Washakie (1804-1900) was a Shoshoni tibal leader who helped passengers westward and remained friends with mountain men and trappers.
An ally of the white fur trappers, traders, immigrants, and the U.S. government, Chief Washakie and the Eastern Shoshonis were instrumental in assisting the Anglo-Americans in settling the western United States. His father, Paseego, was an Umatilla or Flathead Indian; his mother was a Shoshoni, possibly of the Wind River or Lemhi band.
Shortly after his birth in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains, he was named Pinquana ["Sweet Smelling"]. Later in life, he took the name Washakie—derived from Shoshonean Wus'sik-he, variously interpreted as "Gourd Rattle, " "Rawhide Rattle, " or "Gambler's Gourd." Washakie did not acquire this name until he had killed his first buffalo: after skinning the buffalo and curing the hide, he made a stone-filled rattle out of a dried, pouch-like piece of the animal's skin. During battle, Washakie would ride toward his enemies and shake his rattle to frighten their horses. Early on, he earned a reputation as a fierce warrior against the Sioux, Blackfeet, and Crow Indian nations. He also gained several other names from his fighting exploits: "Scar Face" or "Two Scar Chief" because of the deep scars on his left cheek, which had been pierced by a Blackfoot arrow, as well as "Shoots Straight" and "Sure Shot, " for his keen eye and steady hand.
Became the Eastern Shoshonis' Leader
The Shoshonis were known as the Snake Indians, among not only whites but also the Great Plains tribes, apparently because they painted snakes on sticks to frighten their enemies. The origin of the word "Shoshoni" is unknown, but the name is believed to have been given them by whites. Bands of Shoshoni Indians—Southern, Western, Eastern, and Northern—occupied vast portions of the Rocky Mountain and plains areas of the American West. Washakie's Eastern or Wind River Shoshonis roamed over most of Wyoming and a small part of southeastern Idaho.
When Washakie was a small child, his father was killed during a Blackfoot raid on their village. His mother escaped with her five young children and returned to her people, who lived along the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. Washakie stayed with them until he was a young man, then is believed to have lived for about five years with the Bannocks.
As chief of the Eastern Shoshonis during the second half of the nineteenth century, Washakie became the most powerful leader of the migratory horse-owning tribe. He was chief at a time when his people's way of life was being threatened by the westward expansion of white American society. Washakie exerted great influence over the Northern Shoshonis and was temporarily allied with other Shoshoni and Bannock chiefs. Chief Pocatello, for whom a city in Idaho was named, had an alliance with Washakie. The Bannock chief Taghee of the Northern Paiutes, also offered Washakie his allegiance for a time.
Forbade His People from Fighting the Whites
During the 1820s through the 1830s, Washakie and the Shoshonis were on good terms with Anglo frontiersmen, trappers, and traders. They attended the fur trappers' Rocky Mountain rendezvous, establishing an alliance with their brigades and joining them in battles against the Sioux, Blackfeet, and Crows—all traditional enemies of the Shoshonis. By the mid-1840s, Washakie was principal chief of the Eastern Shoshoni band and waves of settlers were crossing his country on their way west along the Oregon Trail.
Washakie continued to maintain cordial relations with this new group of immigrants, assisting them in many ways. The Shoshonis helped the settlers recover lost stock and cross the region's swift rivers. Washakie also provided regular patrols of Shoshoni warriors to protect the immigrants from Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho raiding parties. Perhaps even more important was his refusal to allow Shoshoni reprisals against settlers who were wiping out game and whose stock was destroying valuable Indian root grounds. According to Russell Freedman's Indian Chiefs, Washakie told his people: "You must not fight the whites. I not only advise against it, I forbid it!" The settlers were so appreciative of Washakie's assistance that 9, 000 of them signed a document commending the Shoshonis and their chief. He was even on friendly terms with the Mormon leader "Big-Um" or Brigham Young.
