Published on June 14, 2014 by Amy
Chief Washakie (c. 1798 – February 20, 1900) was a renowned warrior first mentioned in 1840 in the written record of the American fur trapper, Osborne Russell. In 1851, at the urging of trapper Jim Bridger, Washakie led a band of Shoshones to the council meetings of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851). Essentially from that time until his death, he was considered the head of the Eastern Shoshones by the representatives of the United States government.
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Much about Washakie’s early life remains unknown, although several family traditions suggest similar origins. Washakie was born in 1798 to his mother Lost Woman, who was a Tussawehee (White Knife) Shoshoni by birth, and his father, Crooked Leg (Paseego), an Umatilla rescued as a boy from slave traders at Wakemap and Celilo in 1786 by Weasel Lungs, a Tussawehee dog soldier (White Knife) Shoshoni medicine man. Washakie’s father, Crooked Leg, was adopted into Weasel Lungs’ clan. There, Crooked Leg, would become a Tussawehee dog soldier (White Knife) Shoshoni, as he would meet and marry Weasel Lungs’ eldest daughter Lost Girl, later Lost Woman. Thus, Washakie’s maternal grandfather was Weasel Lungs. His maternal grandmother, Chosro (Bluebird)), was also Tussawehee by birth. Lost Woman’s younger sister, Washakie’s aunt was Nanawu (Little Striped Squirrel), the mother of Chochoco (Has No Horse), who was therefore a first cousin to Washakie.
Crooked Leg and Lost Woman’s child, Washakie’s birth name was Pinaquanah (“Smells of Sugar” and he had other names before being called Washakie. When he was a teenager, he changed his name to Shoots the Buffalo Running. He was a high-stakes gambler, playing a game involving shaking small stones inside of a gourd rattle, rather like dice, so his friends renamed him Gourd Rattler.
Smells of Sugar met his first “white men,” in 1811. Wilson Hunt’s main party of Astorians with the Pacific Fur brigade were travelling down the Boise River from the mouth of the Bruneau River, seven months late for their scheduled arrival at Fort Astoria, when they happened into Crooked Leg’s camp on the Boise. They needed horses, which Crooked Leg refused to sell to them; instead reluctantly selling them a few camas roots, dried fish, and four dogs.
Washakie’s father was killed in 1824 by members of the Piegan Blackfeet when they raided a Shoshone hunting camp inside the Blackfoot hunting Boundary. Every able-bodied Shoshoni was following and hunting the migrating herds of game, as bison were now scarce in the Ochoco and the rest of the southern Blue Mountains and food was in short supply. There had been a weak truce in the summer of 1820, between Fires Black Gun (Tooite Coon), (also known to white men as Cameahwait and Comeah Wait, brother to Sacajawea), and Piegon Blackfoot chief Ugly Head, but the Shoshoni were hunting high in the Montana Rockies, well north of the southern boundary of the Blackfoot hunting grounds, for any game they could find. A Piegon war party, led by Large Kidney and Four Horns, burst into one of their encampments on the Boulder River, to find Shoshoni head chief Owitze (Twisted Hand), his war chief Red Wolf, and the popular young chief of the Tussawehee White Knife dog soldiers, Po’have (The Horse). Fighting ensued. Washakie, by now in his late teens and riding with the dog soldiers, led by Weahwewa (Wolf Dog), was moving north out of Wyoming country with a weapons shipment of Mexican guns from Comanche chief Shaved Head, and overheard the disturbance. His father, Crooked Leg, was camped a few miles away and Washakie got word to him immediately of the attack, whereupon Crooked Leg arrived on the scene, only to be killed.
The hunting ceased and the dog soldiers went on the war trail, backed by Comanche war chief Red Sleeves and his reinforcements. They combed the Boulder, the Yellowstone, and the Musselshell for Blackfoot to kill, and they did kill many. This victory by the Shoshoni led to a council with the Blackfeet tribes, with the Shoshoni once again a proud warrior society. At the council, it was agreed that the Blackfeet tribes would join forces with the Shoshoni to restrict the trappers expanding encroachment into both tribes’ hunting grounds.
By the late 19th century Washakie would become head chief of the Eastern Snakes. He was the only Snake warrior to be honored by the United States Government, for leading General Crook’s army to defeat the Sioux, after the Custer defeat.
The year of his birth is debated. A missionary in 1883 recorded the year of his birth as 1798, and later his tombstone was inscribed with the date 1804. Late in his life he told an agent at the Shoshone Agency that he had met Jim Bridger when he was 16. Interpolating from the age of Bridger when he first went into the wilderness, researchers have determined that Washakie was likely born between 1808 and 1810. During his early childhood, the Blackfeet Indians attacked a combined camp of Flathead and Lemhi people while the latter were on a buffalo hunt near the Three Forks area of Montana (where the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson rivers form the headwaters of the Missouri River). Washakie’s father was killed; his mother and at least one sister were able to make their way back to the Lemhis on the Salmon River in Idaho. In the melee of the attack, Washakie was lost and possibly wounded. According to some family traditions, he was found by either a band of Bannock Indians who had also come to hunt in the region, or by a combined Shoshone and Bannock band. He may have become the adopted son of the band leader, but for the next two-and-one-half decades (c. 1815-1840) he learned the traditions and the ways of a warrior that were typical of any Shoshone youth of that period.
