Exhibits > Chief Washakie >
Life & Times
Life & Times: A Biographical Sketch
Text by Henry E. Stamm, IV, Ph.D
For most modern Wyoming residents and many historians of the American
West, the names of Chief Washakie, the Shoshone Indians, and the
Wind River Reservation seem inseparable. Yet, it was not always
so. The Eastern Shoshone band of American Indians, for whom the
Wind River Reservation was created by the
Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868, represents an amalgam of various
bands of Shoshone and Bannock peoples, most of whom originate from
Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, not Wyoming. Washakie, the best-known
leader of the Eastern Shoshones in the latter part of the 19th century,
is still considered by some Shoshones as an outsider because
he was not a full-blood Shoshone. Indeed, Washakie was of
mixed tribal heritage. According to family history, Washakie
was born to a Agaidüka (Lemhi, or Salmon-Eater) Shoshone mother
from Idaho and a Flathead father from Montana.
Early Birth & Life
His birth and origins are the stuff of good story-telling, but imprecise
history. For instance, his official date of birth is reputedly
either 1798 or 1804, but both are probably a bit too early, for
reasons that will be discussed below. The Episcopal priest,
John Roberts, who served as missionary to the Wind River Reservation
from 1883 until 1948, recorded the 1798 date of birth in the official
church records. Washakie’s gravestone, however, is inscribed
with the 1804 date. This was done at the insistence of James
K. Moore, Sr., the reservation Indian trader whose acquaintance
with the Washakie spanned the early 1870s until Washakie's
death in 1900. Yet another opinion comes from Captain Richard
H. Wilson, who was the acting Indian Agent from 1895 to 1897.
He thought that Washakie died at age 75, which by implication, makes
the birth year 1815.
Washakie's date of birth
is only one of the mysteries about his origins. Another is:
When did he become Shoshone? In 1930, one of his biographers,
Grace Raymond Hebard
(right), gave this explanation. She believes that Washakie's
place of birth was in 1798 in Montana in his father's Flathead village.
Hebard, who derived most of her information in the 1910s and 1920s
from several of Washakie's sons, including Dick and Marshall Washakie,
records that Washakie's family and village were attacked by Blackfeet
Indians near the Three Forks area of Montana (below left).
region, where the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin rivers flow together
to form the Missouri, was prime buffalo habitat and well-known to
various Plateau and Northern Plains Indians, including the Nez Perce,
the Flatheads, various Shoshone and Bannock bands, Crow, and Blackfeet.
According to Hebard's informants, Washakie's father was killed in
the raid and Washakie, his mother, and his surviving siblings fled
to their Lemhi relatives in Idaho. At a later date, his mother
returned to the Flatheads, but Washakie stayed with the Lemhis.
Then, during his adolescence, Washakie joined a passing Bannock
band. The Bannocks, linguistically related to the Shoshones,
were trading and hunting partners with them and the frequently joined
them on massed buffalo hunts in Montana and Wyoming. From
the family stories gathered by Hebard, she deduced that Washakie
eventually joined a Shoshone band between 1826 and 1832. This
particular band considered the Green River basin area of southwestern
Wyoming their homeland.
Washakie & Jim
Both Hebard's story about Washakie's early life and J. K. Moore's
decision about the date of birth were well-reasoned, but probably
not quite accurate. Based on Washakie's own words about his
life (unknown to either Moore or Hebard), a more likely birth date
is circa 1808-1810. Washakie recounted part of his life story
in an interview given to Captain Patrick H. Ray, who was the Indian
Agent at Wind River
Reservation between 1893 and 1895. Washakie revealed several
interesting facts to Ray about his early life. First, Washakie
mentioned that he was a good friend of the famous mountain man and
explorer, Jim Bridger (right), and that Bridger was slightly older
that he was. Second, Washakie said he was sixteen years old
when he joined the Shoshones. Third, he said joined the Shoshones
around the same time he met Bridger. This information allows
better analysis about Washakie's age, since Bridger's life is well
Bridger was born in 1804
and did not enter Shoshone country (western Wyoming and eastern
Idaho) until 1824. Washakie told Captain Ray that he and Bridger
became good friends and spent a number of years trapping together.
