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Posted on Dec 20, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

ACG –Connection Two-fer!

By Armchair General

book2The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864-1868 by Gregory Michno. 2007. Caxton Press ( PB. 380 pages; 76 maps and illustrations. $18.95

There is no better historian of the Indian Wars writing today than Gregory Michno, and in his latest book he more than confirms that judgment. His previous books, which include Lakota Noon and The Mystery of E Troop – hands down two of the best histories ever written of the Battle of the Little Bighorn – established Michno’s credentials as a historian par excellence and master of narrative prose. Now, with The Deadliest Indian War in the West, he adds to that luster with a compelling and revealing account of a bitter struggle in America’s Northwest that should be much better known. Michno’s outstanding new book undoubtedly will help to fill that void and familiarize readers with a war that, in terms of loss of human life, was the Indian War’s costliest, but which has “rarely gotten its page in history.”


Michno, author of The Encyclopedia of Indian Wars, is exactly the right historian to take on the task of presenting readers with the personalities, units, battles and skirmishes, and associated events of the all but forgotten Snake War that raged in areas of Oregon, California, Utah and Nevada from 1864 to 1868. His command of the subject and overall knowledge of America’s Indian Wars is, well, encyclopedic, and Michno’s superb narrative is propelled and enhanced by the fruits of his extensive research. It is history written by a master in command of his craft. Writing this account is, perhaps, more of a challenge than might at first appear. Chief among these is that the participants (aside from the celebrated Civil War and Indian War commander, George Crook) are virtually unknown to most of us today. Michno’s narrative, therefore, cannot rely on the “star power” of Sitting Bull, Custer, Crazy Horse, MacKenzie, Chief Joseph, Sheridan, Cochise or Geronimo. Instead, Michno’s cast is made up of relative unknowns: highly effective but unfairly overlooked “Indian fighters,” like Col. George Wright; and the Native American leaders, Paulina, Weahwewa, Howluck, Ocheho, and Winnemucca. The Deadliest Indian War, however, succeeds superbly in meeting the challenge of providing these hidden heroes their “page in history.”

Like its leaders, the U. S. Army lineup lacked the big names. Heralded outfits, like Custer’s 7th Cavalry or the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th are missing. Much of the Snake War’s early combat was borne by California Volunteer Regiments. Michno points out that (when the all-Californian 8th U. S. Cavalry regiment is included) Californians not only inflicted fully one-fifth of all Native American casualties in the West’s Indian Wars (over 2,500 in 287 fights), “in five years [the Californians] killed more Indians than any of the ten U. S. Cavalry regiments did in the forty years from 1850 to 1890.”

“Snake” refers to several bands of Native Americans inhabiting the Great Basin and the Northwest’s Columbia Plateau (principally Bannocks, Shoshonis and Paiutes). Michno speculates that one reason for the general lack of knowledge about the Snake War is that these tribes “were not taken seriously as warriors” (as were the Sioux and Apaches) and therefore have not been given their due as a formidable fighting force. Another reason that more attention has not been paid to the Snake War is that volunteers, not regulars, constituted most of the Army troops involved. When the Snake War broke out in 1864, most U. S. Army regulars had been sent East to fight the Civil War (by Spring, 1861, fewer than 700 regulars remained in the entire Northwest). However, lest readers mistakenly believe that this left a dangerous void, 18,000 volunteers (like the California regiments) rallied to the colors to back-fill the West’s 5,000 pre-war regulars. With more troops available, fights with Native Americans increased while the volunteers were in service.

The war’s casualty figures, however, belie the short shrift given to the fighters on both sides and provide a compelling justification for Michno’s book. In total, 1,762 whites and Indians were either killed, wounded or captured in the Snake War’s battles and skirmishes. That is nearly twice the number of casualties in the much more well-known and intensely studied “Great Sioux War” of 1876-77 (in which Custer met his end at the Little Bighorn). Michno writes that the true casualty count for the Snake War was even higher when the countless, small-scale Indian raids are added to the battle and skirmish totals, noting that, conservatively, “an additional ninety civilians killed, thirty wounded and sixty Indians killed or wounded” should be included.

Finally, in an observation that echoes in how today’s headlines are produced, Michno points out that another major reason the Snake War is not better known is that few reporters covered the action, nor did “Indian Wars combat artists” like Remington, Schreyvogel or Russell produce colorful, dramatic images as they did for the fights against the Plains Indians. It seems that, 140 years ago, editors were deciding what was “newsworthy” for the public — and even in those days could miss a great story. Michno’s outstanding new book finally tells that “great story.”

ACG rates this book 5 Stars.

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