Paul Hansen

Paul Hansen

This is Native American Heritage Month, so it is a good time to take a look at Native American history in Jackson Hole.

Over the 400 years since Europeans first starting living in North America, the history of interactions between the new settlers and Native Americans was fraught with misunderstanding, conflict and atrocities. Treaties were repeatedly enacted then ignored. Armed conflicts were too common. This history is well known.

Well before Europeans arrived to live here, their diseases were introduced by explorers and swept the continent. Native Americans had no immunity and were devastated. Waves of epidemics of smallpox, cholera, scarlet fever, typhoid, malaria, measles and other diseases ravaged Native Americans.

Infections started in the East in the 1500s. Florida had an estimated population of 700,000 Native Americas in 1520. By 1700 only 2,000 remained. Mexico had an estimated 25-30 million, more than the U.S. and Canada combined, with only 3 million remaining by 1700.

By the mid-1800s disease had spread throughout North America, and native populations had declined by 90%. This loss of life made it hard for native communities to care for themselves. Native cultures that had thrived in North America for 15,000 years were a shadow of their former presence.

It is thought that the abundant wildlife witnessed by Lewis and Clark was a result of the drastic depopulation of native people. By the time Jackson Hole was settled in the late 1800s, wildlife populations were crashing due to market hunting and competition for critical winter forage with livestock. That put additional pressure on the surviving natives. Traditional hunting grounds, like Jackson Hole, had become especially critical to native survival. They had to hunt or starve.

After a massacre of indigenous people near Preston, Idaho, in 1863, the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863 gave the Shoshone, Bannock and associated tribes about 44 million acres to survive on. By 1868 the treaty was broken. The Eastern Shoshone were forced onto the Wind River reservation, while the Bannock took the Fort Hall reservation near present-day Pocatello, Idaho. The treaty gave tribes the right to hunt on nearby lands. On subsistence hunting trips the tribes were given a pass by the reservation’s Indian agent, giving them permission to hunt on lands where they had hunted for thousands of years.

By 1895, elk hunting was becoming big business in Jackson Hole. The Native American harvest was becoming an issue for some whites.

On July 13, 1895, Bannock tribal members were on a traditional subsistence hunt near the confluence of Granite Creek and the Hoback River. They had their Indian agent permission slip. They awoke to find themselves surrounded by 27 armed white men. The Bannock party consisted of nine men, 13 women and five children. As the tribal members were led through the woods to jail for violating Wyoming’s new hunting laws, they feared for their lives and scattered. An elderly half-blind man named Se-we-a-gat was shot four times in the back.

On July 27, the Cheyenne Daily Sun Leader headline read, “Settlers Massacred: At Least Sixteen Families Butchered in Jackson Hole by the Red Devils.” National news falsely reported that most or all of the white settlers in Jackson Hole had been killed. In fact, the Bannock survivors made their way back to Fort Hall as quickly and quietly as possible. No whites were harmed.

Five companies of troops were dispatched from Fort Robinson, Nebraska. When they crossed Teton Pass into Jackson Hole they found no dead settlers, no hostile Indians and no wasteful elk slaughter. The general in charge wrote, “I do not consider the Indians to blame for the Jackson Hole affair.”

Following this attack, 11,000 years of Native American subsistence hunting in Jackson Hole came to an end. An effort has started to place a historic marker and sign at the site to acknowledge that this is what happened.

Paul W. Hansen’s Common Ground column appears about twice a month. Columns are solely the opinion of their authors. Contact him via Thanks to John Clayton and Lajuan Tyler for their help with parts of this history.

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(1) comment

Tim Rieser

If they could only see us now.

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