[The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864-1868 by Gregory Michno (Caxton Press, 2007). Softcover, maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:367/398. ISBN:9780870044601 $18.95]
"Snakes" is a crude catch-all term for those scattered bands of hostile non-treaty Bannocks, Shoshonis, and Paiutes living in the west's Columbia Plateau and Great Basin, a vast area comprising parts of Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and California. Finally fed up with escalating white incursions in the form of emigrant parties and miners numbering in the thousands, the previously isolated Snakes fought back with a vengeance.
Although the hundreds of battles, skirmishes, and incidents of the Snake War of 1864-1868 led to heavy casualties in toto, the conflict remains largely obscure. Gregory Michno, author of The Deadliest Indian War in the West, notes that a large segment of the conflict was overshadowed by the Civil War, reporters were few (especially early on), no famous Indian war leaders were involved, and the tribes involved did not carry the romantic cachet that others such the more mobile Plains Indians did. Before the war disabused them of such preconceived notions, whites, and even other Indians, looked down upon Snakes as backward, unmilitary, and undignified "dirteaters".
In the beginning, state and territorial volunteer units from California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada shouldered the burden of combating the Snakes, to be largely replaced by U.S. regulars led by George Crook in 1866. Using mostly official records and other published source materials, Michno recounts the major conflicts in chapter length detail, but also summarizes for the reader a countless number of smaller skirmishes and encounters. At times the sheer volume of information presented about movements and locations can be disorienting, but this is alleviated in most places by the inclusion of several area and battlefield maps*. A number of appendices [a list of battles and their casualty numbers, a list of Indian depredations referenced in the text, some financial figures, and an accounting by regiment of Indian casualties inflicted by California volunteer units] supplement the text, and photographs of people and places are spread generously throughout.
Until recently George Crook has enjoyed largely positive coverage in the Civil War and Indian Wars literature for his command effectiveness, yet recent works (especially those covering the Civil War campaigns in West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley) have rather persuasively revised his military reputation downward. While Crook took command near the tail end of the Snake Conflict and indeed brought it to a conclusion, Michno credits the general with no groundbreaking tactics, just a basic continuation of the previous three years of steady military pressure that would eventually exhaust Indian resistance.
Anyone reading Michno's study will likely be struck by the scale of the conflict, but was it really the deadliest of the western Indian Wars? It appears so. The author examined best estimate casualty figures for the thirteen major Trans-Mississippi Indian Wars that occurred between 1865 and 1891 and found that the almost 1,800 casualties suffered by both sides during the battles of the 1864-1868 Snake Conflict far outstripped any other total. Exhaustive in the breadth of its coverage, The Deadliest Indian War in the West is a much needed study that fills in a large gap in the popular literature of the Indian Wars. Recommended.
[add. 4/24: The cartography featured in the general run of Indian Wars publications remains fairly wretched. The battlefield maps included in this book are better than average, depicting troop positions (at company level where possible), some terrain features, and elevation contour lines.]