Shonshone Implements - Plate 76

Shoshone or Snake Indians

Shonshone Implements - Plate 76
Shonshone Implements – Plate 76

The various tribes and bands of Indians of the Rocky Mountains, south of latitude 43°, who are known under this general name, occupy the elevated area of the Utah basin. They embrace all the territory of the Great South Pass between the Mississippi Valley and the waters of the Columbia, by which the land or caravan communication with Oregon and California is now, and is destined hereafter to be, maintained. Traces of them, in this latitude, are first found in ascending the Sweetwater River of the north fork of the Platte, or Nebraska. They spread over the sources of the Green River, one of the highest northern branches of the Colorado of California, on the summit south of the great Wind river chain of mountains, and thence westward, by the Bear river valley, to and down the Snake river, or Lewis fork of the Columbia. Under the name of Yampatick-ara, or Root-Eaters, and Bonacks, they occupy, with the Utahs, the vast elevated basin of the Great Salt Lake, extending south and west to the borders of New Mexico and California. Information recently received denotes that the language is spoken by bands in the gold-mine region of the Sacramento. They extend down the Sä-ap-tin or Snake River valley, to and north of latitude 44°, but this is not the limit to which the nations speaking the Shoshone language, in its several dialects, have spread. Ethnologically, the people speaking it are one of the primary stocks of the Rocky Mountain Chain. They are located immediately west of the wide-spreading tribes who speak the Dacota language, and south of the sanguinary Atsina-Algo, or Blood and Blackfeet race. The Yampatick-ara are represented as timid, degraded, and wretched, without arts, picking a miserable subsistence from roots, and other spontaneous means of subsistence, in a barren region, often eating larvae, not planting a seed, and wandering for food and shelter amid scenes often as rugged as the Alps, or the steeps of the Uralian Chain; yet a closer examination denotes that their timidity, degradation, and wretchedness are, measurably, the result of untoward circumstances, the improvement of which would raise them to the same rank as their more favored kindred and neighbors the Comanches. Whether these circumstances are to be favorably changed, as the tribes of these altitudes are brought into closer communication with our settlements, is a matter of uncertainty, and has been doubted by observers. That the climate is not itself forbidding to an alpine industrial population is proved by the success of the Mormons. Portions of the Alps and other highland or mountain areas of Europe, less favorable to human life, are the residence of a fixed population. The cereal grains, in the opinion of travelers and explorers, whose testimony is now verified, can be raised in the great area of the Salt basin. Sheep, goats, and cattle, would thrive upon the rich bunch grass of the sloping steeps, where the disintegrated volcanic detritus has produced a soil. The expansive power of frost is perpetually lowering those altitudes. The entire summit abounds in pure water and a healthful atmosphere, and a high summer temperature at noon day. Rains are not wanting, though they are, perhaps, too infrequent, and there seems to be no insuperable obstacle, so far as is known, to the formation of settlements at detached and favorable points between the arid and rocky areas, where the arts and comforts of life could be successfully and permanently relied on. The dryness of the atmosphere, which has been noticed as unfavorable to agriculture, without irrigation, is not found, however, to prevent the growth of grass in auspicious locations. To a region thus favorable, in a measure, to pasturage and grazing, the existence, in abundance, of rock salt must prove an inestimable advantage.

As the Shoshone and Utah nation, who are thus set down in our path westward, is destined to come into an almost immediate intercourse with the United States, and the government seeks to perform its duty towards them in the best possible manner, efforts have been made to obtain the latest and most authentic information respecting them, and the character of the wide and elevated regions they inhabit.

Lewis and Clark, to whom we are indebted for our first notice of this nation, found them, under the name of Shoshones, in the valley and at the source of the Jefferson Fork of the Missouri River, which heads, agreeably to their observations, in latitude 43° 30′. Their old encampments and battle-grounds, where they had been assailed and defeated by their enemies, the Pawkees, or Minnetaries, had been passed as far north as the mouth of the Jefferson, in latitude 45° 24′. This tribe, who numbered about 400 souls, were found to possess horses. The Shoshones formerly lived, agree ably to their own recollections, in the plains, but had been driven by roving Indians of the Saskatchawine into the mountains, from which they then rarely sallied. This band was deemed a part of the great tribe of Snake Indians; they were found not only on the highest altitudes, but on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. On the west of the mountains, they occupied the headwaters of the Lewis River, where they subsisted, in part, on salmon. The whole number of the nation speaking dialects of the Shoshone language was vaguely estimated at that date, (1806,) in their table of Indian population, at 13,600. They were found scattered, under various names, over many degrees of latitude and longitude. When first found by these intrepid explorers on the spurs of the Rocky Mountains, they employed the expression of Ali-hi-e! to signify pleasure at the sight of a white man. Their name for a white man was, however, Tabba-bone; expressions denoting a peculiar language.

