Chief Pocatello

By SYD ALBRIGHT/Special to The Press

Chief Pocatello was leader of the Lemhi Shoshone Indians that roamed Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains and surrounding areas. They were part of a larger Shoshone Nation which some called “fierce and bloodthirsty.” The Shoshone did indeed attack and kill white settlers and white travelers heading west mostly along the Oregon and California trails.

Indian tribes who lived traditionally on lands that were being invaded by whites resented the loss of their lands and sources of food. Though the Shoshones attacked a relatively small number of the immigrants for encroaching on their lands, retaliation was massive and lethal.

Pocatello’s band was just one of many Native American tribes that witnessed a seismic wave of competing cultures sweeping across the nation.

To combat violence in the Great Basin during the early 1860s, the U.S. Government sent Col. Patrick Edward Conner and his California Volunteers to “chastise the Indians” and monitor the Mormons who were at odds with the government mainly over polygamy and theocratic governance of Utah Territory. He also brought more violence with him.

On Oct. 31, 1860, he executed 14 or 15 Indians for attacking a wagon train. Additional Indians were taken hostage and killed when they refused to produce those involved in the attack. Another Indian in Brigham City, Utah, was executed in a dispute over a payment.

Then in 1863, Conner’s “chastise” policy resulted in the worst massacre of Indians in American history at Bear River in the Cache Valley in southern Idaho, killing some 250 Shoshones – including women, children and babies. Bear Hunter, their chief was tortured before he was killed.

Chief Pocatello and his band of some 150 warriors escaped Bear River, having left the day before after getting wind of Conner’s coming assault.

Historian W. Paul Reeve wrote, “Although the Shoshones under Pocatello’s lead did terrorize settlers and immigrant trains, such acts were largely retaliatory in nature and done in hope of securing equal and humane treatment. The encroaching whites had destroyed game and grass cover and had killed Pocatello’s tribesmen in wanton attacks.”

University of Utah history professor Brigham D. Madsen wrote that after an Indian attack on miners, “The marauding natives were so starved that the prospectors watched them ‘eat the flour raw from the sacks.'”

The cultural war expanded in 1847 when the Mormons with their aspirations arrived in Utah, adding yet another culture – all of them competing against each other.

Each side believed that their actions were righteous and proper. American author Paddy Chayefsky wrote, “It’s not greed and ambition that makes wars – its goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons, for liberation or manifest destiny, always against tyranny and always in the best interest of humanity.”

In Shoshone and Blackfeet culture, theft from an enemy was encouraged as a sign of manliness and “reflected important moral virtues.” From their perspective, attacking immigrants who were trespassing on their lands, killing their game and whose animals were eating up their grasslands – and even raiding other Indians – was considered the right thing to do.

None of this was deemed in “the best interest of humanity” by Conner who ordered his troops to immediately hang captured Indians – “murderers” – and leave their bodies as examples. One report said, “His soldiers were further ordered to destroy every male Indian in the vicinity of the recent massacres. No prisoners were to be taken and he took on the role as judge, jury, and executioner.”

The violence in the West continued as the rest of the nation suffered through the Civil War.

A number of Shoshone chiefs finally decided to make peace with the government and negotiated with them at Fort Bridger not long after the Bear River Massacre. Weary and discouraged, Pocatello was encouraged to do likewise and sent word he wished for peace. He and 10 bands of Northwestern Shoshones met with Col. Conner and Utah Territory Superintendent of Indian Affairs James D. Doty and signed the Box Elder Treaty of 1863 at Brigham City.

The treaty included provisions of the earlier Fort Bridger Treaty, adding that henceforth the Shoshones and the U.S. would have amicable relations. Land claims issues were also agreed upon, and the government promised to pay $5,000 annually to the Shoshone Nation, plus $2,000 in provisions and goods.

The treaty didn’t help Pocatello and his people and other bands very much. The government quickly reneged on payments and the hunger continued.

A year after signing the treaty, Pocatello’s band was still hungry and raided food and supplies at Malad Spring Station. Conner – by then promoted to general for his slaughtering – was still after Chief Pocatello, intent on revenge for the death of 21 of his men at Bear River.

