Thursday, March 23, 2017

Indian Unrest Forces Mormon Colonists to Abandon Fort Lemhi [otd 03/23]

On March 23, 1858, a force of nearly 150 Utah militiamen arrived at Fort Lemhi, Idaho to escort the Mormon settlers there to safety: Indian hostility had rendered the settlement untenable.
Brigham Young, ca 1850.
Utah State Historical Society.

Three years earlier, church leader Brigham Young had tasked a band of Mormons to establish a mission among Idaho’s indigenous peoples “and there teach the Indians the principles of civilization.”

A month later, the missionaries headed north from the Salt Lake area. They had no specific destination. Their instructions were to locate “anywhere that the tribes would receive them.” In the middle of June, 1855, they arrived in the Lemhi Valley, where the local tribes – Shoshone and Bannock, at first – welcomed them.

Later accounts suggest that the Indians expected something more or less like the minimal impact they had seen elsewhere. These newcomers were relatively inept hunters and fishermen. They would be willing to trade manufactured goods for Indian furs, meat, and dried fish. Small farm plots would provide food for local consumption, with perhaps some left over as a further trade item.

Thus, the Indians readily allowed the men to settle, surely hoping to have access to white trade goods. That was probably why they also recommended a settlement site in an area where the Shoshone, the Bannock, and the Nez Percé gathered during the summer to fish and trade among themselves.

The colonists immediately built a stockade to enclose a couple dozen cabins and, shortly, a blacksmith shop and sawmill. They named their outpost Fort Limhi, after a king appearing in the Book of Mormon. In its altered form, the designation later became associated with the river and its valley.

The colonists began cultivating land for farms as soon as the fort was reasonably complete. Unfortunately, they started too late in the area's short growing season and had to bring extra winter supplies in from Utah. The Mormons soon adapted, and more colonists joined them in 1857.

The Lemhi Shoshone (rightly) saw that growth as a threat to their traditional foraging lands. There had also been a falling out between the Nez Percé and the other two tribes. Those bands saw continued trade between the settlers and the Nez Percé as a hostile act.

Broader influences also played a role, as Idaho tribes clashed more and more with white emigrants on the Oregon Trail. Partly because of Indian unrest, the Hudson Bay Company had abandoned Old Fort Boise in 1854. Two years later, they also abandoned Old Fort Hall [blog, July 14].

Finally, early in 1858, a Shoshone raid drove off most of the colony's cattle and horses. The Indians also killed two Mormons and wounded five others.
Fort Lemhi remains, ca. 1900. Lemhi County Historical Society.

These stinging losses, and the possibility of further attacks, convinced the settlers that the colony could not survive. The militia force arrived in response to messengers sent south shortly after the raid. The party suffered one more casualty during the withdrawal.

Mormon colonists never returned to the Lemhi, but other whites began moving into the valley within four years. Then, in 1866, prospectors discovered gold in the mountains to the north and triggered the rush that established Salmon City as a thriving town.
References: [B&W]
Judith Austin, “The Salmon River Mission,” Reference Series No. 554, Idaho State Historical Society (August 1976).
George Elmo Shoup, "History of Lemhi County," Salmon Register-Herald (Series, May 8- October 23, 1940).

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