January 29th, 1863: The Bear River Massacre

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On today’s date, in 1863, near the banks of the Bear River in modern-day Idaho, hundreds of Northwestern Shoshone Indians were massacred by members of the United States Army. As their men lay dying in the deep snow, many Shoshone women were subjected to brutal rapes and the horror of seeing their children beaten to death with rocks. It was the largest massacre of Native Americans in our country’s shameful relations with the indigenous people who first called this land home.

In many ways, the American West of the 1860s was a social and cultural tinderbox. As the Eastern part of the country was entrenched in the Civil War, the west was grappling with the question of whether true co-existence between settlers and Native Americans would be possible.  Not 60 years before, Sacajawea, herself from an Idaho-based band of Shosone, had helped lead Lewis and Clark’s expedition through the newly purchased land. The ensuing decades brought swathes of white settlers in search of a better life, usually at the expense of the native people.

The Lemhi-Shosone tribal website explains:

“The NWB of Shoshone, comprising several bands, had close contact with the white settlers moving in the ever-growing tide of westward expansion. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being precisely where immigrants would pass on their way to the Pacific; that, combined with the critical perception people had of Native Americans at the time, resulted in a recipe for disaster. The NWB Shoshone were a starving people that winter, and the occasional friendly offerings of food by nearby residents had dwindled as the Shoshone were blamed for skirmishes and the atrocities to other groups nearby.”

Governmental reports from the time show that there was significant concern about the well-being of the native tribes as large groups of settlers moved into the region; specifically Mormons in search of religious freedom and tolerance, and gold prospectors making their way to Montana. Not only did increased land use by the migrants lead to a decrease in productive hunting, but pleas for help were ignored and the Shoshone resorting to raiding ranches in search of food.

The tension between the Shoshone people and white settlers ran high towards the end of 1862, often involving real or perceived theft of livestock and, more than once, attacks on settlers resulting in death. To protect the interests of isolated California during the war and to keep tabs on the Mormons (who the government never really trusted due to the influence of Bringham Young), federal troops were ordered to Utah, establishing Ft. Douglas in Salt Lake City. They were led by Colonel Patrick Connor, an Irish born Mexican-American war veteran.

Following a suspected Shoshone-led attack on a group of lost miners, an arrest warrant was issued for of their three chiefs. Col. Connor prepared an expedition, 300 men strong, to travel north to their encampment for a surprise ambush.

The attack took place at first light.

The Shoshone fought back; they had known that such a battle was imminent and had put some preparations into place. Still, their arsenal was no match for that of the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Regiment. From Military History Online:

“From a purely military point of view, Connor’s fortune was that the Shoshone had ran out of ammunition. Every advantage was afforded to the Shoshone fighters that day. The weather was exceptionally cold, and the snow very deep. The weather had not allowed the Union troops to get their howitzers to the battlefield, so they were not a factor. The site of the fight was very well naturally fortified, and the fighters were bold in their tenacity to fight. All of these factors favored a strong defense. Better supplied Shoshone warriors could have made this a very different day for history and for Col Connor.”

Col. Connor began to lose control over his men hours into the battle, and most reports indicate that he wasn’t overly concerned at their brutal and inhumane treatment of innocent survivors. In addition to raping and murdering the Shoshone people, the troops set fire to their homes, stole their horses, and destroyed most of their winter food supply before leaving. According to Connor’s official report:  “We found 224 bodies on the field, among which were those of the chiefs Bear Hunter, Sagwich, and Leight. How many more were killed than stated I am unable to say, as the condition of the wounded rendered their immediate removal a necessity. I was unable to examine the field.”

Most historians put the number of dead Shoshone much higher. Col. Connor never mentions the behavior of his soldiers in the aftermath. He spent the rest of his tenure out west fighting against Native Americans and was later promoted to General.

The band of Shoshone that was attacked that day never fully recovered. Other local chiefs, seeing their fate, agreed to move to reservations established later that decade by President Johnson. And, like so many other events in the realm of government/Native American relations, the Massacre at Bear Creek remains a mostly unknown and entirely reprehensible part of our nation’s history.



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