Joseph was born in Wallowa Valley, Oregon, in 1832. He was the son of Chief Old Joseph (died 1871) and was also known by the name Hin-mah-too Yah-lat-kekt (Thunder Rolling in the Mountains).
Joseph's younger brother, Olikut, was a hunter and warrior. However, Joseph stayed in the village where he developed a reputation for wisdom and was given the role of negotiating with the American authorities. Joseph rejected the idea that the Nez Percé should give up the Wallowa Valley and live on the Indian Reservations in Idaho.
Other non-treaty chiefs included Looking Glass, White Bird, Tuhulhulzote and Hahtalekin. Together they controlled about 200 warriors. Joseph continued to argue for peace and a war council called by the Sioux in 1874 he refused to take part in the raids on white settlers.
In 1877 General Otis Howard instructed Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé tribe to move from their tribal lands in Oregon. Joseph eventually agreed to leave the Wallowa Valley and along with 350 followers settled in Whitebird Creek in Idaho. Around 190 young men rebelled against this decision and attacked white settlers in what became known as the Nez Perce War. Joseph's brother, Sousouquee, was killed during this fighting. Although he had no experience as a warrior, Joseph took part in the battles at White Bird Canyon (17th June), Clearwater (11th July) and at Bear Paw Mountain (30th September).
Chief Joseph and his men began a 1,300 mile march to Canada. However, on 5th October, 1877, the Nez Percé were surrounded by troops only 30 miles from the Canadian border. Joseph now agreed to take part in negotiations with General Nelson Miles. During the meeting Joseph was seized and beaten-up. Nez Perce warriors retaliated by capturing Lieutenant Lovell Jerome. A few weeks later Joseph was released in exchange for Lieutenant Jerome.
Chief Joseph continued to negotiate with General Miles. He also visited Washington where he met President William McKinley and President Theodore Roosevelt . Eventually some members of the Nez Percé tribe were allowed to return home but others were forced to live on the Colville Reservation. Joseph remained with them and did what he could to encourage his people to go to school and to discourage gambling and drunkenness.
In 1885 Joseph and his people were forced to move again and this time they were settled in a reservation in the State of Washington.
Chief Joseph died at the Colville Reservation on 21st September, 1904.