Before the Horse Revolution
Eastern Shoshone domination of the northwestern Great Plains during the early 1700s manifested only after centuries of migration. Scholars trace the roots of their expansion to the thirteenth century, when a prolonged drought left much of the interior West deserted. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Little Ice Age produced more favorable climate conditions, and the Shoshones led a massive movement of Numic peoples (a branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family) northward and eastward from their traditional homelands in the southern Sierra Nevada. By the late 1500s, Shoshonean peoples inhabited much of the central and northern Rocky Mountains, the eastern Great Basin, and the southern Plateau while using the western fringes of the central and northern Great Plains seasonally. Some of them became oriented toward the resource-rich grasslands and a distinct Plains Shoshone culture emerged during the 1600s, centering on the territory between the Platte and Yellowstone rivers in present-day Wyoming and Montana. While part of this division turned southward and entered written history as Comanches early in the eighteenth century, eastern Shoshones continued their own expansion, reaching northward along the foot of the Rockies onto the northwestern Plains of modern-day Canada.
Horses and Shoshone Expansion
In approximately 1700, eastern Shoshones became the beneficiaries of a tremendous asset: the horse. After the 1680 Pueblo Revolt enabled Natives in the Southwest to obtain a considerable number of horses, that useful animal quickly spread throughout the West. The Shoshones, who maintained ties with the Comanches, Utes, and other relatives, tapped into the growing horse trade. Horses provided Shoshones with greater mobility and enabled them to more efficiently use the resources of the Plains, particularly the migratory bison herds and scarce sources of water. By the 1730s, the Shoshones dominated much of the northern and central Plains, from the Saskatchewan River country in modern-day Alberta to the Platte in Wyoming. Their superiority in horse power rendered them the most powerful and feared people in the region, as the records of la Verendrye and Saukamappe's account suggest. Other groups attempting to expand onto the northern Plains from other directions, such as the Blackfeet from the northeast, had little ability to oppose the military power of the equestrian Shoshones.
Figure 1. Shoshone Range, early 1700s.
The red line represents the approximate peak eastern Shoshone range.
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A New Style of Plains Warfare Emerges
The arrival of horses on the northern Plains did not simply fuel Shoshone expansion, but also revolutionized and intensified Native warfare in general. Before the "horse revolution," Plains warfare usually consisted of two large war parties confronting one another from a distance, firing arrows at one another until one side or the other saw the opportunity (if they did so at all) for a successful charge (as discussed by Saukamappee). Smaller-scale raids did occur, although their frequency paled in comparison to that of the horse era. As Shoshones (and later their enemies) accumulated horses, small, frequent war parties became the overwhelming norm. Shoshone warriors were well-outfitted for such raids, armed with lances, bows, knives, war clubs, and protected by leather shields and armor. Mounted Shoshone war parties used hard-hitting surprise attacks to quickly overwhelm small encampments. Their enemies responded by dispatching frequent, small raiding parties to steal mounts from Shoshone camps. The older style of Plains warfare, it must be noted, did not entirely disappear as larger war parties sometimes encountered one another and fought in the older style.
Image courtesy of Bayard Fox, "Indian Horse Culture: Spectacular Flowering to Ignominious Collapse"
Horses and War Captives: A Military-Economy
As the Chevalier de la Verendrye's observations suggest, the pursuit of war captives drove Shoshone raids. In order to ensure a steady supply of horses from the Southwest, Shoshones engaged in the Spanish captive trade of the Southwest, tapping into their northern Plains neighbors' populations for a commodity to exchange. Shoshones raided other groups indiscriminately and relentlessly, earning the lasting enmity of their many victims. This aggressiveness encouraged enemy groups to see past their own rivalries, and, on at least a temporary basis, trade with one another and conduct joint military expeditions against the Shoshones. Ultimately, it was the impetus behind the formation of a loose alliance between the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Sarsis, Plains Crees, Assiniboines, and Gros Ventres.