Between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859, Washakie fought at the Battle of Crowheart Butte, the climax of the intertribal warfare between the Shoshonis and the Crows. He also met and became friends with famous mountain man Jim Bridger and Missouri hunter, trapper, and guide Christopher "Kit" Carson. In 1863 Washakie led his people to the safety of Fort Bridger, keeping them out of the Americans' Bear River Campaign against Bear Hunter's band of Northwestern Shoshonis.
In exchange for a 20-year-long payment agreement, Washakie signed the 1863 Treaty of Fort Bridger, guaranteeing U.S. travelers safe passage through his band's territory. His good relations with the U.S. government made it possible for him to secure the Wind River reservation, in present-day Wyoming, for the Eastern Shoshonis. In 1868 Washakie signed a second treaty establishing the 3 million-acre reservation; his people had given up their claims to other lands in Wyoming and Utah for the reservation, a remnant of their traditional territory. He also agreed to a clear path through the Green River Valley for the Union Pacific Railroad Company.
Even after the Shoshoni treaties were signed, the Sioux continued to hunt and raid the Eastern Shoshonis' reservation. Washakie complained to the U.S. Army, but they did little to stop the Sioux, adding to the animosity the chief already felt towards his traditional enemies. Washakie had old scores to settle with the Sioux: they had raided his people's villages many times and killed and scalped his oldest son. Later, when the army requested assistance in their war against the Sioux, Washakie jumped at the proposition.
The Eastern Shoshonis served as scouts and warriors for the U.S. Army against the Arapahos, Cheyennes, Sioux, and Utes. In 1876 Washakie and 200 warriors rode to the aid of General George Crook. Arriving too late to help Crook fight the Sioux at the Battle of the Rosebud in southern Montana, he joined forces with the general's troops and together they followed Crazy Horse's warriors all the way to the Powder River in eastern Montana.
A big and imposing man, Washakie took great pride in his appearance. He is said to have enjoyed looking at a framed photograph of himself hanging on the wall of a reservation store. Washakie was also proud of his possessions. With the help of his son Charlie, he painted pictures of his war exploits and then decorated his cabin with them. He was especially fond of a handsome saddle, decorated in silver, given to him by President Ulysses S. Grant. And he proudly posed for photographs wearing a silver peace medal sent to him by President Andrew Johnson. Always popular with politicians, Washakie was visited by President Chester A. Arthur in 1883.
But the United States did not always satisfy Washakie. In 1878 the government decided to put Chief Black Coal's Northern Arapahos on the Wind River reservation. The Arapahos were traditional enemies of the Shoshonis, but since they were destitute and starving Washakie agreed to let them stay on his reservation for a limited time. In spite of Washakie's protests, the Arapahos' temporary stay turned into a permanent one. Washakie had other complaints against the government; he objected to white hunters killing off large numbers of deer and antelope on the reservation. He also protested against trespassing gold miners and cowboys who were rustling the Shoshonis' cattle. Washakie reminded officials that the government had promised to keep both whites and other Indian tribes off Shoshoni land, but his arguments seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Washakie's Importance in Native American History
Washakie's peaceful relations with Anglo-Americans kept the Eastern Shoshoni from experiencing the devastating effects of removal to the Indian Territory, located in what is today the state of Oklahoma. Their alliance with the Americans also kept the Native American band from suffering casualties at the hands of the U.S. Army. Washakie's cooperation with the Americans benefited his people more than a war with the white settlers could have.
In 1897 Washakie was baptized an Episcopalian. He died three years later at Flathead Village in Montana's Bitterroot Valley and was buried with full military honors at Fort Washakie, Wyoming. In a life that spanned nearly an entire century, he had married twice and fathered at least 12 children, including a son, Cocoosh (Dick Washakie), who succeeded him as chief of the Eastern Shoshonis.
Further Reading on Washakie
Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977; 323-25.
Freedman, Russell, Indian Chiefs, New York, Holiday House, 1987; 73-89.
Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne, Detroit, Gale, 1994; 1184.
Trenholm, Virginia Cole, and Maurine Carley, The Shoshonis: Sentinels of the Rockies, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1964; 97-99.
Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, New York, Facts On File, 1990; 372.