Thus, if Washakie was correct about his age when he met Bridger,
then the earliest date for his birth would have been 1808 and probably
no later than 1810. This time span corresponds to Bridger's
employment with William Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Company
and with the first two fur trade rendezvous. Bridger's first
winter camp, 1824-1825, was probably in the Cache Valley of Utah,
through which flows the Bear River. That winter, Bridger followed
the river to its outlet at Great Salt Lake and thus became the first
know white person to have seen the lake. The following
summer, he and his fellow trappers attended the first fur trade
rendezvous that took place in the vicinity Henry's Fork of the Green
River (Wyoming). The next year, the event moved to the mouth
of Blacksmith's Fork Canyon in Utah
right). The next two rendezvous (1827 and 1828) took place
near Bear Lake (astride the Utah and Idaho border).
Undoubtedly, Washakie met Bridger and also attached himself to the
Shoshones sometime during the 1824 to 1826 period.
While Hebard’s biography
is thus inaccurate about the dates of Washakie’s immersion into
Shoshone culture—as Washakie tells it, he actually joined the Shoshones
several years earlier than suggested by Hebard—the story of the
Blackfeet raid on his father’s village or camp and his subsequent
travels with among the Lemhi, the Bannocks, and finally, the Green
River based Shoshones, certainly meshes with his recollections of
his friendship with Jim Bridger.
At this point, a note
of caution needs to be mentioned with respect to interpretation
of historical documents. Captain Ray’s interview with Washakie took
place in the 1890s, many years after the creation of the Wind River
Reservation and even longer since the old chief’s childhood.
Thus, there is the possibility that Washakie remembered events inaccurately.
We also do not know if Ray asked specific questions about Washakie’s
life, or whether he recorded what the chief related to him, or some
combination. During his tenure as Indian Agent, Ray seems
to have gained the respect of the Shoshone and strongly advocated
for Indian rights. Yet, he also was a stickler for rules and
thus thwarted some of the Indian attempts to bend regulations in
their favor. We might reasonably assume, therefore, that his interview
with Washakie included “give-and-take,” with Ray pursuing some matters
that interested him more than others. On the other hand, it
is also reasonable to “weight” the information, to place more emphasis
on events that Washakie devotes more time in the telling.
Finally, we must corroborate as much as is possible Washakie’s story
with those of others and with the more general history of the region.
All this is necessary to fill in the gaps in the record.
Washakie briefly mentions his hunting and trapping friendship with
Bridger, but he also states that the two became good friends—so
Washakie’s participation in the rendezvous system can only be assumed,
but not documented precisely. More importantly, this friendship
proved long-lasting and heavily influenced Washakie’s growth as
a young Shoshone man and later, Bridger actually became part of
Washakie’s “family.” This does not mean that Washakie grew
to prominence as a result of Bridger’s power—after all, Bridger
was himself quite young during the 1820s and not yet the famous
“mountain man” and proprietor of Fort Bridger. Rather, according
to Washakie’s sons from whom Hebard gleaned her information, and
from Captain Ray’s interview, Washakie clearly cast his lot with
a band of Shoshones who claimed the Green River and Bear River regions
as their home territories. This meant that Washakie lived
in proximity for many years with the fur trappers and traders, learned
their mannerisms and language (French), and traded with them, and
earned a reputation among whites as a friend.
Trapping and trading,
however valuable these activities were to the fur trappers, were
not enough to gain prominence within Shoshone culture. In
order to do this, young men had to prove themselves in battle.
So during the same period that Washakie immersed himself into the
fur trade, he also made war on the Blackfeet, the people who had
destroyed his childhood. His stories about his raids
on the Blackfeet always start with
a journey from either the Green or Bear rivers (Green River at left).
He specifically mentions seven different episodes to Ray.
