High on the Continental Divide at a place called Two Oceans Plateau at 8,200 feet altitude, three tiny creeks in Yellowstone National Park flow west and south into Wyoming’s Lake Jackson.
That’s how Idaho’s 1,078-mile Snake River was born. From the icy mountains, the melting snow roars down the slopes, forming creeks and rivers that empty eventually into the Snake and then the mighty Columbia River before reaching the Pacific near Astoria.
The Snake River got its name from the Native American Shoshone, Bannock and Nez Perce tribes collectively called the Snake Indians.
On Aug. 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and three others may have been the first non-natives to see the Snake River Drainage Basin (but not the river), having arrived at Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide days before the Corps of Discovery exploratory expedition (1804-1806), sent by President Jefferson.
The party later traveled north to the Lemhi River and to the Salmon — a major tributary of the Snake River that they were attempting to reach, but couldn’t because of rapids.
A lot of history has taken place along the Snake as it carves a giant “U” across the Idaho landscape, forming a necklace of beautiful scenes from mountain top to shiny sea — awe-inspiring to the early trappers and pioneers and awe-inspiring to us today.
But one gem Lewis and Clark didn’t see was the spectacular Shoshone Falls on the Snake near today’s Twin Falls.
About 1874, frontier photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan photographed the 212-foot tall falls — 45 feet higher than Niagara — with his big clumsy, boxy wooden camera and 10-inch glass negatives, helping tell the rest of the world about the great American West.
Shoshone Falls marks the end of boat navigation upstream, and also stops anadromous fish like salmon, steelhead, trout and sturgeon from swimming further up the river to spawn.
At the falls, the migrant fish spawn and die.
With the Lewis and Clark expedition was Shoshone Indian Sacagawea and infant son Pompey. Years earlier, she’d been kidnapped by other indians and sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau — a trapper and guide hired for the epic journey — who later married her.
There were hostile tribes along the Snake in those days — the fierce Blackfeet, and also some unfriendly Shoshone and Bannock.
Sacagawea and her baby turned out to be an unexpected blessing. When hostile indians saw them, they considered it evidence that the expedition was on a peaceful mission.
Five days after Lemhi Pass, Sacagawea and her brother, Cameahwait, had a glorious reunion, He’d become tribal chief since her abduction, and the Lewis and Clark expedition gratefully received his help.
The expedition didn’t follow the Salmon Valley south to the Snake, but instead headed north, and then west 200 miles over the Lolo Trail across the Salmon River and Clearwater Mountains — some of America’s most rugged terrain.
Arriving hungry and exhausted at Weippe Prairie, they were greeted and cared for by the Nez Perce.
Next was making canoes from hollowed-out logs, leaving their horses in the care of the Nez Perce, and then paddling down the Clearwater River to the Snake and Columbia to their final destination — Astoria.
The Salmon flows into the Snake north of Hells Canyon, 40 miles south of Lewiston. At Lewiston and neighboring Clarkston, Wash., the Snake and Clearwater converge and flow into the Columbia at Tri-Cities, Wash.
One hundred and thrity miles southeast of Shoshone Falls and 68 miles south of Pocatello, a terrible event happened on Jan. 29, 1863:
Leading some 200 California volunteers, Col. Patrick E. Connor attacked a Northwestern Shoshoni winter village at the confluence of Beaver Creek and Bear River 12 miles northwest of Franklin in the southeast corner of Idaho.
The attack was in retaliation for indian depredations against mostly Mormon settlers, after Utah officials asked for help.
At 6 a.m. in winter darkness, troopers raced down an embankment and indiscriminately began firing — killing between 250 and 500 Shoshone, including 90 women and children.
“By 8:00 a.m., the Indian men were out of ammunition,” wrote Utah historian Brigham D. Madsen, “and the last two hours of the battle became a massacre as the soldiers used their revolvers to shoot down all the Indians they could find in the dense willows of the camp.
“After the slaughter ended, some of the undisciplined soldiers went through the Indian village raping women and using axes to bash in the heads of women and children who were already dying.
“The troops burned the seventy-five Indian lodges, recovered 1,000 bushels of wheat and flour, and appropriated 175 Shoshoni horses…the Indians’ bodies were left on the field for the wolves and crows.”
A report by the Salt Lake Tribune says that Col. Connor “justified the raid as a mission to teach the Indians a lesson, but his men showed little mercy once the fighting began.”
