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History and Culture

Chief Washakie: Great Leader of the Shoshone people

In the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., each state displays a statue of its two most important leaders. On September 7, 2000, Wyoming selected Chief Washakie to represent the people of Wyoming.

Born in the early 1800s, Chief Washakie earned a reputation that lives on to this day—a fierce warrior, skilled politician and diplomat and great Shoshone leader. His influence on the West lingers not just at our nation’s capitol, but also in the names of hot springs, historical centers, a county and the small town named in his honor in northwest Wyoming.

Shoshone Chief Washakie
Public Domain

Who was this man and why, more than a century after his death, are we still talking about him? The answer lies in the fact that, during the “settlement” of the West, Washakie fought front and center in the to preserve the Native American way of life. It would be the toughest battle the great warrior would fight in his long life.

Chief Washakie loved battle. According to one story, he got his name as a young man from a word meaning “rattle” when he cleverly developed a buffalo hide instrument that he shook at his enemies to scare their horses. By 1850, Washakie, who had been part of the Bannock and Green River Snake (Shoshone) tribes at various points, was head chief of the Shoshones, rumored to have earned the position from his bravery in battle and wise counsel.

Around this time, wagon trains began to rumble through Shoshone country. White settlers were moving rapidly into the West, and there was no turning back. The Shoshone chief and his council had a big decision to make: would they fight for their lives against the takeover, or would they choose a different road and make peace with their new neighbors? The Shoshones did a bit of both. With Washakie in the lead, the tribe attacked every stage station along the Oregon Trail in 1862, from what is now Casper all the way to the Utah border.

But by the mid-to-late 1860s, the Shoshone people had also allied at various times with the settlers. They assisted U.S. Army operations, gave advice to advancing military forces, fought against the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne, and granted right-of-way to the Union Pacific Railroad that paved through Shoshone land. They also assisted wagon trains, helped weary travelers ford streams and recover stray cattle. Through all of this, Washakie had a cadre of sub-chiefs who helped him make decisions. But he was the primary spokesperson for the Shoshone people.

In 1863, Shoshone land stretched more than 44 million acres, from the Salt Lake valley in Utah to the majestic Tetons, and into what is today Yellowstone National Park. Washakie and his sub-chiefs were adamant that their people have the best schools, churches and hospitals in their beloved country.

On July 3, 1868, Chief Washakie signed the Ft. Bridger Treaty along with seven members of the United States military. Under this treaty, Washakie became one of the only chiefs to pick the location of his new home. And he chose wisely, picking along with his sub-chiefs a place that would be called the “Warm Valley” nestled against the Wind River Mountains, where food and water were plentiful.

By this time, the tribe’s land had been dwindled down to just over three million acres. And the government’s promises in the Ft. Bridger Treaty to support the tribe quickly began to fall through. Understandably, the outspoken chief was not happy. This was a leader who had spoken out against this kind of treatment before.

“The white man kills our game, captures our furs, and sometimes feeds his herds upon our meadows. And your great and mighty government—oh sir, I hesitate, for I cannot tell the half! It does not protect our rights…I say again, the government does not keep its word!”

Shoshone land continued to dwindle in cessions to the U.S. Government. Today, the Wind River Indian Reservation spans just two million of its original 44 million acres. Before Washakie’s death in 1900, he would see his tribe suffer greatly, experiencing high mortality rates from starvation. The buffalo that had once sustained his people were gone, and the chief had little power left to bargain with the government.

What’s more, after his death the government succeeded in opening up much of the reservation’s most fertile areas to white settlement and constructed a huge irrigation system to supply water to white farms within the reservation’s boundaries. These kinds of problems continue to plague the Shoshone people.

But the views that Chief Washakie helped leave for his people still take your breath away, stretching out across a broad golden valley, and over sloping foothills that stand like a fortress against the Wind River Mountains. The famed leader and warrior was buried here with full military honors on February 20, 1900, a ceremony no other Indian chief has ever received. His grave stands—a symbol of hope and defiance in the face of a changing world.