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The Redskin Who Saved The White Man’s Hide
Chief Washakie earned his battle scars in the service of the Great White Father, who—for once at least—kept faith with an Indian
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
In spite of his rigid laws and autocratic rule, Washakic’s tribe grew to eighteen hundred souls. Increased numbers called for greater clforts on the part of the Shoshone hunters. But now there were more of the sturdy fighting men who made it possible to reach into the buffalo country where enemy tribes were the most numerous. The agents reported that the Shoshones were prospering, that they were bringing in many furs and robes for trade, and that they were rich in horses. But the agents also suggested that with the eventual slaughter of the bullalo the Shoshoncs would need help from the government and a home of their own. Government authorities tentatively offered Washakie the Wind River Valley. But he refused, saying, “You gave the Warm Valley to the Crows at Fort Laramie. How can you give it to me now?”
The treaties signed at Fort Laramie in 1851 proved to be a waste of effort. Conditions on the frontier that were bad in the late fifties became much worse in the sixties. More whites hungry for soil or for the gold that might lie under it were crowding in on the domain of the Indian. The fur trade was dead, and with few exceptions the real mountain men were gone. In their place was a new type, the renegade white—outlaws from all over the country. They lived in mongrel communities or traveled with any tribe that would tolerate them. Operating beyond reach of the Army (the only law there was), these renegades peddled wretched whiskey to the Indians and incited them to forays on the emigrants, the stage lines, and the Pony Express. The thin blue lines of the frontier garrisons had all they could do to police their enormous districts. Then the Civil War depleted the frontier posts of all but enough men to do garrison duty. It was indeed a strong wagon train that reached Fort Bridger, or Fort Hall in Idaho, without suffering serions lusses at the hands ol the hostile tribes anJ ihcir renegade allies. Washakie’s braves rode their horses lean on their patrols from South Pass to Fort Bridger. The Shoshone hunters did double duty, hunting lor themselves and their comrades who were on duty on the Oregon Trail.
The government linally recognized the right ol the Shoshones to the land on which they had always lived, in the Green River and Bridger valleys. A commissioner was sent to Fort Bridger to meet Washakie and purchase or trade lor a light ol way through his lands lor the railroad (Union Pacilic) that was soon to be built. Washakie was delighted that the Great White Father was at last ready to treat with him. It was explained to him that the “iron horse” would make traveling lor the whites much saler and relieve his “soldiers” ol many ol their duties on the Oregon Trail. For a lew wagonloads ol supplies—bacon, Hour, doth, and hardware—and a promise ol Tuture annuities, rieht ol wav for the railroad was granted.
The subject of the Wind River Valley was brought up again at this meeting. But Washakie, speaking through an interpreter, told the commissioner: “I would like the Warm Valley for my people. It is the best there is. The treaty signed at Fort Laramie is dead. But you gave the Warm Valley to the Crows there and until you can give title from the Crows, I will not consider going there.”
Then gold was discovered near South Pass at the lower end of the Wind River Mountains. Four camps—South Pass City, Atlantic City, Miner’s Delight, and Lewiston—quickly materialized in the high, semi-arid wilderness. Unfortunately for the miners, the Sioux war trail down the Wind River emerged right in the heart of the diggings. The scattered whites were easy prey to the scalp-hunting braves of the war parties. Besides the war parties of the Sioux alliance, the Blackfeet and Crows also came down for the summer’s fun. Each week brought fresh tales of bloody raids.
The Army moved in and established Fort Stambaugh, a thousand-man cavalry post, near Atlantic City. But even this strong force couldn’t keep the hostiles in check. If they were blocked on the Sioux trail, they approached from other directions. The raiding parties seldom chose to stand and fight. When pursued, the wiry Indian ponies soon outdistanced the larger, heavier-laden cavalry mounts. If by chance the cavalry did get too close, their quarry scattered, leaving nothing behind but pony tracks and thin air. In addition to their troubles in the field, the Army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were receiving a very bad time at the hands of the nation’s press. They needed help, and they thought of Washakie.
General C. C. Augur, acting for the Army and the Indian Bureau, met the Shoshones and the Bannocks at Fort Bridger on June 30, 1868. He carried treaty papers in his portmanteau and had a stack of presents and goods at his back. He had full authority to give the Shoshones and (if possible) the Bannocks the Wind River Valley as a permanent reservation. He was to make all reasonable concessions to Washakie and place him and his people in their new home as soon as possible.
General Augur told the Shoshones specifically that the White Father was now in a position to give them the Wind River Valley. He forestalled Washakie’s old objection by pointing out that the Crows had broken the treaty of 1851 and that the government was no longer obligated in the matter.