In the first, Washakie is still quite young, not married, and a
follower of another leader. In fact, he doesn’t lead his first
raiding party until the fourth event. The remarkable thing
about each of these journeys is that Washakie and his fellow Shoshones
generally started, on foot and without any horses, from their Idaho
or Wyoming base and attack the Blackfeet near the Three Forks area
or even further east or north! The goal in each of these
raids was horse stealing, and secondarily, Blackfeet scalps.
Marriage & Family
By the early 1830s, Washakie had matured enough and had achieved
enough acclaim to marry his first wife. According to family
traditions, this took place in either 1833 or 1834. This time
period also bolsters his suggested birth date of 1808-1810, as Shoshone
men typically married in their early to mid-20s, depending on their
prowess as warriors and their economic viabilities as hunters.
In fact, if Washakie had been born earlier, in either 1804 or 1798,
he would have been relatively old for his first marriage (in his
Shoshone women, however,
typically married at a younger age, soon after menarche (about 15
or 16 as estimated by anthropologists). This differential
in marriage age also adds credence to placing Washakie’s birth in
the 1808 to 1810 period. One of his daughters, Mary Washakie,
became Jim Bridger’s third wife in 1850 and was still in her teens
at the time. This means that Mary Washakie would have been
born circa 1833 to 1835—and thus was approximately 15 to 17 years
old—the typical age for a first marriage of Shoshone women.
Her marriage date serves as additional confirmation for Washakie’s
Washakie continued to
maintain his hunting, trapping, trading, and warring activities
from his home in the Green River, Bear River, and Cache Valley corridor
throughout the 1830s and into the 1840s. [At
left is the Alfred Jacob Miller painting in 1837 of the Green River
Encampment]. During this era, the Shoshone bands that
eventually became known as the Eastern Shoshones were under the
leadership of several powerful headmen who reportedly massed over
2000 Indians in their buffalo hunting forays to the plains of Montana
and Wyoming. Fur trapper William A Ferris identified four
such leaders in 1831: Horn Chief, Iron Wristband, Little
Chief, and Cut Nose. Ferris later reported that Horn Chief
was killed by the Blackfeet in 1832 and that Cut Nose was the leader
of Shoshones who intermarried and lived in a mixed Indian-white
community in the Green River region. More than likely, this
was Washakie’s band.
Another trapper, Osborne
Russell, met one of the other leaders, Iron Wristband, in 1834.
According to Russell, Iron Wristband was known as Pahdahewakunda
and Little Chief was his brother. Further, Little Chief was
called Mohwoomha or Mowama by Shoshones. We have a likeness
available of Mohwoomha/Little Chief—the painter Alfred Jacob Miller,
who called him Mo-wo-ma, depicted him twice in 1837, once in portrait
(at right) and again as the leader of a Shoshone buffalo hunt.
Making clear distinctions
about Shoshone leaders proved impossible to white observers such
as Ferris, Russell, and other white observers. To outsiders,
it seemed as if certain leaders such as Pahdewakunda or Mohwoomha
controlled thousands of people, but in reality, such men generally
were leaders of specific events, such as annual massed buffalo hunts,
rendezvous, or ceremonials such as the Sun Dance, and not overarching
rulers. Despite attempts to categorize certain leaders as
powerful “chiefs,” Shoshones had long organized themselves into
loose-knit family bands of various composition and size. The
economics of providing food and fodder for thousands of Indians
and their horses (each warrior and his family typically had two
to five horses) acted against maintenance of large-scale communities.
Instead, once the large gatherings ended, Shoshones dispersed into
more manageable and smaller groups of 10 to 150 people. Each
of these had their own designated leaders, or headmen.
So, in addition to the leaders identified above, the fur trappers
noted other important or up-and-coming persons. For example,
Russell called three young warriors “the pillars of the nation and
[men] at whose names the Blackfeet quaked with fear.” These
three were Inkatoshapop, Fibebountowatsee, and Whoshakik.
Whoshakik, of course, refers to the person better known as Washakie,
and Russell’s mention of him in 1840 is the first documentation
of his importance. Of the other two, Miller painted Inkatoshapop
(calling him Incatashapa) in 1837, while Fibebountowatsee surfaces
in the 1850s, in the writings of Indian Agent George W. Armstrong
and others (called Tibebutowats or Tababooindowestay). Mathew
Field name two other “chiefs” in 1843—Wakska and Ungatushapa.
