Friday, June 1, 2018

Indian Agent Discourses on “The Snake Indians” [otd 06/01]

On June 1, 1863, J. W. Perit Huntington, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, addressed a report to his Washington, D. C. boss, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The essay summarized what he had learned about the Indian tribes commonly known as the “Snakes.”
J. W. Perit Huntington.
Image courtesy of
the Oregon State Library.

He wrote, “The word Snake appears to be a general term applied to several bands or tribes of Indians quite distinct in language and characteristic, and inhabiting different tracts of country, but so connected by relationship (having intermarried with each other for long periods), and by long continued friendly intercourse, that they are usually regarded by whites and neighboring Indian tribes as one people.”

The Journals of the Corps of Discovery for 1804 contain the first mention of the “Snake Indians.” Captains Lewis and Clark learned of the “tribe” as a source of horses while they wintered at Fort Mandan, about forty miles north of today’s Bismarck, North Dakota.  The following year, near the Salmon River in Idaho, they traded for horses with the Lemhi Shoshone, one of the tribes collectively known as the Snake.

The next recorded encounter happened in 1811, when a fur company party led by Wilson Price Hunt met some Snakes in Wyoming. Later, two Snakes guided them over Teton Pass into Idaho [blog, October 5].

During the fur trade era that followed, mountain men and the Snakes mixed amicably, some whites acquiring Indian wives. The early flow of pioneers on the Oregon and California Trails through Idaho offered more opportunities for Snake bands to trade profitably. Thus, despite minor incidents, relations between the Snakes and white remained friendly.

However, the discovery of gold in California released a flood of gold-seekers and pioneers on the trails. That further degraded hunting and grazing in those areas, and clashes became more frequent and more violent. Then prospectors found gold in Idaho. Now, the tribes had to deal with miners and merchants who built cabins and stayed.

By the time Huntington prepared his report in 1863, conflict had escalated severely. The Superintendent tried to name the tribes he thought fit under the “Snake” designation. Modern scholarship does not agree totally with his list, which included the Modocs and the Klamaths.

Still, he did correctly identify the groups we now call the Shoshone, Bannock, and Northern Paiute Indians. He estimated their collective population as perhaps “5,000 to 6,000 souls” and said, “They have had but little intercourse with the whites, and that little of a hostile character.”

The worst of that violence, he felt, was between the miners and the tribes: “Many murders and thefts have been committed by the latter, which of course have been retaliated by the whites. In fact an actual state of war has existed there for the last twelve months.”
Shoshone Encampment.
William H. Jackson photo, Library of Congress.

He had conferred with the regional Army commander, and “The general concurred with me in regarding a war with the Indians inevitable, and regretted his inability to send troops to that region sooner than midsummer.”

Huntington strongly recommended that “the Indian Department” meet with the Snakes, hand out presents, and negotiate “the purchase of their lands.” He went on, “In my opinion the public interests urgently demand that an effort be made to accomplish this object.”

Unfortunately, the administration had no attention to spare for his recommendation. Over five years would pass before protracted military action brought a measure of peace with the western Snake bands.
References: [B&W]
Wilson Price Hunt, Hoyt C. Franchère (ed. and translator), Overland diary of Wilson Price Hunt, translated from the original French Nouvelles Annales des Voyages (Paris, 1821), Ashland Oregon Book Society (1973).
Daniel S. Lamont (Director), The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. (1897).
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Gary E. Moulton (ed.), The Definitive Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (2002).
“The Snake War: 1864-1868,” Reference Series No. 236, Idaho State Historical Society (1966).

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