Thursday, June 14, 2018

Some Words of Explanation (RE: Shoshone-Bannock Reservation)

The “On This Day” item for June 14 states that the original boundary definition for the Shoshone-Bannock Reservation (now the Fort Hall Indian Reservation) “made no sense.” The hand-drawn map looked impressive, but it did not (could not, in fact) match up with the written description. But officials didn’t know that, and at least some thought the information was based on an actual survey.

The Shoshone-Bannock Reservation was one of two described in an 1867 letter from the U. S. General Land Office (GLO) to the Acting Secretary of the Interior, Judge William T. Otto. That, and a letter from the Office of Indian Affairs, became the basis for the Acting Secretary’s recommendation to President Andrew Johnson. The President’s very brief Executive Order (indirectly) approved the following border description:
Judge William T. Otto,
Acting Secretary of the Interior, 1867.
Library of Congress.
The boundaries as defined by the local Indian agents, as per separate diagrams of the above reservations are:
1st. The Boise and Bruneau Bands of Shoshone and Bannock Reservation: “Commencing on the south bank of Snake River at the junction of the Port Neuf River with said Snake River; thence south 25 miles to the summit of the mountains dividing the waters of Bear River from those of the Snake River; thence easterly along the Summit of said range of mountains 70 miles to a point where Sublette road crosses said divide; thence north about 50 miles to the Blackfoot River; thence down said stream to its junction with the Snake River; thence down Snake River to the place of beginning,” embracing about 1,800,000 acres and comprehending Fort Hall on the Snake River within its limits.

It is unclear how the original authors of this statement arrived at that description. Perhaps it grew from talks with tribesmen and trappers. It was certainly not based on an actual survey. The same has to be said for the “separate diagram” (map). In any case, more and more whites settled in the region over the next few years. And these white ranches and towns were often visited by Indian bands, who tended to wander around despite the treaty. Naturally, the settlers asked: Are we on the reservation, or not? The Indian Agent could not be sure.

Finally, complaints from agency officials induced the GLO to do something. A contract was awarded to surveyor John B. David on April 5, 1873. The initial leg of the survey was straightforward. Based on the river junction at that time, David placed the western boundary at 112º 44.3' West. A run south along that line for 25 miles ended at a point not quite two miles southwest of Bannock Peak.
Survey crew, ca 1873. Library of Congress.

I used a modern topological map (below) to illustrate the border he surveyed. The party would have traced the straight solid line that has been superimposed on the left side of the map. The heavy line on the far right shows the course of the Bear River. The Bear continues south until it empties into the Great Salt Lake

Surveyor David faced a quandary … two quandaries, in fact. First, the line running along 112º 44.3' W does not cross a divide between the Snake and Bear river watersheds. (Nor will it, even if you extend the line further south.) Secondly, the “Sublette road” landmark (about three miles east of today’s Lava Hot Springs) is only about 40 miles, not 70, east of the point near Bannock Peak. It is not quite on a line pointing exactly east either, but that was a lesser problem.

Both the range David was in (the Deep Creek Mountains) and the next to the east (the Bannock Range) run in a north-south direction. Neither has any substantial “summit” (divide) that would take the survey party in an easterly direction, per the Reservation description. David’s field notes are not now readily available, but historian Brigham Madsen accessed them for his 1980 book on the Northern Shoshoni. He offered the following quote from the surveyor’s report: “Believing it to be the meaning of my instructions to follow said divide, rather than an Easterly direction, I did so.”

With that, we can infer what he decided by where he actually ran the survey line. The Bannock Range recedes into a kind of saddle directly to the east of where the straight south line ended, offering no summits that might lead to somewhere useful. But a distinct ridge re-forms to the south of the swale. From there, the survey party could remain in the mountains, needing to cross only two narrow valleys to go east.


So David traced a straight line at about 15º south of due east. A run of 24 miles (dashed line on the map) brought them almost to the ridge. The party then turned in a southerly direction, using the crest as a general guide. The Bannock and Portneuf ranges are quite rugged, so the surveyors would have found it much easier to run straight-line segments over the lower slopes. For the next twenty-five miles or so, they used the high ground to make a loop around the south end of Marsh Valley, “bridging” over to the Portneuf Range at Red Rock Pass (near Zenda).

Deeper into that range, a hogback running in a north-northeasterly direction provided a guide for the surveyors. After eight to nine miles on a straight course, they would have encountered a ridge where they could look out on the Bear River valley. At last they were at an actual Bear River divide. A careful check of their east-west position (longitude) would have told David that they were east of “where Sublette road crosses said divide.” So then the party headed in a north-northwesterly direction until they were directly south of the Sublette landmark.

From there, the surveyors headed north until they hit the northernmost loop of the Blackfoot River. They found that the “about 50 miles” between Sublette road and the river was closer to 36 miles.

The original description appears to have been largely a guess, based on vague notions about the regional geography. Thus, the new southern and eastern borders were quite different from those in the original diagram … the one approved by President Johnson. Still, the 1873 line became the definitive description of the Reservation, and the starting point for what came later.
                                                                                 
References: Executive Orders Relating to Indian Reserves: from May 14, 1855 to July 1, 1912, U. S. Office of Indian Affairs, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. (1912).
Brigham D. Madsen, The Northern Shoshoni, The Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (1980).
Report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year 1874, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. (1874).

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