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Wyoming History


Shoshoni in Wyoming

Part two of two parts

Part 1

Part 2

The Shoshoni and Westward Bound Immigrants

Against this backdrop of well developed Native horse.jpg (15664 bytes)American trading patterns, westward-bound American immigrants began to interact with the Shoshones in the early 1840s. Shoshoni traders, already skilled at trading with fur trappers, were ready to serve as suppliers to Americans bound for California, Oregon, or Utah. They hoped to profit from this exchange and to retain their homeland by gaining wealth and prestige through trade. The years from 1840 to 1860 would determine if they would be successful.

In 1841, Bidwell and Bartleson set out for the west coast in a tradition in keeping with Columbus' 1492 expedition. They knew that they were seeking lay to the west - they just did not have a clear idea of how to get there. Moreover, if not for friendly Indians helping these two diverse groups of westward-bound argonauts, they might not have survived to tell others of their efforts. The Bidwell-Bartleson expedition marked the beginning of Shoshoni involvement with America's westward migration.  Click here to see more rock art.

The Bidwell-Bartleson party was a hallmark in westward migration. In his reprint of the Bidwell diaries, historian Doyce B. Nunis states, this party "made the first planned overland emigration west to California." Although other emigrants had made the overland journey to the Pacific slope via South Pass before 1841, their destination was Oregon. "The first northern-route emigration across the plains was undertaken by Jason and Daniel Lee's small missionary band in 1834, and in 1836, by the Whitman-Spaulding party." Further south, beginning in 1829, California-bound trading caravans had ventured west by following the Santa Fe Trail and then using the Old Spanish Trail or other variants to reach the west coast. Yet no party had taken the trail traveled by "Bidwell-Bartleson and Company" in 1841.

In his work, California, historian John W. (32262 bytes)Caughey states that this party "was the entering wedge for the new type of migration to California:" they were bent on living permanently in the "Golden State." However, these emigrants would follow a vague untraveled route west from the Bear River to California. "Jedediah S. Smith had made the trip in 1826 and 1827, and Joseph R. Walker, employed by Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, in 1833," but their reports of the way west were sketchy. There were no detailed maps or guides to tell the traveler where water could be found. Setting out into the unknown, they were adventurers with a dream, but without a precise road map. In 1992, The New Yorker noted when describing the ill-fated 1846 Donner Party, that "There's something about a guy with no sense of consequences that's completely American." There is also something completely American about unprepared dreamers setting forth into unknown waters with American "Indians," providing much needed assistance. Having lost their pilot, they were now desperate. On October 23, 1841, Bidwell states: "having no meat than would last us 3 days, it was necessary to use all possible exertions to kill game, which was exceedingly scarce." On the same day an Indian boy ventures into camp and sold Bidwell acorns. Despairing and desperate the Bidwell-Bartleston party began to loose horses to the Indians who "eat them." By late October they have entered into a new land and the Native Americans were not as helpful - even hostile to their party. Finally, they reached California in early November. Had not the Indians aided them across the desert the question of whether they would have made it at all bears asking.

Reverend Joseph Williams, who was with the Bidwell-Bartleson party when they crossed the Green River in 1841, noted that the emigrants actively sought trade with the Shoshoni in southwestern Wyoming. On the 11th of July, not far from Little Sandy Creek, west of South Pass, Williams wrote: "Today we lay by for the arrival of the Snake Indians to come and trade for articles, and a man was sent to tell them to come." Thirteen days later on the Bear River the party once again "rested and waited for the Snake Indians to come and trade with us." Trade was essential since their animals had worn down and food supplies were depleted. James John, who also accompanied this 1841 emigrant train, states that on the Green the travellers traded "with the Indians and Trappers for horses and buffalo robes." He also notes that the Trappers and Shoshoni camped with them for several days as they travelled west.

woman.jpg (22481 bytes)In his work Plains Across, John Unruh states that Bidwell and Bartleson "employed and even kidnapped Indians to travel with them as guides, pointing out the trail and identifying good grass and water locations." Hugh Skinner, traveling along the Hastings Cutoff in 1850, acknowledged if it hadn't been for Shoshoni Indians directing them to water they would never have found it. "Many overlanders willingly entrusted their stock, wagons, belongings and even families to Indian swimmers and boatmen at dangerous river crossings all along the trail." J. M. Shively, "explicitly stated in his 1846 guide book that `you must hire an Indian pilot [when] you [are] at the crossings of the Snake River, it being dangerous if not perfectly understood.'" While these Indian Pilots were probably not eastern Shoshoni, it illustrates the importance Native Americans played in the westward migration.  Click here to see more rock art.

