The snake country

The Oregon Trail, also used in part by travelers bound for California, follows the sweep of the Snake River Plain across Idaho. Much of this plain is irrigated farmland now, but it was no bountiful prairie in covered wagon days. Parts are basalt-encrusted barrens with sharp, broken rock that chewed up hooves and feet. Other parts are covered

Other parts are covered with Volcanic ash or ancient lake sediments, easily kicked into the air by passing wheels and hooves. Instead of lush grass for hungry livestock, this land then bristled with gray-green sagebrush that snatched at wagon wheels and tore the legs of oxen. The plain is stingy with water, too. It thirstily sucks up runoff, pulls rivers underground into desert “sinks” (that’s how Idaho’s Big and Little Lost Rivers became lost), and then spits the water directly into the Snake River, miles away.

And that unfriendly river has cut itself deeply into the plain, where it flows aloof and armored by high walls of black basalt. For miles along the Snake River, thirsty people and livestock could only look down from high on the rim rock to the taunting water hundreds of feet below. The Snake was no tame workhorse either, no docile carrier of people and freight. Today it has been gentled by irrigation and dams, but 150 years ago this was a wild bronco of a stream, with rapids, falls, and cascades that bucked off all manner of boats. Such was its violence that French-Canadian trappers called it La maudite riviere enrage'e—“the accursed mad river.”

This is one of the most singular rivers in the world being for miles enclosed by a perpendicular ledge of rocks fr the thirsty animals are obliged to toil for miles together in the heat 65’ dust with the sound of water in their ears 6’ neither man or beast able to get a drop.

—Polly Coon, 1852 Oregon emigration

The Snake River (which emigrants also knew as Lewis’s Fork of the Columbia River) takes its modern name from the so—called Snake Indians who controlled that region. Snake was the common name given by nineteenth century white Americans to the various Shoshone groups, possibly because the sign language for Shoshone was a snake-like motion of the hand. Many Shoshone groups depended on Snake River salmon as a primary food source. (Buffalo, once common on the Snake River Plain, were rare there by the 1840s.) Emigrants following the Oregon Trail sometimes encountered Shoshone Indians and their Paiute friends, the Bannocks, fishing along the river. Sick of a diet of bacon and beans, travelers were happy for a chance to trade for fresh salmon.

These encounters typically were peacefull, with the emigrant "trade caravans" meeting up with the Indian "food bazaars" and everyone hoping to strike a good deal. But while emigrants grudgingly admired the native Plains horsemen they had met earlier along the trail, some scorned the Snake River people—especially poorer groups without horses—and tended to treat them harshly, sometimes brutally. For their own part, the Shoshones and Bannocks were skilled nighttime raiders who could make horses, mules, and oxen vanish from under the noses of wagon-camp guards. Sometimes after a quiet night, a guard would be discovered dead in the morning, his eyes open wide in surprise, his chest pierced by silent arrows. By the 1850s, many emigrants regarded the Snake Country as the most dangerous part of the overland trails. The native people of the region viewed the emigrants as a threat to their very survival.

I can hardly lay down to sleep without It seems as though The Indians stood all around me ready to masacree me, shall be glad to go.

—Amelia Hadley, 1851 Oregon emigration

But Indians were the least of the worries faced by the first covered wagon pioneers who rolled into Idaho.