Shoshone Tribe of Wyoming

Published on September 17, 2010 by Alice

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Shoshone tribe, Wyoming

Shoshoni Indian Tribe HistoryThe derivation of the Shoshone name, also spelled Shoshoni, both pronounced shuh-SHOW-nee, is unknown. Some tribal elders still write the name as Soshonies. The name is applied to a number of bands, spread over a vast area between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Based on dialect, lifeways, and history, the Shoshone are divided into three groups: the Western Shoshone in present-day central and eastern Nevada, eastern California, and northwestern Utah; the Northern Shoshone in present-day southeastern Idaho and northern Utah; and the Eastern Shoshone (who branched off from the Northern Shoshone) in present-day western Wyoming. Some Shoshone groups also ranged into present-day western Montana.


It is difficult to place the Shoshone groups culturally. As a whole, they are placed by scholars in the Great Basin Cul­ture Area (see GREAT BASIN INDIANS). The Great Basin is the vast, cupped desert area lying west of the Rocky Moun­tains and east of the Sierra Nevada, broken up by intermit­tent highlands. Native Americans living in this arid and barren environment foraged for scarce food, such as roots, nuts, seeds, lizards, insects, squirrels, and rabbits.

This foraging way of life was especially true of the Western Shoshone, who lived in primitive brush shelters, open at one end. The Goshute, or Gosiute, a band of Shoshone living along the desolate shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, were typical of this group. Their name indicates the ancestral relationship among the Shoshone, UTE, and PAIUTE. The Panamint (or Koso) Shoshone band in eastern California, living in one of the most extreme environments in all of North America—the Panamint Mountains and Death Valley—also were typi­cal foragers.

The Northern Shoshone shared cultural traits with the PLATEAU INDIANS to their north, fishing in the Snake and other rivers for salmon and collecting wild roots.

The Eastern Shoshone hunted game on the forested slopes of the Grand Teton and Wind River Mountains, part of the Rocky Mountain chain in present-day Wyoming. And with the acquisition of the horse in the late 1600s, the Eastern Shoshone gained greater mobility in their hunting. The pronghorn antelope was a favorite game for meat and hides, as was the buffalo. The Eastern Shoshone came to live in tipis like the PLAINS INDIANS east of the Rocky Mountains. They were traditional ene­mies of the ARAPAHO and BLACKFEET, living to their east.


Although early Spanish explorers might have had previ­ous contacts with the Shoshone, particularly the Western group, it was the Lewis and Clark Expedition that made non-Indian America aware of them. This voyage of exploration is mentioned in connection with many Native American peoples, since the expedition covered so much territory and encountered as many as 50 tribes. Thomas Jefferson, the president at the time, conceived of a scientific expedition west of the Mississippi River. The United States was a young country seeking out its boundaries. In 1803, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Pur­chase with France, which had recently been ceded the land by Spain. A vast expanse of mostly wilderness terri­tory, about 828,000 square miles, from the Gulf of Mex­ico to Canada, came under United States domain. Jefferson chose his private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to explore the northern part of this enormous tract. Lewis chose his friend, Captain William Clark, as his associate in command.

In the winter of 1803–04, Lewis and Clark organized a team of 29 additional men in Illinois, across the Missouri River from the settlement of St. Louis. One of these was an African American known simply as York in historical writ­ings. He would generate much interest among the Indians, who had never seen a person of his ancestry before. The explorers set out up the Missouri River in May 1804. They spent the next winter in MANDAN villages. It was during this period that a Montrealer named Toussaint Charbon­neau and his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea (or Sacagawea, translated as “Bird Woman”), joined the expedition. Char­bonneau had just purchased Sacajawea from the neighbor­ing HIDATSA. She had been brought to their villages by GROS VENTRE (ATSINA), who had captured her four years earlier in a raid on a Shoshone band.

This was a remarkably fortunate turn of events for the explorers. In the course of their subsequent travels, Saca­jawea’s presence reassured Indians whom they later encountered. She was able to communicate with the dif­ferent tribes through sign language. She obtained horses for the expedition from her own Northern Shoshone people to cross the Great Divide. She showed the way through the Lemhi Pass in the Rockies that led from the Missouri to the Columbia River. With her help, the expedition successfully reached the Pacific Ocean and made its way back again, with only one fatality. Char­bonneau and Sacajawea left the expedition where they had joined it, at the Mandan villages. Lewis and Clark returned triumphantly to St. Louis in 1806.

