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Getting Good Crops: Economic and Diplomatic Survival Strategies of the Montana Bitterroot Salish Indians, 1870-1891

Author(s):Bigart, Robert J.
Reviewer(s):Wishart, David M.

Published by EH.NET (January 2011)

Robert J. Bigart, Getting Good Crops: Economic and Diplomatic Survival Strategies of the Montana Bitterroot Salish Indians, 1870-1891.? Norman, OK:? University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.? xiv + 284 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8061-4133-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David M. Wishart, Department of Economics, Wittenberg University.

Robert J. Bigart, Librarian Emeritus at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, and the author or editor of several books on Native American culture and history in western Montana, has crafted a highly-readable, carefully-researched, and provocative account of survival strategies employed by the Bitterroot Salish Indians in response to increasing white settlement and intertribal competition for a dwindling resource base during the late-nineteenth century.? Bigart advances two hypotheses regarding Salish survival strategies over this period.? First, he argues that the Salish employed diplomatic strategies with whites and other Indian tribes in order to insure peaceful relations with the white community and sufficiently powerful alliances with whites and other tribes to counter the larger, more powerful tribes of the Great Plains.? Second, he maintains that the Salish adopted flexible economic strategies including the adoption of agriculture so they could maintain their independence in the face of a growing white population and a dwindling food resource base.? After a brief presentation of Salish history from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Bigart makes use of a variety of direct and indirect evidence in the remainder of the book to build support for these hypotheses.

The ?strategic seeds? of the Salish diplomatic strategies of the late nineteenth century were planted in the mid-to-late-eighteenth century as a result of the introduction of the horse and firearms.? Bigart describes the Montana tribes as two coalitions — the Northern Coalition consisting of the Blackfeet Confederation, the Cree, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre Indians, which had better access to firearms and ammunition from the Missouri Valley and the Southern Coalition including the Salish, Kootenai, Shoshoni (Snake) and Crow tribes.? Southern Coalition horse herds grew more rapidly than those of the Northern Coalition tribes given the milder winter conditions experienced in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains compared to the harsher winter weather on the plains of central and eastern Montana.? However, superior firepower possessed by the Northern Coalition effectively limited Salish access to the plains? buffalo herds and allowed the Northern Coalition to raid Southern Coalition villages for horses.? Thus, the stage was set for competition and conflict among the various tribes for access to firearms and horses, technologies that were essential to the successful pursuit of seasonal hunting, gathering, and trading. Although smallpox epidemics dramatically reduced the Salish population in 1780 and 1800, expanded contact with white traders provided the Salish with access to firearms and ammunition, which allowed them to fend off Northern Coalition war parties intent on stealing horses and to continue their buffalo hunts on the plains.??

Although white traders sold firearms to both coalitions, the Salish maintained better relations with them than did the Blackfeet and other tribes of the Northern Coalition.? Bigart identifies several instances of military cooperation between whites and the Southern Coalition tribes opposing the Blackfeet during the 1860s.? Nearly continuous low-level conflict between the Salish and Northern Coalition tribes had the effect of further reducing their population, especially of young men.? The Salish population in the 1850s may have been as low as 350 persons living in 60 lodges inhabited primarily by elderly women and daughters.? However, men from other tribes were adopted and encouraged to marry Salish women in order to stabilize the population.? Moreover, Bigart cites evidence that the Salish economic strategy was beginning to play a role during the 1850s and 1860s as grain production and cattle herding operations by Salish families in the Bitterroot Valley were noted by white observers.?

Bigart presents a history of unstinting cooperation on the part of the Salish people through the rest of the nineteenth century, especially on the part of their leaders, in order to secure cooperation to oppose their traditional tribal enemies and to avoid the prospect of extermination by the United States military.? However, Salish cooperation was provided in an environment marked by increasing white settlement in the Bitterroot Valley, pressure for removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot to a reservation on the southern periphery of Flathead Lake that had been provided for in the highly-confusing Hellgate Treaty of 1855, and the collapse of the plains? buffalo population over the 1870s and 1880s that necessitated a further shift in economic strategy to settled agriculture augmented by hunting and gathering.? In a series of well-organized chapters that are clearly and colorfully written, Bigart details continued diplomatic efforts and daily interactions between the Salish and whites that, taken together, lend strong support to his hypotheses of deliberate cooperative survival strategies undertaken by the Salish.?

The shift in economic strategy toward agricultural is clearly described in considerable detail despite serious data limitations.? Property disputes between Indians and whites in the Bitterroot Valley display a remarkable symmetry.? Sometimes disputes arise between Indian herders and white farmers, while other incidents are cited between whites who own wandering livestock and Indian farmers.? Coasian bargaining is evident in some cases.? One such conflict involved a Salish man named Paul whose corn was trampled by a cow owned by Peter Whaley, a white man.? Paul was so angered that he shot through a window of the Whaley house, nearly wounding Whaley?s sixteen-year-old daughter.? Whaley?s daughter spoke Salish and confronted Paul, whereupon Paul apologized for shooting at the house and Peter Whaley paid him damages for the corn destroyed (p. 165).? Montana was a ranchers? rights world at the time with farmers paid damages only if their fields were fenced (p. 166).? Shades of Garret Hardin run through common property disputes that Bigart recounts over access to wild game and fish populations.?

More Salish families adopted white farming techniques with some success during the 1870s and 1880s.? However, harsh winters that wiped out livestock populations in the late 1880s and a devastating drought in 1889 left the Salish in the Bitterroot Valley destitute.? Chief Charlo was forced to acquiesce to pressure to remove the remaining members of the Bitterroot Salish to the Flathead Reservation.? Removal occurred amid typical bureaucratic bungling, delay, and failures on the part of government officials to satisfy the negotiated terms of removal and to provide adequate and timely material and monetary compensation to the Salish.? Bigart?s account is all too familiar to students of Native American history.

Bigart has produced a tightly-argued narrative of Salish survival strategies that fits neatly into recent scholarship that emphasizes constructive responses on the part of Native Americans to pressure exerted by white settlers and the United States government.

David M. Wishart is currently working on an estimate of the economic cost of Cherokee removal with Matthew Gregg.?

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Historical Geography
Military and War
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century