January 22, 2005

Shoshone Chief Washakie (Whoshakik): A Biographical Sketch


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.

Birth & Early Life of Chief Washakie

Shoshone Chief WashakieThe birth and origins of Chief Washakie 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, 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.

This 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 they frequently joined them on mass 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.

Chief Washakie & Jim Bridger

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, 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 he  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 documented.

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 of Henry’s Fork of the Green River (Wyoming).

The next year, the event moved to the mouth of Blacksmith’s Fork Canyon in Utah. 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 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.

Trapping, Traiding, and Raiding

Chief 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.

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 of Chief Washakie

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 30s).

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 early life.

Chief 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.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 a portrait 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 the  annual group 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.

Shoshone Leadership

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 named 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. 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 provide 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.

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 Fort Laramie/Horse Creek council. 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, 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, 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, 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 Laramie.

For the most part, this strategy worked quite well. Under the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, 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 “no-man’s land.”

The 1850s

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 Chief 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 drainage.

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 Bridger

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 Pass City, Miner’s Delight, and Atlantic City –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 Bridger

These and other events—the end of the Civil War, the building of the first transcontinental railway in 1867 (completed in 1869), 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 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 Chief Washakie and his Shoshones began the slow process of learning a new way of life.

Shoshone 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. 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.

Chief Washakie 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.

Washakie 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 paid for the use of reservation lands in either gifts of livestock or in grazing fees.

But changes to the 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.

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, 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 included 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.

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). 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.

Final Years of Chief Washakie

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 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 to. 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 you say.”

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.


People of the Wind River: The Eastern Shoshones, 1825-1900.
Henry E Stamm, IV. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

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. The bibliography of the book is fairly comprehensive and provides a good list of further reading.

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