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Snake War of 1866-1868

Prior to the coming of white settlers, there were few major conflicts between Indians and whites. The Idaho gold rush made for trouble, though, and the resulting Snake War of 1866- 1868 involved Indians from southwestern Idaho. Years of friction and minor incidents finally precipitated two major outbreaks in 1877 and 1878.

Among the most energetic Indian leaders to oppose the whites was Howluck, "a considerable chief of the Snake Indians". Howluck (or Oualuck, in C. S. Drew's spelling, or Oulux as he was called by a well-known mountaineer named Reid who had fought a personal encounter with him) was a large, tall man distinguished mostly for his oversize 14 3/4" foot. By 1866 the whites (generally unaware of any Indian name for their adversary) were calling him Bigfoot.

Military operations during the Snake War (1864-1868) required the garrisoning of a substantial number of forts and camps scattered over a broad region of hostilities: southwestern Idaho, eastern Oregon, northern Nevada, and northeastern California. One of these fortifications was Camp Lyon, named for Nathaniel Lyon, a controversial Army general who stirred up a great commotion in Missouri at the beginning of the Civil War. Indian restlessness threatened a number of roads serving mining centers such as Owyhee and John Day: in the case of Owyhee, important California interests brought pressure upon General George Wright, commander of the department of the Pacific, to provide better protection for new roads from Red Bluff and Chico to Silver City and Boise.

General George Crook put new life into the Armys prosecution of the Snake War when he took over military operations late in 1866. Leaving Fort Boise shortly before Christmas, he set out on a hard winter campaign that brought him to Camp Lyon in the middle of January. There he found conditions deplorable. Later he reported that From appearance and information the normal condition of the officers there was drunkenness. They didnt seem to do much else but get drunk and lie around doing nothing. Crook sent the Indians held captive at Camp Lyon to Fort Boise, and set off with the cavalry company that had been stationed at Camp Lyon, January 21. Before long, he was fighting a major battle with a band of the Owyhee-Steens Mountain Indians, capturing the survivors of this hard fought engagement.

From then on, most of his energy was spent farther west. While Crook was campaigning, hostilities still plagued the Camp Lyon area at times. By the summer of 1868, he had managed to bring the Indian troubles to an end. More than a year went by before Bigfoot with his sixty-one Indians was captured in eastern Oregon by a band of military force and an independent party of Willow Creek miners early in June, 1868. By that time, one of his associated bands had been wiped out on May 26 by an expedition from Camp Lyon, and another was out of reach on the upper Weiser. Bigfoot and his people were tired of their four year war and wanted to quit. So Bigfoot was encouraged to set out to bring in the two other bands still at large in eastern Oregon. Major General W. L. Elliott soon noted that a total of 130 of Bigfoot's friends (including the band originally captured) had come in.

Camp Lyon lasted for almost a year after the Snake War terminated. Finally, on March 15, 1869, the post was ordered abandoned. This was accomplished on April 27, and from then on, Camp Lyon survived only as a cattle ranch. The buildings are all gone, although on a hill directly to the north of the old camp stands a cabin reputedly built form materials salvaged at Camp Lyon. Other than that--and the military cemetery which still is located on the old camp grounds--little but a sign remains to mark the site of this old Army post.

Within ten years after the end of the Snake War in which Howluck, the real Bigfoot, was a leading figure, a Bigfoot legend grew up in the Northwest. Something like a partially developed Paul Bunyan legend, it was produced by road agents instead of loggers. In the legend, Bigfoot became a refugee, part-Cherokee desperado from Oklahoma who stole horses and robbed stages in Idaho and Oregon country. More than that, the legendary Oklahoma Bigfoot served as the chief figure in a fantastic tale that included a cast consisting mainly of Northwestern bad men, for whom Bigfoot seems to have become something of a folk hero: the tale, in fact, seems to have evolved among stage robbers imprisoned in Oregon. The legend identifies the Oklahoma Bigfoot as a certain Starr Wilkinson, who may or may not have existed in Oklahoma, but for whose existence in Idaho there is no historical evidence at all--at least in the literature which has grown up around the legend.



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