“Their cold and rugged country,” observe the explorers, “inures them to fatigue; their long abstinence makes them support the dangers of mountain warfare; and worn down, as we saw them, by the want of sustenance, they had a fierce and adventurous look of courage. They suffer the extremes of want; for two-thirds of the year they are forced to live in the mountains, passing whole weeks without meat, and with nothing to eat but a few fish and roots. Nor can anything be imagined more wretched than their condition when the salmon is retiring, when roots are becoming scarce, and they have not yet acquired strength to hazard an encounter with their enemies. So insensible are they, however, to these calamities, that the Shoshones are not only cheerful, but even gay; and their character, which is more interesting than that of any Indians we have seen, has in it much of the dignity of misfortune. In their intercourse with strangers, they are frank and communicative; in their dealings perfectly fair, and without dishonesty. With their liveliness of temper, they are fond of gaudy dresses, amusements, and games of hazard, and, like most Indians, delight in boasting of their martial exploits.”

Such is the account given of the most northerly tribe of this people, who have not been visited since. Of the tribes living south of them on the same high altitude of mountains, far less favorable accounts have been given. Mr. Hale, the ethnographer of the United States Exploring Expedition, takes but little notice of this leading nation of the mountains, their relations, languages, or population; which is probably owing to their remote and inaccessible position. Fremont, who approached the mountains in north latitude about 42°, came among those bands of the Shoshone stock who possess no horses, live chiefly on roots, and present the most depressed type of their condition. Accuracy, in relation to our knowledge of the topography of those regions, and, incidentally, of the tribes inhabiting it, begins with the exploratory journeys of this officer. He ascended the mountains from the north fork of the Nebraska or Platte, through the Sweetwater Valley, which carried him, by a gentle and almost imperceptible ascent, to the South Pass. Here, at an altitude of 7000 feet above the sea, in longitude 109°, and latitude a little north of 42°, he found himself amongst the Shoshones, of whom he had observed traces in the Sweet-water Valley. He had now advanced 900 miles from Westport at the mouth of the Kansas. In his separate topographical sheet-maps, published in 1846, he inscribes the words “War-Ground Of The Snakes And Sioux Indians,” between the Red Buttes of the north fork of the Platte, and the junction of the Big Sandy Fork of the Green or Colorado of California. We are thus apprised of the fact that the Shoshones or Snakes have bands of the great Dacota family for their enemies at the eastern foot of the mountains. The distance between the extremes of the two points thus marked, is 192 miles; in passing over which, but few Indians were met, but the traveler in these regions is obliged to keep on his guard, as the district is liable to the periodical inroads of both parties.

As the Sweet-water valley is probably destined to be the principal land route from the Mississippi Valley to Oregon, its geographical character and capacities for sustaining animals and men, may be appropriately mentioned. Fremont describes it as “a sandy plain 120 miles long,” and again, as “a valley five miles wide, with a handsome mountain stream of pure water, its immediate borders having a good soil, with abundance of soft green grass.” The valley is well defined. Its northern sides consist of ” ridges and masses of naked granite, without vegetation.” Its southern borders are crowned with the heights of the Sweetwater Mountains. He was fourteen days, including necessary stops, in ascending from a little below its mouth to the summit of the South Pass, where he immediately fell upon the remote waters of the Colorado. The distance from water to water, was less than five miles. The ascent was easy, and the pass without peculiar difficulty.

Assuming the Snake or Shoshone territories to begin at the mouth of the Sweetwater, which is probably as far east as they ever venture in war, the people speaking dialects of this language, spread over the entire summit of the mountains to and down the Snake River or Lewis fork of the Columbia, to latitude about 44° 30″ say, the dividing highlands between the Burnt and Powder River of Lewis fork, where they are, for the last time, noticed. This point is about 650 miles below Fort Hall. The entire distance from the mouth of the Sweetwater, taking the admeasurements from Fremont’s sheet-maps, through the Bear River Valley, may be computed to be 750 miles. About 280 miles of this distance lies across the extreme summit of the mountains, from the Table Rock to Fort Hall, and with the eastern moiety of 140 miles, to the foot of the dividing ridge between the waters of the Colorado and Bear River, consists of sandy plains covered with artemisia and a few alpine shrubs. The western moiety of 140 miles beyond that ridge, consists of the minor bristling spurs of volcanic formation, through one of the ancient fissures in which the Bear River winds its way till it pours its tribute southerly into the Great Salt Lake. This lake lies in a high geological basin, which has no outlet by rivers to the sea, but it parts with its surplus water like the inland streams of Asia and Africa, exclusively by evaporation.

