Southeastern Idaho Native American Prehistory and History

by E.S. Lohse

Taken from Manual for Archaeological Analysis: Field and Laboratory Analysis Procedures. Department of Anthropology Miscellaneous Paper No. 92-1 (revised). Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello, Idaho 1993.

Historical Record

The first written description of Shoshone peoples resident in Idaho appears in the journals of Lewis and Clark (1805-1806), with their encounter of Shoshone on the Lemhi River in northeastern Idaho. Fur companies lost little time in exploiting the region. In 1808-1810, Canadian fur trader David Thompson visited the Kutenai, Pend d'Oreille, and Coeur d'Alene of northern Idaho. Washington Irving compiled records of the Astoria party who travelled down the Snake River in 1811-1812. The journals of Peter Skene Ogden, chief trader of the Hudson's Bay Company, for 1825-1828, describe lives of Shoshone on the Snake River. Captain Bonneville's journal for this expedition in 1832-1834 supplies insight into the lives of the Indians of the region. Other accounts include written records of fur traders Nathaniel Wyeth and Osborne Russell, and clergyman Samuel Parker..

Fur Trade Period, ca. 1808-1842.

Direct impact on aboriginal societies during this early phase of contact in this area was slight, but developments were taking place that would have dramatic impacts on Shoshonee and other Idaho groups (Lohse 1991). The first permanent fur trading establishment was Fort Henry, built by the Missouri Fur Company on the North Fork of the Snake River in the fall of 1810. In the fall of 1811, the Wilson Price Hunt Expedition or "Overland Astorians" encountered a Shoshone camp near the confluence of the Portneuf and Snake Rivers or near the present day "bottoms" on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. This same expedition continued down the Snake River, making a successful portage at American Falls. Travel down the river beyond that point was dangerous, and there are numerous accounts of goods lost in capsizing of canoes. Finally, some distance down from "Devil's Scuttle Hole" the party broke up, leaving behind sixteen caches of goods (Beal and Welles 1959:101). The Hunt party was to reach Astoria, and then return back along the route they had pioneered. In fact, the route discovered and explored by the Overland and Returning Astorians was to become the Oregon Trail, a travel route for tens of thousands of American settlers headed for California and Oregon Territory.

Although the Astorians' venture had proven abortive, and their post at Astoria on the mouth of the Columbia River was sold to the Canadian North West Fur Company on November 12, 1813, they had established a link for the Upper Snake and Salmon River country to the Columbia River drainage and the Pacific Northwest that was never broken. Early American fur companies in this region had difficulty maintaining the extenuated lines of supply that came up the Missouri River system into the Intermountain West. Canadian and British companies on the other hand, began to establish posts on the Columbia River system that were to dominate trade in this region for the next half-century.

Donald Mackenzie was assigned to head the newly created North West Company's interior department of the Columbia in June, 1816. An unusual leader, full of energy, and knowledgeable of Indian societies, Mackenzie was to dominate the trade in the Snake River country in ensuing years. It was his expressed goal to expand North West Company fur trading operations up the Snake River drainage into what is now Idaho. Staging operations out of Fort George (Astoria), Mackenzie led fur brigades up the Snake River in 1816-1817 and up the lower Snake in 1817-1818. Fort Nez Perce, established in July, 1818, became the staging point for Mackenzies' Snake brigades. The expedition of 1818-1819 brought Mackenzie and a large brigade across the Blue Mountains, down the Snake River on to the Bear River, and to the headwaters of the Snake. On his return, he came back to the Boise, and described how rich the region was in furs. He was prompted to establish a navigable route up the Snake River from Fort Nez Perce to the Boise area in 1819. Mackenzie did succeed in ascending in a boat from the Columbia through the Grand Canyon of the Snake past Hells Canyon, though he concluded that land transport was probably safest.

Mackenzie held the first rendezvous in the region on the Boise River in 1819. William Kittson was dispatched up the Columbia with a large party and supplies to outfit the Snake country fur brigades. Kittson then hauled the Snake brigades furs back to Fort Nez Perce, and reported success of the expeditions at Fort George. Shoshone hostility, however, ruled out construction of the fur trading post Mackenzie envisioned on the Boise. Mackenzie spent the winter of 1819-1820 on the Little Lost River.

