Washakie Township: The Mormon Alternative to Fort Hall

Ninety miles south of Fort Hall, the Washakie Township represented an alternative to reservation life. Following the conversion of over 100 Shoshones to Mormonism, Washakie was founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1880. Here, the Northwestern Band of Shoshone made their home as ranchers and farmers until the 1960s. Today, Washakie is a ghost town owned by an energy company.

They were among the only survivors: Chief Sagwitch and his Northwestern Band of Shoshone were destitute and hopeless after three quarters of their tribe were murdered in the 1863 Bear River Massacre. One decade later, Sagwitch made peace with the occupiers of his homeland by joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Through the help of the LDS church, the Shoshone began a homestead community away from Fort Hall where they felt they would be free to practice their new religion.

For the next eighty years, hundreds of Shoshone made their homes in Washakie. At its pinnacle in the 1920s, more than 300 worked there as farmers and ranchers. At first, they relied on subsistence agriculture, which they supplemented with deer meat. As their land base grew, the Northwestern Band began selling excess crops of wheat and potatoes to the LDS Church. Additionally, they raised purebred cattle and sheep, which they sold at premium prices in the local market.

After 1900, very few of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone returned to Fort Hall except for larger intertribal Shoshone gatherings, especially basketball games. At Washakie, they were allowed to speak Shoshone and perform traditional ceremonies—which the US government wanted to eliminate. The local grade school—established and maintained by the LDS Church—taught the students to speak, read, and write English but did not discourage the exploration of Shoshone culture. After elementary school, most students attended nearby high schools and a remarkably high percentage also attended college.

By World War II, Washakie was a relatively successful agricultural experiment, but the inhabitants still lived without electricity in small shacks and tents. Seeking better economic opportunities, many found employment at the nearby Hill Airforce Base. Drawn away by the allure of steady pay and higher education, few young people stayed in Washakie, and its population dwindled until the land was sold in the 1970s.