Northern Shoshone and Bannock
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Naturalists in Shoshone Country
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References Cited

Falls of the Snake River,
by George Catlin.
Image courtesy the
National Gallery of Art.
Portion of Alexander Ross's 1821 Map of Columbia.
Courtesy Ellensburg Public Library
Camas bulbs (dug and piled up by moles in the early spring).
Kim Lugthart photo.


New camas shoots in early spring.
K. Lugthart photo
Biscuit root (lomatium dissectum)
Larry Huffer photo
Courtesy of Nutrition and Food Management, Oregon State University
Portion of George Catlin's 1833 "Outline Map of Indian Territories"

Lemhi Pass > Culture > Naturalists in Shoshone Country

Rendezvous site near Green River, WY.
Dan Rudy photo

In the spring of 1834, a young naturalist named J.K.Townsend with Professor Nutall, traveled westward from St. Louis with the Nathaniel Wyeth party. Townsend kept a journal of these travels, recording many details about the people and places along the way. On June 22nd they arrived at the rendezvous on the Siskadee, or Green River, where they stayed until July 2nd.

Naturalists in Shoshone Country
"During our stay at the rendez-vous, many of us looked anxiously for letters from our families, which we expected by the later caravans, but we were all disappointed. For myself, I have received but one since I left my home, but this has been my solace through many a long and dreary journey" (Townsend: 1840).

Townsend describes the visitors at the Green River rendezvous as being mainly Indians and also lots of "half breeds." The camp was

"crowded with a heterogenous assemblage of visiters. The principal of these are Indians, of the Nez Perce, Banneck and Shoshone tribes, who come with the furs and peltries which they have been collecting the risk of their lives during the past winter and spring, to trade for ammunition, trinkets, and 'fire water."

About thirty Indians joined them for their journey to the Snake River. These included

"Flat-heads, Nez Perces, &c, with their wives, children and dogs. Without these our camp would be small; they will probably travel with us until we arrive at Snake river, and pass over the country where the most danger is to be apprehended from their enemies, the Blackfeet" (Townsend: 1840).

Their Indian companions left them before they reached the upper reaches of Ross' Fork, where they set up camp and broke their fast of dry meat, with the killing of one buffalo. They moved camp again, noting buffalo all around.

Townsend left Ft. Hall, crossed the Shoshone, or Snake, River and followed Goddin's Cr. with Capt. Wyeth and Richardson. On August 13th they came upon a

"large, Indian encampment, probably of Bannecks, who are travelling down to the fisheries on Snake river" (Townsend: 1840).

At the fishery, they learned of a "hard contested, and most sanguinary battle" that had been fought at that spot three days previous between the Bannocks and the Blackfeet, in which the Bannocks triumphed.

"The former gained a signal and most complete victory, killing upwards of forty of their adversaries, and taking about three dozen scalps. The Blackfeet, although much the larger party, were on foot, but the Bannecks, being all well mounted, had a very decided advantage; and the contest occurred on an open plain, where there was no chance of cover, the BF were run down by the horses, and, without being able to load their guns, were trampled to death, or killed with salmon spears and axes."
Along the "Mallade" River
On August 14th -
"We travelled down Mallade river, and followed the Indian trail through the valley. The path frequently passed along near the base of the mountain, and then wound its way a considerable distance up to avoid rocky impediments and thick tangled bushes below, so that we had some climbing to do; but the difficulties and perils of the route yesterday are still so fresh in our memory, that all minor things are disregarded, at least by us. Our poor horses, however, no doubt feel differently as they are very tired and foot sore " (Townsend: 1840).

On a branch of the Mallade, they encountered a party of Snakes who

"were returning from the fisheries, and travelling towards the buffalo on the 'big river,' (Shoshone or Snake). Their camp consisted of two lodges, with about 20 people. The men presented the Snake chief and two young men who visited their camp with gifts, including a yard of scarlet cloth for leggings, some balls and powder, a knife, and a looking glass each. Then Captain Wyeth queried them, through an interpreter, about the route, and food to be found along the way. He then bought of them "a small quantity of dried salmon, and a little fermented kamas or quamash root"" (Townsend: 1840).The chief is a man about fifty years of age, tall, and dignified looking, with large, strong, aquiline features. His manners were cordial and agreeable, perhaps remarkably so, and he exhibited very little of that stoical indifference to surrounding objects which is so characteristic of an Indian. His dress consisted of plain leggings of deer skin, fringed at the sides, unembroidered moccasins, and a marro or waist-covering of antelope skin dressed without removing the hair. The upper part of his person was simply covered with a small blanket, and his ears were profusely ornamented with brass rings and beads. The men and squaws who accompanied him, were entirely naked, except that the latter had marro's of deer skin covering the loins" (Townsend: 1840).

