The Bannock War: A Struggle for Land and Liberty

The Bannock War, a pivotal chapter in the complex tapestry of American history, unfolded in the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1878. This conflict, primarily between the United States and the Bannock and Paiute tribes, is a stark reminder of the tumultuous relationship between Indigenous peoples and the expanding United States in the 19th century. The war’s roots lay in broken treaties, dwindling resources, and a desperate fight for survival by the Native American tribes.

Through a closer examination of the Bannock War, we gain insights into the causes of the conflict, its major events, and the enduring impact on the tribes involved and the American West.

Why did the Bannock War happen?

In 1877, the Bannock Nation numbered about 600 at the Ross Fork Agency on the Upper Snake River in southeastern Idaho. 150 miles to the north, another few hundred shared the Lemhi Reservation with Shoshonis and Sheepeaters. The Bannocks had lived a peaceful reservation existence for nearly twenty years. But now, the pressure from white encroachers on their assigned lands was causing tempers to flare. The game that the Bannocks relied upon for food was becoming ever harder to find.

Reservations rations could not satisfy hungry stomachs. Combined with the hunger that led to discontent was the news of the recent Nez Perce uprising.

At Ross Fork Agency, tension was heightened with the wounding of two white men by a Bannock in August 1877 and the murder of another white man in November. The Bannocks did not want to hand over the culprit. His attempted arrest caused such an alarm that Colonel John Smith seized 53 Bannock warriors and took away their arms and horses.

Over the winter, tempers boiled, but no outbreak occurred. Then, in the spring of 1878, Bannocks, Paiutes, and Shoshonis gathered to dig roots at Camas Prairie, a traditional root-digging area. When they arrived, however, they found that whites had preceded them, and most of the roots had already been eaten by grazing hogs. This fuelled the people’s anger.

Illustration of Chief Buffalo Horn
Illustration of Chief Buffalo Horn

Then, on May 30, a Bannock shot and killed two white men. At this time, some of the Indians rushed back to their reservation. But others banded together under a chief named Buffalo Horn and decided that they would launch a large-scale raiding offensive to drive out the white man. The warrior force numbered about 200.

The raiding party set off through Southern Idaho. Along the way, they killed ten white men. On June 8, they came across formidable resistance at Silver City. In the ensuing shootout, Buffalo Horn was killed. The Indians withdrew, now leaderless. They continued west to Steens Mountain, Oregon. Here, they were reinforced by Paiutes, Oytes, and Egan, who had fled their reservations. They now had some 450 fighting men.

The Army response was to mobilize a concentration of the First Cavalry, the Twenty-First Infantry, and the Fourth Artillery. Firstly, however, it was decided to try a little diplomacy. The daughter of a friendly Paiute Chief, Sarah Winnemucca, was sent into the hostile camp to talk peace. However, she found a violently inflamed mass of warriors, and peace was not in their minds. She barely got out alive.

Under General Oliver Howard, the Army now moved on Steens Mountain. The Indians now mobilized and traveled northwest across the desert towards Silver Creek. It was here, on June 23, that they were surprised by three troops of cavalry under Captain Rueben Bernard. The soldiers swept through the Indian camp. The Indians managed to make it to some steep bluffs, where they took up defensive positions. For the rest of that day, the two sides exchanged fire. Under cover of night, the Indians stole away. But they had lost their camp and all of its contents.

General Howard continued the pursuit. As they fled, the Indians continued pillaging. On July 8, Howard’s scouts discovered the Indians entrenched in defensive positions in the rocky bluffs on Birch Creek near Pilot Butte.

Under the heavy advance from the soldiers, the warriors fell back, finally making a stand in a timber grove. The soldiers managed to flank them, and the Indians were forced to flee. From here, they headed south. Thinking that they were heading for the Nez Perce territory in the Walla Walla Valley, General Howard high-tailed it there to cut them off. But, knowing that the soldiers had moved out, the Bannocks suddenly turned north again. They went to the Umatilla Reservation. The Umatillas gave the hostiles a lukewarm reception.

Soon, General Nelson A. Miles marched onto the Reservation with a large force of men. The Indians were driven to the mountains to the east.

On July 15, a band of reservation Umatilla entered the hostile camp. Pretending that they wanted to join the resistance, they, instead, lured away Chief Egan and killed him. They then fled -with his scalp. The Army now unleashed Lieutenant Colonel James W. Forsyth on the trail of the Bannocks. Yet, now leaderless, the hostile coalition began to break up.

The Paiutes scattered over eastern Oregon. The Bannocks headed back towards Idaho, leaving a trail of blood in their wake. A sharp battle with Forsythe on September 12, however, brought final subjugation to the Bannocks. One hundred thirty-one of them surrendered. They were held as prisoners at Camp Brown and Fort Keogh before being returned to their reservation.

Reflecting on History

The Bannock War, a significant event in the history of the American West, is emblematic of the recurring pattern of the United States government’s treatment of Native American tribes. It highlights the need to study the past as a continuum of interrelated events that shape the present and future. Analyzing conflicts such as the Bannock War provides valuable insights into the complexities of cultural interactions, the consequences of policies, and the persistent struggle for justice and sovereignty faced by Native American communities. A comprehensive study of such conflicts can aid in developing a nuanced understanding of the intricate issues surrounding the history of Native Americans and help us make informed decisions for the future.

Additionally, a reexamination of these histories compels us to acknowledge and examine the experiences and voices that have traditionally been excluded or downplayed in mainstream historical narratives. This inquiry encourages a more thorough investigation into the durability and efficacy of Native American tribes in safeguarding their customs, territories, and lifestyles amidst the expansionist and colonialist forces of the time.

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