Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Bannock War of shattered dreams and broken promises

by Syd Albright
| April 19, 2015 9:00 PM


Bannock Indians, Idaho


General Oliver Otis Howard, who chased the Bannocks


Native Americans hunting buffalo


Hunting buffalo on the Great Plains

Buffalo Bill said, "Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government."

The Bannock War of 1878 was one of them.

As early as 1813, the Bannock Indians knew that the white fur trappers filtering into traditional Indian lands would bring trouble. John Reid led a party of trappers and built a small post on Boise River where it enters the Snake, and soon thereafter a Bannock band led by The Horse attacked and killed everyone. Only Marie Dorion, an Iowan Indian and her two children escaped massacre, being away at the time.

The decades that followed would yield profitable trade, but also deceit, death and destruction. The whites wanted furs, food and horses - and land. The Indians sought guns, knives, needles and other objects of the white man's world - and to be left alone.

Inevitably, traditional Native American way of life was being turned upside down, and the Indians were ill-equipped to stop it.

In the 1850s, the federal government authorized the U.S. Army to negotiate treaties with the Indians, with the goal of herding them onto reservations. Understandably, they resisted.

The Shoshone-Bannocks based their survival on hunting and gathering - seasonally hunting buffalo in Montana and Wyoming and digging the camas roots on the Big Camas Prairie. But when whites hunted the buffalo almost to extinction and ranchers started grazing their livestock on the Camas, conflict was inevitable.

As tempers flared between whites and Indians, Idaho Territory Governor Caleb Lyon set up a refugee camp in 1866 near Fort Boise to care for several hundred Bannocks, but they had so little resources that local settlers had to pitch in and help.

Three years later, the Bannock Indian Treaty of 1869 set up the Fort Hall Reservation covering 1.8 million acres north of Pocatello as home for the Shoshone and 600 Bannock (Among the signers was U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman).

Important to the Indians was their right to dig for camas on the Camas Prairie and the government agreed, but a glitch in the wording of the treaty said "Kansas" instead of "Camas," both words sounding the same to the Indians. It was not until four years later that the matter was reported to Washington, D.C., for correction - to no avail. It remained "Kansas."

Agricultural conditions on the reservations were insufficient, forcing the Indians to depend on government handouts, but those resources never came in a timely manner and were never in enough quantities.

Harsh winters from 1874 to 1877 produced little game, and when the government failed to supply the food and supplies needed, the Indians had to fight for survival, and many left the reservation in search of food.

In August 1877, a Fort Hall Indian named Pe-tope shot and wounded two white wagon drivers between Camas Prairie and the Snake River, and his friend Nampe-yo-go killed Alexander Rhodan, a beef contractor for the reservation.

Fort Hall Indian Agent William Danilson demanded that the tribe hand over the killers to face justice. They refused and relations between whites and Indians across southern Idaho worsened. Settlers feared that Bannocks and Shoshone might link up with bands of Nez Perce and drive them out.

In the spring of 1878, when the Indians went to the Camas Prairie to dig for roots, they were shocked to discover that white settler livestock had eaten most of the camas bulbs.

A delegation of chiefs went to see the governor about the matter but nothing was done.

Adding to the tension, the Nez Perce badgered officials to keep the Bannock-Shoshones on the reservation. But on the reservation, trouble was brewing - sparking criminal activity. The Bannocks saw the Shoshone as intruders and in May 1878, Bannock Chief Buffalo Horn assembled 200 warriors and moved to the Camas Prairie to set up camp. The Bannock War was about to start.

That same month, cowboys Lou Kensler, George Nesbet (or Nasby) and William Silvey were grazing hogs, cattle and horses on the Camas when approached by English-speaking Indians named Charley and Jim, feigning friendship and trying to sell them a buffalo skin robe.

The following morning, the Indians made a surprise attack, shooting Nesbet in the jaw and grazing Kensler's head. The two men were still able to dash for their tent, grab their guns and return fire. Silvey escaped harm.

The Indians fled and the three herders dashed for Fort Boise, as more Indians plundered the camp - killing cattle, drying the beef and gathering the horses. Two white men named Mabes and Dempsey - who had an Indian wife - were with them.

The Indians made Mabes write a letter to Gov. Mason Brayman threatening to kill settlers and destroy property if he sent troops after them. They sent Mabes to Boise with the letter and then killed Dempsey, splitting his skull with an axe.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Horn was moving his band toward Oregon along the Snake River to meet with his allies the Paiutes traveling down the Owyhee River. En route the Bannocks created mayhem, killing settlers at King Hill Station, Glenn's Ferry and elsewhere.

News of the increased violence spread quickly across southern Idaho and many settlers fled in fear. In Boise, Gov. Brayman sent for help from Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard, commander of the Military Department of the Columbia, who dispatched the 21st Infantry Regiment to Idaho.

