A Sampler of Courage, Part 2On September 4, 2019 by Elyse
Before reading, fortify yourself with Part 1. Already read it? Full speed ahead!
Whether you’re a roaring lion or a scaredy cat, welcome back to our survey of courageous people we admire and/or hope we don’t have to emulate anytime soon.
Allow me to introduce you to a man who checks both of the above boxes. Despite his cameo on one of the best children’s shows in the history of public television, Joseph Warren is among the lesser-known Founding Fathers. He was a physician in Boston and along with many of his fellow Sons of Liberty, quickly became a fiery advocate of independence. Lin-Manuel Miranda, if you’re reading this, I found your next musical. You’re welcome.
Thanks to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, everyone knows about Paul Revere’s midnight ride. However, the poet forgot to include a verse about the man who dispatched Paul to warn the colonists about the imminent arrival of British troops—none other than Joseph himself.
He did far more than the 18th-century equivalent of sending an email. He was on the front lines of the opening skirmishes of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord in April 1775; after sneaking out of Boston and attacking British soldiers returning to Concord, Joseph nearly died when a musket ball hit his wig.
Personally, I’d have gone for a helmet over a wig, but Joseph was dapper as well as courageous. As he had written in a letter the year before:
When liberty is the prize, who would shun the warfare? Who would stoop to waste a coward thought on life? We esteem no sacrifice too great, no conflict too severe, to redeem our inestimable rights and privileges.– Dr. Joseph Warren, Letter to Patriots in Stonington, Connecticut, August 24, 1774
The near-death experience didn’t deter him. Scarcely two months later, Joseph found himself back in the thick of it at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. Despite the opportunity to be a commander, he opted to serve as a private. He fought until he was out of ammunition but held his position to give the colonial troops a chance to escape. Then, he was recognized by a British officer, who promptly shot him, killing him instantly.
A speech he delivered just a few months earlier makes clear he died believing in his cause heart and soul:
Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful; but we have many friends, determining to be free, and heaven and earth will aid the resolution. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.– Dr. Joseph Warren, Boston Massacre Oration, March 6, 1775
No matter how rousing Joseph’s words, independence must have seemed like a hopeless pipe dream in 1775. The Declaration of Independence hadn’t yet been penned, and the newborn Continental Army was, in contemporary language, a hot mess. No one in their right mind could have imagined an upstart 13 colonies could take on one of the most powerful empires in history and win.
Humans tend to root for the underdog, and there’s no underdog we admire quite so much as the one who courageously goes down fighting for a lost cause.
. . . But it can be just as courageous to live to fight another day. For the other side of the coin, we look to Chief Joseph, also known as Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain), a late 19th-century leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain band of Nez Perce in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon.
The 1870s was a time of great tension in the West, both between the Nez Perce and the U.S. government and within the Nez Perce community. My skimming of Wikipedia can’t do justice to the complexity of the situation; however, as a superficial summary, by 1871, when Chief Joseph succeeded his father, Joseph the Elder, as leader, some bands of Nez Perce—not his—had signed treaties with the government and moved from their ancestral lands, including the Wallowa Valley, to a reservation in Idaho. On his deathbed, Joseph the Elder entreated his son to strand firm and remain in the Wallowa Valley:
Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.– Joseph the Elder
There’s no mistaking those instructions. Chief Joseph dutifully spent the next several years striving to prevent violence between his people, the government and settlers. Despite his own willingness to relocate to Idaho and his tireless advocacy for peace, the situation came to a head in 1877 with the outbreak of the Nez Perce War. For more on that, see Wikipedia or better yet, a book—and then, write a guest post about it for Second Glance History.
Following an ultimatum from the U.S. Army to relocate to Idaho, about 750 Nez Perce—roughly 250 warriors and 500 women and children—resisted. If this was a movie, “Eye of the Tiger” would be playing. They battled their way through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, a total of more than 1,170 miles, in hopes of finding refuge in Canada. They evaded and oftentimes held their own against the army for more than three months, coming within 40 miles of the Canadian border. However, in October of 1877, the war came to an end when Chief Joseph surrendered after a five-day siege:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.– Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph may or may not have actually given that speech. Regardless, his decision ensured his people’s survival for another day. Following the war, he and his followers were shuttled around various prisoner-of-war camps and reservations until they were settled on a reservation in Washington in 1885. In his later years, he fought in the court of public opinion, advocating for the rights of Native Americans to anyone who would listen, from U.S. presidents to Buffalo Bill.
Chief Joseph may have renounced fighting on the battlefield, but courage isn’t confined to war.
A heaping helping of that kind of courage might come in handy when following your own path and turning society’s expectations on their head. Cora Strayer, a “lady detective” in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, knew something about that.
More to the point:
The media coverage suggests this wasn’t simply a desk job:
Miss Cora M. Strayer, a former Elkhart young lady, covered herself with glory in an episode that occurred in Chicago, at the corner of Van Buren and LaSalle streets Friday. The Chicago Inter Ocean of Saturday thus describes the scene:– Elkhart newspaper, 1909
“Standing at Van Buren and LaSalle streets yesterday afternoon, in the presence of scores of pedestrians, Miss Cora M. Strayer, 5443 Lake avenue, pointed a revolver at Isaac Kitchin, who was about to jump from a third story window in the Stafford hotel. The man hastily retreated and a moment later was arrested.”
Cora’s colorful career had just as many ups and downs as her clients did, but she kept at it until her death in 1932. If that isn’t pluck, I don’t know what is.
Gunslinging detectives aside, perseverance in the face of repeated failure can be a courageous act in and of itself. Take it from a man who didn’t know the meaning of the word “surrender.” Whether he was losing elections or thousands of dollars’ worth of investments in cattle (more than a million dollars in modern currency), the indefatigable Theodore Roosevelt weathered the vicissitudes of life with fortitude and extended boxing metaphors:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.– President Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic speech, 1910
For Theodore, persistence paid off; he overcame his early disappointments and went on to become the youngest president in U.S. history—admittedly, only after his predecessor was assassinated in office, but it still counts. Today, he’s renowned for his trust busting, his efforts to advance conservation and his giant mustache on Mount Rushmore.
Still, in the moments when he suffered debilitating asthma attacks, lost his wife and his mother on the same day and failed to win political office, someone with less confidence or less experience in the boxing ring might have reasonably wondered if he was confusing courage with insanity.
I can’t promise to help you differentiate between the two, but don’t let that stop you from coming back next time for one more round of stories about insane, foolish, hopeless yet courageous deeds and people.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.