The Indians most closely associated with western Wyoming were the Shoshones. As a race, they are connected to the Utes and Piutes, who have settled to the south of them, but are of a higher order of physical and mental development than these root-eating relations. On the other hand, they are quite distinct from the Arapahoes, their neighbors on the north, with whom they seldom intermarry, as each looks down upon the other with true tribal pride and prejudice. The Shoshone is more reticent and has been slower in following the lead of the white man in accepting religious teaching, but he possesses in a marked degree the virtues of sincerity and faithfulness.1
In appearance the Shoshones are of medium height, supple and alert. Poligamy is common among them, but they are, as a rule, true to their ideas of virtue. The squaws are treated with good-natured indifference, and children are the objects of great interest to men as well as women. When young, the women are often graceful and comely, but they grow fat and shapeless with advancing years. They are generally clothed in articles discarded by the men, and present a shabby appearance, except for their lower limbs, which are always neatly encased in leggins and moccasins. Hands and feet are slender and well formed. They are skillful in bead work, and take pride in decorating their papooses, as well as in lavishing much time on the adornment of their lords and masters, whose bodies they paint yin fantastic designs with mineral-colored clay. The hair of the men hangs down in a thick braid on either side of the face, with a scalplock twisted on the top of the head, through which an eagle feather is stuck. The blanket is their favorite garment, but in every modern group may be seen a great variety of clothing, ranging from overalls and cotton shirts to more modish attire.
Besides bead work, the women excel in the painting of tanned hides, which are often quite elaborate, depicting stories of the chase and other adventures by means of simple illustrations most interesting to decipher.
Language and traditions point to the Hindu origin of the Shoshones. The Supreme Being was to them “Our Father”, instead of the “Great Spirit”, and death a pilgrimage to the land beyond the setting sun, where they were to be incarnated into some other form of animal life, according to the deeds done in the body. Their native custom was to wrap their dead in skins and deposit them in caves or clefts between the rocks, with a generous supply of material things for the journey into the unknown. If the departed was a chief, many horses were killed for this purpose. Mourning, consisting of from three to-five days of loud lamentation, was a part of the funeral rites. Of late years they have buried their dead, and an interesting part of the ceremony is a procession around the open box or coffin, when all who wish well to the departed take his hand in a last friendly clasp.2 It is the custom to put on the grave the tepee, bedstead or stretcher in which the Indian died, and the Indian graveyard looks not unlike the backyard of a junk shop.
Every three years there was a gathering of all the scattered bands of the tribe at the Grand Encampment. It was an occasion for the hunting of game and wise laws were en forced against killing more than could be used. Buffalo was the favorite game. The chosen animal was first hamstrung by a mounted Indian with a flat spear, and then killed by the huntsmen. Squaws to the number of about fifteen gathered around and removed the hide first from one side, from which they then cut the meat, and when . the body had been turned over by horsemen by means of ropes attached to the feet, they treated the other side in the same manner. The meat was cut up into thin slices and taken to the wickiups to dry. When it had hung a few hours the pieces were taken down and put between two stones and pounded until tender, after which they were again hung up.3
The great religious festival of the Shoshones was the Sun Dance. The tribe was called together about the 20th of June, and immediately began to collect poles for the dance hall. After a large number had been gathered they selected the longest and painted three black bands near the top. These were called “wish rings”. The pole was set up in the center of a cleared space and other poles were set around. Branches of trees formed the walls and the roof.
Those who coveted a special boon, whether health, success in battle, or other gift of the Sun God sufficiently to enter this strenuous test of physical endurance, assembled on the evening of the first day. Their bodies were painted white, and in two ghastly processions they marched twice in opposite directions around the hall. That night they rested, and the next morning at sunrise, painted in bright colors, each man wearing a beaded apron, a band of porcupine quills about either wrist from which hung a rabbit’s foot, and with a cluster of jingling bells attached to the ankles, they reassemble. In one end of the hall sit the musicians, both men and women, beating tom-toms and raising a monotonous chant. For three days and nights, without food or drink, and with only short intervals of rest, the dancers, with their eyes fixed upon the wish rings, move forward and back, keeping time to the music. Each morning at sunrise the medicine man raises his voice in a prayer song, the dancers approach the central pole, rub their rabbit feet against the wish rings, and the dance is resumed. At noon of the fourth day the din of the tomtoms gives place to silence, and those who have not already been overcome by exhaustion stagger from the hall.