The latter probably is a variant spelling of Inkatoshapop, while
Wakska possibly refers to Wiskin (also known as Cut Hair), a band
leader that Indian Agent John Wilson mentioned in 1849. Field
said that Wakska and Ungatushapa hunted in the Crow Indian territory
of the Big Horn Basin, and once again stated that Cut Nose stayed
near Bridger’s fort. On the other hand, Field’s Wakska might
also be Washakie, if we consider the account of William Hamilton,
a young trapper who worked the Green, Wind, & Big Horn rivers
in the mid-1840s. Hamilton camped for part of 1843 with Washakie
and noted that he was leading hunting trips in the Crow territory
of the Big Horn River. Taken altogether, at least five different
men headed Shoshone groups during this time, with two of them, Cut
Nose and Washakie, clearly known for friendly relationships with
trappers and traders.
Part of the confusion
over Shoshone leadership at this time stems from the deaths of Mohwoomha
and Pahdahewakunda in 1843. Trappers like Russell believed
their passing caused a vacuum in the Shoshone ranks, but that is
doubtful, given the general nature of Shoshone organization and
headman structure. Moreover, men such Jim Bridger used their
trade relationships to foster the “careers” of their friends, including
Washakie. In his 1849 report about Indians in the region,
Agent John Wilson noted that Washakie, Mono, Wiskin, and Oapich
(Big Man) were the main leaders. Wilson took his information
directly from reports by Bridger. Yet Washakie himself contradicts
this assessment. In his interview with Captain Ray, Washakie
said that Gahnacumah was the leader of his band and that Washakie
was the war chief.
Whether Washakie was “chief”
or not to his fellow Shoshones, he quickly moved into that position
in the eyes of white officials. The process started with Wilson’s
report in 1849. That same year, he asked Washakie to help
solve an intertribal crisis over horse stealing between the Utes,
Paiutes, and Shoshones. This was the first time the federal
government officially recognized Washakie as an important leader,
although the actual council meeting did not take place until 1852.
Before the council could occur, however, an even more important
meeting intervened—the famous Fort
Laramie Treaty of 1851 (pdf format-see note at bottom of page).
The government called this meeting to establish peace on the Plains,
that is, to try to stop intertribal warfare among the Mandan, Sioux,
Crow, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Blackfeet and others with the primary goal
to proved a safe passage for emigrants traveling the overland trails.
Jacob Holeman, who recently had been appointed Indian Agent for
the newly created Utah Superintendency of the Office of Indian Affairs,
thought that other tribes whose lands were affected by the overland
emigrants should also attend the meeting. Holeman sent Bridger
to gather the Shoshones and bring them to the council. This
was no easy task, as the site of the meeting, on Horse Creek (a
tributary of the North Platte River) about 30 miles from Fort Laramie,
was squarely in enemy territory as far as Shoshones were concerned.
Moreover, the timing was off. It was August, when most Shoshones
were on fall buffalo hunts. Bridger eventually found the band
that included Washakie camped along the Sweetwater River (at left
is a William H. Jackson 1870 photograph of the Sweetwater).
Unfortunately for Bridger’s purposes, the leader of the group, Gahnacumah,
was hunting buffalo and did not want to stop to attend the council.
And to sour things further, a raiding party of Cheyennes attacked
a small group of Shoshone hunters near the camp, killing two and
stealing horses. The few leaders who were in camp immediately
mistrusted the upcoming “peace” council and argued for three days
on the matter. In desperation, Bridger asked Washakie to take
charge and resolve the issue. In Washakie’s own words:
“[I] called in all the young men who had been to war [with me]”
and said, “[I] was going to stay with the white men and they must
make up their minds to go or to stay, and they all said they would
stay. There were a good many of them.” Moreover, they
elected Washakie to serve as their war chief.