The Shoshoni assisted Captain John Charles Fremont in his highly publicized 1843 exploration of southwestern Wyoming and the surrounding area. When Fremont traveled along the Bear River Valley, he sought out a Shoshoni village for the purpose of trading for horses. He wrote, "we purchased eight horses, for which we gave in exchange blankets, red and blue cloth, beads, knives, and tobacco, and the usual other articles of Indian traffic." He did not reveal how many knives or blankets he gave in the exchange, but judging from the experiences of others, the cost was relatively high. Fremont also obtained from the Shoshoni ". . . a considerable quantity of berries of different kinds, among which service berries were the most abundant; and several kinds of roots and seeds, which we could eat with pleasure, as any kind of vegetable food was gratifying to us." Fremont's remarks provide excellent insight into the problems westward bound travelers faced. While meat abounded and the emigrants often carried flour, soon they ran out of foods containing vitamin A and C. Scurvy became a dreaded possibility. Passing through areas that contained nutrition-rich vegetables, emigrants and travelers did not recognize the available food sources, nor did they know how to process them. For essential vegetables and fruits they often depended on to trading with local Indians. While some emigrants picked berries they found along the trail, others were deprived of these fruits by the wagon trains that had passed before them. Therefore, trading with Native Americans proved crucial in acquiring adequate fruits and vegetables.

Edwin Bogart in 1846, provides a ra.dancers.jpg (17061 bytes)revealing description of his encounter with Native Americans in present southwestern Wyoming. On July, 18th, he recorded: "Several Indians visited our camp in parties of three or four at a time." Showing he did not quite comprehend their actions he stated, "An old man and two boys sat down near the door of our tent, this morning, and there remained without speaking, but watchful of every movement for three or four hours. When dinner was over, we gave them some bread and meat, and they departed without uttering a word." The Indians were not begging, they simply were following cultural norms of polite visitation and since apparently they could not speak English and Bryant could not communicate to them in their Native tongue, silence seemed appropriate.

Bryant appreciated the setting he was in as he wrote: "Circles of white-tented wagons may now be seen in every direction, and the smoke from the camp-fire is curling upwards, morning, noon, and evening." A large "number of oxen and horses are scattered over the entire valley grazing upon green grass. Parties of Indians, hunters, and emigrants are galloping to and fro, and the scene is one of almost holiday liveliness." He added, "It is difficult to realize that we are in a wilderness, a thousand miles from civilization. I noticed the lupin, and a bright scarlet flower, in bloom."

The Shoshoni, as well as former trappers, or hunters (as they were called in the emigrant journals), profited handsomely from trading with emigrants. At times Fort Bridger was essentially run by Native Americans. Joel Palmer, traveling west in 1845, camped near the trading post on July 25th. He described the post as "built of poles and daubed with mud; it is a shabby concern." Noting the number of structures he goes on to say "Here [there] are about twenty-five lodges of Indians, or rather white trappers lodges occupied by their Indian wives." They had "dressed deer, elk, and antelope skins, coats, pants, moccasins, and other Indian fixens, which they trade low for flour, pork, powder, lead, blankets, butcher-knives, spirits, hats, ready made clothes, coffee, sugar, and etc." The traders' wives were, according to Palmer, "mostly of the Pyentes and Snake Indians." For a horse, the going rate at Fort Bridger was "twenty-five to fifty dollars in trade." Since horses were often worn down by the time they reached the Bridger Valley, there was a substantial market for fresh horses. Another emigrant noted that the Shoshoni greeted the emigrants and were prepared to trade goods. In 1846, William E. Taylor wrote on July 9th "16 miles Braught us to [Fort] Bridger Shoshone in abundane [sic]." The next day the wagon train "Lay By Indians visited us in great numbers." 

Joel Palmer provided yet another insight xt.bridger.bmp (315656 bytes)into Fort Bridger's operation when he noted the post was "generally abandoned . . . during the winter months." Since emigrant traffic virtually ceased during the months from September to May, due to the harsh winters, it made little sense to live in the high mountain valley all winter. Following tribal traditions that had allowed the Shoshoni to thrive in this high elevation steppe, the trappers, traders, and their wives also migrated to sheltered sites better suited for enduring the longest season in the Rocky Mountains.

While crossing the Green River in 1849, James A. Pritchard noted an encampment of Shoshoni along the river. He wrote in his diary that the "Indians . . . had a great number of fine horses. And for which they asked a big price." He identified them as "Shoshones or Snake Indians." "They are," according to Pritchard, "decidedly the best looking and most intelligent Indians that I ever saw. They possess an affability and suavity of manners not common to the Red Men of the Forest. Their Women are handsome delicate and genteel looking." That same year, another traveler commented on the number of horses the Shoshoni owned. Lewis Shutterly, who was traveling west, wrote that he "crossed Thompson's fork of green river along this is a beautiful valley and there is an Indian camp of about 200 wigwams and 1500 to 2000 Indians of the snake tribe they appear a harmless people and own many fine horses in which they take much pride they being their sole property they are remarkable good riders."