At sunset came the feast, which had been prepared by the women, and there was a time of great rejoicing. Gifts were exchanged, men giving away their choicest possessions, horses, cattle, and even their wives. Such prodigality often resulted in great suffering, until the government stepped in and forbade the Sun Dance. A petition has been made on the part of the Indians to allow it in the future, and they promise to be more temperate, both as regards physical strain and gifts.
Another dance of the Shoshones was the Buffalo Dance, which was more like a game. In this the women, attired in sagebrush aprons, played the part of buffaloes. At a given signal they ran into the sagebrush, and the men pursued them with shouts and hilarity. When all were captured they returned to the tepees for a feast.4
The chickadee is revered among the Shoshones for its wisdom. The gopher, on the other hand, is dreaded as an omen of ill luck. Their arch enemy is a demon by the name of Nininbe, who is supposed to live in the mountains, lying in wait to shoot them with invisible arrows, which are the source of all their diseases. The Medicine Man makes use of the fear incited by this evil spirit to exauIt his own power in counteracting its influence. Fortunately, he often resorts to other remedies than incantations, such as sweats, baths and poultices. Bandages soaked in strong sage tea are often used in case of blood poisoning, and seem to have a beneficial effect.5
During Dr. Harrison’s life in South Pass he had a thrilling experience in Indian warfare. The Arapahoes were committing depredations around the mining camps, and John Anthony, who had considerable ability as an organizer, formed in each of the three mining camps, South Pass, Atlantic City, and Miners’ Delight, companies to march against them. On finding that the Indians were gathered on the Wind River, they started out one day in April. That night they camped on a small tributary of the stream and about midnight were aroused by Indians, whom they succeeded in driving off without bloodshed. The next morning they started in pursuit and overtook the Indians on Wind River. There were about five hundred of them, and Chief Black Bear was in command. A fight ensued in which both he and his squaw were killed, and their two children, a girl of ten and a boy of eight years of age, were taken captive. Captain Coolidge was in command at Fort Brown, and he adopted the boy and gave him a good education. Under the influence of Mrs. Coolidge the boy developed the desire to become a Christian missionary to his people, and in the course of time he entered the ministry of the Episcopal church. He married Miss Grace Weatherby, a gifted and highly educated lady from New York City, and spent many years on the reservation near Lander. He is now canon of St. John’s Episcopal Church at Denver, Colorado. The fate of the little girl was less fortunate. She was taken to the home of a man in South Pass, who later sold her to John Felter for $100. She was known in Evanston as Julia Felter.
No name among the list of Shoshone Indians stands out so prominently as that of Washakie, and it may be said that of all Indians he worked most consistently for the good of his people. He was born in 1804, became chief at the age of nineteen, and was the leader of his tribe for nearly eighty years. They were the years of the greatest Indian troubles through which the country ever passed, when the white men, often through force of necessity, often from selfish motives, were steadily encroaching on the hunting grounds of this once independent people. Of all mountain chiefs, he alone could be relied upon to stand by his given word. Well did he deserve the title bestowed upon him by General Conner, “The Friend of Peace.”
Washakie’s mother bore his father four children, one girl and three boys, all of whom, save Washakie, met an early death. In an interesting book written by Elijah Nicholas Wilson, we learn many facts concerning the life of the tribe and his particular family. The author ran away from his home in Utah when a little boy, and was made a member of the Shoshone tribe. Washakie became his adopted brother, and his mother gave him the place of a son in her kind heart. He says Washakie was most considerate of his mother, and heartily approved of the way the white boy strove to lighten her burdens, but that he was powerless when it came to influencing other boys to do likewise. Washakie had several wives, and a large number of children to whom he was deeply attached. The tragic circumstances connected with the death of his eldest son have made it celebrated in song and story. In 1866 the tribe was returning from a buffalo hunt in the Big Horn Basin, and on the Sweetwater they were attacked by Sioux, who had followed them across the Shoshone trail. Washakie’s men charged the enemy, and while the chief was standing over the body of a Sioux whom he had killed his eldest son, Nannanggai, rode up. The father taunted him with cowardice, saying : “I, an old man, have killed this Sioux, and you, like a squaw, come up after the fight.” This so roused the youth that he charged alone, and fell within sight of his father. The Shoshones say he spent the night in mourning, and that when morning came his hair had turned snow-white.6
The affairs of the tribe were in the hands of a council made up of its wisest men, presided over by the chief. Next in importance seems to have been the “war chief”, who looked after the diplomatic relations with outsiders. When word was brought by the Pocatello Indians that the whites were about to make trouble because of the Shoshones keeping Dick Wilson, it was this chief who conducted the negotiations resulting in the boy going back to his parents. With a party of mounted Indians bearing buffalo skins and furs, he set out on the beautiful horse that the Indians had given him for Salt Lake. He was firmly resolved to return the next spring, and meant to spend the rest of his life among the people who had been so kind to him, but life had other things in store, and he never saw his dear “old Indian mother” again.
