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Shoshone elk hide showing a horseback buffalo hunt
Shoshone elk hide showing a horseback buffalo hunt

The Shoshone Indians, also known as the Snake Nation, occupied areas both east and west of the Rocky Mountains. Unlike the bands west of the Rockies, which lived in roofless grass huts and hunted fish, birds and rabbits, the Shoshones in the east and north lived in tepees and hunted buffalo.

Among the buffalo hunters were the Lemhi Shoshones, who had once lived on the plains of what is now Montana. The Lemhi band had superb horsemen and brave warriors but had grown poor and hungry of late. Their musket-bearing enemies - the Blackfeet, Atsinas and Hidatsas - had driven the band from the rich buffalo plains into the mountains.

The band’s attempts to return to the plains and hunt buffalo put them at risk for attacks like the one in the spring of 1805, when the Atsinas killed or captured many Shoshone men, stole their horses and destroyed most of their tepees.

Their enemies had acquired muskets from Canadian fur traders, but the Shoshones traded with the Spanish, who had refused to give them firearms. The Lemhi Shoshones sought such weapons to protect themselves and to hunt.

Because of the great losses they had suffered, the Shoshone men and women had cut their hair at the neck in a show of mourning. But Meriwether Lewis later noted, “Notwithstanding their extreem poverty they are not only cheerful but even gay, fond of gaudy dress and amusements...”

In August 1805, the Lemhi Shoshones were living in the mountains, sustained only by roots, berries and, infrequently, fish and small game. They were preparing for another buffalo-hunting venture to the plains.

On August 13, some Shoshone women gathering food a few miles from their village saw four strangers drawing near. It was Lewis and three of his men.

Fearful at first, the women saw that the men were friendly after Lewis laid down his gun, gave them trinkets and painted their faces with vermilion, a symbol of peace. The women convinced an arriving war party of 60 Shoshones that the strangers were friendly, and Lewis confirmed this with more gifts for the warriors, including an American flag. The principle chief, named Cameahwait (One Who Never Walks) welcomed Lewis and his men, and from that point the Shoshones treated them as guests, sharing what food the Indians had and providing the men with a tepee for their stay.

Lewis and his men were the first white people the Shoshones had ever seen.

At camp, Cameahwait described to Lewis the impassable rivers and shores ahead, confirming that no all-water route could take the Corps through to the Pacific Ocean. They would have to traverse the daunting Bitterroot Mountains to continue the expedition.

Horses would be crucial for such a mountainous trek, and the Corps hoped to acquire some from the Shoshones’ impressive herd of about 700. In the days before Lewis had met the Indians, he had written, “If we do not find [the Shoshones], I fear the successful issue of our voyage will be very doubtful.”

Cameahwait and a group of warriors traveled with Lewis to join Clark’s camp and negotiate for horses.

Communicating via a translation chain, the Shoshones and the captains had begun negotiating when a great coincidence occurred: Sacagawea, who was raised as a Shoshone but had been kidnapped years earlier by Hidatsas, recognized Cameahwait as her brother. After an emotional reunion, the negotiations proceeded and Cameahwait agreed to sell the Corps the horses they needed.

The Shoshones were most concerned about securing guns in return. Lewis wrote that Cameahwait told him, “If we had guns, we could live in the country of the buffaloe and eat as our enimies do, and not be compelled to hide ourselves in these mountains and live on roots and berries as the bear do.”

Lewis pledged that upon the Corps’ return to the East, “whitemen would come to them with a number of guns and every other article necessary to their defence and comfort.”