The Sheepeater Indian War of 1879

The Sheepeater Indian War of 1879 was the last Indian war fought in the Pacific Northwest portion of the United States.  A band of approximately 300 Western Shoshone, (Turakina, or Tukuaduku), were known as the Sheepeaters because their diet consisted of the Rocky Mountain Sheep.  They were not a sedentary tribe, instead moving throughout the Payette, Salmon, Boise, Challis, Sawtooth, and Beaverhead Forests to follow the game.  They camped only in the winter, but the location varied widely.  The campaign against the Sheepeaters primarily took place in central Idaho.

As with many other disputes with Indians, the troubles with white man started when gold was discovered in the Boise Basin in 1862 and in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River.  That location, and another gold camp on Panther Creek, were right in the middle of Sheepeater winter camps.  By 1870, Leesburg on Panther Creek had 7,000 prospectors hunting for gold.

Leading up to the war the Sheepeaters were accused of stealing horses from settlers in Indian Valley and during the pursuit killing three of the settlers near present day Cascade.  In August 1878, they were accused of killing two prospectors in an ambush at Pearsall Creek, five miles from Cascade.  By February of 1879 the Sheepeaters were accused of the murders of five Chinese miners at Orogrande, the murders at Loon Creek, and finally the murders of two ranchers in the South Fork of the Salmon River in May.  However, later it was proven that Indians had nothing to do with the attack.

General O. O. Howard dispatched 76 men including scouts and freighters from Boise to Challis to investigate the matter.  Also deployed was a detachment of men from the Second Infantry under First Lieutenant Catley and men listed under Lieutenant Edward Farrow.  The troops were all heading toward Payette Lake, near present day McCall.  Bernard headed North from Boise barracks, Catley headed Southeast from Camp Howard at Grangeville, and Farrow headed East from the Umatilla Agency.

Heading the campaign against the Sheepeaters was Company G of the 1st Cavalry led by Colonel Bernard.  They had a difficult time of it traveling through six foot snow drifts and fast running streams.  They became separated from their pack train for several days.  Some provisions were lost, but in ten days they arrived at Orogrande.

Much of the town had been burned.  The troops waited an additional five days for their supply train, which arrived on June 13.  A week later, the troops went to search for sign of Indians.  They marched on to Challis, Salmon City, and Warren’s Diggings without success. Throughout the campaign, the troops faced difficulty with travelling through the rough terrain. The first segment of the campaign, from May 31 to September 8, was through the Salmon River dubbed the "River of No Return" because it was barely navigable.  They traveled up the Middle Fork of the Salmon for several weeks enduring all sorts of severe weather.  They lost some animals, ammunition, and much of their supplies.  Five men contracted mountain fever and were sent home to recuperate.  Fortunately, it was summer and game was plenty.

Meanwhile, the force from Camp Howard had reached the Big Creek Canyon near the South Fork of the Salmon River.  Scouts observed sign of Indians on July 28.  Unfortunately, Lieutenant Catley did not pay heed to the warning.  He was leading his command up the canyon when Indians opened fire from all sides.  Two men were seriously wounded, but were able to reach shelter.  Shortly afterward, Catley commanded his men to retreat since the Indians had the high ground.

The soldiers regrouped about two miles away from the spot and camped for the night.  The next morning the soldiers tried to locate a more defensible position but were somewhat encumbered by the two wounded men who had been put on litters.  Unfortunately for them, the Indians were able to gain ground on two sides of Catley's detachment.  The Indians set fire to the base of a mountain where the soldiers were camped.  First Sergeant John A. Sullivan’s quick thinking probably saved the day by burning an area closest to them to keep the fire from spreading.  The Indians left during the night.  This battle took place at a spot later named Vinegar Hill.  The soldiers had gotten themselves trapped on the steep cliffs and had to leave much of their gear and supplies behind.  Because of this, Catley decided to return to Camp Howard to re-outfit themselves. They headed back in August.

In the meantime, Bernard’s command received word to join Lt. Farrow, who was pursuing some Indians, which turned out to be a gang of horse thieves. Subsequently they received word of Catley’s defeat.  Bernard sent word for additional troops and supplies to join him at South Fork of the Salmon.  Lt. Farrow and his Umatilla scouts plus two platoons joined him at the North Payette River near the hot springs.  The larger company marched for several days and passed through country that the Indians had previously burned.  They also lost several more pack animals and many provisions.  Meals were scant for a few days until the resupply train caught up with Catley and about 40 men on August 11.

The combined force passed campsites that appeared to be still in use.  Indian fish traps were found in a creek.  Indian sign was plentiful.  The force reached the area where Catley had been attacked.  Umatilla scouts who had gone on ahead had not returned and a soldier was dispatched to discover their whereabouts.  The Umatilla scouts had discovered the Sheepeaters a few miles in advance.  The soldiers spurred their horses on but upon reaching the Indian village they discovered all the occupants had left. The Umatilla scouts took what goods they wanted and the soldiers burned the rest.