Washakie Elected "Chief":
This “election” began Washakie’s chieftainship, as far as whites
were concerned. Sixty to eighty warriors followed him to the
Creek council (Ft.
Laramie at right below c. 1845 and as photographed in the 1870s
at left). There the Shoshones made a triumphant entry , in
full dress regalia, that reportedly started a scramble for weapons
among their enemies who thought the Shoshone warriors were going
to attack. Despite their grand appearance, the Shoshones were
excluded from official participation since the meeting was called
for the Plains tribes only and not those like the Shoshones who
resided primarily west of the Rocky Mountains.
For the next decade, Washakie
clearly was the leader of choice from whom white officials, such
as Brigham Young (portrait by Charles Savage of Brigham Young, right),
the governor of Utah and the head of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), sought council and concessions.
There were other prominent Shoshone headmen, “chiefs” in their own
right, who led various bands, but Washakie was the primary leader
to whom whites turned for guidance concerning most of the buffalo-hunting
Shoshones. As for Washakie, he had learned the intricacies
of negotiating within the white world from his long relationship
with Jim Bridger and other trappers and traders. He used these
skills to obtain goods, supplies, food, and other “presents” from
Indian agents and government officials to the benefit of his followers,
who sometimes numbered as many as 1200 people during much of the
1850s. At the same time, he also reined in his younger warriors
from participating in attacks on the hordes of white immigrants
who increasingly streamed through Shoshone territory on their way
to California or Oregon. Washakie clearly honored the terms
of the Fort
Laramie Treaty, (pdf format-see note at bottom of page) even
if he was not an official signer, and he played on this “friendship”
to whites to gain whatever advantages he could for his followers.
The immigrants who passed
through his territory had a tremendous impact on Washakie’s Shoshones.
During the 1840s, Washakie was part of a band that headquartered
around Jim Bridger’s fort (pictured below left, from a woodcut published
by N.Y. Daily Graphic, June 16, 1873), with forays onto the
Plains via the Sweetwater drainage to hunt buffalo. In the
early 1850s, following his rise to a more prominent role, Washakie’s
activities still centered on Fort Bridger
and Salt Lake City, where the Shoshones actively traded buffalo
hides and other game pelts for goods and supplies. But by
the mid-1850s the continuous flow of white settlers through this
area disrupted life and hunting to such a great extent that he sought
out areas where whites had not yet settled. Thus, while trading
in Salt Lake continued to be important during the summer, in late
fall, Washakie’s Shoshones headed north to the Three Forks area
of Montana for their buffalo hunts and where Washakie had gained
his first prowess as a warrior against the Blackfeet. They
traveled north, either up the Snake River drainage, or further east,
up the Green River basin. The band, whose members formed the majority
of the Plains-going Shoshones, apparently made this change in their
geographical range from the mid-1850s through the early 1860s.
This had a two-fold purpose: first, it prevented factions
within his band from raiding or killing white travelers (and Mormon
settlers who now homesteaded former Shoshone land) and second, he
could still lead his people to buffalo in relative safety without
violating territorial boundaries marked out by the Treaty of Fort
For the most part, this
strategy worked quite well. Under the terms of the Treaty
of Fort Laramie, (pdf format-see note at bottom of page) the
Crows were given almost all of the land now encompassed by the Wind
River Reservation (east of the Wind River Mountains, but inclusive
of present-day Yellowstone Park). Thus the Snake River or
Green River routes to Montana usually avoided potential confrontation
with the Crows, although the area near the western edge of Yellowstone
in the region of Henry’s Fork in northeastern Idaho was a kind of
In 1856, the latent danger erupted in a violent battle between
Washakie’s band and a large Crow group. This fight took
place when Washakie’s Shoshones were traveling south from Henry’s
Lake, according to memoirs of Elijah Wilson, a white boy who spent
two years with Washakie’s family during this time. Wilson
said that over 50 Shoshones and 100 Crow warriors lost their lives,
which is a tremendous loss of life and highly unusual in Plains
Indian warfare. Wilson implied that Washakie and the Crow
leader called a truce and both groups departed the scene.
