Chief Pocatello

Tonaioza Buffalo Robe

Copyright © All rights reserved. Made by Bernadette Holliday-Gillies

Speech made during the 46 Annual Shoshone-Bannock Festival in Fort Hall, Idaho, August 8, 2009. Much of the information used for this speech was obtained from Madsen's book Chief Pocatello and family oral history. Hope you enjoy!!!

Good evening and welcome to the Sosoni-Panakwate festival. My name is Cleve Davis and I have been asked to speak about the life of Chief Pocatello. I’m a fifth generation descendant of the Chief and to give this speech is a great honor. With that I will begin.

The origin of the name Pocatello is somewhat of a mystery. It was most likely given to him by the whites. As Shoshone speaking people know, there are no “l” sounds in the Shoshone language. “Bokenda’daa’” or “Pokendara” was the best Shoshone speakers of his time could do to pronounce this foreign word. The literature says he was also called Tonzaoza, which is supposed to mean the “Buffalo Robe”. However, in the Fort Hall Shoshone language the way I learned to say buffalo robe is: Bozheena Behe Ehede. He was also acquired the name “Kanah” after General P.E. Connor gave him an army coat during the signing of the 1863 Treaty of Box Elder.

Chief Pocatello’s story begins with his mother, Wendzibui or “Looking Sideways”. She was a member of the Grouse Creek band of Sosoni whose homeland lay near an area now known as the City of Rocks, a place that was called Dembitayuma’wa, which means = Rocks Crumbling. The City of Rocks is located south of Burley, Idaho near the Idaho-Utah boarder. It is now a State Park. This band of Sosoni referred to themselves as Hukandeka the “wild wheatgrass eaters” while harvesting grass grains, and “teebadeka” the “pine nut eaters” when harvesting pine nuts in the City of Rocks. Apparently, prior to giving birth to the Chief, Wendzibui was captured by a raiding Indian Tribe from the Northern Plains. However, she eventually escape and gave birth to a daughter and then the Chief.

At a young age Pocatello became a chief and country he claimed was north of the Great Salt Lake, west to the Goose Creek Mountains and east to the Portneuf Mountains. He was considered equal in authority to other more older Chiefs of his time and was known to ride alongside with Chief Washakie and the Bannock Chief Tahgi during buffalo hunting expeditions into the Northern Plains. Their acceptance of the Pocatello was a recognition that he and his people were sufficiently outfitted with good horses, had the skills necessary to hunt the buffalo, and, above all, could be counted on as trustworthy warriors against enemy Plains Tribes.

Pocatello and his people felt the pressure as travelers and settlers encroach on their homeland, destroyed game and native plant communities, and killed there tribesmen. And, the Chief and his warriors were known for swift retaliation. He was very concerned with the heavy emigrant traffic, and “he finally sent his people to take away some of their wagons at Massacre Rocks. Massacre Rocks is southwest of American Falls along the Snake River, and is now a State Park.” His attacks at City of Rocks were another part of his resistance to intrusion by emigrant trains. However, he was often blamed for any attack or massacre that occurred along the California Trail, when it was just as likely that other Shoshone or perhaps the warlike Bannock were involved. Morman leaders, Indian agents, and army officers in the Salt Lake area as well as newspaper editors and readers in the West regard him as a dangerous and intransigent chief of an outlaw band of Indians.

In 1861, Patrick Edward Connor, a prominent citizen of Stockton, California, and veteran of several years in the US Army was called upon to lead the California Volunteers to Utah to chastise the Indians. Connor and his soldiers inflicted a harsh punishment upon on the Northwest Shoshone Indians. He was known to order his troops to capture the murderers and to immediately hang them, and leave their bodies exposed as an example of what evil-doers may expect while he was in command. His soldiers were further ordered to destroy every male Indian in the vicinity of the recent massacres. No prisoners were to be taken and he took on the role as judge, jury, and executioner. Conner was to become Chief Pocatello’s primary antagonists during the next two years.

Chief Pocatello’s band was mostly blamed for retaliation against Conner’s cruel Indian policy by attacking travelers and settlers. The conflicts climaxed with Bear River Massacre of 1863 where Connor’s men killed about 350 Shoshoni men, women, and children including Chief Bear Hunter. This was the largest slaughter of North American Indians in the history of this country. Chief Sagwitch escaped the conflict with only a wound to his hand and led some of his freezing warriors to the “friendly lodge” of Pocatello who was then encamped about twenty miles north of Malad Valley.

Not long after the Bear River Massacre Washakie and the Eastern Shoshone signed the 1863 Fort Bridger Treaty. Soon after the signing Pocatello sent word that he wished for peace, and Connor and Superintendent Doty met with Chief Pocatello and eight other Northwestern Band chiefs and signed the 1863 Treaty of Box Elder. Pocatello signed the treaty first as the most prominent leader. There were five articles of the Treaty:


A year later Chief Pocatello was arrested by General Conner for helping himself to food and supplies at Malad Spring Station. General Conner ordered his arrest without even informing the O.H. Irish, the superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah. But news got around, and when Irish checked with Captain Hempstead, he was told “that General Connor had set to arrest Pocatello, and that he would try him, and if guilty of the offences charged in the affidavit, -he would hang him. General Connor was seeking revenge for the twenty solider killed during the Bear River Massacre.

