmont, who claimed to have been a "volunteer scout" for the troops who had pursued the Nez Perce. Wilmont called Joseph "nothing more than a murderer" who "hated the whites with that bitter intensity that is born in the Indian." Wilmont continues with many specific and sensationalized instances of what he what he sees as the chiefs cowardice and cruelty. "Chief Joseph Was No Hero" agreed the Fergus County Argus, which quoted E. K. Connell of Tekoa to say that Joseph was a
"treacherous, cowardly brute."
Joseph with anthropologist Alice Fletcher in 1889.
Photograph courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Western newspapers were not unanimous in condemning Joseph, however. The Idaho Recorder wrote that "Joseph was a born strategist, but was also brave and honest," and gave a very sympathetic version of the 1877 war. The Athena Press of Pendleton, Oregon called the chief "perhaps the greatest Indian ever born on the Pacific coast."

The death of Joseph provides a sharp focus on American attitudes towards Indians at a certain point in time. It also  shows the power and limitations of doing historical research in Chronicling America. Many of the articles in the search results were only the briefest mention that Joseph had died, but finding this out involved drilling down to each newspaper page, zooming in twice to make it legible, and then clicking back up (or toggling to the original browser tab) to return to the search results. IT is light years more efficient than the old days of scrolling microfilm in a library carrel, but is still a slog.

I assigned a brief research paper based on Chronicling America in my undergraduate survey class last year, and saw some pretty good results, I will continue to refine the assignment.