Outrages have been commited

Hostilities between Indians and emigrants on the Great Plains have been the focus of many books and movies, but historians figure that 90 percent of all armed conflict on the overland trails actually occurred west of the Continental Divide. The root causes of these troubles were the same in the far West as they.Were on the Plains

severe impacts of emigration and settlement on native peoples’ resources, and cultural misunderstandings, mutual suspicion, and isolated incidents that caught up innocent people into crushing cycles of revenge. Faced with these problems, some Shoshone and Bannock warriors tried to shut down the wagon roads and drive out settlers. The extended Shoshone nation during the trails era consisted of seven culturally diverse groups spread out between South Pass, Wyoming, and Winnemucca, Nevada. They spoke several dialects of the Shoshone language and pursued different ways of life depending on the resources available in their territories. Some were mounted buffalo-hunters, like the Plains tribes to the east. Others were “foot Shoshones” who lived along the lower Snake River and depended mainly on salmon, like the Columbia Plateau tribes to the west. Some hunted big game and fished in the mountains and high valleys of Utah and Idaho. Still other Shoshones were Great Basin peoples, with little or no access

to salmon or bison, who ranged long distances on foot to harvest plants and conduct communal drives of small game. The Bannock Indians were Northern Paiutes who lived among the Shoshones in the Fort Hall area. The Bannocks and some Shoshones were wide- ranging buffalo-hunters, but they also fished salmon below Shoshone Falls.

Saw an Indian encampment of the Snake Nation. Some of the men are fine looking. One was a complete coxcomb; tall, and handsome, his face shining with vermilion, his long hair beautifully combed. . .




—John Edwin Banks, 1849 California gold rush

Shoshone and Bannock interactions with emigrants typically were peaceful, if sometimes tense. Native people gave directions and advice, pointed travelers to water, traded food for goods, and aided emigrants at river crossings in return for payment. Even the Indians’ horse thievery was mostly for sport, meant to show off their skill and daring. Emigrants, in turn, fed Indian visitors at their evening campfires, joked and traded with them, and gave them small gifts. But as the emigration surged in the late 1840s and early ’50s, the impacts of thousands of travelers on the region’s natural resources grew severe. In 1852, a peak year in the overland emigration, some 60,000 people and 1.5 million head of livestock crossed the West on the Oregon and California Trails. Emigrant herds stripped the trail corridor of grass, seed plants, and root

vegetables that fed Indian people and their horse herds. Emigrants hunted the game, fished the rivers, collected the firewood, and claimed springs and river accesses as their own campgrounds. Few were willing to pay for what they used. Shoshones and Bannocks began collecting their own payments, usually by raiding horses and cattle from the emigrant herds.

The white people have ruined the country of the Snake Indians and should therefore treat them well.




—Charles Pruess, cartographer for Fremont’s Second Expedition, 1843

Also in the late 1840s and early ’50s, Mormon farms began encroaching on Shoshone lands in northern Utah and southern Idaho. These settlers converted Shoshone horse pastures and winter campsites into plowed fields and cattle range, and diverted streams for irrigation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints required its members to help feed displaced native people, but this effort did not make up for what had been lost. Conflicts erupted as Shoshones grew increasingly hungry and upset, demanded food, tried to harvest or destroy farmers’ crops, and helped themselves to settlers’ herds.

Mormon people also gave Indians they met along the road gifts of tobacco and food, which led Shoshones to expect the same of emigrants on the Oregon and California Trails. Instead, emigrants often met approaching Indians with suspicion and hostility, fearing an attack, petty thefts from the wagons, or a raid on their herds. Such fears were not always unjustified.

Another of the Shoshones came to our tent. They spring up, as if by magic, from behind some sage-brush; startling one by their sudden appearance.




—Nellie Phelps, 1859 California emigration

On the other hand, emigrant aggression could cause Shoshones and Bannocks to take revenge on the guilty and innocent alike. In once instance, a wagon company ran off Shoshones who were using a preferred campground at Rock Creek in order to claim it for themselves. The offended Shoshones attacked the wagon train the next day and harassed other emigrant parties that season. Other hostilities arose when a white traveler shot an Indian man’s dog and when an emigrant purposely tossed a shovelful of embers onto the bare feet of a Shoshone visitor. Some emigrants, too, took the lives of innocent Indians to avenge livestock thefts and other injuries. Chief Pocatello told Frederick Lander in 1860 that emigrants recently had killed the family of one of his principal men and that “the hearts of his people were very bad against the whites.” Many of the attacks—and some hoax attacks that never happened—along the trail are attributed to Pocatello and the warlike Bannocks. Other bands of Northwestern Shoshones led by chiefs Bear Hunter, Sampitch, and Sagwitch raided Mormon farms and attacked travelers on the roads to the Montana goldfields.

I was very much frightened while at this camp, and lie awake all night — I expected every minite we would all be killed, however we all found our scalps on in the morning.




—Amelia Knight Stewart at Rock Creek, 1853 Oregon emigration

[The Indians] have been robd Murdered their women outraged and in fact outrages have been committed by White Men that the heart would Shudder to record.




—Major John Owen, letter to the Flathead Agency of Washington Territory

The white people have come into my country, and have not asked my consent. Why is this?




—Chief Taghee of the Bannock Tribe, 1867

The severity and rising number of attacks along the Oregon and California Trails in the Snake Country and on Mormon settlers in northern Utah brought the public clamor for military action to a head in 1862. On January 29, 1863, some 200 California Volunteers under Colonel Patrick Edward Connor attacked Bear Hunter’s winter village of 450 Northwest Band Shoshones at the Bear River near today’s Preston, Idaho. Following the fight, Connor reported 224 Shoshones killed. Others counted 200 to 300 Northwest Band women, children, and men slain, including Chief Bear Hunter—but not Pocatello, who

had departed the village the previous day. Mormon settlers who examined the field afterward reported 400 to nearly 500 dead. Even the lowest numbers rank the Bear River fight among the worst mass killing of Indians in U.S. history. Also slain were 14 soldiers from Camp Douglas, in Salt Lake City; nine more were mortally wounded. Although he failed to kill or capture Pocatello, Connor was hailed as a hero and promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

After Connor’s punishing attack, the various Shoshone and Bannock groups one by one signed treaties over the next few years, and peace gradually settled over the Snake Country emigrant routes. Pocatello, once the most-feared man along the Oregon and California Trails, died of natural causes in the midst of his family around 1884.

beneath the waters of the American Falls reservoir. His enemy of old, Patrick Connor, died seven years later and is buried at the Fort Douglas Cemetery in Salt Lake City, near the graves of his California Volunteers who were killed in the Bear River fight.

Stories of revenge and warfare do not accurately reflect overall relations between emigrants and Indians along the length of the Oregon and California Trails. Countless exchanges of kindness and hospitality are noted in emigrant journals, but these did not grab newspaper headlines, stoke public outrage, or color the lore of the West. Considering that nearly a half-million people took to the trails between 1840 and 1869, the deaths of some 400 emigrants at the hands of Indians over 30 years figure as rare events. (Historians believe more Indians died at the hands of emigrants.) But the violent encounters were shocking and widely known among both white and native societies. They shaped emigrant and Indian expectations of each other, fueled fears and suspicion, and triggered harsh political and military reactions among both groups. Although deadly violence between emigrants and Indians may have been statistically rare through the emigration era, its impact is significant in the history of the American West.