However, it is quite possible and perhaps likely that this battle
is the legendary story of the Battle of Crowheart Butte.
According to the story, following a battle like the one described
by Wilson, Washakie challenged the Crow leader to single combat,
with the loser’s people agreeing to retreat from the area.
This event supposedly took place on the top of Crowheart Butte
a monolithic table-top mesa near the Big Wind River about 30 miles
south of Dubois, Wyoming. Washakie emerged victorious, holding
the heart of the Crow warrior, thus giving the mesa its name and
adding another layer of mystery to Washakie’s life.
Wilson doesn’t make it
clear where the battle he witnessed occurred. He notes Washakie
risked going into Crow territory to get to better hunting for the
spring trek towards Salt Lake. So it is possible that Washakie
had traveled eastward from Henry’s Lake, perhaps had crossed the
northern end of the Teton Mountains into the region near the Yellowstone
and Teton park border, and finally traversed Togwote Pass or another
pass through the Wind River Mountains to descend into the Wind River
Regardless of whether
this event was the genesis of the Battle of Crowheart Butte, it
did signal a period of increasing conflict with the Crows.
At the same time, the Shoshones and Bannocks of Idaho began more
frequent campaigns of armed resistance to the ongoing invasion of
their lands by emigrants and settlers. As a result, Washakie
began to lose some of his followers, especially younger warriors
who chafed at Washakie’s continued insistence of friendship toward
the newcomers. As early as 1852, Washakie had suggested to
Brigham Young that land be set aside as a reserve for the Shoshones,
but these talks never advanced very far because Washakie insisted
on a provision that food and goods be made available to the tribe
on an “as needed” basis. Perhaps in order to use his alliance
with the government to carve out a niche for his people, as early
as 1858, Washakie began to make overtures to white officials to
set aside land specifically for the Shoshones. His first choice
was for land along Henry’s Fork, a tributary of the Green River
near the Utah and Wyoming border. Later, he proposed a reserve
near the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah. Like the initial
talks with Brigham Young, Washakie’s negotiations led to gifts of
food, clothing, and good will, but nothing else.
1863 Treaty of Fort
Eventually, the numbers of immigrants and settlers moving across
and into Shoshone territory forced matters to a head. By 1862,
Pocatello was leading periodic raids on immigrant trains and settlements,
as were other Shoshone and Bannock leaders of from Utah and Idaho.
Spurred to action, U.S. officials sought to set aside lands for
the Shoshones and Bannocks, and at the same time, protect the overland
immigrant routes. Before much was accomplished, however,
Colonel Patrick Connor led a large-scale militia attack on a Shoshone
winter camp near the Bear River, massacring over 240 Indians.
Washakie was not involved, although one of his warriors and band
leader, Norkok, supposedly fought in the battle. Although
the Shoshones and Bannocks continued sporadic fighting for several
months thereafter, the end result forced a treaty with the United
States. This event, know as the Treaty
of Fort Bridger, 1863, set aside over 44,000,000 acres of
“Shoshone country,” all of it east of the Wind River mountains and
north of the main immigrant trails through the Basin regions.
Washakie was one of the two principal signers, with nine other men
fixing their marks to the document. At least two, Norkok and
Bazil, were leaders whose bands often associated with Washakie.
The 1863 agreement achieved
peace between Shoshones and whites, but was fraught with other problems.
For one, settlers and immigrants now had free access to traditional
Shoshone hunting grounds in the Fort Bridger, Bear River, and Salt
Lake region, and were spreading northward up the Green River Valley.
Thus Washakie and other Shoshone leaders increasingly turned to
hunting in Crow territory of the Wind River Basin, or even onto
the Plains east of Powder River and the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.
As a result, Shoshones were vulnerable to attacks by Crows, Cheyennes,
Sioux, and Arapahos, all who vied for the same hunting territories.
At the same time, white prospectors re-discovered gold in mountains
near historic South Pass, and mining towns--South
City (left), Miner's Delight, and Atlantic City (right)--rapidly
sprang up along the southern borders of the Wind River drainage
between 1866 and 1868. Farmers soon followed the miners, laying
claim to lands along some of the tributaries of the Big Wind River,
near the present-day region of Lander.
