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Wyoming History


Shoshoni in Wyoming

Part one of two parts

Part 1

Part 2

The years from 1803 to 1860 were critical to (20707 bytes)the survival of the Shoshoni (Snake) Nation. During this period, trappers, emigrants, and Mormon settlers came into southwestern Wyoming. The Shoshoni traded successfully with all three groups. More importantly, largely because of the Shoshoni's successful foreign policies, none would remain permanently. With the dual goal of enriching themselves economically and saving their homelands, the Shoshoni became shrewd negotiators in an international competition designed to deprive them of their lands. Ultimately they retained at least part of their traditional land and today proudly claim they were never removed from their homes in the "Shining Mountains."

Click here to see more rock art.

The Setting
The Shoshoni discussed here are actually  the Eastern Shoshoni. Why they were called the Shoshoni is not known. To the Mandan, Omahas, Poncas and Teton Dakotas they were known as the "Snakes;" to the Crow and Hidatsa, the "Grass Lodges;" and to the Kiowas, they were "Grass House People." As Virginia Cole Trenholm and Maurine Carley point out, "Their Arapaho name, E-wu-ha-wu-si (People-Who-Use-Grass-or-Bark-for-Their-Lodges), probably comes nearer their tribal sign - a serpentine gesture -  in reality the in-and-out motion used in weaving their shelters." The term Eastern Shoshoni actually reflects where this group of Shoshonean speakers lived more than it reflects tribal affiliation. As Swedish anthropologist Ake Hultkrantz pointed out, the Eastern Shoshoni consisted primarily of the Buffalo Hunters or Kucundika (of the Prairies), the Sheep-eaters or Tukudika (in the mountains) and the Dove Eaters. Wilson divides the Shoshoni into two groups. These divisions are relatively simplistic and show that he did not have a clear understanding of the Shoshoni. Nonetheless his description is somewhat enlightening regarding the conditions of the Shoshoni in 1849. He writes: "Among the Shoshonies there are only two bands, properly speaking. The principal or better portion are called Shoshonis, or Snakes, who are rich enough to own horses; the others, the Sho-Sho coes, or Walkers are those who cannot or do not own horses." He goes on to add: "Both bands number probably over one thousand lodges of four persons each. Of the relative portion of each band no definite account can be given; for, so soon as a Sho-sho-nie becomes too poor to, or does not, own a horse he is at once called a Sho-sho-coe; but as soon as a Sho-sho-coe can or does own a horse, he is again a riding Indian, and therefore a Sho-sho-nie." It was these three groups that composed the Eastern Shoshoni of Wyoming. And while there are currently numerous Shoshoni tribes in the Great Basin, the Eastern Shoshoni are commonly known as "the Shoshoni." 

To understand the Shoshoni, one must first understand their traditional homeland. When whites arrived their homeland centered around southwestern Wyoming. Bound by high mountains, southwestern Wyoming is predominantly a large steppe. In this land between the Uinta River, Wind River, and Western Wyoming Mountains, the area is marked by sage brush and desert grass. Traveling through this brush and grassland, some observers concluded they were outside the Rocky Mountains. In fact, this uplifted steppe, called the Wyoming Basin, is the center between the Northern and Central Rocky Mountains. Here the elevation never drops below 6,000 feet. The jagged peaks that surround the basin rise as high as 13,000 feet and rob the steppe of moisture. Within this 200 square miles, fewer than 10 inches of moisture falls annually. While the amount of moisture varies from place to place, the climate is relatively consistent. It is a winter desert, marked by long cold winters with little effective moisture. Yet, this desert can not be dismissed as an area of little importance.

b.leaves.sandstone.jpg (44879 bytes)Through the heart of the Shoshoni's homeland run numerous rivers, flowing downward from the mountains to the lower levels of the basin, that sustain diversified plant and animal life. The principal river in Southwestern Wyoming was the "Skeedskadee." Skeedskadee, which means sage hen or prairie chicken, was called Rio Verde Del Norte by the Spanish and the Green River by American fur trappers. Into the Green River flowed the Blacks Fork, the Henry's Fork, along with the Big and Little Sandy. These tributaries, along with the alkali Bitter Creek, provided water for both wild life and Shoshoni bands. In the trapping era these streams were filled with beaver, who lived on willows and even sage brush. So rich was the region in fur that American and British fur companies actively competed for the right to trap the region from 1803 until 1848.

