Bannock Indian War and the Sheepeaters

For seven years previous to the treaty of 1869, the Bannock Indians had given no trouble. In the late fifties and early sixties they committed a number of depredations, and in 1862, General Conner, with a body of troops from California, administered a defeat to them at Battle Creek, near the present town of Oxford that effectually ended their misbehavior for several years. The bones of Indians killed in this fight are still found in the vicinity.

It was told in a previous chapter how a confusion of the terms Camas and Kansas occurred in the Bannock Indian treaty of 1869. The document stated that the Indians should have a portion of the Kansas prairie, instead of Camas. The two words were synonymous to the Indians, but wise men among the whites foresaw that the mistake would cause future trouble. Accordingly, in the spring of 1873, Mr. John Hailey called on the secretary of the interior and the commissioner of Indian affairs in Washington and urged that the mistake be corrected. As a result a commission of three was appointed to settle all disputed points with the Nez Perce and Bannock Indians, but nothing was accomplished by the embassy. The treaty still read “Kansas” and the Bannocks still believed that they were entitled to a portion of the Camas prairie, where there were no white settlers at that time, and where the Indians roamed at will.

The trouble came in 1878. In May of that year some hogs were herded on Camas prairie and William Silvey, George Nesbet and Lou Kensler drove a band of cattle and horses there to graze. The men camped about ten miles south of Corral Creek crossing. On the twenty-seventh of May, two English-speaking Indians, called Charley and Jim, visited the campers and appeared in every way friendly. They came again early the next morning, ate breakfast with the white men and continued their show of friendliness until Silvey, Nesbet and Kensler had scattered to their several camp duties. Then Indian Charlie, without warning, shot Nesbet through the jaws with a pistol as he was gathering up some dishes from the ground, while Indian Jim fired a shot at Kensler, who was saddling a horse, and grazed the side of his head. Nesbet and Kensler made a dash for their tent, where they seized guns and opened fire on the Indians, who were now shooting at Silvey. They fled before the bullets and Silvey escaped unharmed.

Nesbet was badly wounded. His companions tended his injuries as well as they could, saddled a couple of horses, and started with him for Boise. When they had gone a few miles they looked back and saw a large body of Indians devastating their camp. They gave the alarm as they traveled along toward Boise, which Nesbet was a week in reaching. Upon examination, his mouth was found to be alive with vermin, caused by fly-blows, but Dr. Treadwell cleansed it and sewed his tongue together, and after much suffering Nesbet recovered.

The Indians spent a day in the raided camp on Camas prairie, killing cattle and drying beef, gathering horses and preparing generally for war. Two white men, Mabes and Dempsey, were with them. The latter had lived with the Bannocks for several years and had an Indian wife. The Indians made Dempsey write a letter to Governor Braymen at Boise, threatening to kill settlers and destroy property all over the state, if troops were sent to fight them. They then sent Mabes to deliver the letter, and killed Dempsey.

It was learned later that there was a division among the Indians at this time, some favoring war, and others counseling against it. Buffalo Horn, who was bent on mischief, finally secured a following of some two hundred warriors and a few young Indian women, while the remainder of the Indians returned to the Fort Hall reservation.

Buffalo Horn and his followers next appeared at King Hill station on the Overland stage road. They robbed this place and then raided Glenn’s Ferry, five miles below, on the Snake river, where they destroyed several wagon-loads of merchandise consigned to Boise merchants, and held a big spree on some whiskey they found there. The next day they went on down the river to Bruneau, killing John Bascom and two other men on the way, and two others, Jack Sweeney and a Mr. Hays, whom they found at, or near, Bruneau. The murders would have reached a much higher number had it not been for the alarm spread by Kensler, Nesbet and Silvey, which gave the settlers an opportunity to escape.

In the meantime, W. C. Tatro, who had met the fleeing campers and learned of the outbreak from them, carried the news to Rocky Bar, where a company of volunteers was at once raised by Hon. G. M. Parsons. At the same time, Colonel Bernard, accompanied by Colonel R. Robbins who had rendered valuable services in the Nez Perce war of the previous year, led a body of troops from Boise. Both parties took up the trail of the Indians at Camas Prairie and followed in their tracks.

The people of Silver City in Owyhee County, hearing that a band of hostile Indians was encamped in the mountains to the north, sent a company of twenty-six men, under Captain Harper, to give them battle. The white men were greatly outnumbered and the Indians had the advantage of position. A long and fierce fight ensued, during which Captain Harper lost two men. The result was indecisive, the white men returning to Silver City, and the Indians withdrawing the following day.

When he heard of the Silver City engagement. Col. Bernard hurried thither, and sent Col. Bobbins out with a detachment of men to see why the mail stage, due the day before, had not arrived. They found the stage destroyed by the Indians, and the driver killed. The only passenger had escaped on one of the lead horses of the stage.

The Bannock Indians soon persuaded others to join them. They gained recruits from the Duck Valley Indians, the Lemhis, Winnemuccas, Malheurs and Snakes, and with their allies numbered about two thousand warriors, women and boys. As they traveled they killed or stole all the cattle and horses they met and destroyed a large amount of property.

From Silver City, Col. Bernard moved on to Fort Harney. Col. Robbins, who was scouting’ ahead, succeeded in locating the camp of the Indians by night. He followed their trail for some distance and then climbed a steep hillside to a level plateau, along which he crawled until opposite the red men’s camp. In the clear starlight, he could see all the Indian camps and calculated that they contained at least a thousand warriors. The white men had less than three hundred soldiers.

After a conference, Colonels Robbins and Bernard decided to attack the hostile camp. Col. Robbins, with thirty-five men, charged and surprised the enemy in the early morning, while Col. Bernard, with the main force, proceeded up Silver Creek to the canyon where the Indians were encamped.