Washakie was five feet ten inches in height, and was well built and commanding in appearance. The similarity of his features to those of Henry Ward Beecher has often been remarked. We are fortunate in having a variety of pictures of him taken by our pioneer photographer, Charles Baker, and these show him in all manner of dress, from the Indian war bonnet and gorgeous blanket to the unlovely calico shirt and jeans. He was a familiar figure on the streets of Evanston in the ’70s. One summer day in 1875 a band of his trecked into a vacant lot on the south corner of Center and Seventh Streets. The braves were, as usual, mounted on well-kept Indian ponies. The women had ridden on long poles covered with skins and blankets that were fastened to either side of the horses, and they and the papooses seemed no worse for their dusty ride. Washakie was the central figure and attracted unusual interest because of his remarkable headgear. He wore a wide-brimmed sombrero adorned with a surprising ornament of a silver coffin plate, on which were engraved the words “OUR BABY”. He had not robbed a grave for it, but got it from the son of an Evanston furniture dealer, who carried a supply of coffins, Enil Faust, to whom he had given a bow and arrow in exchange.7
Washakie was a welcome guest in many homes. He possessed a natural dignity that commanded respect. His disdain for the Arapahoes was shown in many ways, one of which was the manner of greeting their chiefs. Instead of shaking hands, as with an equal, he would coldly extend two fingers, keeping the other fingers clenched, which was the Indian way of showing distrust.8
Many are the stories told of Washakie. He was a personal friend of General Grant, and was highly honored by all the army officers who knew him. Mr. Baker tells of seeing him once in a stovepipe hat that had been presented to him by President Arthur on a trip to Fort Bridger, where he met the chief. It was adorned with eagle feathers, and the wearer consented to be photographed in it, but unfortunately the film met with an accident, and we have no copies of it. On one of Mr. Baker’s visits to the tribe he found Washakie in much anxiety over a son who was very ill. A medicine man was in attendance, and his treatment when the youth lapsed into unconsciousness was to spray the face with water squirted from his mouth. As often as he succeeded in reviving the patient, Washakie presented him with a pony. At the end of some hours the young man breathed his last, and the medicine man went away richer by twenty horses.
Being a good Indian does not mean having the same standard as a white man. When Washakie was called to account by United Sttaes officials for the murder of his mother-in-law, he shrugged his shoulders and asked : “What can do? She no mind me!”9
The family of Samuel Blackham of Evanston recall the excitement of a dinner party at their home in which Washakie was the guest of honor. Mr. Blackham could converse with the chief in his native tongue, and sat down at the table with the party embracing the chief’s three wives and several children. Mrs. Blackham had prepared a fine chicken dinner, and she and the little daughters, who shyly withdrew to the corners of the room, watched with interest their strange guests. Washakie, who had picked up many of the customs of the white men, plied his knife and fork with ease, and sternly rebuked his family when they lapsed into the native custom of using fingers. At the close of the meal to which the guests had done ample justice, great was the surprise of the hostess to see them pack into bags brought along for the purpose every scrap and crumb that was left on the table. The failure to do this would have been in their estimation a slight on the hospitality of the host.
There were many such interesting experiences, and vet to the residents these summer visitors were not an unalloyed pleasure. The dusky faces peeping in unexpectedly at open windows, the outstretched hands and the demand for “cold bisikee, papoose hungry,” were not to be disregarded with safety. Mrs. Thomas Johnson, who lived in Almy in the early ’70s, tells of having to bake a great batch of small loaves of bread each day during their long stay near their ranch, in order to supply the Indians as well as her own family. One day she missed Jack, her three-year-old son, who had been playing in sight of her kitchen window, and gazing anxiously down the valley she descried a moving band of Indians. Looking more closely her eye caught in the receding mass a patch of red which she identified as her child’s red waist. Mrs. Johnson was an expert with a gun, but without stopping to get it she started on the run after the Indians. In telling the story she said : “I was that mad that I could ha’ killed three Indians wi’ my bare hands.” She overtook them within a half mile, and they sullenly handed back the little boy to his irate mother.