Classifying the area as a desert is accurate, but this often conjures up the image that the area was barren, which is not the case. The area abounds with wild plants that serve as food sources. Wild game wintered in the desert, moving from summer ranges in the mountains to the winter pasture in the steppe. As late as the early 1840s, large herds of bison, elk, deer, and antelope could be found in the area. Sage grouse, geese, and ducks were evident in springs or rivers. To people familiar with the environments of mountains, foothills, and high deserts, present southwestern Wyoming as a veritable vegetable garden. Ultimately, Wilson would return to his family in the Salt Lake Valley. His account, which is one of the better detailed accounts about Shoshoni diplomacy, philosophy and life ways is an important work in the details it provides. Insights provided about gathering berries and trading for white men's flour, shows the type of interaction and exchanges that occurred. His account of the attack by the Bannock on a wagon train show how this interaction might be fraught with misunderstanding, but it also shows a rare opportunity to see the "Indian's" point of view. Click here to see more rock art.

While the area abounded with food sources, le.dud.jpg (33946 bytes)it did have the disadvantage of environmental extremes. Southwestern Wyoming is noted for its short summers and long and windy winters. To survive the winters, an understanding of the environment was essential. While the snow accumulated, eventually the winds blew clear part of the range. Snow drifts, the bane of travelers and the curse of drivers on modern interstates, were a blessing to wildlife. Although the snow piled high in low places and against obstructions, the wind also exposed the wild grasses that dried in the summer sun. Deer, antelope, and buffalo once grazed in these open areas. Native Americans, as long as they kept their camps sheltered and near ample fuel, could harvest these animals. As long as the camp was secure and the fuel supply adequate, the "hunters of the high plains" could find food. Yet precautions against unexpected blizzards were necessary. Few survived long if they were trapped alone in a blizzard away from shelter and fuel.

In the years from 1803 to 1860, part of this area was jointly claimed by the Shoshonis, Utes and Bannock but the Shoshoni dominated most of the region. Nonetheless, it was a borderland. The Uintah band of the Utes controlled the Uinta Mountains while the Bannock Indians often hunted in the Western Wyoming range. Bannock and Shoshoni are closely related and all three groups belong to the Uto-Aztecan language family. These tribes, however, clearly defined their territory. The Bannock and Shoshoni had more fluid boundaries due to their kinship ties. The Utes, on the other hand, clearly claimed the southern slopes of the Uintas and lands to the south. When relations between the Shoshoni and Ute were cordial, they hunted in the massive Wyoming Basin of Southwestern Wyoming, either as invited guests or at times due to superior numbers in their war parties. The Shoshoni considered it their land, and the Utes were seen as neighbors, at best, armed rivals at worst.Click here to see more rock art.

All three groups followed similar subsistence patterns. To survive, they traveled from place to place hunting and gathering the diverse food resources as part of their planned pattern of movement. By xt.cactus.bmp (387222 bytes)describing a generalized subsistence cycle, it is easier to understand how these Native Americans prospered in the winter desert of southern Wyoming. In the spring, which usually arrives in late May or early June, different plants begin to mature that can be readily harvested. Principal among these is the biscuit root. A long tubar that tastes like a seasoned potato, this food was high in starch and very important in the Indians' diet. In late June or early July, Indian Rice Grass matures. This wild grass has one of the largest seeds available, and it was processed into flour or stored for later use. By mid-summer, berries begin to mature and from July to September, strawberries, raspberries, service berries, buffalo berries, and rose hips were harvested. Native Americans also ate prickly pear cactus, chenopodium, juniper berries, bristle cone pine nuts, and a variety of other wild plants. If they knew when and where the plant resources were available, people could survive; lack of this knowledge could lead to scurvy, even starvation.

While the area abounded in plant resources, it also contained diverse wildlife. The buffalo herds, while not as large as those on the Great plains, were sizeable. Elk herds and deer herds were always large. The antelope was commonly a mainstay in the Shoshoni's diet. Currently it is contended that Wyoming's antelope herd is the largest in the world, exceeding even that of Africa. Add to this the important small game food sources such as rabbit, sage grouse, fish, ducks, geese, and various rodents such as prairie dogs and southwestern Wyoming has diverse enough resources to support a healthy hunter and gatherer economy.

During the period from 1803 to 1860, The Shoshoni Indians dominated the tribal border lands of present southwestern Wyoming. The Louisiana ra.hors.dancers.jpg (15664 bytes)Purchase of 1803, unknown to the Shoshoni, arbitrarily divided these lands between American and European interests. Southwestern Wyoming was claimed by Spain, England and the United States. By 1821, Mexico had inherited the Spanish claims. Until 1848, however, the area was legally divided by various treaties between competing governments. With the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in 1847, one more group claimed southwestern Wyoming. The Shoshoni clearly recognized the changing threat to their homeland. They also recognized the advantage of trading with these newly arrived settlers. The year 1848 was a watershed because it witnessed the departure of British fur trappers and the extinguishing of Mexican claims, yet it also saw the expansion of the newly arrived Mormons, and the United States' claim to Shoshoni land.