The attack was among the worst atrocities ever against American Indians — including the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Fourteen soldiers also died at Bear River, and shortly thereafter, Col. Conner was promoted to general.
Twelve years earlier at Massacre Rocks, another tragedy took place on the Snake 16 miles west of Bear River and 10 miles south of today’s American Falls:
Five wagons of settlers led by Thomas A. Clark Jr. traveling on the Oregon Trail were attacked by a band of Shoshone warriors led by 20-year-old Has-No-Horse.
The indians were short on supplies and had their eye on the settlers’ horses, guns and ammunition.
“Mr. Hunter, who was captain of our little train gave orders to get ready their firearms and prepare for fight, and right speedily was the order obeyed,” wrote emigrant Charles Harrison, “considering the surprise in which we were taken, together with the fact that not one of us had ever been called upon to defend our lives or property by the use of such weapons.”
They took the horses, killed Clark’s mother and brother Hodgson and another man, and almost scalped Thomas’ sister Grace, but ran away when other emigrants raced to the rescue.
Ten emigrants died in the fighting — remembered today as the Clark Massacre.
At Three Island Crossing on the Snake between Twin Falls and Fort Boise, emigrants on the Oregon Trail had to decide the best way to get there.
They could continue on the longer south bank route described as a “dry, sandy, dusty, and hot trail that wore out man and beast,” or across the river to the shorter north bank route.
Fording rivers with wagons and animals was highly dangerous says Idaho State Historical Society’s Larry Lyons.
“When you read the diaries there are a lot of incidents of deaths at the river crossings. So when they get to Three Island Crossing they’ve got a decision to make…whether you wanted to risk drowning or take the long route.”
There was another option after 1869, when Gustavus “Gus” Glenn constructed a ferry 2 miles upstream, mostly to speed up freight — but he could also load two emigrant wagons on his boat and shorten their journey by 20 miles.
In 1887 in Hells Canyon where the Snake River is the border between Idaho and Oregon, a gang of seven white rustlers robbed, murdered and mutilated 10 to 34 Chinese gold miners.
“The brutality of the Snake River atrocity was probably unexcelled, whether by whites or Indians, in all the anti-Chinese violence of the American West,” David H. Stratton wrote in The Snake River Massacre of Chinese Miners, 1887.
“After the first day’s onslaught at Robinson Gulch, the killers wrecked and burned the camp and then threw the mutilated corpses into the Snake River. The bodies of the other Chinese received similar treatment. Since it was the high-water stage of the spring runoff, the dead Chinese were found for months (some accounts say for years) afterwards along the lower river.”
Today, the Snake and Columbia are in troubled waters with environmentalists demanding that a number of dams be removed, so migrating fish can once again reach their natural spawning waters.
It may take a long time, but those fish may be back one day — thanks to the descendants of the pioneers who survived the Oregon Trail and all the hardships and dangers of the rugged mountains, plains and rivers of America’s wild frontier.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Fort Hall Reservation…
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, including the Sheepeater Band, centered at Fort Hall, Idaho — about 20 miles west of Pocatello — is a sovereign nation under the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868. Their ancestral territories once extended from Canada to Mexico. Today, the reservation covers 540,764 acres (2010 data). The combined tribes have about 5,300 enrolled members, more than half residing on the Fort Hall Reservation.
Getting across the Snake…
“Men stationed themselves on both banks, and pulled the wagons across with ropes, lashing several wagons together at a time. Sometimes, they roped three wagons abreast, to present a huge mass to counter the swift current. The men moved each group of wagons from the near bank to the first island, and then to the next island, and the third, and on to the far bank — about a 900-yard journey from bank to bank.”
— History writer Theresa Hupp
“The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.”
— John Muir, naturalist
Kudos to those who made it…
Because much of the Snake River parallels the Oregon Trail, it was also part of a Trail of Death estimated at 20,000 fatalities — 10 graves per mile. The majority of deaths occurred because of poor sanitation, diarrhea, cholera and typhoid fever. Other fatal hazards included falling off wagons, untrained use of firearms, stampeding livestock, attacks by other emigrants and indians, lightning, gunpowder explosions, drownings and suicide.
“Word was passed that a woman had been accidentally run over and killed instantly… The woman was getting down from the moving vehicle, her clothing caught on the break-rod and she was thrown forward beneath the wheel.”
— Ellen James Bailey Lamborn, Sept. 3, 1864.
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