1868 Treaty of Fort
These and other events—the end of the Civil War, the building of
the first transcontinental railway in 1867 (completed in 1869--below
right is a photograph of the celebration of the joining of the Union
Pacific with the Central Pacific railways),
and more gold discoveries (in Montana)—sparked a new round of peace
negotiations with Indian peoples that began in 1867 and continued
into 1868. Washakie took advantage of this new situation,
and upon learning that the Crows had relinquished their claims to
Wind River with their new treaty, gladly signed a new Fort
Bridger Treaty in 1868 that created the Shoshone and Bannock
Indian Agency in the Wind River Valley.
Creating a reservation
on paper, however, did not yield immediate benefits.
For three more years, Shoshones received their treaty annuities
at Fort Bridger. Moreover, Oglala Lakota warriors under Red
Cloud (at left) continually raided both white and Shoshone towns
and camps in Wind River, such that it was too dangerous to move
there on any kind of permanent basis. At Washakie’s insistence,
the government established the military base of Camp Brown to provide
protection to the agency. By 1871, the first of the agency
buildings had been erected, and Washakie and his Shoshones began
the slow process of learning a new way of life.
Reservation Life, 1871-1900
For the next 30 years, Washakie walked a delicate tightrope of trying
to adhere to new demands placed on his people and him to become
“civilized,” while at the same time maintaining traditional Shoshonean
ways. Throughout the 1870s, for example, he allowed his children
to attend the first of many different agency schools, but still
took them on fall buffalo hunts into the Big Horn River drainage
(agency school at left--standing
from left to right are the Right Reverend John F. Spaulding, Episcopal
Bishop of Colorado & Wyoming; teacher Arthur C. Jones, who later
became a Laramie banker; the Reverend John Roberts, Episcopal missionary
to the reservation; and Sherman Coolidge, an Arapaho who later became
an ordained priest. Children are unidentified). He moved
from living in a hide teepee to a log house, yet still led warriors
into battle against the Sioux and Cheyenne in the U.S. Army campaigns
in 1876. He insisted that white officialdom abide by Shoshone
council decisions regarding distribution of food, annuities, and
other supplies. Thus he maintained his role as chief spokesperson
for the tribe as a whole, but also respected the leadership of the
various Shoshone bands who lived on the reservation. He repeatedly
refused to allow an Indian police force (who often served as the
"eyes and ears" of white officials) to be created in the
late 1870s and early 1880s, strongly suggesting that the Shoshones
could police themselves and provide good order. He farmed
a small plot of land as an example to other Shoshones, but also
made sure that white farmers and stockgrowers in the lands adjacent
to the reservation pay for the use of reservation lands in either
gifts of livestock or in grazing fees.
But changes to countryside
already were falling into place that would limit Washakie's and
the Shoshones' choices about living life in a traditional way.
First came the Brunot
cession of 1872, whereby the
Shoshones ceded nearly one-third of the reservation from the southern
border. (See map at right for the cessions of reservation
land). This immediately led to the founding of Lander, Wyoming,
in 1874, fifteen miles south of the new southern border. Lander
boosters, as well as those in other areas of Wyoming, did all they
could to promote more settlement and development of the "unoccupied"
lands of Wyoming territory, including the lands that surrounded
the reservation. This is clearly indicated in an early published
map, shown below
left, that dates to the 1873-1878 period (the map includes
Yellowstone Park, created in 1873, but also shows Camp Brown,
which was renamed Fort Washakie in 1878 in honor of the chief).
This section depicts the portion of Wyoming that includes the Wind
River Reservation, but also provides information about the possible
uses of the lands that surround the reservation. This includes
stockgrowing, hunting, and logging among others.
In the mid-1880s Washakie’s
influence on reservation policies and life waned even more.
