- Historic Sites
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 his gracious but firm acceptance, Washakie carefully outlined the conditions under which he would move his people to the Wind River Valley. He asked for schools, churches, and a hospital. They would need instructors to teach them agriculture and livestock raising for the day when the buffalo would be gone. An Army post would be necessary to help the Shoshones protect themselves against the powerful enemies who would come raiding there. He said: “We prefer to live in skin or canvas lodges, but skin and canvas will not turn bullets; we will have to build log houses until it is safe to move back into our old lodges.” His last and strongest stipulation was that this reservation must be for none other than Shoshones, or people of their choosing.
A the end of the lengthy negotiations Augur was amazed at Washakie’s astuteness in analyzing each part of the long treaty. He was completely illiterate, but through two excellent interpreters he traced each sentence and paragraph and demanded an explanation. Finally, on July 3, 1868, General Augur, with a nervous forefinger, pointed to the place on the white document. Beside him the tall, white-haired, scarfaced Washakie, in buckskin leggings and moccasins, gingerly accepted the proffered quill and with tentative strokes made his X.
In making his mark Washakie was swearing that “for as long as the Sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow,” the eastern Shoshones would keep peace with the United States government. In return the government guaranteed that the eastern Shoshones could have forever, under designated boundaries, the Wind River Valley for their exclusive home.
Augur sent his reports to Washington and marched northeast, to begin establishing a military post and agency on the newly designated Shoshone reservation. The miners on South Pass were elated to know that they would soon have the Shoshones as protection against the hostile raiders. Neither Augur nor the miners, however, had allowed for government red tape. Three years were to elapse before the small post and temporary agency buildings were completed at Fort Augur, site of the present town of Lander, and Washakie with his proud Shoshones could move into their new home. The post was renamed Fort Brown in 1871 and moved to the Little Wind River; eventually it became Fort Washakie.
But the frontier was still in a highly unsettled state. True to Washakie’s predictions, the enemy tribes continued their murdering, kidnapping, and horse-stealing raids. A strong garrison of Regular Army and the veteran Shoshone warriors had their hands full. The Shoshone braves spent many hours in mounted drill and dismounted manual of arms, and kept their weapons spotless and in perfect working order. A great admirer of the United States military, Washakie had memorized complete manuals of drill and maneuver. By the use of horse runners and smoke signals he maintained an intricate communication system over his own domain and with the Bannocks nearly two hundred miles to the west, thus saving Indian and white settlements from the shock of surprise raids.
In spite of all these precautions, one Crow chief in particular began systematically to attack the small summer hunting camps of the Shoshones. When Washakie learned this man’s identity he took to the field with a crack troop of warriors and sent the Crow a warning: “I’m looking for you. When we meet I will cut out your heart and eat it before your own braves.”
Washakie and his warriors met a strong war party of Crows in front of a sheer butte at the north end of the Wind River Valley. There was a pitched battle. In the middle of the fight Washakie located the chief and drove his war horse toward him through the melee. The Crow saw him coming and shouted a challenge. They met with a shock that unhorsed them both and they fought on the ground with knives. Though Washakie was considerably older than his adversary, the Crow soon lay dead at his feet.
Some insist that Washakie did eat his enemy’s heart; others deny it. When asked about the incident in his old age, Washakie always answered: “When a man is in battle and his blood runs hot, he sometimes does things that he is sorry for afterwards. I cannot remember everything that happened so long ago.” Finley Burnett, agricultural instructor, and Yarnell, the government scout, both stated that they did see the chief of the Shoshones dancing with a heart impaled on his lance the night after the battle. At any event, the battle of Crow Heart Butte ended the wars between the Crows and Shoshones.
During that last engagement the Shoshones were surprised to see that the Crows had quite a number of young women with them. This was unusual for a war party. The Shoshones captured most of these women, and later Washakie made one of them the last of his several wives. True to Indian custom, Washakie had married young, and by several wives he fathered a large number of sons and daughters. He was very devoted to them. His almost snow-white hair, a feature that distinguished him throughout the second half of his life, was attributed to his grief over the tragic death of a favorite son, for which he held himself responsible. Two of his sons, Dick and Bishop, were the flag bearers for his arrival at Crook’s Goose Creek camp in 1876. Charlie, the last of the old chief’s children to survive, was killed by a train in 1951.