Blood in the Salmon River Mountains: Sheepeater War

Two years after the Nez Perce War and one year after the Bannock War ended, white residents in southern and central Idaho hoped that another Indian conflict would never happen again. Unfortunately, relations between Native Americans and settlers did not rest after a series of events caused another war to erupt. This war between three cavalries and a band of Western Shoshone became known as Idaho’s last armed conflict with Native Americans.

The Sheepeaters were a band of Western Shoshone that comprised of other tribes from the Columbia Plateau and the Snake River Plain. In 1878, the Bannock War came to a close, and surviving tribesmen joined the Sheepeaters. Soon raids for horses and the murders of ranchers and American and Chinese miners caused speculation that Sheepeaters were behind the attacks, but there was no evidence. As a result, General Oliver Howard directed military forces in the region. He organized a campaign of at least sixty troops for Capt. Reuben Bernard called Troop G of the 1st Cavalry. Their mission was to investigate the region and find the Sheepeater band.

Troop G dispatched from Boise on May 31, 1879, and on June 4, Lt. Henry Catley led forty-eight infantrymen of the 2nd Infantry dispatched from Grangeville, Idaho. Throughout the campaign, Bernard’s and Catley’s infantries suffered difficulties with the mountainous terrain, with the snow delaying their march. Catley remained in Warren, Idaho, until the snow dissipated in July, and Bernard reported to Howard of the terrain and asked for help. Howard ordered Lt. Edward Farrow of Umatilla, Oregon, to lead the 21st Infantry with twenty-eight troops on July 11. With several supplies lost, Catley’s cavalry reached Big Creek, where they discovered signs of Native Americans in the region, and on July 29, they were attacked at Vinegar Hill. Catley’s cavalry soon retreated, but they got themselves trapped in the canyon and were attacked again the next day, forcing the cavalry to retreat back to Grangeville. On August 6, Bernard and Farrow joined forces at the North Payette River. They marched through Big Creek until, on August 20, a Sheepeater raiding party of fifteen Native Americans attacked Troop G at Soldier Bar. The troops fought back and forced the raiding party to retreat. Only one soldier died. But the soldiers kept following the band.

After following the raiding party, Troop G marched to Grangeville for rest, but continued with the campaign on September 17. They took prisoners with them, and on September 23, a Sheepeater war chief came to Troop G and surrendered. Eight days later, Idaho’s last armed conflict with Native Americans came to an end. The prisoners were taken to Washington State and were questioned for the actions that caused the war. The tribe denied these actions. Troop G returned to Boise after marching 1,258 miles through the River of No Return region. The Sheepeater band and prisoners were soon transferred to the Fort Hall Reservation in Southeastern Idaho the same year, and no armed conflicts on Native Americans in Idaho followed afterwards.

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