On April 6, 1821, the North West Company joined with the Hudson's Bay Company. Donald Mackenzie was appointed chief factor and left the Snake River country for the Red River in Canada. The furs of the Snake River country were never taken in quantity again, and it seems that the Hudson's Bay Company viewed the Columbia River and Snake River drainages of the Pacific Northwest largely as a buffer against Russian and American expansion. They intended to hold on to the Oregon country as long as possible and ensure continued control of the profitable New Caledonia or British Columbia trading area.

Two St. Louis fur companies sent expeditions to the Rocky Mountains in 1822 that attracted Hudson's Bay Company attention. The Ashley-Henry Rocky Mountain expedition reached this region in 1824, and prompted Alexander Kennedy at Spokane House to revitalize the Snake brigade. Two Snake brigade expeditions traveled past Flathead House and the Bitterroot to the upper Missouri, returning south by way of the Lemhi to Henry's Fork, the Blackfoot, and down the Green or Bear River in one instance. Hostilities with Blackfoot bands were marked, and in all, trapping and trade were not intensely profitable for the British or American companies. Several years brought relative peace for the HBC brigades in working their way through Indian territory, but by 1824, Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers were on the Salmon. This marked the date of contest between British and American companies for the furs of the Snake country.

President James Monroe's doctrine initiated in his message to Congress in 1823 had clearly indicated the United States' interest in expanding into the Oregon country. The London directors of the Hudson's Bay Company instructed Governor George Simpson to control the Snake country as an effective boundary to American economic encroachment. It was the expressed interest of the company to extract furs as quickly as possible, and that the resources of the Snake country which probably could not be kept by the HBC should not be conserved.

Rocky Mountain Fur Company expeditions were on the Portneuf and Bear Rivers in 1824. Perceived American threat on the Snake country led to Peter Skene Ogden's appointment to head the Snake brigades. Establishment of Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia River and replacement of Spokane House by Fort Colville near Kettle Falls were HBC attempts to create greater self-sufficiency for the Columbia River operations. It was Ogden's explicit object to leave the Snake country barren of fur and unattractive to American fur companies. Ogden's fur brigade left Spokane House in December of 1824 in cooperation with Jedediah Smith and his Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers. These men trapped southeastern Idaho with fair success throughout 1825. Ogden was to find his brigade unreliable and willing to go over to American interests. Jedediah Smith reported that his 1824 and 1826 expeditions had shown profitable resources still left in the Snake country. Review of Ogden's work was less favorable, and the HBC concluded that little fur was left south of the Snake River.

Agreement between the United States and Great Britain on August 6, 1827, to continue the Oregon boundary convention of 1818 for an indefinite period left exploitation of the Oregon country by Americans open. By his fourth expedition in 1827, Ogden found American trappers throughout the country surrounding Boise. Fur quantities were down, but American and British contingents continued to worked the country. Ogden spent the winter of 1827 on the Portneuf. Fur hunts of 1828 faced increased depredations by Blackfoot and Shoshone, increasingly dissatisfied with European presence in their territories. When Ogden left the area in 1828, work by British and American companies had seriously diminished the fur resources of the Snake country.

By 1830, neither the HBC nor the American companies were in control of the Snake country. Depredations by Blackfoot and Shoshone and low returns on furs discouraged further intensive work. Yet, an American Fur Company expedition and another Snake brigade under the direction of John Work were in the region again in the fall of 1830. Work's brigade scoured the Weiser, Payette, and Boise country thoroughly. Work went up the Lost River to the Salmon, and over to the Blackfoot and onto the Portneuf to winter. Throughout, the brigade extracted little fur. Work's men worked the mountainous country of central Idaho, and scoured the fur devastated country for what little might remain.