In the summer of 1872 a large band of Shoshones was encamped on Yellow Creek, about three miles west of Evanston. There were more than a thousand of them who had come in squads of twenty or more, their heavily loaded tepee poles dragging behind the horses in the dust, and making a well-marked trail over the hills. A man. by the name of Dick Blundell had built a house on land he had taken up near the Almy wye. Toward sunset of the day late in August as he was returning from town to his home, he overtook a well-mounted Indian brave, and a good-natured debate arose as to who had the better horse. It was proposed to settle the matter by a race, and they set off neck and neck. On nearing his home Blundell instinctively turned his horse in order to avoid a telegraph line that had been strung between two poles to serve as a clothes line. The Indian, ignorant of this obstruction, dashed into it, was caught by the wire just below the chin, and fell to the ground with a broken neck, while his frightened pony galloped on toward the camp.- A hasty glance convinced Blundell that the red man was dead, and in fear that the Indians would trace the fatality to his door and accuse him of murder, he made for town as fast as his horse could travel. The news that a “big Indian” had been killed spread quickly, and in fear that revenge might be taken on the town, men gathered in groups to plan for resistance. Darkness settled over all. Suddenly there rose on the evening air the plaintive notes of the death song. Its shrill and piercing notes accompanied by the rythmic beat of the tom-toms, gathered in strength and penetrated every nook and crany in the valley, receding and advancing with the changing currents of air. For hours it rose and fell, then came silence and the tenseness of expectancy. Slowly the night passed, and when, in the light of early morning, a reconnoitering party was sent out to Yellow Creek, they found the ill-fated camping ground deserted. Whether the Indians surmised the cause of the death of their companion was never known, but as far as the white man was concerned there were no further results of the tragedy.
These wards of the government were allowed to ride free of charge on the Union Pacific trains, and the platforms between cars were assigned to them. It was a curious sight to see them peering out from their enveloping blankets at the growing civilization that was slowly but surely supplanting the wild life of their earlier days.
It may not be generally known that Evanston was once honored by a visit from Madame Bernhardt. One summer afternoon in 1884 the train on which she was traveling westward was tied up by a landslide, and the “Divine Sarah” passed some very interesting hours near the station, not in her usual role of entertainer but, for once, as the entertained. A group of Shoshone braves beguiled the time by performing various stunts of lassoing and riding, to the great delight of the tragedian.
In the courthouse in Evanston there is record of a treaty signed July 3, 1868, at Fort Bridger, which was at that time still part of Green River County, Utah. It solemnizes the peace that was never broken between the United States government on one side and the Shoshone and Bannock tribes on the other. It assigns to the Indians their reservations and defines their rights and duties, guarantees them schools, and specifies the supplies to which they are entitled. Besides clothing and provisions each roaming Indian was to receive $10 a year, and those engaged in agriculture $20. Among their rights was that of hunting “on the unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon, and so long as peace subsists among the whites and Indians on the borders of the hunting districts.” This clause is worth remembering, because of its bearing on the future history of the Indians in Wyoming and the country in general. It is signed by N. G. Taylor, W. T. Sherman, Lt. Gen’l and five commissioners for the United States, and by Washakie, his (X) mark, Waunipitz, his (X) mark, and six other Shoshones, and by a like number of Bannocks. J. Van Allen Carter was the interpreter.
By this treaty the Wind River Reservation was given to these two tribes. In 1871 trouble between the Shoshones and the Bannocks resulted in the latter being removed to the Fort Hall Reservation. The Arapahoes were allowed by the Shoshones to share the land with them, and although they had been traditional enemies, they have lived side by side in peace.
The year of this treaty saw also the signing of the treaty between the United States and the Sioux nation, but instead of a Washakie, that had to deal with the treacherous Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, and its culmination was the Custer massacre in 1876.
Washakie was buried with military honors on the Wind River Reservation and his grave was marked by a massive granite slab. He will always be remembered as an example of fearless rectitude, and as one of nature’s noblemen.
- For further information visit Wyoming Indian Tribes
- Bishop Talbot, “My People of the Plains.”
- Marion Roberts, in Wyoming Churchman, 1917.
- Wilson, “Uncle Nick Among the Shoshones.”
- Morris, “Wyoming Historical Collection,” Volume 1.
- Wilson, “Uncle Nick Among the Shoshones.”
- J. A. Breckens, “Wyoming Historical Collections,” Vol. 1.
- The author was an eye witness to this scene.
- Dr. Harrison.
- Judge Gibson Clark