At Fort Bridger on July 25, 1849, James Wilkins (20786 bytes)noted "there are here 20 or 30 families of mountaineers principally Canadian French married to Indian women, and living in tents of skins. . . ." A keen observer, he added, "considerable white frost was on the ground this morn . . . Altho' there is plenty of grass and fine water, a beautiful looking trout stream close by they say they cannot raise any vegetables on account of the coldness of the nights." Initially unable to grow vegetables, the residents were dependent on Native Americans for these food sources. Their use of wild plants harvested by Native Americans is also born out by the presence of Indian Rice Grass found in one of the storage parts within Bridgers Trading Post. Click here to see more rock art.

Writing of his trip west in 1850, Byron McKinstry stated that at the crossing of the Ham's Fork, "Indians are plenty they are a better looking race of Indians than I have ever seen before. They are all of the Snake tribe." Noting that they had been greatly enriched by their trade with white travelers, he described them in this manner: "They are whiter, better formed, better dressed, more intelligent and [own] more property than their brothers the Pawnees, Omahaws, Otoes, and etc. near the frontiers." Mounted on splendid horses the men and women "gracefully [rode] about as if they were Lords and Ladies with nothing else to do. Many are dressed in the European stile [sic], probably procured from the Emigrants or picked up." Claiming the Shoshoni were excellent traders, he explained: "they are willing to trade guns, clothes, and etc., but their horses they could not be induced to part with."

Atop the Bear River Divide in western Wyoming in 1851, P. V. Crawford wrote, "Here the scenery is grand. The Green River Valley in the east and the Bear River Mountains on the west." He added, "Good grass and pure springs all the way. We met a lot of Indians today. They had been out on a hunting expedition, had plenty of game and were in good plight and good humor. Here everything is most lovely." The terms used in Crawford's diary show he and his companions did not fear the Shoshoni. Shoshoni were, above all, traders, and provided much needed goods and food. This is obvious in numerous diaries. As Mary Louisa Black recorded in her 1865 diary, "Aug. 2 Last night ice froze 1/8 of an inch in thickness. The Snake Indians came in to barter fish and antelope hides for bread, coffee." The Shoshoni Indians consistently provided travelers with items that aided them in their trip west.


The First Settlers in the Shoshoni Homeland

For the Shoshoni, one of the major cabin.11.jpg (19976 bytes)changes in their history would occur with the arrival of the Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, in 1847. The Mormons came to settle along the shores of the Great Salt Lake; they were not just passing through. Under Brigham Young's leadership, they moved onto the lands of the Shoshonis', Utes', and Bannocks', and eventually planted a colony in southwestern Wyoming.

The journals kept by the westward-bound "saints" note that Fort Bridger had become a trading center occupied by Shoshoni traders. The Mormon Journal Histories provide excellent documentation regarding the Native Americans encountered by the Latter Day Saints in southwestern Wyoming. For example, the journal for July 7, 1847 reported "9 Indians lodges on right bank of Blacksfork, occupied by families of hunters and trappers, squawmen. 3/4 mi. further was Fort Bridger." To this Orson Pratt, one of the 1847 westward-bound Mormon leaders added: "Bridgers Post consists of two adjoining log houses, dirt roofs, and a small picket yard of logs set in the ground about eight feet high. The number of men, squaws, and half breed children in those and other lodges may be about 50 or 60 . . . . Mosquitos very numerous and troublesome." Howard Eagan, who also accompanied this group of westward bound "Saints," provided yet another description of the Post and its Native American inhabitants: "Bridgers fort is composed of two log houses, about forty feet long each, and joined by a pen for horses, about 10 feet high, and constructed by placing piles upright in the ground close together. There are several Indian lodges close by, and a full crop of young children by the doors. The Indians are said to be of the Snake Tribe."     Click here to see more rock art.

Brigham Young and his followers quickly set (42820 bytes)out to build a "New Zion" in the "desert." Calling this land Deseret, Young was both governor and Indian Agent for southwestern Wyoming. By 1853, the Mormons were settling south of Fort Bridger. If their venture were to succeed, they would have to negotiate with the Shoshoni. Young actively courted the Shoshoni as military allies and potential converts. By the same token, Chief Washakie, leader of the Eastern Shoshoni, seemingly attempted to gain as much as possible from the newly arrived Mormons. On June 17th, 1856, Issac Bullock wrote to Brigham Young from the Bridger Valley: "I paid a visit to the band of Washakie who are encamped on Green River 90 miles above the ferry. I found them very peaceably inclined, expressing themselves well satisfied that more Mormons had come to settle on their land to raise wheat and to build mills to grind it so that they can get flour to eat."