American companies continued to work around and in the Snake country. Expeditions led by Walker and Bonneville met in 1834, and concluded that British domination of what little remained in the Snake country was secure. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company dissolved in 1834, and the American Fur Company was left in control of the St. Louis based trade. In 1834, Nathaniel Wyeth, dissatisfied with his fur trade venture, established Fort Hall to dispose of goods rejected at the 1834 rendezvous. As the fur trade was unprofitable, Wyeth thought he might trade with the Indians and recover some of his expenses.

The original Fort Hall was located on the south bank of the Snake River above the mouth of the Portneuf. It was sixty feet square with ten foot high walls and interior rooms of poles thatched with brush and covered with clay. Shortly after the fort was established, it was visited by a large band of Shoshone and Bannock numbering at least 250 lodges. One July 27, 1834, a group of Nez Perce and Cayuse attended Methodist minister Jason Lee's services at the fort with a Hudson's Bay Company fur brigade. The fort continued to be a focus for Shoshone-Bannock tribes over the next twenty-three years.

Trade at the fort worried Hudson's Bay Company officials enough that brigade leader Thomas McKay established Fort Boise near the mouth of the Boise River in 1836. The HBC hoped that Fort Boise would stop any flow of furs from tribes further northwest down to Fort Hall. In 1837, the HBC solved any competition problem by buying Fort Hall. HBC Fort Hall dominated fur traffic in Rocky Mountains for the next twenty years. It also became a primary stopover and supply point for immigrants on the Oregon Trail. The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought thousands of settlers past the fort. Its location above the split off between trails to Oregon and California made the fort a focus of promoters trying to attract settlers to one region or the other. The Hudson's Bay Company closed Fort Hall with the onset of hostilities in the Yakima country in 1855 that closed Fort Walla Walla and threatened lines of supply to the Snake country.

Oregon Trail and Westward Migration, ca. 1842.

Organized migrations to the Oregon Territory began by 1842, prompted in no small part by earlier missions that had set up small agricultural communities in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon missionaries actively encouraged colonization by United States citizens to offset British interests in the region. In 1846, a treaty between the United States and Britain gave all the land west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast and between the 42nd and 49th parallels to the United States, with exceptions of holdings of the Hudson's Bay Company and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company which might be purchased at some future date. These holdings were purchased by the United States in 1863.

Immigrants began using the Oregon trail in large numbers in 1842, when Dr. Elijah White led an expedition of over one hundred people over the rough wagon road to Oregon's Willamette Valley. In 1843, a thousand emigrants crossed the trail in Applegate's wagon train. The trail had received U.S. government recognition with Charles C. Fremont's survey of 1842-43, which demonstrated that the Columbia River drainage provided the only practicable route across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. A dramatic increase in immigrant use of the trail occurred starting in 1848 and 1849. Many were headed for the gold fields in California, many to the rich arable land of the interior valleys of Oregon. This was the period of greatest impact on the Indian societies of the region. Permanent settlements in Idaho would be relatively rare for several decades yet, but effects of fur trading activities and contact with migrating settlers were dramatic.

Effects of European Contact on Shoshone and Bannock Tribes.

The Shoshone or "Snake" were, of course, known outside of present-day Idaho prior to Lewis and Clark's exploration. Thompson (1916) records the Snake as a populous and powerful foe on the Western Plains. Their might in the early 18th century inhibited the expansion of Siouan groups which were being forced west by European advance. Earlier, probably sometime in the 16th century, Shoshonees had expanded well down into Texas and New Mexico. These Utes and Comanches were Plains tribes dependent upon buffalo for their existence (Forbes 1959; Tyler 1951; Shimkin 1986). In pre-gun times, the early 18th century, it seems that the Shoshone were using a sizable portion of the western Plains. Teit (1930:303-305) relates Flathead and Nez Perce traditions that place large Shoshone bands on the Upper Yellowstone River east of the Bighorn Mountains and along the Upper Missouri River. Apparently, it was smallpox in the late 1700s that first threw the balance of power to the Shoshone's enemies. These epidemics resulted in dramatic population losses, and combined with better armed adversaries expanding onto the western Plains, effectively pushed the Shoshone back into the Rockies (Thwaites 1904-1905, 2: 373). By 1804, when visited by Lewis and Clark, the Shoshonees were only cautiously venturing out onto the Plains to hunt buffalo. Even their territories in the Rocky Mountain area were not entirely safe, however, and incursions by Blackfeet and others were common.

