Southeastern Idaho Native American Prehistory and History

by E.S. Lohse

Taken from Manual for Archaeological Analysis: Field and Laboratory Analysis Procedures. Department of Anthropology Miscellaneous Paper No. 92-1 (revised). Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello, Idaho 1993.


Prehistoric Site Types

Reed et al. (1986) have identified classes of archaeological site types for the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory grounds.

Residential bases.

Field camps.

Procurement locations.



All of these site types may be encountered in archaeological surveys in southeastern Idaho.

Most sites in the residential base or field camp category would have been located where multiple resource arrays emerged. Sources of water, firewood, and sheltered locations will tend to cluster where rivers and streams bend, slow, widen out, or where small to large side streams or drainages feed into main channels, or where constrictions or geological features have altered the river and stream courses. The variables described above would also have enticed historic European activities to overlap with Native American activities. Often, sites selected for homesteads, towns, fishing, grazing, or hunting are those selected for in the past by prehistoric peoples.

To date, there has been little effective, systematic archaeological survey of any significant topographic features on or near the Snake River Plain other than intensive survey work done on the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. The natural environment on the INEL consists of a relatively flat, unbroken volcanic landscape overlain by dunes and flanked by high buttes. Collapsed lava tubes and restricted riparian zones associated with seasonally inundated playas dot the landscape. Prehistoric human activity was channeled by the natural landscape, and therefore limited in scale and scope.

Other major productive resource zones on or associated with the Snake River Plain include the major river drainages and the surrounding mountain masses. Neither major topographic feature has been systematically surveyed for archaeological resources. Swanson's (1972) work in the Birch Creek Valley was limited to understanding geological deposition, environmental change, and cultural chronology. Holmer's (1986) work at Wahmuza in the Fort Hall Bottoms along the Snake River, is invaluable because it sampled a resource environment heretofore untapped, but the work was seriously limited by restrictions put on survey of larger sections of the bottoms along the river and dunes and terraces away from the river or drainages flowing into the Snake.

Any major riverine resource area should produce a variety of prehistoric hunting, fishing, plant gathering, and residential sites of some scale and complexity. The prehistoric record for southeastern Idaho is a relative uknown in this regard simply due to the selective restrictions of past research. The ethnohistoric and ethnographic records offer some tantalizing clues on how Shoshonean peoples used the river or related to it, but to date we have had little opportunity to explore these relationships in any detail. The historical record of early exploration and contact offers some very biased yet invaluable descriptions of Shoshoneans using the riverine environments, describing large camps down on the Snake River, with Shoshone taking fish, gathering plants, and hunting (Clark 1986). The record of early trappers and explorers has also created the opportunity for historical archaeology focused on finding sites of this early historic activity. We know that the Astorians were the first to traverse the Snake River, and that they had multiple accidents, canoe turn-overs, and camp sites along the river. Later trappers were known to have exploited resources along the Snake, and immigrants travelling down the Oregon Trail touched upon the river environments. Still later, early farms and ranches were placed in sheltered, watered locations on the river. So, the riverine environments were an attraction for both prehistoric and historic populations.

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