Blackfoot Recovery and Expansion Renewed

In the long-term, however, the epidemic proved disastrous for the Shoshones. A new era dawned on the northwestern Plains when, in 1787, the Piegan war chief Kutenai Man renewed the Blackfoot offensive by leading some 250 warriors against the Shoshones. One of the key components of this renewed war effort was its emphasis on capturing young women and children. As Young Man explained, the preservation of noncombatant lives would please the spirits and thereby reduce the chances of another plague occurring, as well as weaken the Shoshones while boosting Blackfoot numbers. During the years following the 1780-82 smallpox epidemic, the Blackfoot population rapidly increased. In 1809, for instance, Alexander Henry reported that many Blackfeet had died of smallpox, but that their population was already again growing. He later made a similar comment about the Piegans in particular. Ethnologist John C. Ewers estimates that the Blackfoot population doubled within three decades of the epidemic, as a result of natural increases fueled by polygamy and captive-raiding. The reduced Shoshone threat, in addition to the Blackfeet securing their Plains subsistence base, also drove this recovery.

Figure 7. Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), When Blackfoot and Sioux Meet.
Although a depiction of late 19th-century Blackfoot-Sioux warfare,
Russell's painting captures the signficance of horses and guns in Plains Warfare.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Roles Reversed: Shoshones Become the Victims

On the other hand, the surviving Shoshone population faced the challenges of losing its Great Plains resource base and its trading power. Moreover, as intertribal warfare erupted on the northern Plains on an unprecedented scale in the late 1780s, the Shoshones had little opportunity to recover their foothold on the Plains. As John McDonnell, Charles MacKenzie, and William Clark noted, tribes living throughout the northern Plains traveled great distances to avenge decades of Shoshone raids and to raid their horse herds. Among the tribes that did so were the Crees, Assiniboines, Sarsis, Gros Ventres, and Arapahoes, as well as the Mandans and Hidatsas, semisedentary villagers who lived along the Missouri that sustained some of the greatest losses during the 1780-1782 epidemic. By and large, though, the Blackfeet were the most troublesome enemy of the Shoshones, as Thompson remarked. Henry in particular conveyed an unfavorable image of the Blackfeet as a warlike and aggressive people.

Consequently, eastern Shoshones had no considerable presence on the northwestern Plains after the 1780-1782 smallpox epidemic. As Meriwether Lewis observed, they remained mostly in the Rockies, venturing onto the Plains only to conduct seasonal bison hunts and to trade. Nevertheless, the Blackfeet vigorously opposed even these brief excursions. When Shoshone groups visited the Plains, they sometimes traveled with other Natives for safety, as Francois Antoine Larocque discovered in 1805 when he observed some twenty lodges of Shoshone Indians attached to a Crow band. For the most part, Shoshones maintained a decidedly defensive stance and only occasionally sent out war parties. For the sake of mutual defense against the Blackfeet, the Shoshones forged alliances with other Native groups in the Rockies, namely the Flatheads and Kutenais. Just as the Shoshone empire had once compelled the Blackfeet to form a loose intertribal alliance, the Blackfoot threat forced Shoshones and others to ally for defense.

Figure 8. Lemhi Pass, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana.
Country through which Lewis and Clark passed in 1805 after encountering Shoshones at Camp Fortunate.
By the early nineteenth century, Eastern Shoshones largely inhabited such lands, rather than the Plains.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Problem of Firearms

As Henry and Lewis noted, continued shortages of firearms plagued the efforts of the Shoshones and their allies to resist the Blackfeet and others. During the early nineteenth century, explorers such as Le Raye, Tabeau, and Larocque noted that common weapons among the Shoshones were bows, war clubs, and bone daggers. Since the Spanish policy of not trading guns to Indians remained in effect and the Blackfeet formed an effective barrier against Canadian fur traders, the few firearms that reached the Shoshones arrived via a roundabout route that skirted Blackfoot territory and linked them to the fur trade through no less than three sets of middlemen and/or European traders. The Shoshones found this cumbersome system inadequate, and they eagerly welcomed the trade prospects that Lewis and Clark promised. Meanwhile, the Blackfeet gained greater direct access to Euroamerican traders. After the 1780-1782 epidemic, competition between the Hudson's Bay Company and the newly formed North West Company pushed the fur trade westward. By 1800, the Blackfeet had local trading posts, and when traders exchanged goods with tribes in the Rockies, they risked problems with the Blackfeet as Henry found. Even so, the Blackfeet possessed only modest numbers of guns by the early nineteenth century - but those few weapons were powerful when used against Shoshones and other groups who had fewer or none.

A New Order

These developments all contributed to the entrenchment of a new power on the northern Great Plains, that of the Blackfeet. As early as 1787, when Thompson visited the Piegans, the Blackfeet claimed a vast territory. As he wrote, "by right of conquest, they have their west boundary to the front of the Rocky Mountains, southward to the north branches of the Missisourie, eastward for about three hundred miles from the Mountains and northward to the upper part of the Saskatchewan." The Blackfeet had taken the northwestern Plains from the Shoshones by force and continued to dominate the region for several decades to follow, using their own blend of economic, military, and diplomatic strategies.

Figure 9. Blackfoot Territory, 1787.
The area outlined by the green line denotes the approximate Blackfoot territory as reported by Thompson.
Just click on the map for more information, and to begin manipulating it.
Click here to view the full map and its key.

© 2011 Adam R. Hodge, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Please feel free to contact the author about this project.