The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864–68

by Gregory Michno, Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho, 2007, $18.95.

Gregory Michno’s new book takes readers to the unremittingly harsh alkaline flats and isolated mountain peaks of the Basin and Range, following small commands of cavalrymen through bedraggled sagebrush, juniper and piñon, on the trail of desperate “Snake” Indians. It describes a violent guerrilla war: Indians capture an isolated settler, tie him to a pole, set him on fire and cut out his still-beating heart; cavalrymen clamber down rocky outcrops—recent newspaper headlines ringing in their ears—to fire indiscriminately into the wickiups of old men, women and children; a lone Indian blasts a progressive-minded cavalry officer from his horse and negates an entire season’s worth of negotiations; vigilantes shoot a war chief in the back and scalp him.

The Snake War of 1864–68 was the bloodiest Indian conflict in the trans-Mississippi West, tolling 1,762 casualties—more than twice as many as the next deadliest, the Great Sioux War of 1876–77. However, it has failed to lodge itself in the national imagination. Shoshones, Bannocks and Northern Paiutes (known as “Snakes” if they had horses and “Diggers” if not) raided over thousands of square miles in Oregon, Idaho Territory, Nevada and Utah Territory. They battled encroaching miners and settlers much as the Plains Indians did, but their bands were smaller and less well organized due to the harsh environment of the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau. They avoided large, set-piece battles like at the Little Bighorn and garnered little national newspaper coverage in a country just emerging from a civil war. In fact, the white press held a racist contempt for the horseless, root-and-berry-eating Indians of the Great Basin, deeming them incapable of sustained violence against whites—a dismissal Michno disproves. His book single-handedly resurrects the Snake War, detailing the participants, tactics, terrain and casualties of hundreds of small-scale engagements.

 

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here