Even before European Americans arrived in southern Wyoming, the political tentacles of competing European and American nations had extended westward to carve the Shoshoni's claim into three spheres of influence. As a result of the Louisiana Purchase, land east of the continental divide became part of the United States. Spain claimed the area west of the divide. But the Spanish claim north of the Uinta Mountains in present northern Utah was contested by the United States, who eventually came to call this vast area north of these mountains: Oregon Territory. England, on the other hand, competed with both the United States and Spain for the area north of the Uinta Mountains. In 1803, however, dividing lines were not so neatly drawn. Nor had the Shoshoni living in Southern Wyoming come into direct contact with representatives of any of these competing countries. This would soon change in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Explorers, then trappers began to visit then live in the Shoshoni homeland. In 1812 Robert Stuart, a member of the famed Astorian Fur Party, crossed South Pass thereby alerting easterners that there was an easy route over the Rocky Mountains. This would alter the course of Shoshoni history. It also meant the United States wanted South Pass to lie within its borders. In 1819 Spain and the United States negotiated the Adam's-Onis Treaty, which established the northern boundary of New Spain at the 42nd parallel west to the Continental Divide. North of the 42nd parallel and west of the Continental Divide the land was to be held in joint occupancy by Britain and the United States. The Shoshoni's land had been split in three without consultation. In 1825, when the first trappers' rendezvous was held in this newly divided land, the Shoshoni did not complain. The question is why did the Shoshoni permit this large assembly of trappers to gather on their lands? What did they gain from the trappers' presence?

Shoshoni Foreign Policy

While the Shoshoni had little knowledge of the international negotiations under way, they were aware that nations had often desired their land. The most immediate threat came from the Sioux nation pressing westward and southward. Allied with the Cheyenne and Arapahoe, the Sioux already controlled the Black Hills. They were also in control of the large bison herds of the Powder River Basin, and were pressing west towards the Big Horn Mountains. This land had belonged to the Crow and Shoshoni and now both were threatened by the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe invasion. To the north the Blackfeet, the Shoshoni's hereditary enemies, were also pressing southward. On the south the Utes were allies or foes. Only to the west were the Shoshoni secure. In the west (present Idaho and extreme western Wyoming), the Bannock, who were closely related to Shoshoni, could be counted on as constant allies.

Both the Blackfeet and the Sioux posed a constant threat. The Blackfeet, who traded with British trappers and traders, were well armed. To the Shoshoni the only way to retain their traditional homeland was to (12756 bytes)ally themselves with the United States. Needing guns and reinforcements, the Shoshoni's foreign policy become one of friendly relations with trappers from Saint Louis. They would use these new allies to provide supplies and hopefully assist them in their efforts to turn back the Sioux and the Blackfeet. In time both the United States and the Shoshoni gained much from this alliance.Click here to see more rock art.

The Shoshoni controlled one of the most important east-west corridors in the West. Transcontinental traffic and communication over South Pass and, later, Bridger Pass and Rawlins Pass knit the nation together. Oregon-bound pioneers, Salt Lake City-bound Mormons, and the majority of the California emigrants crossed South Pass . The world's first transcontinental railroad would be built via Rawlins Pass. Robert Stuart had crossed South Pass in 1812, and by 1868 parallel ribbons of steel had been laid across southern Wyoming. In the process, the Shoshoni, with their dual goal of ending the Sioux invasion and maintaining their homeland, had become players in one of the greatest migrations in history.

The Shoshonis facilitated westward expansion over Photograph of DesertSouth Pass and later Bridger and Rawlins Pass. But Shoshoni assistance to the trappers and later the emigrants brought several benefits to them as well. By trading with these different groups, the Shoshonis were greatly enriched. They also gained an ally in their attempt to keep the Sioux from pushing southwest. Initially the cost was not high. Since the trappers never outnumbered the Shoshoni, they had to deal with the Shoshonis as equals. In addition, the trappers fought the same enemies as the Shoshoni. In their battles against the Blackfeet, they needed the "Snakes" as much as the "Snakes" needed the Americans. When greater numbers of European Americans began pushing over South Pass after 1843, the threat to the Shoshoni was small. The emigrants posed no threat because they never attempted to settle. Even during the heavy migration of the Gold Rush years, emigrants did not seem to desire their land. This would change in the pivotal year of 1847.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago removed all Mexican claims to the Shoshoni's land. This claim had been more nominal than physical. Although Taos trappers and traders had visited the area, and American traders had also traveled to northern New Mexican towns to obtain trade goods and horses, the Mexican presence had not led to permanent settlement. Nonetheless Mexican and Spanish control over the area did have a major impact on the Shoshoni. It was from the Spanish, indirectly, that the Shoshoni had gained horses. b.leaves.jpg (35875 bytes)What made 1847 so pivotal was the arrival of the Mormon immigrants who settled the Salt Lake Valley. Unlike those who had come before, these immigrants came to stay. During the summer of 1848, when more Mormon settlers arrived, the Church hierarchy began to consider building supply posts within the Shoshoni heartland. The Shoshoni listened to representatives from the church and began to formulate a new foreign policy.