The soldiers rested there until the next morning but soon word came the Indians were still in the area and  mounted.  Catley and his men headed back toward Camp Howard as they were desperately short of supplies.  The rest of the command split up in search of the Indians.  By August 20, a Sheepeater raiding party of ten to fifteen Indians attacked the troops as they rode on a train at Soldier Bar on Big Creek.   As soon as the men were spread out on a precipitous mountain the Indians opened fire.  At the same time they fired on the men guarding the animals and provisions.  Those who defended the train included Corporal Charles B. Hardin along with six troopers and the chief packer, James Barnes.  They managed to successfully drive the Sheepeaters off with only one casualty, Private Harry Eagan.  The Indians retreated after nightfall.

But the soldiers continued to follow their tracks. The trail was very rocky and hard on the animals’ feet. Many more animals gave out from sheer exhaustion. They lost two dozen more horses that strayed off during the night. Many men had to go on foot until the horses were found toward the end of the next day. Finally the soldiers had to return to Camp Howard for supplies. Food was running low and the soldiers missed several meals. The Umatillas stayed behind to engage the hostiles.

On September 17, the soldiers set out again. They came upon an Indian camp right away, but there was no one there since the Indians had been warned. They were able to take an Indian woman and two of her children captive. A third ran away. Then an Indian named Tanmanmo, half Nez Perce and half Bannock, surrendered to the soldiers.  He appeared to be a war chief.  He promised to bring in the rest of the warriors that were harassing the whites.  Lt. Farrow told him that no harm would come to those who had not killed anyone.

It took some days, but by October 1 the campaign ended once Lieutenants W.C. Brown and Edward S. Farrow, along with a group of twenty Umatilla scouts, negotiated the surrender of 51 men, women, and children.  The prisoners were taken to the Vancouver Barracks in Washington State.  The troops went back to Boise after marching 1,258 miles through mostly unmapped territory.  The Indians were questioned and though they admitted to the attack on the Rain’s ranch, they denied killing Johnson and Dorsey and the five Chinese.  They were resettled on the Fort Hall Reservation.  A few small bands remained in the area having eluded the army and continued to live their mountain life unmolested in its ancient pattern for another decade or two.

The Sheepeater Indians

In identifying the different groups of Shoshoni Indians who lived in the Snake River country, one of the most common early mistakes was to regard them as consumers of distinctive foods and to name them for whatever they happened to be eating at the moment. (Some of them did specialize more than others in certain foods, but they all had to have a fair variety in order to survive.) Depending upon where they were at a given time, a Shoshoni group might subsist upon a particular food: a band fishing at Salmon Falls, for example, would be living off the salmon there, and a group digging camas on Camas Prairie might naturally be dining regularly on camas. Moreover, mounted bands of Shoshoni buffalo hunters, when accosted by white explorers or travelers, proudly referred to themselves as buffalo hunters. More humble Shoshoni groups engaged in hunting rabbits likewise called themselves rabbit eaters, while the very same individuals, if found out gathering seeds or pine nuts became the seed eaters or the pine nut eaters, as the circumstances of the occasion determined. Since any given Shoshoni family or group usually went through several seasonal food-gathering phases, they might in the course of a year have been designated as several different kinds of eaters. This system had some merit for accuracy in designating the various people who might be in a particular place (such as Salmon Falls, or a pine nut area), but it did not accommodate bands or groups at all, since the groups were transient and thus capable of having altogether too many names ending in "eater" to be of much value for identification.

Some Shoshoni groups had become proficient at hunting mountain sheep in parts of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and were referred to as sheep eaters. (They actually called themselves big game eaters, but since their kind of big game proved to be mountain sheep, their name in English was corrupted into sheep eater.) But the sheep eaters of the Salmon River Mountains, when they camped on the Salmon to fish, turned into salmon eaters. One of these Salmon River sheep eater and salmon eater bands gained widespread fame at the beginning of the 19th century because it was the band to which Sacajawea belonged: that particular group had acquired horses and advanced to the noble station of buffalo hunters by the time Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide in 1805; and as horseowners, Sacajawea's band was able to provide the explorers with pack horses to traverse the Lolo Trail on their way to navigable waters of the Clearwater. In later years, after the Mormon Salmon River mission at Fort Lemhi brought a new geographic name to the area, Sacajawea's people eventually became known as the Lemhi Indians. Other central Salmon River groups, though, continued their skillful and highly-respected mountain sheep hunting, and were known as the Sheepeaters on through the 19th century.

Until the end of the Bannock War of 1878, the sheepeaters lived relatively unmolested in their Salmon River mountain wilderness. Their skin products were highly praised by other Indians and by the white fur traders. As the gold prospectors moved into their country and ruined their fishing, many of them joined their relatives among the Lemhi Indians for living and protection.  They lived as peaceful villagers under the leadership of trusted headmen; they shared cultural inventory and social traditions with all other Idaho Shoshoni in the early days.

Except for Leesburg and Loon Creek miners, and for a few scattered ranchers on their borderland, whites had not penetrated very much into the Sheepeaters' central wilderness area before the Bannock War.  A number of Bannock refugees from the war were thought to have joined them when the Bannock cause collapsed as a military venture, and from that accretion they seem to have gained an entirely undeserved later reputation as a band of outcasts from other tribes. During the Bannock War, an ambush of four whites in Long Valley was attributed to the Sheepeaters, and the next winter the Loon Creek Chinese massacre at Orogrande was blamed on the Sheepeaters also.  In any event, the army decided to round up the Sheepeaters in the summer of 1879.