Washakie's Shoshonis allied with Plenty Coups' Crows to assist the U.S. Army against the Cheyennes, Sioux, and others who were defined by the United States as "hostile" during the final phases of the Plains Wars, beginning in the 1870s. Washakie's accommodation helped him bargain for a sizable, fertile reservation in the Shoshonis' home-land, while "hostile" Cheyennes, Sioux, and their allies were assigned to arid reservations and treated miserably after their surrenders.
Various accounts place Washakie's birth at between 1798 and 1804. His father, Pasego, was of mixed blood; his mother was Shoshoni. Pasego was killed by Flatheads when Washakie was a child. As a young man, Washakie developed his skills as a warrior by riding for several years with a band of Bannocks. He stood six feet tall, married several women, and had twelve children. His reputation was mainly as a warrior (although he was rarely aggressive after his youth), but he also was known among the Shoshoni as an excellent singer.
By the 1840s, large numbers of gold seekers on their way to California were passing through the Shoshonis' homeland in present-day Wyoming, but few settled in the area. A few years later, a large party of Mormons under Brigham Young settled on the southern edge of the Shoshone homeland at the Great Salt Lake. In 1851, Washakie rejected the terms of a proposed treaty that would have diminished Shoshoni lands, and allied for a time with the Mormons, before the federal government asserted authority over them as part of Utah's bid for state-hood. In 1869, Washakie negotiated the Treaty of Fort Bridger, which set apart 3 million acres for the Shoshonis in their traditional homeland.
By the mid-1870s, the Plains Wars were drawing to a close. Washakie allied with the Crows and the U.S. Army at the Little Bighorn. Plenty Coups worried that General George Crook was not prepared for Crazy Horse's Lakotas when they met in battle, along with Washakie's Shoshones, June 16, 1876. He was correct; Crazy Horse routed Crook and his Indian allies in a battle that presaged Custer's Last Stand nine days later.
O. O. Howard, who is best-known as the commander who pursued Chief Joseph and other non-treaty Nez Percés on their Long March in 1877, recalled Washakie as "a tall, big man with fine eyes and a great deal of hair. He spoke broken English, but could make himself understood. He was a great eater. . . . He ate very politely, but was like a giant taking his food" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 410).
Howard said that Washakie was famous for his skill as a buffalo hunter. Despite his support for the immigrants, Washakie and his people had their share of troubles with broken treaties. In 1870, land that had been set aside for the Shoshonis and Bannocks by a treaty signed in 1864 was demanded for white settlement. Many young Shoshoni warriors called for war, but Washakie forbade it.
Washakie allied with the whites out of necessity, not choice. He chafed at being confined on a reservation. In 1878, at a meeting called by the governor of Wyoming, Washakie said:
The white man, who possesses this whole vast country from sea to sea, who roams over it at pleasure and lives where he likes, cannot know the cramp we feel in this little spot, with the undying remembrance of the fact, which you know as well as we, that every foot of what you proudly call America, not very long ago belonged to the Red Man. The Great Spirit gave it to us, [and] there was room enough for all his tribes; all were happy in their freedom (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 410).
The whites had superior tools and weapons, said Washakie, and "hordes of men" to use against the Indians. He continued: "We . . . sorry remnants of tribes once mighty, are cornered on little spots of the earth, all ours by right—cornered like guilty prisoners, and watched by men with guns who are more than anxious to kill us off" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 410).
When Washakie was an elderly man, his eldest son (also named Washakie) was killed in a drunken brawl with a white man. The elder Washakie was grieved by the fact that his son had passed onto the Spirit World in disgrace, "like an Arapaho," he said. (The Shoshonis and Arapahoe were bitter enemies, even in the face of overwhelming white encroachment.) Washakie also opposed the Ghost Dance, but he urged his people to continue the Sun Dance, which they had borrowed from the Sioux.
Despite such doubts, Washakie was such a source of support for the U.S. Army that in 1878 it named a frontier fort after him in the Wind River Valley. Washakie died in his sleep on February 20, 1900. He was buried with the honors accorded a captain in the post cemetery at Fort Washakie.
Two statues of Washakie memorialize him in the Salt Lake City area. The most notable is downtown, where he is part of the Brigham Young Monumental Group, along with other people (all American non-Natives) who gave great aid to initial Mormon settlement in the Salt Lake Valley.
Bruce E. Johansen
Armstrong, Virginia Irving, comp. 1971. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Chicago: Swallow Books.; Hebard, Grace Raymond. 1995. Washakie: Chief of the Shoshones. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Howard, O. O. 1908–1989. Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.