North and south of this great line of demarcation of the Southern Pass through which, population seems destined in our future history to pass the Shoshone nation, under its various names, extend as far north as the sources of the Missouri, and the mouth of Jefferson Fork, in latitude 45° 24′. South and west of the Pass they embrace the plains of the Great Salt Lake basin, now incorporated into Utah, and extend into California, Arkansas, and a part of Texas. Those of them who have descended eastwardly into the Texan plains, at unknown periods of their history, are known as Comanches a relation which is designated by the ethnological tie of language.

Shoshone Tribal Organization

Dismissing the latter tribe, who, probably, owing to the possession of the horse, and living on animal food abundantly supplied by the buffalo, have acquired a distinct tribal standing for themselves, and regarding the Shoshones as mountaineers, who derive their best protection from their inaccessible position, it may be doubted whether a more impoverished, degraded, and abject Indian nation exists in North America. This character does not apply as fully to the Snake Indians, who occupy the upper part of the valley of the Shoshone or Lewis fork of the Columbia. These latter tribes are periodically subsisted on salmon, coming up from the Pacific, which are abundantly taken at the Falls; but at other seasons they have little to distinguish them from the mountain bands. The country they inhabit is, for the most part, volcanic, with dry and arid sand plains, forming intervening tracts between the pinnacles of rock, which are unfavorable to the increase of large game, and yield but little game of any kind. As the Snakes have no agricultural industry, they are doomed to suffering and depopulation, with the mass of the Indians of Oregon. Even in the most favorable and healthy seasons, they have so little physical stamina, that the prevalence of fevers, common east of the mountain, has been known to prostrate them with the power of an epidemic, or a pestilence.

Recent information of the Shoshones, viewed in all their extent and divisions, depicts them as doomed to certain depopulation and extinction, unless this doom be arrested by a resort to fixed means of industry. Too often, nay, uniformly, the advance of civilized nations into the territories of barbarous tribes, has the effect to cause depopulation, from the great stimulus to trapping, which adds to their means of enjoyment. But not so with them. Their country is bare of the fur-bearing animals. The little resources they possess in fish and game, are, as it is seen, quickly wasted. Their habits and manners are soon corrupted, and the native vigor of the tribes is prostrated, just at the time that their spontaneous means fail, and they are required to begin a life of agricultural industry, to save themselves from extinction. Perhaps mountains and rocky shelters, and a sparse population, spread over an immense area, which is doomed to perpetual sterility, may operate to lengthen out the period of these feeble and depressed, but docile and friendly mountaineers.

In any future purchases from this tribe, with a view to facilitate intercourse between the Mississippi Valley and California and Oregon, or to protect the Mormons and other incipient settlements on the mountains, the value of the Bear River cannot fail to attract attention. This valley lies for 80 miles east to west, directly in the route to Fort Hall, and appears to furnish many of the requisites for a mountain population. This river is the largest known tributary to the Great Salt Lake. It is connected with the geographical system of rivers and creeks of that basin, where agriculture has already commenced. It is represented by Fremont as forming “a natural resting and recruiting station for travelers, now and in all time to come. The bottoms are extensive, water excellent, timber sufficient, and soil good and well adapted to the grains and grasses suited to such an elevated region. A military post and a civilized settlement would be of great value here, and cattle and horses would do well where grass and salt so much abound. The LAKE will furnish exhaustless supplies of salt. All the mountainsides are covered with a valuable and nutritious grass, called bunch grass, from the form in which it grows, which has a second growth in the fall. The beasts of the Indians 1 were fat upon it; our own found it a good subsistence, and its quantity will sustain any amount of cattle, and make this truly a bucolic region.”

Mr. Nathaniel J. Wyeth, whose replies to some of our queries respecting this people we subjoin, spent a number of years in the adventurous Indian trade west of the Rocky Mountains. Between 1832 and 1836, he was an agent, or factor, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and built Fort Hall on the headwaters of the Lewis, called Snake, or Säaptin River by the natives. This gentleman, who is now a resident of one of the New England States, exhibits, in the responses with which he has favored us, a habit of close observation, which has enabled him, with the aid of his journals, to reproduce the various bands of the nation of whose characteristic traits and habits, and the natural features and productions of the country they inhabit, we seek to be better informed. We need do but little more than ask a candid perusal for his statements.

The object in hand, has been to obtain accurate and reliable accounts of the country over which the Shoshone language prevails, in all its latitudes and longitudes; the number of bands into which the nation is divided; their actual means of subsistence; their wars and alliances with neighboring tribes; their disposition and feelings towards the United States; and the true policy to be pursued respecting them.


  1. This is the first and only intimation we have, that the Indians have “beasts.”[]

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

1 thought on “Shoshone or Snake Indians”

  1. I’m looking for my great grandfather his name was John Lewis, his fathers name was Jim Lewis located in Nevada and member of the western Shoshone Snake tribe, Nevada.

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