Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Upheaval in Indian country

Hunger on the Fort Hall reservation led to war

Express Staff Writer

Shoshone and Bannock Indians meet with an agent at the Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello. (Date unknown.)Photo courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society

Second in a series about Native Americans who lived in and around the Wood River Valley.

"Scalping was quite an art among the Indians, and one in which, sad to say, some white men became very proficient."

Arthur C. Saunders
Writing in 1915

"With the Bannocks and Shoshone, our Indian policy has resolved itself into a question of war path or starvation."

Gen. George Crook
Writing in 1878

Following the California Gold Rush of 1849, westward migration increased dramatically into the Snake River Plain, crossing what would become the state of Idaho in 1890.

Wagon trains on the Oregon Trail brought thousands of miners and settlers through Fort Hall in the east and Fort Boise in the west.

Many immigrants also traveled north and south in search of land, encountering tribes that had used the area for generations. The Northern Shoshone and Bannock tribes had long hunted, fished and traded in southeastern Idaho. The Crow, Blackfeet and Nez Perce tribes lived to the north. The Ute and Paiute tribes lived to the south and west.

Many Western tribes rode horses, which had first been taken from the Spanish during a revolt of Pueblo Indians in 1700. Some bands of the Northern Shoshone and Bannock tribes rode horses on the plains during fall buffalo hunts.

Not all of the Western tribes got along with one another. Some Bannocks took sides with U.S. government forces against the Nez Perce, and the Umatillas fought against the Bannocks. Many bands of the Cheyenne organized into a powerful resistance force against the U.S. military.

Following many wars, massacres and skirmishes between settlers and natives during the early 19th century, the U.S. government was eager to contain tribes on reservations by writing treaties with native authorities, eventually forming treaties and reservations through presidential decree.

At times the establishment of reservations exacerbated hostilities, rather than put an end to them.

Following the Bear River Massacre of 1863, in which the Army under Col. Patrick Edward Connor killed more than 400 Indians in present-day southeastern Idaho, the Shoshone and Bannock tribes were confined to the Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello. The Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868, which established the Fort Hall reservation near Pocatello, also provided for Indians' use of the Great Camas Prairie near Fairfield, about 40 miles south and west of Ketchum.

On Camas Prairie, the Shoshone and Bannocks had harvested a staple of their diet, the camas bulb, which is a starchy root that grows under the purple-flowering camas lily each spring. The root was high in protein and could be dried and stored for use during the long winters.

"The Camas Prairie is in our legends and stories," said Carolyn Boyer Smith, cultural resources coordinator for the Shoshone Bannock tribes at Fort Hall Reservation.

In the spring of 1878, 10 years after the Shoshone and Bannock tribes signed the Fort Bridger Treaty, the tribes' diet had come to subsist largely of government food rations rather than traditional sources. But the nomadic tribes still went to Camas Prairie each year to harvest camas bulbs.

In the spring of 1878, they found that pig farmers and cattlemen had invaded the prairie, spoiling the bulbs and destroying much-needed food for the tribes.

The Bannock Indian War

A roadside historic marker exists today south of Fairfield, where the Bannock Indian War of 1878 began. It raged for months across southern Idaho and as far away as the Columbia River, involving perhaps 2,000 warriors. The Shoshone, Bannock and Paiute Indians engaged in running battles with the 12th Infantry of the Army until many lay dead.

Like many other conflicts between immigrants and Native Americans, the war began as a conflict over land and food.

Arthur C. Saunders gave an account of the conflict in "The History of Bannock County Idaho" in 1915:


"In May of that year [1878] some hogs were herded on Camas prairie and William Silvey, George Nesbet and Lou Kensler drove a band of cattle and horses there to graze. The men camped about ten miles south of Corral Creek crossing. On the twenty-seventh of May, two English-speaking Indians, called Charley and Jim, visited the campers and appeared in every way friendly. ... [T]hen Indian Charlie, without warning, shot Nesbet through the jaws with a pistol as he was gathering up some dishes from the ground, while Indian Jim fired a shot at Kensler, who was saddling a horse, and grazed the side of his head. Nesbet and Kensler made a dash for their tent, where they seized guns and opened fire on the Indians, who were now shooting at Silvey. They fled before the bullets and Silvey escaped unharmed."

Nesbet was badly wounded but survived after being transported to Fort Boise where alarms went out that the tribes were on the warpath, led by Chiefs Buffalo Horn, Bear Skin and Egan.

"The Indians spent a day in the raided camp on Camas prairie, killing cattle and drying beef, gathering horses and preparing generally for war," Saunders wrote.

What Saunders did not mention in his account was the hunger that had afflicted the tribes at Fort Hall.

Indian fighter Gen. George R. Crook wrote a report in 1878, stating that the Fort Hall tribes had food to eat only three days out of seven, due to a lack of government rations.

"The great wonder is that so many remained on the reservation. ... [W]ith the Bannocks and Shoshone, our Indian policy has resolved itself into a question of war path or starvation, and being merely human, many of them will always choose the former alternative when death shall at least be glorious," Crook wrote.

Saunders said Buffalo Horn secured a following of some 200 warriors and a few young Indian women, while the remainder returned peacefully to the Fort Hall Reservation.

Two white men, Mabes and Dempsey, were with Buffalo Horn.

"The latter had lived with the Bannocks for several years and had an Indian wife. The Indians made Dempsey write a letter to Governor Braymen at Boise, threatening to kill settlers and destroy property all over the state, if troops were sent to fight them. They then sent Mabes to deliver the letter, and killed Dempsey," Saunders wrote.

The Bannocks then raided to the west at King Hill Station, Glenn's Ferry and Bruneau, gathering recruits from the Duck Valley Indians, the Lemhis, Winnemuccas, Malheurs and Snakes, until their numbers reached 2,000 warriors, women and boys.

"As they traveled they killed or stole all the cattle and horses they met and destroyed a large amount of property," Saunders wrote. "Scalping was quite an art among the Indians, and one in which, sad to say, some white men became very proficient."

About the middle of July, after Chief Buffalo Horn was killed, the rest of the leaders of the rebellion were betrayed by Umatilla Chief Homily, who had secretly decided not to join the rebellion.

The history of native vs. non-native conflict in the West is complicated. Several historical accounts show that Bannock Chief Buffalo Horn had served as a scout for Army forces against the Nez Perce the year before the Bannock War.

One hundred and thirty-three years after the end of the Bannock War, the Shoshone and Bannock people still venerate Chief Buffalo Horn and others who fought for the Camas Prairie.

"Our ancestors were really strong people and it's because of them we have what we have today," said Lori Edmo-Suppah, editor of the Shoban News in Fort Hall.

Tony Evans:

 Local Weather 
Search archives:

Copyright © 2020 Express Publishing Inc.   Terms of Use   Privacy Policy
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.