"Epic tale of Nez Perce War told vividly but impartially `Children of Grace' is almost novelistic in style but its real achievement is its true scholarship. "
WILLIAMS Contributing Reviewer
Children of Grace:
In the winter of 1877, the Nez Perce tribe of Oregon's Wallowa Valley sickened and many died in a low-lying, marshy camp along the Missouri River, two miles upriver from Fort Leavenworth.
How they came to be there is an epic tale, shrouded in the legends of the American West. Many know the famous surrender of Chief Joseph: "I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever. "
Separating the myth from the fact is a difficult proposition, made all the more difficult by the current tendency to reverse field from the "good" cowboys against the "bad" Indians.
In this case, most of the cowboys thought the Native Americans were in the right, and even hard-bitten Gen. Phil Sheridan observed in 1878: "We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could anyone expect less? "
Coming a year after the "Custer Massacre," the Nez Perce War began in June on the banks of the Snake River in Oregon and ended several battles and a lifetime later 30 miles from the Canadian horder in Montana as the Nez Perce awaited rescue by Sitting Bull's band of Sioux, which may or may not have been on the way.
Involved were Civil War heroes, veterans of the Little Big Horn, the captor of Geronimo and the man who had ridden into Cochise's camp alone and unarmed to convince the Apache leader to surrender and who would end up the scapegoat in a tragic comedy of errors.
The cavalry took scalps; the Nez Perce did not. The Indians got lost in what is now Yellowstone National Park, barely missing Gen. William T. Sherman's vacation party. And, loath to admit that more than one Indian leader could defeat the U.S. Army, the legend of Chief Joseph, the "Indian Napoleon," was born and was fostered in the papers by military heads and correspondents alike.
It was a war that no one wanted against a tribe that was universally liked and admired. In 1805, the Chopunnish or Pierced Nose Indians had saved the Lewis and Clark Expedition on the banks of the Columbia River. The war began in 1873 with a treaty giving the Oregon Nez Perce the exact opposite of what all sides had asked for, and a government in Washington that would rather pursue a bloody war than correct a clerical error.
Bruce Hampton chronicles the campaign from both sides, impartially relaying the blunders of the bureaucracy and the sometimes vain struggle of the Nez Perce leaders to conduct a "civil" war against only the Army, and not against settlers. His writing is vivid, almost novelistic, but his scholarship is even better.
Children of Grace is alive with the characters and times of that war, and woven into its bloody tapestry is a chronicle that extends from Sacajawea to Wounded Knee.
Hampton traveled the entire length of the war, from Hell's Canyon through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and the feeling of the trail is in the pages. This is a masterpiece; it should be the benchmark against which histories of the American West are measured.
Hart Williams is a free-lance writer.
© 1994 Hart Williams