Northern Shoshone and Bannock
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Snow in the Idaho high country.
2002 Triple O Outfitters

Lemhi Pass & How the Indians Averted Famine

T. M. Bridges was the chief medical officer at Fort Hall in 1897. He recorded this story from an unidentified Bannock man. The first paragraph is an introduction by Bridges; the rest is his transcription of the Bannock man's story.

Buffalo along the Madison River, Dean Rudy photo
Courtesy Mountain Men and the Fur Trade website

How the Indian Averted Famine

"An old Bannock Indian of the Fort Hall reservation, (Idaho) recently related the following story, which in a rather remarkable manner illustrates the difficulty in procuring, as well as the ingenuity of the Indian in securing a supply of food under most peculiar and particularly distressing circumstances. Knowledge of connecting and contemporaneous events, together with the manner of recital, point strongly to the truthfulness of the narrative. The date was probably in the early or middle fifties, and the situation of the camp at some place near the central part of the western boundary of what is now Wyoming. The story is given in a great degree in his own selection of words. After filling his pipe with the white man's tobacco and comfortably stretching himself on his blanket, he related the following interesting reminiscence" (Bridges: 1897).

"Many years ago, when the leaves were falling, my people were hunting on the banks of the Pah-we-zint-sah, (probably the Madison river). We numbered sixty lodges, (about 250 persons), but we did not find the game to kill for our winter meat, and with the coming of the cold we slowly moved to the south, maybe ten days journey, looking for the buffalo, but we could not find them; they had gone far away. image
Buffalo Jump in the Madison River valley, 1909
Photo by Jesse Green

Courtesy Montana State University-Bozeman Special Collections 2245.#256

A valley in west central Wyoming, MM001237
Courtesy of Sublette County Historical Society, WY
The snow got very deep; it was up to my pony's breast, and very soft; the ponies could not go, nor could we walk well on the snow-shoes. Our meat was all gone; we had only the roots, pine nuts and what small game we could kill; it was not enough. The deer, elk and buffalo were gone; we could not find them - the hunters tried every day. Now the snow was deep and we could not travel, so we made a winter camp on a small stream, with plenty of wood-dug away the snow and the squaws set up the tepees. We were hungry all the time - the little ones and the squaws cried a great deal for us to give them food. There was no food for our ponies and they all wandered away, except a few buffalo hunting ponies that we tried to keep; our other ponies we could never find; maybe they all died.
"The winter got very cold, the snow deeper than we had ever seen it. We had no food now except a very few poor ponies to get food, but all failed. We could catch no fish out of the stream, it was too small and there was no big water near to our camp. We could find no rabbits; the buffalo, elk and deer had gone far to the south land, out of the cold winter and the deep snow; we could not see them. All the people got very poor, many died, and the young men were too weak to hunt. But we lived on roots, bark, and such small game as we could kill. Maybe one-half of the people died. We went out in the timber so that we cannot hear the little ones cry for food. Some people cry for their dead ones all the time, they do not stop at night. Well at last when some wild ducks flew over our camp going north, we thought it would soon be warm enough for the buffalo to come back, and we gave the young men, the hunters all the food we could spare, so they would have heart to hunt the buffalo when they come back. We had more scouts go out every day on the high hill to watch if the 'Great Spirit' would send the buffalo back to us. Our old men made 'buffalo medicine' and the squaws sharpened their knives, but for many days we did not see the buffalo.

"One day when we were very sad and hungry, nearly starved, many of the people too weak to walk, but must lay in the tents all the time, I was sent out early to look for the game. I went very slowly to the top of a hill that overlooked a fine valley, where the grass was getting just a little green. The valley was covered with the buffalo, I rubbed my eyes very hard, I thought I did not see straight, but it was the buffalo. I was so glad I could hardly make the buffalo signal to my people; my head turned all around; I was very glad indeed. I made the sign and the hunters, about eleven, came up to spy the game, some of the old men came, they were very glad. The valley where the buffalo were was very flat, except a small ridge on the other side of the buffalo, we could not hide to get in bow show. We went down to the camp, only one man stayed to watch the buffalo. We talked a long time. The old men said some must die, maybe, in order to get meat for the rest of the people. This made us very sad. The old men counseled a long while, and then said that the hungers, as many as were strong enough to walk so far-our buffalo ponies were all dead-must go around the valley out of sight of the buffalo, get behind the little ridge in the middle of the valley and hide there. They must take fire with them, and when all had gotten there and were hid near the crest of the ridge, they must make a very small "smoke".. Then all the old men, squaws and children that could walk would go up on the high hills from which I had seen the buffalo and scare them, so they would run over the little ridge behind which we hid. We agreed to this, but there were many buffalo, we were not many - we were weak - we thought some hunters would be killed by the buffalo running over them, for the buffalo is just the same as the white man's cattle when they get scared; they stampede; they cannot see then; they run over the hunter and maybe kill him when he has no pony. But our hearts were strong and we thought we would kill some with our arrows as they came to us, and if they did not run over and kill us all we would get others as they passed by.

"We did as the old men counseled, and when we were all hid behind the little ridge in the middle of the valley I made a very small "smoke". The people came to the top of the mountain, waved their blankets and hallooed very loud. The great buffalo were frightened and a great many ran toward our little ridge; they did not see us - we lay close to the earth.. They made a great noise when they ran; it was like the thunder in the sky, but we hid until they were very near, maybe ten long jumps for a young man; then we rise up, shout and shoot our arrows as fast as we can. But the buffalo don't stop; they come on and run over some of us; we can't see; there is too much dust. I was close by a pretty big rock; when they almost run over me I shot my last arrow at a big buffalo and drop behind the rock very quick, with another Indian, my cousin. I hit the big one in the eye; he stumbled and fell dead over the rock. He fell on us and broke my arm, but he didn't hurt my cousin, he is alright. Now the buffalo have all passed and run far away and we count to see how many we killed, and we find nine, all pretty big ones and a little fat; we are very glad to get this good meat for the hungry people. Then we count the hunters. Ten hunters came out to the ridge. Three are not hurt. Two are killed and two hurt so they died pretty soon. One is hurt so that he does not get well till the next snow and then he always walk lame like his leg hurt. One hunter, like me, hurt just a little and soon get well again. We are very sorry for our friends that die and the squaws cry and cut themselves very much.

"Now all the people who can walk come down in the valley and dress the meat. We stayed there and cooked and cut the meat for two days; we were too weak to go back to the camp, but some who are strong go to the camp and carry the good meat to the weak and sick ones who cannot come to our new camp where the meat is. Well, this buffalo meat soon made us strong and we find plenty of elk and deer and some more buffalo and we kill them, so that we have a great deal of the good meat. When the leaves got big we moved our camp, and the old men counted the people and we had only twenty seven lodges. Many of the people cried a great deal and we were very sorry for the dead we had that bad winter" (unidentified Bannock man).

Background: squirrelgrass, a Roger Rosentreter photo courtesy BLM Idaho