The next morning, travelling west,

"crossing within every mile or two, a branch of the tortuous Mallade, near each of which good pasture was seen; but on the main prairie, scarcely a blade of grass could be found, it having been lately fired by the Indians to improve the crops of next year" (Townsend: 1840).

They passed a recently occupied camp,

"occupying a little valley densely overgrown with willows, the tops of which have been bent over, and tied so as to form a sort of lodge; over these, they have probably stretched deer skins or blankets, to exclude the rays of the sun. Of these lodges there are about forty in the valley, so that the party must have been a large one" (Townsend: 1840).
Kamas Prairie
That afternoon, they arrived at "Kamas prairie," so called from a vast abundance of this esculent root which it produces...
"The plain is beautifully level, of about a mile in extent, hemmed in by low, rocky hills, and in spring, the pretty blue flowers of the Kamas are said to give it a peculiar, and very pleasing appearance. At this season, the flowers do no appear, the vegetable being indicated only by little dry stems which protrude all over the ground among the grass "" (Townsend: 1840).We encamped here, near a small branch of the Mallade river; and soon after, all hands took their kettles and dispersed themselves over the prairie to dig a mess of kamas. We were, of course eminently successful, and were furnished thereby with an excellent and wholesome meal" (Townsend: 1840).

Townsend describes the Indian mode of preparing camas by fermenting it in pits under ground, into which hot stones have been placed, and where it remains for several days. When removed, it has a dark brown color, consistency of softened glue and sweet, "like molasses." Then made into large cakes by being mashed and pressed together, and "slightly baked in the sun."

"There are several other kinds of bulbous and tuburous roots, growing in these plains, which are eaten by the Indians, after undergoing a certain process of fermentation or baking. Among these, that which is most esteemed, is the white or biscuit root,...This is dried, pulverized with stones, and after being moistened with water, is made into cakes and baked in the sun" (Townsend: 1840).

Biscuit root (lomatium dissectum)
Larry Huffer photo
Courtesy of Nutrition and Food Management, Oregon State University

On the morning of July 19th, with the temperature at 28 degrees, they travel again over rough terrain, losing more horses. They did find great quantities of choke-cherries, still green. They also saw large patches of serviceberry bushes, but no fruit.

Serviceberry (amelanchier alnifolia)
Larry Huffer photo
Courtesy of Nutrition and Food Management, Oregon State University

"It seems to have failed this year, although ordinarily so abundant that it constitutes a large portion of the vegetable food of both Indian and white trappers who visit these regions" (Townsend: 1840).

Boisee River
Late in the day on July 19th they descend to a
"fine, large plain, and struck Boisee, or Big Wood river. Beautiful stream, 100 yds. across, clear as crystal, and deep. "It is literally crowded with salmon" (Townsend: 1840).

On the 20th, they followed the route along the Boisee. "For an hour, the travelling was toilsome and difficult, the Indian trail, leading along the high bank of the river, steep and rocky, making our progress very slow and laborious." It led them to a wide plain, "interrupted only by occasional high banks of earth, some of them of considerable extent, across which ran the path" (Townsend: 1840).

They arrived on the Snake River. Not a man in their camp had ever traveled this route before.
They met some Snakes who were disgusted that they had eaten horse meat, having killed a colt that wandered into camp. Then many small groups of "Shoshone" arrived, each man carrying a salmon spear and a knife, but no guns. Townsend describes the chief of this group as an exceptional man...

"...rather above the ordinary height, with a fine, noble countenance, and remarkably large prominent eyes. His person, instead of being naked, as is usual, is clothed in a robe made of the skin of the mountain sheep; a broad band of large blue beeds, is fastened to the top of his head, and hanges over on his cheeks, and around his neck is suspended the foot of a huge grizzly bear" (Townsend: 1840).

Background: Portion of George Catlin's 1833 map.