Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known - O. O. Howard

Washabie, a Shoshone Chief, the Friend of the White Man

The Shoshone Indians lived long ago in the Rocky Mountains, but they have gradually moved westward until now they live on the western side, where there are two wonderful springs which send water east and westward to flow into our two great oceans. The water from one flows through the Yellowstone Park to the Missouri River, and then by way of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean; while the other one flows westward into the Snake River and follows its many windings till at last it joins the Columbia, and after passing the cascades, flows smoothly for one hundred and fifty miles till it reaches the Pacific Ocean.

Because these Indians live along the banks of the winding Snake River they are sometimes called "Snakes," but Shoshone is their Indian name.

As long ago as 1836 Washington Irving tells us that Captain Bonneville met Shoshone Indians on his way to the Pacific Coast. Even then the chiefs came together, smoked the peace pipe, burying their tomahawks and made up their minds to be good, peaceable Indians.

A tribe of Indians usually takes its character from the head chief. If he is a man who cares for his people, thinks for them, and leads them, then they follow and do what he says.

Washakie was such a chief, and his people loved and followed him. He had a large country, four hundred miles square, called the Wind River Reservation, and here he grouped his Indians in small villages about a beautiful spring of hot water which always flowed. At his request Uncle Sam had an army post near by, and for many years Washakie had chosen to be the friend of the white man.

Washakie was a tall, big man with fine eyes and a great deal of hair. He spoke broken English, but could make himself understood. He was a great eater, and it was always a mystery to me how one Indian could eat so much. He ate very politely, but it was like a giant taking his food. Washakie said: "I like meat, I like bread, I like vegetables; I am big, so I eat much." And indeed he did, enough for two or three white men. He was a great buffalo-hunter, and usually wore a fox-skin robe which was very becoming to him, but before he sat down to eat he always took off this outer fur coat, which he did not need except in the open air.

The country where these Indians lived was very cold indeed. One of the stage-drivers, John Hanson, always tied shawls around his legs before he started on a trip, and he told me once that Bill Snooks, who drove the stage before he took it, froze both his legs when it was thirty degrees below zero, and that was nothing unusual; so the Indians were glad to wear furs to keep them warm.

Washabie, Shoshone chief


Now there was a great deal of gold in the mountains where these Indians lived, and Sioux, Shoshones, Cheyennes, Crows, and others all agreed to sell their land, which was valuable for mining, to our government, and go where there was no gold, but good water and plenty of game.

"Washington" agreed to pay the Indians for their land, and they moved away as they had promised, but the money did not come. The Indians all around Washakie had been sometimes friends to the white men and sometimes not, but when the money did not come they were ready to fight. They said: "You white men do not keep your promises." Washakie was the only one who seemed to understand that Washington was far away, and that the money must be voted by Congress before it could be paid. He would not fight, so the other Indians were angry with him, and a band of Crows attacked Washakie and his Indians. Now Washakie was a friend to white men, but he met the Crows in battle, drove them northward, and they were glad to run away as fast as they could, leaving their lodge poles behind them; so you see he could fight when he had to.

I often met this good Chief and we were fast friends. Once when I went through the Yellowstone Park he told me of his latest battle. The Sioux Indians had been determined to break the power of the Shoshones, to defeat them in battle, and carry them off captive. Led by young Red Cloud, the son of the famous war chief, a band of Sioux came upon Washakie, but he had so drilled his men that they held every pass through the mountains, and fought so hard that the Sioux were obliged to give up, particularly as their young chief, Red Cloud, fell in the last attack. Washakie received praise from the Indian department for the ability with which he kept his Indians together, and the help he gave our officers and soldiers.

He was always glad to see me, and in the Yellowstone Park sent Shoshone Jack with a band of Indians to ride just out of sight on all sides of us as a guard. We were as safe in that wild country with them around us as we would have been anywhere else in America.

When Washakie was old, and his hair was very white, his eldest son, Washakie, was killed, not in battle but in a drinking-place. Some one gave him whisky, and when he was drunk he had a fight with a white man and was killed. Then the old Chief Washakie covered his head and refused to be comforted. He said: "My Indians have always been good. They are not lazy like the Arapahoes who drink whisky. [The Shoshones have a great contempt for the Arapahoes.] And my son is dead. For him to die in battle would have made me sad, but for him to die like an Arapahoe Indian breaks my heart." For a long time he grieved, and ever afterward kept his head covered to remind himself and his friends of his deep sorrow, not because his son was gone, but because he had passed away in disgrace, as no Shoshone Indian should, to the Spirit Land.