Thunder in the Mountains
Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War
Daniel J. Sharfstein
W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 640 pages
Book Review published on: November 10, 2017
Daniel J. Sharfstein has constructed a masterful narrative in his well-researched and engaging story of the Nez Perce War of 1877. Thunder in the Mountains is a welcome addition to the existing scholarship on the war. His book compares favorably to those written by Jerome Greene and Elliott West. Sharfstein’s work, however, is not a rehash of earlier accounts. It goes much deeper into the key individuals associated with the tragic event. Readers of Military Review will appreciate the quality narrative and the holistic approach the author uses to detail the prelude, conduct, and legacy of the Nez Perce War.
Sharfstein provides a complete and insightful characterization of the story’s primary actors. Chief Joseph and Oliver Otis Howard are the two most recognizable individuals, but they are not always the primary actors in the Nez Perce drama. To his credit, he develops lesser known but equally significant participants in the larger Nez Perce saga. His development of Yellow Wolf’s role is masterful. Yellow Wolf plays a much more critical role in the conduct and outcome of the campaign than perhaps even Joseph, but it was the latter that is most remembered. Sharfstein’s emphasis on Yellow Wolf and others provides a much needed corrective. He does not diminish Joseph’s role or legacy but gives the reader a more balanced and realistic understanding of the war.
Regarding the Army’s perspective, Sharfstein’s inclusion and integration of Charles Erskine Scott Wood provides a much more nuanced and sophisticated appreciation of the men, women, and children involved. Wood’s experiences with Howard and those he endured in Alaska give the reader an appreciation of the various types of citizens and warriors that participated in westward expansion and Indian wars. The inclusion of Howard’s and Wood’s families coupled with daily life brought these men to life in ways that are missing from most narratives.
Because of the depth of analysis and the weaving of multiple perspectives over time and space, Sharfstein spends about two hundred pages establishing the foundation and background for the rest of the book. While this may seem like a lengthy approach, it is well worth the effort. Sharfstein does a remarkable job of linking the Nez Perce War to larger issues in American history. He integrates Howard’s time as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and struggle for personal redemption with the newly freed African American struggle to define what freedom, liberty, equality, and citizenship meant during the Reconstruction Era. This connection with Indian policy in the West makes the reader appreciate the scale and scope of how the Nation was transformed as a result of the war and the government’s approach to Native Americans in the West.
The government’s approach toward the Nez Perce was a continuation of established policies. President Andrew Jackson’s removal policy and the Black Hawk War were precursors to the Nez Perce War of 1877. While Sharfstein does not address these events, the knowledgeable reader will see the parallels. The participants changed, but the general thrust of U.S. Indian policy stayed relatively consistent despite the emotional appeals, moral suasion, legal arguments, and logic leaders such as John Ross, Black Hawk, and Chief Joseph applied to protect and save their people and their way of life from federal government encroachment.
Chief Joseph, like his father before him, chose to resist rather than acquiesce to U.S. government demands. Joseph and his followers resisted better than the Cherokee or Sauk and Fox had, but the results were the same. The government relegated what was left of the proud band of Nez Perce to a reservation. As the government did to the Cherokee, the Sauk, and the Fox before them, it relocated Joseph’s band for their own good and salvation. The Nez Perce would be assimilated into the dominant white culture through education and allotment.
While the Nez Perce saga was tragic, it did magnify what appears to be a truism in power politics and contemporary security concerns. As Thucydides once stated in the Melian dialogue, “since you (Melians) know as well as we (Athenians) do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” If Chief Joseph and O. O. Howard had met Thucydides, I think they would agree. Thanks to Daniel Sharfstein for producing a superb account of the Nez Perce War and making significant connections to important and ongoing issues in American history and life.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Tony R. Mullis, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, San Angelo, Texas