Horse Diffusion: The Erosion of Shoshone Superiority in Horse Power

By the time la Verendrye made his journey, though, the decline of the Shoshone empire loomed on the horizon. One reason was that the horse was no longer an exclusive commodity. As la Verendrye observed, horses were already becoming a focal point of the burgeoning Native trade on the upper Missouri. Several years later, the Chevalier noted upon visiting one northern Plains village that horses and mules were quite common in the area and that the Natives used them extensively. Indeed, soon after Shoshones introduced horses to the Plains and used them to fuel their expansion, their enemies began to accumulate mounts through trading, raiding, and, eventually, breeding. They primarily spread through trade, though, as Shoshones supplied horses to Natives in the Rockies and the Columbia Plateau, as well as to their few friendly contacts on the Plains, particularly Crows. Once individual Blackfoot groups acquired horses through trade and warfare, they passed some mounts on to other Blackfoot divisions, and, eventually, to their sometime Assiniboine, Cree, and Gros Ventre allies.

Guns and the Blackfoot Challenge

Another ominous development for the Shoshones was the arrival of firearms on the northern Plains in the hands of their enemies. As Saukamappe recalled, during the 1730s, a few Crees, armed with guns, joined a Piegan Blackfoot war expedition against the Shoshones. In the ensuing battle (likely the Shoshones' first encounter with guns), they sustained a defeat after the devastating psychological and real effects of the enemy's firepower compelled some warriors to flee. Soon thereafter, the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy began acquiring guns guns via Cree and Assiniboine middlemen, but the new weapons remained too few in number, too primitive, and their ammunition too scarce to immediately turn the tide against the Shoshones. Moreover, the Blackfeet still lacked the horse power to match the mobility of their enemies.

Figure 3. British "Brown Bess" musket, used 1722-1838.
Used by both British and, later, U.S. troops, this gun likely entered the fur trade as well.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Horses and Guns: A Deadlier Kind of Warfare

During the subsequent decades, however, the Blackfeet amassed more guns and horses. The comments of Hudson's Bay Company trader Anthony Hendry reveal that by 1754, the Blackfeet possessed considerable horse herds, as Hendry's party tracked those Natives by following their horses' tracks and dung. Once they found a Blackfoot camp, the trader observed that they had many quality animals, and that the Blackfeet used them very well, especially for hunting bison. Furthermore, Hendry noted as he began his return journey to Fort York that his party had few guns, for they traded most of them to the Blackfeet. Indeed, as the Canadian fur trade grew, more firearms reached the Blackfeet through Euroamerican traders, as well as Cree and Assiniboine middlemen. Meanwhile, as Spanish policy forbade the trading of firearms to Natives and their northern Plains enemies strove to ensure that no guns reached them from the east, the Shoshones acquired few of them. So, while the Blackfeet forged a style of warfare that harnessed the power of both horses and guns, Shoshones - still bearing bows, lances, and other weapons, as well as leather shields and armor - were at a disadvantage. While the Blackfeet truly amassed only a modest number of guns during the eighteenth century, those few firearms nevertheless made a difference when used against groups who completely lacked them.

Shoshone Power Begins to Ebb

The consequences of this development were disastrous for the Shoshones. Formerly on the defensive against the Shoshone advance, Blackfoot groups now had the upper hand. The Piegans led the Blackfoot push onto the grasslands, turning the territory between the North and South Saskatchewan rivers into a bloody battleground. The Shoshones retreated grudgingly, ceding the Red Deer River country in present-day Alberta before clinging to the Bow River by 1780. While their loss of territory was slight, the Shoshones now had less ability to conduct the raids that provided them with the captives that they needed for the horse trade while their rivals now conducted more successful raids of their own, carrying off greater numbers of Shoshone mounts and captives than before. It was little surprise, then, that Hendry reported that during his visit to a Blackfoot camp that he saw much evidence of their success on the warpath, namely many dried scalps and captive girls.

Figure 4. Shoshone-Blackfoot Battleground.
The shaded area represents the approximate Shoshone-Blackfoot battleground, up to 1780.
Just click on the map for more information, and to begin manipulating it.
Click here to view the full map and its key.

Despite this turn of events, Shoshone power remained considerable and, as Matthew Cocking of the Hudson's Bay Company learned in 1772, feared by other Natives. As his party traveled along the Saskatchewan toward Blackfoot country, he on several occasions noted that his Native companions became fearful when they sighted strange horses and campfires that they believed belonged to the Shoshones. The Snakes might have lost their monopoly on power, but they clearly remained a formidable threat on the northern Plains throughout the 1770s. The collapse of the Canadian fur trade that followed the defeat of the French in the Seven Years War in 1763 had deprived the Blackfeet and their allies of guns and ammunition, but before long competition between the Hudson's Bay Company and independent traders (remnants of the old French companies) intensified the fur trade and pushed it further westward, increasing Blackfoot access to European goods. The Shoshones, on the other hand, reaped no such benefits.

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