Idaho ignores Civil War, fights the Indians

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Federal army troops posted in Idaho between 1861 and 1865 could have sat out the Civil War raging elsewhere in the nation. But they didn't. President Lincoln pulled them out of the Northwest and sent them to fight the Confederacy.

Volunteer militia from California and Oregon were called in to take their place.

Their job was to monitor and protect the gold fields and telegraph lines, as well as travel and mail routes between east and west - while keeping the peace between settlers, miners and Indians.

Idaho and the surrounding territories were a concern to the federal government. Indians elsewhere in the nation were enlisted for support by both the North and the South. There was fear that Indians in the Idaho area might support the Confederacy.

The Mormons too were a worrisome factor because of previous conflicts with the government. Hence federal troops were supplanted by the volunteer militias to maintain a military presence.

Trouble wasn't long in coming. It was caused by gold, greed and genocide - not North-South sentiment.

The opening of the Oregon Trail in 1842 brought droves of settlers to the Pacific Northwest, which inexorably sealed the end of the life that Indians had known from the beginning. Later new migration trails added to the influx.

Then gold was discovered in California, Washington and Idaho, making matters worse.

Indians seeing the destruction of their way of life fought back. The volunteer troops initially sought to protect the Indians, but later switched sides to protect the newcomers from the Indians.

Further bullying from the federal government created a series of one-sided treaties that mostly worked against the Indians, and were constantly abrogated by the settlers, miners and government.

An example is the Walla Walla Council in 1855, when the U.S. Government sought to define territorial rights in the Pacific Northwest. Five Indian tribes were involved - two each from Oregon and Washington, and the Nez Perce from Idaho.

One segment of the treaty concerning the Nez Perce set the one-sided tone:

"ARTICLE 1. The said Nez Perce tribe of Indians hereby cede, relinquish and convey to the United States all their right, title, and interest in and to the country occupied or claimed by them, bounded and described as follows..."

Five years after the treaty was signed, thousands of gold seekers broke the treaty, invading the Nez Perce territory, trampling on Indian rights.

More concessions were demanded, and the Nez Perce unwillingly sold land in Idaho around Orofino, Florence and Pierce, where gold miners were already at work.

To protect both sides, Fort Lapwai was set up by the army near today's Lewiston. Soon however, with some 15,000 miners, plus others illegally on Nez Perce land, violence erupted, with the army generally siding with the whites.

Sen. James W. Nesmith of Oregon, in an 1862 Senate debate about appropriations for the Nez Perce, summarized quite well the nature of Indian treaties:

"Treaties are written out conveying away millions of acres, not one word of which the Indians understand; and complicated articles involving the most abstruse legal provisions, furnishing subjects for interminable litigation, are fully explained and elucidated by some ignorant half-breed interpreter, who does not know one letter from another, but who acts under the direction of some politician, who desires to win his way to public favor by perpetrating a huge swindle upon those who have neither power or intelligence adequate to their own protection."

Conflicts involving the tribes, settlers, miners and government flared up throughout the West, especially after the war, when battle-hardened U.S. Army veterans were thrown into the fray, taking over from the volunteer militias.

Like their Nez Perce neighbors to the north, the Shoshone Indians had their troubles too.

Swarms of settlers were competing with them for food and water, resulting in guerilla-style attacks and counter attacks on both sides. Killings were rampant. The Shoshone were fighting for their very survival.

On Jan. 29, 1863, some 200 Shoshone Indians led by Chief Bear Hunter were slaughtered by 300 soldiers of the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Division, commanded by Col. Patrick Edward Conner, at what is called the Bear River Massacre site, near Preston in southeastern Idaho. Only 20 Indians survived.

The attack was in retaliation against Shoshone attacks on white settlers.

Some historians consider the Bear River Massacre genocide, similar to the better known killings at Wounded Knee much later (1890) in South Dakota.

There was also non-military turmoil in Idaho during the Civil War, due mainly to rowdy miners looking for gold, and opposing Union-Confederate sympathizer camps brawling over which side was right.

Typical was Idaho City, a gold mining town northeast of Boise, where tough-guy Sheriff Orlando ("Rube") Robbins had his hands full keeping the peace. During those war years, the city had a population of 7,000, three dozen saloons, 200 businesses and enough trouble to keep two dozen law offices going. It was bigger than Portland. (Today, only about 500 live there.)

One writer said Robbins "was feared, yet respected by every bad man and 'gun-fighter' who ever sojourned in Idaho."

In late 1865, the Civil War was over, the volunteer militias in Idaho went home and the U.S. Army returned, but it brought no peace to the Indians.

With the Confederacy vanquished, many Union Army generals were assigned to the so-called Indian Wars. Among them was Maj. Gen. George R. Crook, who fought the Indians in Oregon before the Civil War.

Assigned to Idaho, he took charge of the fight in the Snake War against the Northern Paiute, Bannock and Shoshone tribes, which was already under way before the Civil War was over. By the time it ended in 1868, there were 1,762 casualties from both sides.

Later in life, the General would become a champion of Indian rights. Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief Red Cloud said: "He, at least, never lied to us. His words gave us hope."

Though Idaho was far removed from the Civil War, about a thousand Idahoans who lived or died in the state did serve in Union or Confederate military units elsewhere.

That's how things were in Idaho during the Civil War, when news headlines far to the east were about Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, Stones River, Shiloh, Antietam and Bull Run.

Idaho didn't make the headlines.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/producer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission.

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