The Wild West of Yester-Year

Yellow Wolf

By Rachel Kovaciny

Warrior. Survivor. Storyteller. Historian. Yellow Wolf was all of those.


Most of what we know about Nez Perce culture and heritage is due to one man: Yellow Wolf. This Nez Perce warrior spent a sizeable amount of his last twenty years conveying his eyewitness account of Nez Perce life to a white writer, L. V. McWhorter. The book that resulted, Yellow Wolf: His Own Story, was not published until after both the storyteller and the chronicler had died. But, thanks to their efforts, we have a much more complete understanding not only of Nez Perce culture, but of the causes of the Nez Perce War of 1877. 

Yellow Wolf was a first cousin of Chief Joseph, the legendary Nez Perce leader, though once removed. That generational gap caused Yellow Wolf to refer to Chief Joseph as his uncle rather than cousin, out of respect. Born in Oregon's Wallowa Valley around 1855, Yellow Wolf spent his boyhood hunting and fishing. He was recognized by his community as an exceptionally skilled horseman and hunter by the time he reached manhood. 

A series of broken treaties during the 1850s and 1860s resulted in the Nez Perce people being pushed into ever smaller areas. In 1877, the government decided to relocate all the Nez Perce to a small reservation in what is now Idaho. When many Nez Perce protested, General Oliver Otis Howard threatened to forcibly relocate them, and then threw one of their statesmen in jail. 

The Nez Perce were a divided people, with some embracing Christianity and others continuing their ancestral religious ways. Now they splintered along the lines of who would submit to this insulting show of force and sign the treaty, and who would refuse to sign and instead fight against the government. For five months, the Nez Perce who rejected the treaty fought against the U.S. military in a roving war that covered some 1,600 miles. Yellow Wolf was one of them. 

Yellow Wolf participated mainly as either a scout or a rear guard for the fleeing Nez Perce. During that five-month war, he was wounded five times and was made a chief. At the Battle of the Big Hole, he helped capture a piece of artillery. Even after Chief Joseph surrendered, Yellow Wolf and a group of other Nez Perce refused to give up. They sought refuge with Chief Sitting Bull in Canada. 

A year later, Yellow Wolf returned to the United States and surrendered. But instead of being reunited with his family and friends on the Nez Perce reservation, Yellow Wolf was sent to Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma. It was not until 1885 that he and the other non-treaty-signing Nez Perce were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest and live with their families. 

Yellow Wolf married twice after returning to his own people. His first wife gave him a son, Billy Yellow Wolf. Records do not tell us if his first wife died, or if they separated, but he married again in the 1890s and had another son and at least one daughter with his second wife.  

While working in the Yakima Valley as a migrant hops picker in 1907, Yellow Wolf met rancher L. V. McWhorter. When he returned for the horse the following summer, McWhorter asked if Yellow Wolf had fought in the Nez Perce War of 1877. McWhorter had purposely moved west to get to know the American Indians and learn about their history and culture. Through an interpreter, he and Yellow Wolf began a series of conversations that stretched across decades. 

Yellow Wolf's account of the war differed greatly from the official accounts, and McWhorter was intrigued. He began seeking out other Nez Perce survivors of the war and taking down their accounts as well. He helped Yellow Wolf and others get jobs, including working for the early movie studios making costumes like feathered war bonnets. McWhorter and Yellow Wolf went on several trips together, visiting battlefields and other locations from the war. 

Yellow Wolf said he wanted his story written down and shared with the world so that white people could learn the truth about him and his people, and so that the young Nez Perce would not forget their own history. Sadly, when Yellow Wolf died in 1935, McWhorter had not yet completed the manuscript of his memoirs. Yellow Wolf was buried near his cousin, Chief Joseph. Only his son Billy Yellow Wolf was still living at that time. McWhorter published Yellow Wolf: His Own Story in 1940. 

When McWhorter died in 1944, he left all the results of his research to Washington State University. The gift of his interview transcripts, maps, correspondence, and other manuscript materials helped found the university’s modern research library. Together, Yellow Wolf and L. V. McWhorter created one of the most extensive archives of American Indian heritage in existence. Yellow Wolf wasn’t able to defeat the American government as a young man, but he was victorious in his later quest to share his people’s perspective, culture, and history. ♦