It is not known for certain when or where Sacajawea died. Some historians believe she passed away about 1812. But others have claimed that she died in Wyoming many years later, in 1855. Next to Pocahontas (see POWHATAN), Sacajawea probably is the most famous Native American woman in history. Her involvement as guide, translator, and diplomat makes her as responsible for the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as anyone.

Later Contacts

After the opening of the American West by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Shoshone way of life would never be the same. Trappers and traders, mountain men such as Jedediah Smith in 1825, crisscrossed their territory. (Traders referred to Northern Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and BANNOCK collectively as Snake Indians). In 1847, the Mormons founded their settlement on Great Salt Lake. Starting in 1849, during the California gold rush, prospec­tors and settlers also passed through Shoshone lands. Then in 1857, the discovery of the Comstock Lode, a rich strike of silver, led to mining settlements in Nevada.

During the early 1860s, while federal troops were engaged in the Civil War in the East, Great Basin Indian bands resisted white expansion. They raided wagon trains and stagecoaches along the Central Overland Route to California; they waylaid Pony Express riders carrying mail along the route from Salt Lake City to Cal­ifornia; and they also attacked the crews stringing new telegraph lines and destroyed the wires.

To keep communication lines open, California offi­cials sent the volunteer Third California Infantry east­ward under Colonel Patrick Connor. In 1862, Connor founded Fort Douglas in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains overlooking Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, Chief Bear Hunter’s band of Western Shoshone were raiding miners and Mormons alike. In January 1863, Connor led 300 troops out of Fort Dou­glas in the Bear River Campaign. In the bitter cold and over deep snowbanks, his men marched 140 miles north along the eastern side of the Great Salt Lake to Bear Hunter’s village.

The Bear River Indians had time to prepare barricades of rocks and earth, further reinforcing their village, which was in a steep-walled ravine. But still they were no match for the superior firepower of the California volun­teers, who poured round after round of ammunition into the village. With 224 of their people killed, the Shoshone retreated. Only 22 soldiers died.

That same year, the United States government laid claim to much of the Great Basin. In the so-called treaty, the Indians received no payment. By 1865, practically all native resistance had ended. In 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah, in Shoshone country, completing the transconti­nental railway and further encouraging non-Indian set­tlement in the West. In the 1860s and 1870s, all the Shoshone bands were assigned reservations.

In 1878, a band of Indians called the Sheepeaters, made up of both Bannock and Shoshone, launched a short-lived uprising in the Salmon River Mountains of central Idaho.

In the meantime, the Wind River band of Eastern Shoshone in Wyoming proved themselves valuable allies of U.S. forces. Under Washakie, they helped the army fight the SIOUX (DAKOTA, LAKOTA, NAKOTA) in several battles, including the Battle of the Rosebud in 1876. The tradition of friendly relations between these easternmost Shoshone and whites dated back to Sacajawea. Yet the Wind River band felt betrayed when U.S. officials placed their traditional enemies, the Arapaho, on their reserva­tion in 1878. A statue honoring Chief Washakie is located at the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Contemporary Shoshone

Western Shoshone currently hold a number of reservations in Nevada and California, some of which they share with the Paiute. The Goshute have one tract in Utah and another tract with land on both sides of the Nevada and Utah border. Northern Shoshone share the Fort Hall Reservation with Bannock in Idaho (the two tribes some­times referred to as Sho-Bans). Eastern Shoshone share the Wind River Reservation with Arapaho in Wyoming. The Northwestern Band of Shoshoni Indians of Utah is also federally recognized. Some of these reservations have gen­erated income from grazing or mining leases. The harsh environment and lack of capital have made economic development difficult for many of the bands, but some have created their own businesses in agriculture, ranching, gaming, and other ventures. The various Shoshone groups are striving to preserve traditional culture: At Wind River, for example, arts and crafts are encouraged at a tribal cul­tural center, and the Shoshone language is being taught to youths in tribal schools.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes by CARL WALDMAN Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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