He thought he had a safe job teaching Shoshones to farm.
The final round of treaties the United States signed with the Western Indians in 1868 provided the tribes with, among other concessions, government farmers to help them learn the white man’s agricultural techniques. The treaties also provided Finn Burnett with the means to feed his family as he taught Indians to feed themselves. Burnett persevered through raiders, rattlesnakes and other distractions, but most of his troubles—like those of the Indians—came from government bureaucrats.
Burnett had done stints as a freighter, gold prospector and railroad section hand when offered the position of “boss farmer” on the Wind River Indian Reservation in May 1871. He landed that Wyoming Territory job through old friend Dr. James Irwin, who’d been appointed Indian agent for the Shoshone tribe. Burnett’s salary was $65 a month, plus government-provided housing, food, fuel and light (lamp oil and tallow candles). He was also able to purchase clothing, blankets and equipment at cost from the reservation commissary.
With a wife and baby son to care for, Burnett jumped at the chance, even though his previous experience with Indians had included collecting body parts after the Fetterman Fight and ducking arrows at the Hayfield Fight during Red Cloud’s War. The young husband had been a farmer in his native Missouri before the Civil War, but he left to avoid conscription into the Union Army and spent the next few years engaged in risky business. Being a government farmer was a safe job, or so it seemed.
The government established the Wind River Indian Reservation in 1868. Its plan was to turn the Shoshones—friendly to whites but with no agricultural traditions to speak of—into self-sufficient farmers and to educate them at schools on the reservation. Burnett and the other government employees would inhabit six four-room cabins, while the Indian agent would occupy a larger six-room dwelling. The Burnett cabin included a living room with a big stone fireplace, and he and his wife were both pleased with their accommodations. They were less than pleased to learn that Arapahos in the region remained on the war path, at least with regard to the Shoshones and agency staff. The soldiers, however, had orders not to fire unless fired upon, in the hope things would simmer down.
Once the employees were settled, they constructed a stronghold just west of the dwellings, its 2-foot-thick sandstone walls pierced with loopholes on all sides and a foot of dirt thrown on the roof to fend off fire arrows. Its single door comprised five layers of 2-inch planks. Provisions for a month lined the walls, and a well in the center of the stronghold could provide water in case of a siege. Agency employees regularly slept in the sandstone bastion, and four men took turns standing guard each night. They used their log cabins only in the day. Burnett built a stable for his two horses and four mules. The employees sometimes found moccasin tracks in the dust outside the cabins—from Indians probably more curious than hostile. When Burnett later asked Arapaho Chief Black Coal why his men had never torched the cabins while the whites were inside the sandstone fort, Black Coal candidly replied the thought had not occurred to him.
One day after clearing brush for a vegetable garden, Finn, wife Eliza and son Jimmy were so exhausted that they chanced spending the night in their cabin. Finn kept his six-shooter holstered and slung over the bedpost. In the middle of the night, waking with a start, Eliza told Finn an Indian had peered through the window.
“Where’s my gun, mom?” Finn asked.
“Oh Finn—I was afraid that Jimmy might catch hold of it, so I put it on the shelf over there.”
Finn, his own nerves on edge, retrieved the gun and headed for the window, then tripped over the chamber pot and dropped the heavy six-shooter on his bare foot. An employee on guard at the sand stone fort heard Finn’s roar and certain subsequent remarks and said later,“It was doubtful if that Arapaho would ever be seen in these parts again, the way he was getting away from there when I saw him.”
Another time Eliza saw someone staring through the window, Finn leaped up, saw a dark shape and rammed his fist into it. The “face” folded, and Finn cut his shoulder on broken glass. Eliza remembered, only after she was fully awake, that Jimmy had broken the window earlier, and she had stuffed a hat in the hole to keep out the cold.
The farming equipment hadn’t arrived in time for the 1871 planting season, so the agency employees used their spare time to build 24 log houses for those Shoshones who consented to live in them. Finally, in 1872 the government farmer’s job began. Finn divided the Indians who turned out into teams, harnessed the horses to the newly arrived plows and so commenced the Shoshone agricultural tradition. Some men had a tough time learning to plow, and some insisted on riding the plow horses while the women steered. At least a dozen teams broke loose and ran off, dragging harness. But the work got done—sort of.
The teams finally managed to plow 320 acres—268 with wheat, 40 with barley, 10 with oats and two with potatoes. The Shoshones then took off to hunt, leaving the whites to dig irrigation ditches. The first ditch—said to be the first in Wyoming—sluiced water to the fields on June 15. The first harvest was a huge success: The wheat crop was bountiful, and the potatoes were described as “large and smooth and moist in their cool nests.”
The haying season, however, stirred up the problem of rattlesnakes. The rattles of dozens of snakes augmented the sounds of the haying machines, and while the blades sliced them to pieces, even a dying rattler could bite. Those whose rattles had been separated from their bodies struck without warning. One day Finn and a friend named Uncle Billy Rogers were cutting hay with John Kingston, who was notably deaf after a bout of scurvy as a Union prisoner at Andersonville, Ga., during the Civil War.
“Hey! There’s a rattlesnake in this load!” Kingston shouted.
“You couldn’t hear one of them rattle if it was right beside you,” Uncle Billy called out.
“Well, I may not be able to hear a rattlesnake, but I can smell one,” Kingston insisted. “They have a scent like a green cucumber.”
Finn and Rogers kept forking hay as Uncle Billy climbed to the top of the heap on the wagon—then quickly jumped off, landing between the oxen.
“Say, there’s a rattlesnake up there,” Uncle Billy said. “It was almost against my nose when I saw it.” No one laughed again whenever Kingston smelled green cucumbers in the hayfields.
Snakes could be avoided. Bureaucrats were something else. As early as 1874 the Indian Office ordered defective mowing machines and cultivators through sweetheart contracts. In one case the surplus equipment was left to rust, as Burnett was unable to obtain the planks necessary to build a barn to store all of it. Another time the agency fired him for distributing seed on the basis of how much the Indians planted—the most industrious farmers got the most seed. Theodore Roosevelt read the report by agent James McLaughlin, and Finn got his job back. Bureaucrats often made such a mess of distributing seed grain that Burnett and his fellow employees convinced the Indians to save some of their own grain as seed instead of waiting for Washington. This method helped them maintain steady yields.
As the wild game gave out, the Indians became dedicated farmers, cultivating hundreds of acres. By the time of the Spanish-American War the Shoshones, now reluctant hosts to the larger Arapaho tribe on the reservation, were raising all their own grain and selling the surplus to the Milford flour mill. The Indians sometimes even used their annuity checks to buy new seed.
The Shoshones did so well as farmers, they paid Finn the logical tribute for his efforts as the government farmer: They ceded part of the reservation to the Burnett family so they could have a farm of their own. And there they lived happy to the end.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.
John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor. Suzie Koster assisted with research