The next day Irish put in writing his strong objections to any thought of lethal punishment for Pocatello, he told Connor that if killed there would be a good possibility of a general outbreak by the Shoshone. He went further to state that if Pocatello demanded food, it was because the government neglected to deliver annuity goods to the Northwestern Bands. The Station owner closed the affair by writing to General Connor that the alleged offences of Pocatello were not that serious and that no further actions should be taken. Upon learning of General Connors intentions of hanging the Chief the Northern Bands of Shoshone went to the mountains and prepared for war. However, Connor released Pocatello to Irish and Irish immediately released him to prevent an all out war.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Dole was not informed of this release and immediately informed Secretary of Interior John Usher of the generals intentions. Usher visited President Abraham Lincoln that same day and after reading the correspondence the president issued orders to the secretary of war that Chief Pocatello was not to be executed. Although, charges were already dropped on Pocatello, officials in Washington were unaware of the developments and took this humanitarian action. With all the responsibilities in conducting the war to save the Union, President Abraham Lincoln found the time to save the life of an Indian Chief far out in the Great Basin.

After signing the treaty Chief Pocatello and other Shoshone and Bannock of the area went through tough times. The government continued to fail at providing annuities and provisions granted to the Indians under the treaties. Furthermore, Mormon settlements in Northern Utah would constantly attribute any dastardly incident to the Indians and begged the Federal Government to establish a reservation for the wandering Indians. And, with the signing of the 1868 Fort Bridger Treaty with the Eastern Shoshone and Bannock the Fort Hall reserve was established for the Fort Hall Shoshone and Bannock. Pocatello refused to starve on the reservation and followed aggressive instincts to take what he needed from the whites who had possessed his country. For Pocatello, it was a gradual process and not until the mid-1870s did his band finally drift to Fort Hall and make it their permanent home. Once permanently at Fort Hall Pocatello refused to be recognized as the head chief. Agent Johnson High wrote:

"There seems to be no chief of real consequence among them. Pocatella says he is no chief, but that his brother and a man named John and one whose name I don’t know and who stops near Ogden, Utah, are the chiefs. While these men are chiefs, Pocatello is really the business man among them and is so recognized by being virtually head chief. A few years ago he got into trouble and was arrested by the military officials once or twice and has learned that there is a disability as well as honors connected with the chieftainship. Hence while he performs the duties he declines the honor".

Agents or other white officials usually chose as reservation chiefs individuals who would “go along” so they could “get along” and were amenable to the suggestions provided them by the whites in charge. Pocatello no doubt wanted to remain a trusted Shoshone leader, but refused to accept what to him was an offensive offer to become a reservation chief. He preferred to let Pocatello John or his two brothers, Pocatello Tom and Pocatello Pete, deal with reservation problems. Pocatello found it difficult to give up his roaming and agree to a new kind of life with the white men he did not trust.

In 1875, the Shoshone soon recognized that they could be assured food and sustenance from the Mormons by a quick dip into a nearby stream. Upon hearing of this Pocatello and many other Shoshone demanded to be baptized. However, the government fearing an alliance between the Mormons and the Shoshone ordered them back to Fort Hall, or they would make them do so by military force. Some of the Indians lost faith in the Mormons, and did think they were doing anything in opposition to the Government by being baptized.

However, Pocatello remained in Logan and refused to obey military orders. During this time the Corinne Daily Mail reported as story about the Chief entitled “Pocatello and the Garments.”

"Pocatello, the chief of several hundred Indians, who were removed from this neighborhood last week, when going north to meet a gentlemen and inquired of him if he was a Mormon. Receiving a reply that he was, Pocatello remarked “Me good Mormon too,” and insisted upon examining him to see if he wore the endowment robes – the garments. To satisfy him he consented, and exhibited them. The chief was very much pleased, and spying the Mormon’s wife wished to know if “she good Mormon,” also. “Oh, yes; she’s my wife,” was the answer. The dusky rascal, however, looked dubious, and saying: “Heap dam, no believe, me see,” started towards the wagon to test the matter of the endowment robes, and only by superhuman effort in smothering his laugher, and with the best of talk did the husband convince and induce him to forego his intention".

Although this tale may not be true, the story does represent the widespread impressions of Pocatello as a Indian leader of audacity and rough humor.


After his return to the Fort Hall Reservation in 1876 the once prominent Pocatello seemed to drop from sight. He and some of his people settled into Bannock Creek, which was part of their homeland. As Pocatello Tom and Pocatello Pete rose to prominence, Chief Pocatello was being called General Pocatello to distinguish him from all the others by that name, and no doubt, to give him the prominence he deserved. His last act as leader occurred in 1881 upon the land cession of Marsh Valley. His mark was given under the name General Pocatello.

In October of 1884, after an extended illness and realizing he was going to die, Pocatello directed his wives and family to take him and his possessions to the Fort Hall Bottoms where he died. The day after his death, Judge Oliver and his wife, attended the final rites and assisted in the burial. Pocatello had directed that he be interred in a large spring of unknown depth. This spring is now covered by the American Falls Reservoir and the Indians looked upon this spring as being sacred. Judge Oliver then described his burial:

"First we took the chief and wound all his clothing around him, then tied his guns, knives, and all his hunting equipment and relics to the clothing with willow thongs and tossed him out into the middle of the spring, and he went to the bottom quickly. Then the Indians took the eighteen head of horses, killed them one by one and rolled them into the spring on top of the old man, and they two were soon out of sight, for the spring is said to have no bottom".

No one ever succumbed this great Shoshone Chief. Perhaps the Mormons came the closest when he agreed to be baptized so as to gain access to the benefits of Mormon farms. But the conversion lasted only a few months. Chief Pocatello was a free spirit who roamed his beloved plains and mountains, hunted the buffalo, fought the Blackfeet and Sioux, raided stage stations, and struck terror into the hearts of western travelers and farmers. Perhaps it is fitting that his name be recognized as one of the largest cities in Idaho where he once pitched his tipi.

Thank you for listening to this speech and I hope it give you more appreciation and understanding of Chief Pocatello and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

Cleve Davis


"Chief Pocatello Speech" By: Cleve Davis