September 14, 2014

Great Basin Indian Wars


The tribes of the Great Basin, for the most part Shoshone, were severely impacted by the Oregon and California Trails and by Mormon emigration to Utah. Beginning with their encounter with Lewis and Clark, the Shoshone had generally had friendly relations with American and British fur traders and trappers. Eventually eight major conflicts developed in the Great Basin culture area.


At first, relationships were friendly with travelers on the trails, but, with time, the volume of emigrants severely impacted natural resources in the areas traversed by the trails. Often travelers treated the Indians they encountered badly and the Indians on their part continued to steal horses and other stock.

In Utah, expanding Mormon settlement pushed natives from the fertile and well-watered valleys where they had lived and the cattle of the Mormons consumed the grasses and other plants which made up the traditional Shoshone diet. While unwilling to compensate the Shoshone, or the Ute, for their lands the Mormons did offer food to the Indians.

However relations were not smooth, with the Indians being aggressive and demanding while the Mormons found the burden imposed by the Church leadership onerous. The federal government had little presence in the Great Basin and made little effort to help.

The Indians, their traditional way of life disrupted and in retaliation for outrages suffered at the hands of emigrants, engaged in raiding of travelers along the trails and aggressive behavior toward Mormon settlers.

The efforts of the undisciplined California militia who were stationed in Utah during the Civil War to respond to complaints resulted in the Bear River Massacre. Following the massacre a series of treaties were agreed to with the various Shoshone tribes exchanging promises of peace for small annuities and reservations.

One of these, the Box Elder Treaty, identified a land claim made by the Northwestern Shoshone. (This claim was declared non-binding by the Supreme Court in a 1945 ruling, but later recognized by the Indian Claims Commission in 1968. Descendents of the original group were compensated collectively at a rate of less than $0.50 per acre, minus legal fees.)

Most of the local groups were decimated by the war, and faced continuing loss of hunting and fishing land caused by encroachment of white settlers. Some moved to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation when it was created in 1868. Some of the Shoshone populated the Mormon-sanctioned community of Washakie, Utah.

Primary Great Basin Indian Wars and Battles

  • Walker War
  • Paiute War
  • Bear River Massacre
  • Goshute War
  • Snake War
  • Black Hawk War (Utah)
  • Bannock War
  • White River War
Great Basin Indians
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