Conner eventually caught the chief and said if found guilty at trial, he would hang him. The Indians were upset and headed for the mountains to prepare for war, but the station owner pleaded that charges be dropped and Pocatello was released.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Dole didn’t know about the release and informed Secretary of the Interior John Usher of Conner’s intentions. When the matter reached President Lincoln’s ear, he immediately pardoned the chief.

With a heavy heart, Pocatello agreed to move his people to Fort Hall Reservation, but the then-1.8 million-acre reservation was already overcrowded. His band of 400 only added to the problem, so the chief moved them to Bannock Creek, away from the other groups.

The government wanted the nomadic Indians to be farmers, but the reservation land was inadequate for that purpose. To avoid starvation, Chief Pocatello led a small band to a Mormon missionary farm in Utah for a mass baptism, believing the LDS Church could help them. Many of the settlers were not pleased with this and wanted the Indians removed. They ultimately got their way when the Army forced them back onto the reservation, fearing an alliance between the Mormons and Shoshones.

Many Mormons charitably helped the Indians however, considering them Israel’s lost tribe, mentioned in the Book of Mormon. LDS leader Brigham Young said, “I wish to impress (all) with the necessity of treating the Indians with kindness, and to refrain from harboring that revengeful, vindictive feeling that many indulge in.

“We expect you to feed and clothe them so far as it lies in your power; never turn them away hungry from your door; teach them the art of husbandry; bear with them in all patience and long suffering, and never consider their lives as an equivalent for petty stealing.”

But other Mormons saddled with having to feed hungry Indians often felt less sympathetic. More and more, the Indians were depending on handouts. No longer could they survive on their own after the rape of their ancestral lands that for thousands of years provided them with all their needs.

The clash of cultures was creating a very different America.

From 1868 to 1932, the Fort Hall Reservation size was gradually reduced by two-thirds due to white encroachment and government land grabs.

In his final years, Chief Pocatello withdrew from tribal affairs and lived the rest of his life an unhappy man. In October 1884, he died.

Following his instructions, his body, accompanied by his prized possessions, was dropped into a deep spring by the Snake River in southern Idaho.

Chief Pocatello roamed the mountains and prairies, hunted buffalo, fought the Sioux, Blackfeet and white man, robbed and plundered to feed his people, striking fear into the newcomers taking over the West. He lived in the middle of a cultural war he could not win.

Leading his people through those turbulent times, “Chief Pocatello, from some perspectives, was seen as the bad guy, and from other perspectives as the good guy,” said Laverne Beech, Shoshone-Bannock tribe spokesperson.

In 1949, Shoshone Chief Pabawena wrote Utah Senator Arthur V. Watkins:

“We are the northwestern band of the Shoshone pretty poor conditions and their children’s starving their fathers no work everything pretty hard for us no money….We are have received no anything from the Government since the treaty was made in Box Elder treaty on July 30, 1863.”

Today, Pocatello, Idaho was named in the chief’s honor; Fort Hall has a casino, and America has the memory of the Lemhi Shoshone’s most famous tribal member-Sacagawea.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. Contact him at

The name Pocatello…

Chief Pocatello was born around 1815 in the Grouse Creek area of Northwestern Utah, southwest of today’s Oakley, Idaho. Whites called him Pocatello, but he called himself Tonaioza, meaning “buffalo robe.” The Pocatello name was likely created by whites, as there is no “L” in the Shoshone language.

Details of Chief Pocatello’s burial…

Judge Walter T. Oliver wrote, “First we took the chief and wound all his clothing around him, then tied his guns, knives, and all his hunting equipment and relics to the clothing with willow thongs and tossed him out into the middle of the spring, and he went to the bottom quickly. Then the Indians took the eighteen head of horses, killed them one by one and rolled them into the spring on top of the old man, and they two were soon out of sight, for the spring is said to have no bottom.” The burial site is now covered by the American Falls Reservoir.

The Judge remembers the chief…

“As I remember Chief Pocatello, he was 70 years old, about 5 feet 10 inches tall, straight as a sapling and pretty good-looking old man. He was always pleasant and I have spent many hours talking with him for he often came to see me and my wife, sort of liked us, sometimes he would stay three or four days and camp a few rods from my house.”

– Judge Walter T. Oliver