In part, this came about because of two drastic changes. First,
the Arapahos—long-time enemies of the Shoshones—were moved to the
reservation in 1878 (at
left is Black Coal one of the Arapaho chiefs who moved his band
to the reservation). Although this was supposed to
be a temporary placement, the Arapahos became equal shareholders
in the resources of the reservation. Thus, Washakie’s ability
to shape council decisions and limit the impact of official decisions
made by the government was curtailed severely. A more telling
blow was the elimination of buffalo hunting as a mainstay of the
Shoshone economy. As long as Washakie and the Shoshones could
depend on buffalo as their main source of food and economic activity,
they could parry the attempts of the Indian agents to make them
become farmers. The last buffalo were killed in 1885 and concomitantly,
the Wyoming livestock industry expanded into Wind River country,
severely limiting off-reservation hunting access to other big game
such as elk. This forced the majority of Shoshones, including Washakie,
to pay more attention to issues of farming, ranching, and wage labor.
These changes, along
with Washakie’s increasing age, eroded his power, but did not
end it entirely. For example, in the mid-1880s, Wind River
Indian agents eventually signed on Shoshones to the tribal police
service, but Washakie named the men to these positions.
In fact, he often nominated the Shoshone Indian employees for
agency positions as teamsters, farmers, herders, etc. While
younger men, especially those who had grown up on the reservation
and who had been educated in on and off-reservation schools, played
increasingly important roles in Shoshone councils, Washakie was
still the dominant voice well into the mid-1890s. His last
major act took place in the 1896
Hot Springs land cessions, when
the Shoshones and Arapahos acceded to the demands of the government
to sell a ten-square mile parcel of land at the northeast corner
of the reservation. This parcel contained a natural hot
springs (in present-day Thermopolis--one of the springs is shown
at right ). As one of the conditions of the sale, Washakie
insisted that the springs remain open to all people, a condition
that is still honored today.
Washakie’s last three years of life saw one more major change.
Although he had accepted baptism as a Mormon in 1880 when missionary
Amos Wright spent several weeks proselytizing among the Shoshones,
Washakie agreed to another baptism in 1897 at the hands of the reservation’s
Episcopal missionary, John Roberts. Roberts had come to the
reservation in 1883 and had courted Washakie’s favor over the ensuing
years, eventually becoming fast friends with the old man.
This second baptism achieved the same desired result as had the
first—Washakie recovered from a serious illness. But his renewed
good health lasted for a little more than two years. He again
became quite ill in the late winter of 1899 and finally succumbed
on February 20, 1900. Buried with full military honors
and with a funeral
train (left) that stretched for miles, Washakie’s death was a symbol,
as had been his life, of the effort made to bring peace to disparate
peoples, to listen to new ideas and adapt new technologies, and
still honor the traditions of a proud people. His loss was
deeply felt among the Shoshones and given the changes wrought by
reservation life, no other leader ever emerged from among the Shoshones
who achieved his stature. Over one-half of the adult males
expressed this loss a few months after his death in a letter written
to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:
"Our Great Father:
We your children The Shoshones, Would be pleased if you would appoint
some one of our number to be our Chief or in some way give us a
head. As you must know, that our old Chief Washakie is dead,
and we are now left with out a head to look too. It is now
with us like a man with many tongues all talking at once and every
one of his tongues pulling every which way. We are feeling
bad that things should be in such shape among us. So we leave
it to you to say who shall be our chief, or you name any number
say nine or eleven but we want you to say and we will abide by what
Suffice it say, the “Great
Father” did not appoint a new chief. Instead, after many years
of struggle, the Eastern Shoshones are now governed by a democratically
elected Joint Business Council. The council members still
face the same issues encountered by Washakie—how to insure the best
lives possible for their people in an ever changing world.
The best single source
for the history of Washakie and the Shoshones is the book written
by the author of this biographical sketch. Most of the material
is derived from this source and the citation is listed below.
The bibliography of the book is fairly comprehensive and has been
reproduced for this website in pdf format (see the note at the bottom
of the page). View
Stamm, Henry E.,
IV. People of the Wind River: The Eastern Shoshones, 1825-1900.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
minor web style and graphical edits were made by the webmaster to
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