Although completely surprised, the red men betook themselves to some fortifications they had made among the rocks, while the soldiers shielded themselves as best they could. The two parties kept up a fusilade throughout the day, and during the following night, June 23rd; the Indians decamped, leaving a hundred dead behind. Five soldiers were killed and a few slightly wounded.

Before beginning the battle, Col. Bernard had sent word to General Howard, who was at Malheur, saying that he was about to enter an engagement with a large force of? Indians and might need reinforcements. The general arrived the following morning and took command in person.

Colonel Bobbins and his scouts followed the Indians, who headed in a northwesterly direction, while the troops came on behind.

Within a few miles of John Day River, Bobbins came to a sheep corral in which a large fire had been built by the Indians. The brutes had then bound together the hind legs of the lambs found on the place and thrown them into the corral to burn to death. They had killed the old sheep and left them to rot. In another place the scouts found a herd of Merino bucks, whose forelegs the Indians had cut off at the knee, leaving the poor animals in agony. Such exploits were typical of the Indian on the warpath.

On another occasion the scouts saw a white man on foot running for his life from a party of pursuing Indians, who overtook and killed their victim before the rescuers could arrive. The man was found, scalped and mutilated, and although still breathing, too far gone to give even his name.

Scalping was quite an art among the Indians, and one in which, sad to say, some white men became very proficient. The Indians did not remove the whole head of their victim’s hair, but only a circular portion, about the size of a silver dollar, from the crown of the head. Sometimes in an attempt to win false glory, a man would cut two or three scalps from one head, taking the extra ones from the sides, but a judge of scalps could always detect the fraud, and unerringly select that which had been taken from the crown. Some white scouts scalped the Indians they killed, and sold the trophies, properly cured, for good sums, the price among eastern curio seekers ranging from fifty to seventy-five dollars. The wound inflicted by scalping was by no means fatal, although most people who went through the ordeal died, because they had been badly wounded first. But instances are on record of men who afterward recovered and were none the worse for their experience.

On July 8th, Colonel Robbins located and surprised the Indians in a canyon leading up to the Blue Mountains in Oregon. He was supported by Colonel Bernard with his troops, and succeeded in driving the red men from their position. But the Indians took to the hills and got away, leaving several dead behind them.

The Bannocks had crossed into Oregon in the hope of persuading the Umatilla and Yakima Indians to join them. In this they were disappointed, which, added to the close pursuit of the soldiers and the, now, well picketed condition of the country, disheartened the marauders, and they began to sneak back in small bands to the reservations from which they had come. On their way they committed many depredations.

In Umatilla County, Oregon, Mr. Charles Jewell, hearing of the Indian outbreak, secured an equipment of guns and carried them to his herders, who were tending his sheep about thirty-five miles from Pendleton. He stopped at a rancher’s door for a friendly chat, and had barely alighted from his horse when a volley of shots from some ambushed Indians laid him on the ground. The other man was killed and Mr. Jewell was left for dead. When the Indians had gone, he crawled into the house and secured a pair of blankets and a shingle. On the shingle he wrote: “Charles Jewell shot by Indians is in the brush near by call me if you see this.” The wounded man then dragged himself to the road, posted his sign (here, and crawled into the brush, where he wrapped himself in the blankets. For three days and nights he lay without food or water, and when finally some passing men found his sign and were led to him by his feeble answer to their call it was too late. He died a few days afterward in Pendleton.

The three leading war chiefs of the fighting Indians were Buffalo Horn, Bear Skin and Egan. The two former had been killed since hostilities began in May. About the middle of July, Chief Homily of the Umatillas, with ninety followers, went up into the hills to recover some horses that Chief Egan’s men had stolen. He arranged for a conference with Chief Egan and thirty of his men, and in the midst of it, at a given signal, fell upon Chief Egan, killing him and his thirty companions. He then affixed the dead chief’s scalp to a long pole, with the hair flying in the breeze and carried it triumphantly back to the reservation. General Howard had doubted the loyalty of the Umatillas up to this time and Chief Homily killed Chief Egan as an evidence of his good faith toward the whites. Colonel Robbins was sent to the scene of the massacre to determine whether Chief Egan were really dead. Everything was found just as Chief Homily had described it.

Chief Egan’s death completely demoralized the Indians. They had now lost their three greatest fighting chiefs, and wherever they went they found the white men ready for them. Volunteer companies had been formed all through that section of the country, even as far south as Nevada, and the triumphant advance of the red men had turned into a search for safety. They broke into small parties, traveling along out-of-the-way trails and largely by night, killing and plundering when the opportunity came, but always heading for the reservation and safety. It is now more than thirty-five years since this war ended, during which time the Bannock Indians have given no further trouble. The large increase in population makes another outbreak practically impossible.

Idaho has seen one other Indian war, known as the Sheep-Eater Indian war. This was fought with the Tookarikkas, in 1879. These people were a mixture of the Shoshones and Bannocks, apparently inheriting the bad qualities of both without their good qualities. They were outcasts, even among the Indians, and won their soubriquet of “Sheep-Eaters” by stealing sheep from the ranges. They were cowardly and treacherous, and subsisted largely by theft. In May 1879, they killed some settlers and burned some property on Hugh Johnson’s ranch on the south fork of the Salmon River, near Warrens, and as a result were rounded up by government and state troops and sent to Vancouver, Wash.

We give this war only passing notice because it belongs to the history of Bannock County, only through the relationship of the Tookarikka and Bannock Indians.

History of Bannock County, Idaho

Source: The History of Bannock County Idaho, By Arthur C. Saunders, Pocatello, Idaho. U. S. A., The Tribune Company. Limited, 1915

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top