Friday, June 8, 2018

Silver City Volunteers Battle Bannock Indians at South Mountain [otd 06/08]

On June 8, 1878, a loose column of Silver City volunteers moved generally southward along South Mountain Creek. Angry Bannocks led by Chief Buffalo Horn were trying to join possible allies in Oregon. Common sense said they might head west over this broad, rugged saddle between the Silver City Range and South Mountain.
High plateau between Silver City Range and South Mountain., Dan Robbins.

Many factors combined to cause the Bannock War. Most stemmed from the failure of white officials to deliver on the promises that induced the Shoshone and Bannock tribes to moved onto the Fort Hall Indian Reservation [blog, June 14]. One provision reserved the southern Camas Prairie for the tribes. The camas beds there were a vital food source. They became almost a matter of life and death when the Indian Agency failed to provide adequate rations. (This happened on a regular basis.)

White stockmen ignored the Camas Prairie clause of the treaty and officials did nothing to enforce it. Tension peaked when settlers drove hogs onto the Prairie. The hogs loved camas bulbs and devastated the beds. Even then, the tribes did not retaliate immediately. But finally, facing starvation, Bannock warriors fired on three stockmen, wounding two. Over the next week or so, the Indians burned many outlying homesteads and killed several settlers.

On June 4th, citizens in Silver City met and organized a troop of volunteers to fight the Bannocks. The roll call looked like a “who’s who” of Owyhee pioneers, including some who had been there from the beginning. For years they had dealt with Indian attacks on isolated settler cabins, stagecoaches, and freight wagons. They had no confidence that the Army would do any better this time than they had before. The volunteers marched out on the 7th and camped at a ranch about fifteen miles south and a bit west of Silver City.

Sources disagree somewhat as to who knew what on the 8th. It seems that the whites only suspected the Bannocks were in the area, while Buffalo Horn may have known all about the white column. Accounts of their meeting vary: Some say the two groups exchanged challenges and insults, and then the Indians attacked. Others claim the initial assault was a total surprise.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, with some whites yelling at the Indians, while others didn’t even know the tribesmen were close by. In any case, the Indians' sudden attack threw the volunteers into confusion and, outnumbered at least two to one, they retreated to avoid being surrounded.

Guns blazed on both sides. Indians fell, but four or five volunteers were unhorsed, either because their mounts stumbled or were hit. Shots killed two whites, including Oliver Purdy, one of the discoverers of the Jordan Creek placers. The outcome was very much in doubt when the Indians suddenly broke off the attack and milled about. Before they could regroup, the volunteers galloped off.
Bannock tribesman at the reservation. National Park Service.

Who mortally wounded Buffalo Horn is uncertain, but it surely turned the tide of battle. With their experienced leader gone, many Bannock scattered and made their way back to the reservation. The rest hurried into Oregon and joined the uprising there, where most of the rest of the War was fought.
References: [B&W]
George Francis Brimlow, The Bannock War of 1878, Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caidwell, Idaho (1938).
Mike Hanley, with Ellis Lucia, Owyhee Trails: The West's Forgotten Corner, Caxton Printers, Caidwell, Idaho (1973).
A Historical, Descriptive and Commercial Directory of Owyhee County, Idaho, Owyhee Avalanche Press (January 1898).

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