Although the name by which he would be widely known has been translated in various ways, it apparently dealt with his tactics in battle. One story describes how Washakie devised a large rattle by placing stones in an inflated and dried balloon of buffalo hide, which he tied on a stick. He carried the device into battle to frighten enemy horses, earning the name “The Rattle” or “Gourd Rattler”. Another translation of “Washakie” is “Shoots-on-the-Run.”
Washakie’s band evidently participated in the fur trade rendezvous (1825–1840), since those rendezvous took place within the Green River, Wind River, and Snake River regions claimed by the horse-owning and buffalo-hunting Shoshone and Bannock bands of eastern Idaho. Late in life, Washakie reported that he and Jim Bridger became fast friends, and indeed, Bridger became Washakie’s son-in-law in 1850 when he took her as his third wife. Bridger, born March 17, 1804, entered Shoshone country in 1824 (Washakie said Bridger was the older of the two). Washakie learned French and some English from trappers and traders. Washakie’s close association with the trappers developed into a similar relationship with U.S. officials.
In 1863, and again in 1868, he signed treaties with the U.S. at Fort Bridger. The Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863 established a generic Shoshone country, whose borders extended eastward to the crest of the Wind River Mountains, south to the Uintah Mountains of Utah, and on the northern side, to the crest of the Bitterroots. The western border was left undefined, but was understood to include most of the Snake River as far as the Oregon border. This treaty included a number of Shoshone and Bannock Indian bands besides that of Washakie. The Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 was established at the Fort Bridger Treaty Council of 1868 and it proved more significant, for it established the Shoshone and Bannock Indian Agency located in west-central Wyoming. Moreover, this was land selected by Washakie and his headmen of the Eastern Shoshones. The initial reservation included about three million acres (12,000 km) in Wyoming’s Wind River country for his people. Although an 1872 land cession reduced the size by 800,000 acres (3,200 km2), this valley remains the home of the Eastern Shoshones today. He was also determined that Native Americans should be educated, and he gave land to Welsh clergyman John Roberts to establish a boarding school where Shoshone girls learned traditional crafts and language.
Washakie was a friend of Brigham Young and expressed sadness at the fighting his people had often done with the Utes. It was not until after 1880, after Young’s death, that Washakie became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was baptized on 25 September, 1880 by Amos R. Wright. About 300 other Shoshone joined the church at this point.
In 1883, the Episcopal Church assigned John Roberts to minister to the Shoshone and Arapahos on the Wind River Reservation. The following year, Roberts established a boarding school to teach mostly native American boys, and served for the next four years as its principal. Roberts also established several churches on the reservation, as well as within his designated 150 mile radius. Although the chief’s son was killed by a white men in 1885 during a dispute over alcohol, which purportedly led Washakie to vow revenge against whites, Roberts purportedly earned the Chief’s respect by offering his own life in exchange. Furthermore, Roberts learned Shoshone customs, beliefs and language, and translated the Bible into Shoshone (and Arapahoe). Circa 1888, Washakie helped Roberts establish a boarding school where Shoshone girls from distant villages could learn traditional crafts and language, by donating 160 acres near Trout Creek, which many considered sacred ground.
Chief Washakie chose Episcopalism as his faith, was baptized again in 1897, and ultimately buried in a service officiated by his friend Rev. Roberts, on February 22, 1900. Congress reaffirmed the church’s ownership of the school in 1909, when it deactivated the fort named after Chief Washakie. Although the school closed circa 1945, many of the historic girls’s school buildings survive today.
His prowess in battle, his efforts for peace, and his commitment to his people’s welfare made him one of the most respected leaders in Native American history. In 1878 a U.S. army outpost located on the reservation was renamed Fort Washakie, which was the only U.S military outpost to be named after a Native American. Upon his death in 1900, he became the only known Native American to be given a full military funeral.
Washakie County, Wyoming was named for him. In 2000, the state of Wyoming donated a bronze statue of Washakie to the National Statuary Hall Collection. There is also a statue of Chief Washakie in downtown Casper, Wyoming. The dining hall at the University of Wyoming is also named after him. The current ghost town of Washakie, Utah was also named after him.
During World War II, a 422-foot (129 m) Liberty Ship built in Portland, Oregon, in 1942, SS Chief Washakie, was named in his honor. USS Washakie, a United States Navy harbor tug in service from 1944 to 1946 and from 1953 to 1975, also was named for him.
Washakie was a hide painter. An epic 1880 painted elk hide at the Glenbow-Alberta Institute is attributed to him. The hide painting portrays the Sun Dance.
The Chief Washakie Foundation was founded in 2004. It supports educational programs and research into the history and cultural traditions of the Shoshone and Arapaho of Central Wyoming and advocates for Native American education. As of April 2013 Washakie’s great-great grandson James Trosper serves as Chair and Executive Director.