Saturday, May 27, 2017

Snake Indians Defeat U. S. Army at Battle of Three Forks [otd 05/27]

The afternoon of May 27, 1866, a force of white infantry and cavalry encountered a band of about 500 “Snake” (Shoshone-Bannock-Paiute) Indians at the Three Forks of the Owyhee River. Major Louis H. Marshall had led the U. S. Army Regular infantry out of Boise Barracks in an attempt to “pacify” the tribes. Indian attacks on outlying ranches and passing stagecoaches had intensified as prospectors and ranchers poured into the Owyhee area.
Three Forks of the Owyhee.
Photo posted on by L. A. Price.

The Army had sent the Regulars west in response to what the newspaper called the “Snake War” [blog, Nov 25]. This generally low-level conflict with tribes in southwest Idaho, Nevada, and southeast Oregon had flickered off and on since 1862. Released from the East by the end of the Civil War, the troops arrived in Boise City in late 1865. Totally unused to Indian warfare, the soldiers had little early success.

From Boise, Major Marshall led his infantry across the Snake River and south to Camp Lyon. This Army outpost straddled the Idaho-Oregon border, 16-18 miles west and a bit north of Silver City. From there, the troops moved south and west into Oregon. Around the 23rd, a troop of Oregon Volunteer cavalry had joined Marshall. They soon discovered fairly fresh Indian sign and followed it south, using trails over the plains high above the Owyhee River.

Marshall and the cavalry commander suspected that the Indians at Three Forks were those who had massacred about fifty Chinese a week earlier. They hurried to attack despite the obstacles and dangers. At Three Forks, the river twists through an 800-foot canyon, where the walls are practically vertical in places.

The soldiers had to clamber over loose rocks and through shifting gravel in their descent along a ravine. Heavily outnumbered (about 85 versus 250-300 warriors), they deployed along the west bank and began exchanging fire across the river. They inflicted a few casualties in four hours of fighting, but even some shots from their mountain howitzer failed to create an opening to advance.

Battle diagram, soldiers entered initially from left.
Overlaid on U.S. Geological Survey relief map.
As the shadows grew long in the canyon, Marshall moved downstream in hopes of outflanking his adversary. However, they lost their cannon trying to ferry it across. In the morning, the Indians ambushed the flanking attempt, killing one soldier. They kept the troops pinned down throughout the day.

Marshall finally realized the futility of trying to attack a superior force in such rugged country. He later wrote that “Ten men can hold a hundred in check and prevent their ascent.”

He ordered a risky night withdrawal. Although they had inflicted more casualties than they took, Marshall’s force had lost its artillery piece and been forced to retreat. Their performance surely did little to inspire fear or respect in their adversary.

Within a week after the battle, Indian raiders struck at three widely scattered spots and ran off over 120 cattle and horses. All told, they made seven or eight attacks in about a month after the debacle.
References: [B&W]
"Battle of Three Forks and the Owyhee Cannon," Reference Series No. 239, Idaho State Historical Society.
Gregory Michno, The Deadliest War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864-1868, Caxton Press, Cakiwell, Idaho (2007).
"The Snake War: 1864-1868," Reference Series No. 236, Idaho State Historical Society (1966).


  1. This look at the battle is great. I read the Michno description, but couldn't really understand how things went. The picture and map make it a lot clearer.

  2. I love this history. I visited many sites mentioned in Michno's book. The cool part is that they are very arid and uninhabited and I can easily imagine what happened because nothing has changed.