Indians 101: Murder in Montana (19th Century)

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

The West in the nineteenth century was at times violent and this violence was sometimes expressed in murder. This was particularly true with regard to interactions between Indians and Americans. Often, Americans who murdered Indians escaped any legal consequences for their actions. On the other hand, Indian violence, or even the threat of violence, against Americans was met with retaliation against which ever Indians were nearby with no concern about their identity or guilt. In addition, many incidents were blown up into full scale massacres by the press, even when these incidents hadn’t happened. These can be seen in a series of events that took place in the mining town of Bannack City, Montana in 1863.  

It began when a miner bought an Indian woman (perhaps a Sheepeater or Bannock). It was not uncommon at this time that Indian women would be taken captive and then sold. On the other hand, it was also common for the husband in an arranged marriage to pay a bride price to the family of the bride. Not understanding the meaning of this, Americans would often feel that they had purchased a wife. It is not clear which kind of purchase happened here.

The Bannock woman left the American miner, claiming that she had been mistreated. An Indian elder came to her defense when the miner protested. A group of drunken Americans who witnessed the event then declared that they were not afraid of Indians. They followed the elder to his camp on the edge of town. They shot into his tipi, killing the old man, a boy, and a baby.

Later a group of American “road agents” came across Lemhi Shoshone Chief Snag bathing in a creek. One of the men drew his gun and shot the chief, killing him. The next day, Tendoy was elected chief by the Indians in accordance with the wish of the dying Chief Snag.

Tendoy then rode his war pony into the town of Bannack and stopped in front of the general store. He waited there for the townspeople to gather. He reminded them that as war chief for the Lemhi Shoshone he had protected them against assault from hostile Indian tribes. He told them that he has come to find out why they have killed his uncle, Chief Snag. Did this mean that they have declared war against their friends? If so, Tendoy told them, then he would accept the challenge. The townspeople responded by telling the new chief that the killings were the actions of a few bad men and that the good people in the town deplored the act. After a long conversation, Tenday returned to the band, called for his warriors to maintain the peace, and then led them on a long buffalo hunt.

While the Americans took no action against the drunken miners who had killed three Indians outside of town, they did “arrest” the men who had been involved with the killing of Chief Snag. At the trial before a local jury, the men simply explained that they had killed the chief in revenge for the killing of some of their friends by Indians during the 1849 California gold rush (14 years earlier). The jury completely exonerated them.

Following the trial, the Deseret News in Salt Lake City reported that, in retaliation, the Indians had killed 24 miners. The miners then organized a militia which attacked and killed 17 Indians. According to the paper, some 300 miners were now looking to take the scalp of Paiute Chief Winnemucca (who had nothing to do with any of the events).  However, an investigation found that the reported retaliations between the Indians and the miners did not actually take place. During this time period, it was fairly common for newspapers to print totally fictitious accounts of Indian attacks, “wars,” raids, and massacres.

Bannack and Bannock:

Bannack, now a ghost town operated as a Montana State Park, was named after the Bannock Indians who are related to the Northern Paiute. The Bannock were later moved to the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. Shown below are pictures of the ghost town and the Bannock Indians.

Bannack 3

Bannack Courthouse

Bannock Indians

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