In the early nineteenth century, Northern Shoshones lived mostly in Idaho south of the Salmon River or on the Snake River plains and the mountains to the north. This region, on the border of the Columbia Plateau, has a relatively dry climate. It contains the Sawtooth and Bitterroot Mountains, valleys, river highlands, and the Snake and other rivers and creeks. Today, most Northern Shoshones live in and around Bannock, Bingham, Caribou, and Power Counties in Idaho. The pre-contact population of up to 30,000 had been cut by 90 percent by the midnineteenth century, mainly by epidemics of European diseases.
Northern Shoshones used dreams and visions to acquire helping spirits. Such spirits instructed people on the use of medicines with which to activate their power. Certain food and other restrictions might also be imposed. Spirits might cure illness, protect an individual from arrows, or hurt other people.
Most or all men could cure, although there were also professionals. Their methods included herbs, charms, and sweats. They gained their supernatural power through dreams, visions, and visits to remote, spirit-dwelling places.
There was a concept of a creator, but creative agency was proscribed to mythological characters such as the wolf and coyote. Ceremonial occasions that featured round dances included the spring salmon return, the fall harvest, and times of adversity.
Loosely organized groups were characteristic of Great Basin culture. Traditionally, the Northern Shoshone were organized into seminomadic bands with impermanent composition and leadership. Some bands had chiefs; others, particularly in the west, had neither bands nor chiefs.
Life on the Plains called for higher forms of organization, both to hunt buffalo and to defend against enemies. In the fall, for instance, the bands in the area of the Snake and Lemhi Rivers came together for councils, feasts, and buffalo hunts. During these times, the more eastern bands were led by a principal chief and several minor chiefs. However, these offices were still nonhereditary, loosely defined, and somewhat transitory. Also, with more complex social organization, band councils arose to limit the power of the chiefs. Some "police" or soldier societies may also have existed to keep order during hunts and dances.
Equality and individual autonomy were cardinal Shoshone values. Just as social organization was fairly undeveloped, especially to the west, there was also little barrier to social interaction. Local groups were named by the foods they ate, but the same band might have several names, and the same name might apply to several bands. Many groups often intermarried, visited, and shared ceremonies and feasts. Social networks were wide and strong. Most marriages were monogamous. Both marriage and divorce were simple and common. The dead were wrapped in blankets and placed in rock crevices. Mourners cut their hair, gashed their legs, and killed one of the deceased's horses. Some private property (such as tools and weapons) was recognized, but private ownership of land or subsistence areas was not.
As a source of sustenance, roots (such as prairie turnips, yampa root, tobacco root, bitterroot, and camas) were steamed in earth ovens for several days or boiled. Berries (such as chokecherries and service berries), nuts, and seeds were also important foods, as were grasshoppers, ants and other insects, lizards, squirrels, and rabbits.
Big game included antelope, deer, elk, and mountain sheep. Buffalo were Native to parts of the region but became especially important in the seventeenth century, when people would travel for the fall hunt to the Plains (east of Bozeman) and then back to the Snake River in the winter or early spring.
Salmon was the most important fish. In fact, the salmon fishery was one of the key distinguishing features between the Northern Shoshone and the Eastern Shoshone. People also caught sturgeon, perch, trout, and other fish on Columbia and Snake River tributaries.
The Paiute-speaking Bannock were among the first local groups to acquire horses, in the late seventeenth century. At that time, they migrated from eastern Oregon to Shoshone territory near the Snake River and organized fully mounted bands and engaged in group buffalo hunts. They and the Northern Shoshones also began to raid for horses and assumed many other aspects of Plains culture, such as teepees and warrior societies, yet the Bannock continued to interact with their Northern Paiute relatives. Sacajawea, a Shoshone woman, served as a guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. Her diplomatic and navigation skills saved the party on more than one occasion.
Continuing their move east to the western extremity of the northern Plains, the Shoshone were soon (mideighteenth century) driven back by the gun-wielding Blackfeet. Some Northern Shoshone groups did not become mounted until the nineteenth century or used the horse only as a pack animal. Such groups, particularly those away from the centers in the Snake and Lemhi River Valleys (for example, the so-called Sheepeaters), lived in scattered settlements and remained sedentary and peaceful.
The Meriwether Lewis and William Clark party (1804–1806) may have been the first non-Indians in the area. Anglos soon opened trading posts at Pend Oreille Lake (British, 1809) and the Upper Snake River (Northwest Company, 1810). Throughout the 1810s and 1820s, white trappers ranged across Shoshone territory, destroying all beaver and buffalo west of the Rockies. Other game suffered as well, as did the traditional Northern Shoshone way of life. Indians also acquired much non-Native technology during this time, including firearms, iron utensils, and alcohol, and new diseases took a heavy toll.
By the 1840s, the fur trade had collapsed. Non-Indians began arriving en masse after the California gold rush and the opening of the Oregon Trail, further stressing the delicate local ecology. In 1847, the Mormons arrived. By the 1860s, the buffalo had all but disappeared. Relatively quickly, many Northern Shoshone groups faced starvation. They began to raid white settlements and wagons in retaliation, an activity that quickly brought counterraids. This kind of conflict persisted throughout the 1860s and 1870s, although the Fort Hall Reservation (originally 1.8 million acres) was created by treaty in 1868.
The Bannocks, however, had resisted confinement to Fort Hall. Some peoples' resistance was a direct influence of the Dreamer Cult founded about 1860 by the Wanapum Smohalla. The continued destruction of their way of life—led by the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, inadequate rations, white ranchers' crowding, and violence committed against them when they continued subsistence activities guaranteed by treaty—led to a major revolt in 1878. Its immediate cause was Anglo hog herding in a camas root area forbidden to them by treaty. The Bannocks and some Northern Paiute bands, under the Bannock chief Buffalo Born and the Paiutes Egan and Oytes, engaged the soldiers for several months that summer. Ultimately, the Paiutes were settled among the Yakima in Washington, and the Bannocks, held as prisoners of war for a while, were permitted to return to Fort Hall.
The Sheepeater War also took place in 1878, when roughly fifty central Idaho Bannocks and Shoshones, who lived primarily on mountain sheep, began raiding settlers who were encroaching on their subsistence area. At first eluding the army, they were eventually captured and placed at Fort Hall. Other Shoshones, too, fought to retain their traditions; most ended up at Fort Hall.
The United States created the Lemhi Valley Reservation in 1875, but its people were moved to Fort Hall when the reservation was terminated in 1907. Meanwhile, the Fort Hall Reservation itself shrank by more than two-thirds as a result of encroachments by the railroads, timber, mining, highway, and other interests. Dawes Act (1887) allotments further reduced it in size. Life at Fort Hall was marked by irrigation problems; major projects in the early twentieth century benefited white farmers only. Other serious problems included the flooding of good bottomlands by the American Falls Reservoir. Major economic activities during that time included sheep and cattle ranching. A phosphate mine opened after World War II.
Fort Hall Indians acquired the Sun Dance from Plains Indians, via the Wind River Shoshone, during the 1890s. Some also adopted the Native American Church in 1915. The government awarded them a land claims settlement of more than $8.8 million in 1964; another, smaller settlement was received in 1971 by the Lemhi Valley descendents.