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Chief Pocatello Project

"Bring the Chief Home"

The Life of Chief Pocatello

“Pocatello” (as he is known by white people) was born around 1815 in the Grouse Creek area of Northwestern Utah, southwest of present Oakley, Idaho. Several references say that his name (as a member of the Hukandeka tribe of Shoshones) was Tonaioza (buffalo robe). “The name Pocatello is most likely made up by white people because there is no “L” in the Shoshone language. Some literature suggests that Pocatello means “he who does not follow the road.” This is supported by the thought that “Po” is a Shoshone word meaning “Trail.” This, however it is not supported. In Shoshone he who does not follow the path (or road) is pronounced “boy-gay-da-o-dah”. Others write that his name was pronounced “Po-ca-ta-ro” meaning “White Plume.” This is discounted because it is known that Col. Frederick Lander, who met Pocatello and admired him, said that Pocatello was like another headstrong and courageous leader, Henry of Navarre, of whom a poem had been written which referred to his plume on his helmet, which the military could always safely follow.

He allowed no pictures to be taken of him, believing that it might take away some of his powers, but when he was about 70 years old, he was described as being “about 5’ 10” tall, straight as a sapling and a pretty good-looking old man. He was always pleasant…” (Judge Walter Taylor Oliver).

His mother was Widzhebu (cunning eye), a Shoshone woman who, in the spring of 1811, had been captured by an enemy tribe and, even though pregnant and due in the fall as well as carrying a two-year-old, she was taken about 600 miles East of her home. She tried to escape, was caught and, as punishment, was given to a cruel brave as wife. He immediately took her two-year-old out of her cradle board and choked it to death in front of her. As second wife, she was given the hardest of assignments by the first wife. She managed to escape a second time by gradually storing supplies in a hidden riverside cave, and, after killing a child of her husband’s first wife in revenge, and hiding for several days while the tribe searched for her, by careful night travel she returned to her people. Her Shoshone husband had not remarried. His daughter was born that fall, and Pocatello was born about four years later. Many attribute Pocatello’s tenacity to his mother. The name of his father is unknown.

His Life
By the end of 1857 he was the leader of a band of about 400 nomadic Lemhi Shoshone.

To understand Chief Pocatello, one must understand the Indian customs, needs and the position that Pocatello and his people were in.

How does a young Indian boy become a “brave?” By doing something seen by members of his tribe as being brave. This was generally accomplished by stealing something valuable from another tribe and bringing it back to theirs.

This pattern was considered normal behavior by Indians, each tribe trying to outdo the other. Another custom was the common practice of paying a “tribute” to occupying tribes when going through territory they occupied. This bought safe passage. Further, any tribe or person who contributed to any kind of loss from a tribe was considered a fair target for the tribe whose loss it was they caused. Revenge always was attempted, inasmuch as it was possible.

Leadership of a band or tribe is not inherited or bestowed, rather it is earned. The people have the right to listen to another and follow him, should their leader be seen to falter. The leader is called “De-qua-ni” (the person who speaks for us).

His Mission
Pocatello was the chosen leader of his tribe. His greatest concern was that his people be safe and secure. The overwhelming influx of white people caused them great hardships. The Shoshone were composed of a number of nomadic bands, each traveling over a wide area of Idaho and Northern Utah, following the available food supply. They considered the earth as a mother who provides for its children. As salmon began their runs, they went to the rivers where they were. When Camus roots were ready to harvest, they went to harvest them. They gathered together at times to hunt rabbits, deer and buffalo, or to trade with one another. When white people began to move into and “own” their hunting and gathering grounds, food became scarce.

Asking for tribute from those traveling through their territory was misinterpreted to be begging, and was looked upon with distain. As hunger began to be seen among his tribe, he began to steal and plunder, taking tribute by force-as one author wrote, “as a landlord would extract rent from a reluctant tenant.” This was seen as unacceptable aggression and dealt with forcibly by the government.

Each attack upon his tribe was seen as a reason for Pocatello to retaliate with more force and cunning. He and his band of braves did exceptionally well.

The Beginning of the End
Finally, in August of 1862, Pocatello and his braves attacked a wagon train near what is now known as “Massacre Rocks.” In a series of events, ten people were killed. In response to Pocatello’s arrogance, the government decided to send Colonel Patrick Connor and the Third California Infantry from Fort Douglas to “punish” the Indians-especially Pocatello. Colonel Connor had wanted to make a name for himself in the Civil War, but, to his dismay, had been sent to fight Indians. He determined to capture or kill Chief Pocatello. His quest culminated in the attack and slaughter of approximately 400 Indian men, women and children at their winter campsite at Bear River, northwest of present Preston on a frigidly cold January 29, 1863. Chief Pocatello, ever cautious, had left the camp and moved to the Malad area with his band about a day before the attack took place.

Promises and Broken Promises
The devastating results of the attack, and mounting pressure to capture or kill him, caused Pocatello, along with a number of other tribal chiefs, to sign the treaty of Box Elder months later, which promised $5000 worth of goods per year if he and his people were to move to and remain on the Fort Hall Reservation. They did, only to find that the promised food and supplies were either late or did not appear at all.

He returned to stealing and plundering, trying to get what he saw as owed to him and his tribe. He was arrested several times and threatened with execution by his captor, Col. Patrick Connor, but each time he was arrested, he spoke eloquently and defiantly in his own defense, his tribe threatened war, and he was released (once upon the direct orders of President Lincoln).

Joining the LDS Church
In May of 1875 he thought he had found the solution to his troubles. He and his band traveled to Utah and requested baptism into the Mormon Church. For a time, he and his tribe lived peacefully near present-day Corinne, Utah, working on a church farm and being well fed and provided for by the church. Neighbors, fearing that the Indians and Mormons were plotting to attack them, called upon the military to enforce the treaty, evict the band and return them to Fort Hall. This eventually was done-just as his band was ready to harvest their first crop.

The End
Chief Pocatello, broken hearted, never again became involved in tribal affairs-even during the Camus Prairie war.

In October, 1884, he died. The only white persons to witness the burial were the family of Judge Walter Taylor Oliver, who lived nearby, heard the crying of Pocatello’s people and went to investigate. He was buried deep in a natural springs in what we now know as “the bottoms” at Fort Hall. He was buried according to his wishes. The chief had been ill and knew that he was dying, so he had his camp, with all of his valued earthly provisions, moved to an area of the Snake River where a large, bottomless spring bubbled up. After his death, he was dressed in full war attire. His guns, knives and spears were tightly bound to his body and he was lowered by a crane, made from tipi poles, and dropped into the spring. All that was precious to him was also buried-including 18 of his finest horses. The gravesite is now covered by the American Falls Reservior. It is said that, when the water is extremely low, the spring can still be seen.

August 17, 1943, at Kaiser Yard #4 in Richmond, CA, Miss Thelma Dixie, a great-granddaughter of Chief Pocatello, christened and launched a Patrol Frigate for the United States Coast Guard named the Pocatello.

In 1946 it was sold to a New York businessman. Its fate is unknown.

Written By Gene Wiggers:  Amateur Historian,
May 2008

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