The Bannocks were also gathering strength, joined by Duck Valley Indians, Lemhis, Winnemuccas, Malheurs and Snakes, increasing their size to about 2,000 warriors, women and boys.

Not waiting for Howard's forces, Capt. Reuben Frank Bernard and his U.S. Cavalry and state militia volunteers headed for the Shoshone camp. Chief Bearskin (Honalelo) rode to meet them under a white flag and was promptly shot dead. More died in the battle.

On June 8, 26 volunteer militiamen from Silver City caught up with Buffalo Horn at South Mountain and in the ensuing fight Buffalo Horn was killed. Paiute Chief Egan (AKA Pony Blanket) replaced him and led the band to Juniper Mountain in Idaho and Steen Mountain, Ore. But the noose was tightening as more militia rolled in from Utah, California and Nevada.

Capt. Bernard caught up with the Indians in south-central Oregon on June 23, charging into their camp with pistols and rifles blazing, killing around 50.

Two days later, Gen. Howard's forces linked with Bernard at Camp Curry where Howard took overall field command.

About the middle of July, Chief Homily of the Oregon Umatillas (friendly to Howard) planned to kill Chief Egan and arranged a pow-wow with him, taking along some 90 followers. In the middle of the meeting, the Umatillas suddenly attacked. A Umatilla scout named Umapine, working for the U.S. Cavalry, beheaded Chief Egan, attached his scalp to a pole and carried it proudly back to the reservation - along with the chief's head.

Scattered by military defeats, the fractured Indian bands played cat-and-mouse with the Army and militias across Oregon and Idaho, leaving a grim legacy of death and destruction. By August 1878, Indian morale and the will to fight plummeted.

As with so many conflicts in Native American history, the Bannock War too ended with a massacre. On Sept. 5, 1878, at Charles' Ford in Wyoming, 20 Bannock lodges were attacked by troops under Colonel Nelson A. Miles, killing some 140 men, women and children. The surviving Indians surrendered and returned to the Fort Hall Reservation.

General George R. Crook sympathized with the plight of the Indians: "With the Bannocks and Shoshone, our Indian policy has resolved itself into a question of war path or starvation, and being merely human, many of them will always choose the former alternative when death shall at least be glorious."

We should heed the lessons of history - lest we have to relive them, American philosopher-poet George Santayana said. The great Nez Perce Chief Joseph lamented, "It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and the broken promises."

The Bannock War was a question of survival for the Indians when their means to do so were taken away and the government promised to help - but didn't.

So what has America learned from those heartbreaking times?

Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at

Slaughter of the Buffalo...

In the early 1870s, "The buffaloes were quite plenty, and it was agreed that we should go into the same herd at the same time and 'make a run'.... each one killing as many as possible. A referee was to follow each of us on horseback when we entered the herd, and count the buffaloes killed by each man." Sightseers were kept "well out of sight of the buffaloes, so as not to frighten them, until the time came for us to dash into the herd; when they were to come up as near as they pleased and witness the chase."

- Buffalo Bill Cody, The Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (1920)

The General understood...

In an interview with the Omaha Herald, U.S. Army General George R. Crook explained that the root cause of the Bannock War was fight or starve:

"It cannot be expected that they will stay on reservations where there is no possible way to get food, and see their wives and children starve and die around them. We have taken their lands, deprived them of every means of living."

Deception or error?

"It seems to be understood that 'Kansas Prairie' is a misprint, there being no prairie of that name West of the mountains, and that 'Camas Prairie' is meant.

"The Indians understand it thus, and without exception or doubt insist that the 'Big Camas Prairie' is theirs by that treaty. In proof of the sincerity of their belief, it is true that they have each year, during the season for digging for camas roots and hunting, resorted in great numbers to and occupied this tract of country.

"The camas root is to them the equivalent of our potato, and it grows spontaneously in vast quantities on these grounds. I have been visited by a great number of Indians who uniformly claim 'Camas Prairie' as their 'garden.' They declare their rights by this treaty whether the word be 'Kansas' or 'Camas.'"

- Mason Brayman, Governor of Idaho Territory

Bad guys from Idaho...

When settlers fled fearing the Indians, several bands of horse thieves, pretending to be volunteers in the fight, plundered the deserted ranches and stole the livestock. General Oliver O. Howard vowed to hang a particular band from Idaho disguised as Indians who were raiding panic-stricken settlers, if he caught them.

Poetic justice...

James Dempsey, the cowboy killed on the Camas Prairie by the Bannock Indians, laid the groundwork for his own fate. He traded guns and ammunition to Chief Buffalo Horn in exchange for an Indian woman, and after the Bannock War broke out, tried to join the Indians.