Shoshone fighting to retain control of their territories was a constant theme throughout the early 19th century. Better armed Blackfeet and Siouan adversaries were constantly encroaching on Shoshone land. Flathead and other Salishan groups to the north often found common cause with the Shoshone, and it was not uncommon to find mixed bands of buffalo hunters or trading parties made up of members of these mountain groups.

Buffalo were not the only lure for Shoshone to continue using the Plains. Long-time trading relationships had been established between Shoshone and other horse breeding tribes of the Rocky Mountains and the Siouan agriculturalists along the lower Missouri River in present-day Nebraska and South Dakota. Trading fairs were held annually between Shoshone and Crow and Hidatsa and Mandan at the latter's' villages on the Missouri. Larocque (Burpee 1910:22-37) found Shoshone and Crow at the Mandan villages in 1805. Shoshonee horses formed the basis of a trade conduit that brought hides and other mountain products to the Missouri villagers in exchange for garden produce and other goods. Shoshone were also on the Southern Plains for trade. Jacob Fowler found Shoshones with Comanches at a large trading rendezvous on the upper Arkansas in 1826 (Coues 1898:51-54).

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this access to trade was imperiled by incursions of populous non-agricultural Sioux, and Shoshone and other mountain groups found it increasingly dangerous to travel on the Plains except in large groups. The Crow became middlemen and maintained trading relationships with the Hidatsa and Mandan villages, until these too were destroyed by epidemics and relentless Sioux pressure.

European politics and economics obviously conditioned this ebb and flow of Native American interaction in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was European advance that forced the Siouan groups out onto the Plains from the western Woodlands around the Great Lakes. It was industrial age European technology that brought firearms in large numbers to Sioux and Athabasca adversaries of the Shoshone. It was economic interest in furs that initially brought the European market economy out onto the western Plains and Rocky Mountain regions looking for Native American producers and consumers.

The colorful era of the fur trade was expansion of the European market economy (Lohse 1988). Native American groups became suppliers for European entrepreneurs opening new markets predicated on furs. Other elements were traded, such as horses, hides, women, and children, but furs can be seen as the primary motivating force attracting so much European attention in the mid-19th century and before.

The Shoshonee and the Crow were friendly partners for the European fur traders. This was not a philosophical position so much as a purely pragmatic one. The Crow and Shoshone by the 19th century were in a besieged, marginal position. They had horses but they needed firearms to duel successfully with Blackfeet, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux. It was important for them to form trading alliances with representatives of Industrial Age European societies. The Blackfeet and Sioux had proved troublesome for American traders, and they welcomed the relatively warm reception provided by the Crow, Shoshone, and other mountain tribes. The British too found the mountain tribes hospitable, and the Hudson Bay Company fur brigades operating in the Pacific Northwest worked in relative peace. The Shoshone, like the Flathead and Nez Perce, did not gather many furs. These tribes provided horses and supplies to the HBC brigades. They also supplied some measure of protection by standing between potentially hostile Athabasca and Sioux tribes and the European economic markets. The mountain tribes needed firearms and support from European traders and in return gave support and a covering umbrella of protection for trading operations.

Competition between fur companies resulted in removal of the beaver from the watershed. European hunting parties not only depleted the sought after furs but also eliminated aboriginal food resources. Charles Preuss, cartographer for John C. Fremont, in 1843 observed that "the white people have ruined the country of the Snake Indians and therefore should treat them well. Almost all the natives are now obliged to live on roots, game can scarcely be seen any more" (Gudde and Gudde 1958:86).