Tensions between the United States government and Mormons were both real and perceived. The Mormons had been persecuted by the "gentiles" in the East, and in some cases had lost their lives. While not all Mormons in the east had been physically persecuted the entire Church, nonetheless,  felt oppressed. "Deseret," as they called their new Kingdom, was settled by people who wanted to separate themselves from the religious oppression they experienced in the past. When the Shoshoni became aware of this, they altered their foreign policy. Sensing that they might retain their land by playing the Mormons against the United States, the Shoshoni began to court both. This deliberate policy was designed to give the tribe freedom of action in dealing with both the federal government and the Mormons. The Mormons, for several reasons, actively pursued cordial relations with the Shoshoni. Not only was it in the church's best interest, the Shoshoni also represented future converts.

It is against this backdrop of competing interests that the Shoshoni played the diverse roles of aide, friend, foe, and always shared negotiator, in order to retain their land. From the first rendezvous in 1825 until they negotiated the Treaty of Fort Bridger in 1868, the one guiding Shoshoni foreign policy principle was retaining their homeland. It was while performing these diverse roles that Americans came to know the Shoshoni. Depending on the role they were playing at the time is how people viewed them. It was not easy being caught in the wake of westward migration.


Shoshoni Traders

y.dancers.jpg (17061 bytes)While it is difficult to piece together the first interactions between the Shoshoni and trappers, it is interesting to note that half of all the rendezvous took place along the Green River or one of its tributaries. Hence, all of the trappers' rendezvous "took place in lands claimed by the Shoshones." Although battles between trappers and Shoshoni took place, these appear to have been sporadic and it is difficult to determine their cause. Generally, trappers' speaking relations with the Shoshoni were consistently friendly in nature. In addition to their favorable foreign policy towards Americans, the Shoshoni were traders, and trading required cordial relationships to insure success.

Some authors have suggested that the Shoshoni actually developed trading fairs prior to the arrival of Europeans in the early 1820s. In his classic study of the horse in Blackfoot culture, John Ewers places southwestern Wyoming as one of the trading centers for the dissemination of the horse. It would make sense that the Shoshoni also traded items other than the horse at their trade fairs, and that the development of the rendezvous followed along the lines of these Shoshoni fairs. This hypothesis was first put forth by Ewers and has since been supported by such noted anthropologists as Raymond Wood and Margot Liberty.

There appears to be some evidence that the Shoshoni, much like the Mandan on the Missouri River, were adept traders. Swedish anthropologist Ake Hultkrantz describes these Shoshoni traders in his discussion of the "Fort Bridger Shoshoni." In addition to the Eastern Shoshoni, he postulates the Kamodika (eaters of black tailed rabbits) and Haivodika (Dove Eaters) were relatively permanent settlers in the Fort Bridger area. In describing the Shoshoni trading patterns, Haltkrantz writes:

This section of Wyoming, [the Bridger Basin], was very likely a meeting place for several different Indian groups, of which the Shoshones were the dominating ones after the trading posts of Fort Bridger had been erected in 1842-43. . . .

At the middle of the 1800's the situation at Bridger Basin probably looked as follows. From the west, as earlier, buffalo hunters passed through the country: Shoshone and Bannock from Idaho, Shoshone from the areas east and north of the Great Salt Lake. At Fort Bridger there gathered every summer Indians who traded with the whites (and with each other): buffalo eaters from the north, south and west (Shoshone, Utes, Flatheads, Nez Perce Indians, and occasionally Crow Indians), Navajo Indians (who followed the old Indian and Spanish trail north along Green River), Tsugudika ("eaters of white tailed deer") from Snake River - probably identical with Hukandika -, Haivodika from Bridger Basin, and many Shoshone half breeds, children of white trappers and Indian women. These half breeds spent their time partly on buffalo hunting and partly on trading. The earlier "rabbit-eaters" seem at this time in the main to have been absorbed by the "buffalo hunters" and Haivodika.

Haivodika ("Dove-eaters"), also called Black's Fork Indians, lived a greater part of the year along the creeks of Green River in the Bridger Basin and in particular at Henry's Fork. . . . The Haivodika. . . served as go-betweens between the nomadic tribes and the whites at Fort Bridger; they bought skins from the prairie Indians and sold them at the Fort and distributed the white Traders' goods among the Ute Indians. It is even known that they went to the Mormons at Great Salt Lake and exchanged skins for agricultural products and textiles.

This last statement is in keeping with Mormon policies to foster trade relations with the Shoshoni and other Native American peoples, and probably occurred more frequently after 1857.



If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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