The Shoshoni of southwestern Wyoming were at high tide. Enriched materially by emigrant trade, they were also still in control of their homeland. If the Mormons wanted to accomplish their goals of settling along the Black's Fork they would have to negotiate through Washakie. When Bullock wrote his letter to Brigham Young in 1856, the Shoshoni were already benefiting from the Mormon presence in southern Wyoming. The Mormons had successfully cultivated barley, wheat, potatoes and turnips, and the Native Americans traded for these new sources of food in a land not known for an over-abundance of cereal grains or starches. The archaeological remains at Fort Bridger show that Native American grinding tools (manos) were being used within the fort, which the Mormons had purchased in 1855. Corn was also hauled to the Bridger Valley by wagon. Moreover, wheat, and possibly barley, now grew along the Blacks Fork and this new source of food was processed at Fort Bridger by using manos showing the Shoshoni were not only consuming this new source of cereal but were processing this food with manos tools they had used for hundreds of years.Click here to see more rock art.

To Washakie and the Shoshoni, it made good sense to permit a small number of Mormon farmers and traders to settle on the Black's Fork. The Mormons reduced the cost of both trade items and food sources, which the Shoshoni had grown accustomed to gaining through trade with emigrants. Washakie told Bullock "he had felt bad about the Mormons coming to live on their land but now his heart was changed and he would not talk bad talk anymore, he now felt good. They were highly pleased with the presents from you [Brigham Young] put up for them by Brother Robinson Last Fall. . . . The last part of Washakie's statement was the key. As long as his tribe was enriched by presents and cheap food sources, he would be content. But should the numbers of settlers increase or the presents diminish, Washakie would withhold his approval and lean toward his trapper friends who were closely allied with the United States Government.

In October of 1853, the Mormon Church Fort Supply was established south of Fort Bridger. Mormon historians Fred Gowans and Eugene E. Campbell point out it was built to be "the center of Mormon colonizing and missionary efforts in the Green River Valley between 1853 and 1857." Fort Supply was envisioned as a hub of Mormon efforts "to pacify and civilize the Indians, to nullify the influence of the mountainmen, to control the Green River ferries, and to establish a permanent Mormon community in the Green River Valley." When the Mormon church had purchased Fort Bridger in 1855, Mormon plans for hegemony over the inter-mountain tribes seemed possible. "Tragically, for the Mormon plans, the approach of a large contingent of federal troops from the East, assigned to quell the reported Mormon rebellion and to install a z.cabin.bmp (327656 bytes)non-Mormon governor to replace Brigham Young, caused the Mormon leaders to abandon and burn Fort Supply, Supply City, and Fort Bridger in the Fall of 1857." Fort Bridger had been newly refitted with a massive stone fortification; Fort Supply, which contained "over one hundred log houses, a two-story block house headquarters, a sawmill," and a grist mill, was an even more substantial establishment. The Mormons had made a serious effort to cultivate both the land and their relationship with the Shoshoni and surrounding tribes. This dream came to an end with the so-called Utah War of 1857. The primary casualties were the Mormon settlements and buildings built on the banks of the Blacks Fork.

When the Utah War is viewed from the Shoshoni's perspective, it was not the worse thing that could have happened. The Shoshoni had benefitted from the Mormon colonization of the Black's Fork Valley. They had also regained most of their land when the Mormons left. From 1853 to 1857 the sunset.blacksfork.bmp (398456 bytes)Mormons had been fair trading partners. Since the Mormons had provided manufactured goods, as well as a ready source of food, the Shoshoni had gained from their relationship with these new settlers. When the Mormons retreated from these lands, the Shoshoni had regained their land without firing a shot. With the U. S. Military in control of southwestern Wyoming after 1857, it became obvious that none of the Euro-American settlers, neither Jim Bridger nor his partner, Louis Vasquez, nor the Mormon Church had gained legal title to the land. The U. S. Military, at least temporarily, recognized the entire area as belonging to the Shoshoni. The retreat of the Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley temporarily halted the likelihood of any further Euro-American settlers attempting to build an outpost within southwestern Wyoming. Washakie remained aloof and friendly, on the surface, to both the military and the Mormons. His public pronouncements were timed and intended to accomplish two goals; the enrichment of his people and the retention of his land; he was the perfect chief and foreign minister.


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

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