By 1840, the fur trade and the buffalo were all but gone from the Shoshone and Bannock country. Interaction with the traders throughout the early 19th century had produced a number of changes in Shoshonee society. Rendezvous or trading fairs, just as in aboriginal times, brought together large numbers of people representing many different mountain tribes as well as Europeans and their allies. An encampment would contain Shoshone, Bannock, Flathead, and Nez Perce, as well as British, French and American traders, and Iroquois and other Native Americans working with the fur brigades. Out of these associations, came marriages between Europeans and Shoshone, and Shoshone and other tribes. Often, these were economic arrangements as well as affairs of the heart. Marriage of a daughter to a trader brought access to European goods. It also brought security since in times of stress a trader could be counted on to support his Shoshone family. Working with the traders also produced sought after firearms, as well as other seductive items of European manufacture like metal pots and pans to replace baskets and pottery, glass beads to replace bone and shell ornaments, metal sewing awls to replace bone splinters, thread and cloth to replace sinew and hide clothing. Brigham Madsen (1980:23, 25) argues that limited Northern Shoshone contact with fur traders brought about a short-lived "cultural golden age" by adding new elements to their way of life, without seriously disrupting their traditional patterns.

Close association with Europeans also produced disastrous changes: disease that decimated aboriginal populations that had no immunity; prostitution of women for access to goods and security; breakdown of traditional tribal sociopolitical organization as intermarriage and economic pressures disrupted old systems. Shoshonean interest in interaction with Europeans was partly pragmatic, a desire to introduce security against hostile encroachments by more populous better armed tribes. Industrial Age technology was an attraction in itself: metal is more durable than stone or pottery; cloth offers more possibilities for clothing than hide; dyes and glass and other esthetic productions offer greater varieties of artistic expression than limited selections of natural dyes and other unmodified products of nature.

It was in areas of the landscape where aboriginal populations concentrated, and where European economic interests coincided, that Native Americans suffered most. Anglo-American attention to "desert oases," well-watered environments, undermined the fragile desert ecology and disrupted aboriginal economies. Native Americans in these areas often responded by stealing traps and raiding herds of livestock. The Fort Hall Bottoms were just such a sensitive resource zone, rich in vegetation and animal species of utmost importance to Shoshone and Bannock economy.

Fort Hall was founded in this period of social and political flux for Shoshonee societies. The post was established in the river bottoms, now referred to as the Fort Hall bottoms. The bottoms held marshes with attendant wildlife, deer, and feed for the large Shoshone horse herds. They were the scene of winter camps and get-togethers. Placing the fort in the bottoms simply amplified the importance of the area, and intensified Anglo-American and Shoshone-Bannock interaction.

The name was carried over with the U.S. Army's construction of a fort on Lincoln Creek in 1870, some twenty miles to the northeast of the original Fort Hall site. This military post was abandoned shortly thereafter, and the name Fort Hall became applied to the Shoshone-Bannock Indian Reservation that encompassed the original "Fort Hall Bottoms" on the east side of the Snake River.

The end of autonomous life for the Shoshone and Bannock is found in the 1860s, with the disappearance of the buffalo and the beginnings of Mormon settlement in the Bear River Valley. Throughout the 1860s, settlers encroached on Shoshone and Bannock territory. Settlers entered the Boise River Valley. Gold miners entered the mountains. Increasing conflicts between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans led the United States government to pursue a policy of treaty making. Pacts were made at Fort Bridger, Box Elder and Soda Springs in 1863, and at Fort Boise in 1864.

The Fort Hall Reservation was established in 1867 for the Boise River and Bruneau River bands. In 1868, the Fort Bridger Treaty located the Fort Hall Shoshone and Bannock on the same reservation In 1907, the Lemhi and Sheepeater bands were removed to the Fort Hall Reservation as well.

The rich Fort Hall Bottoms had originally attracted Shoshone and Bannock bands. Construction of Fort Hall further concentrated both Native American and Anglo-American interest on the bottoms. The fur trade eventually dissipated, but Fort Hall continued to be used as a supply point for the thousands of settlers that passed through Idaho from the 1840s to the 1860s. Fort Hall and the bottoms then became the heart of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. A rich panoply of Idaho history, recording the interaction of Indian and White societies, centers on Fort Hall and the surrounding bottoms, a story that is still not fully understood.