Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War


Oliver Otis Howard thought he was a man of destiny. Chosen to lead the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War, the Union Army general was entrusted with the era’s most crucial task: helping millions of former slaves claim the rights of citizens. He was energized by the belief that abolition and Reconstruction, the country’s great struggles for liberty and equality, were God’s plan for himself and the nation. To honor his righteous commitment to a new American freedom, Howard University was named for him.

But as the nation’s politics curdled in the 1870s, General Howard exiled himself from Washington, D.C., rejoined the army, and was sent across the continent to command forces in the Pacific Northwest. Shattered by Reconstruction’s collapse, he assumed a new mission: forcing Native Americans to become Christian farmers on government reservations.

Howard’s plans for redemption in the West ran headlong into the resistance of Chief Joseph, a young Nez Perce leader in northeastern Oregon who refused to leave his ancestral land. Claiming equal rights for Native Americans, Joseph was determined to find his way to the center of American power and convince the government to acknowledge his people’s humanity and capacity for citizenship. Although his words echoed the very ideas about liberty and equality that Howard had championed during Reconstruction, in the summer of 1877 the general and his troops ruthlessly pursued hundreds of Nez Perce families through the stark and unforgiving Northern Rockies. An odyssey and a tragedy, their devastating war transfixed the nation and immortalized Chief Joseph as a hero to generations of Americans.

Recreating the Nez Perce War through the voices of its survivors, Daniel J. Sharfstein’s visionary history of the West casts Howard’s turn away from civil rights alongside the nation’s rejection of racial equality and embrace of empire. The conflict becomes a pivotal struggle over who gets to claim the American dream: a battle of ideas about the meaning of freedom and equality, the mechanics of American power, and the limits of what the government can and should do for its people. The war that Howard and Joseph fought is one that Americans continue to fight today.


The author has done an excellent job in recreating what took place when the government decided to relocate the Nez Perce Tribe. He first gives you back ground on General Howard on some of his failures after the Civil War when he was in charge of reconstruction. Because of those in the East he was sent to command the North Pacific which would put him in direct line with this Tribe and with Chief Joseph. What we learned in school so many years ago is nothing to what you will gather in this book. The author takes you through each character which at first seems long, but he has a point because there comes a time when they all will come together. From the first time, General Howard meets Chief Joseph he is amassed that he and his brother speak and understand English so well. Later when they are making their arguments to the General about the rules of a man needing to be followed it is like the General and his men around him don’t understand what they are talking about. After years of living together finally, an Indian is killed by a settler mainly because he is scared and the General does nothing after they had brought an Indian from their tribe who was guilty of a crime. The Chief wanted the white man punished by the same rules as the man from his tribe, but nothing happened to the settler. When he was killed Chief Joseph said it could have been stopped if you would have followed same rules for the white man. Then the General came back and wanted to move the Tribe in order to ease tension. Chief Joseph said no, move the white for his Tribe had been there for many, many, years and even helped Lewi and Clark. The President Jefferson thanked his grandfather and so not only is his tribe tied to this land, but tied to the country. The General, of course, said no and from June of 1877 to Oct 1877 he led them in a series of battles until finally surrendering. The Nez Perce were finally sent to what now is Oklahoma, and after years of going to Washington, Chief Joseph was finally able to get the Tribe moved back to the Northwest even though it was not their original land. You also see the General Sherman had a lot to do with how the Native American’s were treated so poorly. Over all a good book. I got this book from I gave it 5 stars. Follow us at

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