The history of the American West and the interactions with the American Indians is one full of violence and depredations on both sides. Though there was a back and forth battle, either side sometimes instigating or retaliating, more often than not, it was the forces (whether military or citizen) of the United States that did the majority of the attacking and did so with the most lopsided proportionality. It also engaged in the sort of collective punishment that necessarily leads to the deaths of civilians. And often massacre.
Certain names live in infamy. The best known are the orgiastic bloodbath of the Sand Creek massacre (1864, around 200 killed) and Wounded Knee (1890, around 200 killed)an atrocity that broke the back of Indian resistance to having their land stolen and being basically imprisoned on reservations, leaving them to become victims less to the gun and the sword and more to the lawmakers, businessmen, and conditions under which they had to live. But there are lesser known massacres that are equally tragic. Up to 200 Blackfeet died in frigid Montana snow in the Marias massacre (1870). Nearly 150 peaceful Apache were slaughtered in the Camp Grant massacre (1871). In almost every massacre, the largest proportion of the victims were women and children, the elderly, sick, and wounded.
Others with smaller totals dot the map of the westward expansion of the nation. Strangely (or perhaps not), the worstin numbersis nearly unknown. On the morning of 29 January 1863, over 200 and possibly over 300 Shoshone were wiped out in the space of about four hours.1
An unwelcome assignment
Patrick Edward Connor had already served twice in the military, the first during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) and later during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He had dabbled running a mercantileship after the first stint and tried his hand at the California Goldrush following the second (as well as working as a ranger, surveyor, and as a business man). When the Civil War began (1860), he was called up again with a contingent of 750 volunteers from California and Nevada. Rather than taking part in the action, they were stationed in the frontierUtah territory, Mormon country (1862). The task was to protect stagecoaches, mail, and telegraph lines from Indian attack. Not only were he and his men upset at behind left on the sidelineshe tried to lobby for a reassignment to the "real war"of the great conflict of the 19th century, Connor thought the Mormons little better than the savages he was protecting the lines of communication from (hardly an uncommon attitude for the time or even much later).
As far as Connor was concerned, his "duty of assuring Mormon loyalty was...as important as preventing Indian raids" and that the Mormons were a "community of traitors, murderers, fanatics...and whores" (www.historynet.com). He also aligned himself with non-Mormon settlers. Though there was begrudging mutual respect between him and Mormon leader Brigham Young, a sense of civility was about as far as it went. The Mormons resented the soldiers for building a permanent fort near Salt Lake City. It was also seen as a slight or insult to them as they felt their own militia "ready and able to take care...of all the Indians and...protect the mail line if called upon to do so" (www.genealogical-institute.com 1). Instead, the US government sent several hundred soldiers into their territory to police possible targets.2
"...these poor wretches...."
The main Indians in the area were various bands of Shoshone. It is important to bear in mind that few people knew, understood, or cared that not every band thought or acted alike. Or was led by a single chief. One of the things that led to atrocities or injustices against the Indians throughout the country was the idea that 'an Indian is an Indian.' That they all believed and thought and acted the same. This led to collective punishment on a massive scale over the history of interaction between westerners and the American Indians (prime examples being the Sand Creek massacre or the Marias massacre mentioned above).
As with so many Indians (arguably all of them), the Shoshone stood in the way of the Europeans' 'God-given' manifest destiny. People either wanted their land or traveled through it to get elsewhere. In the process Indians were moved from their land (also a problem for those who were partially or fully agricultural), the wild game they depended on for food, and the water they depended upon (also a food source for some). They were lied to and tricked into signing treaties under conditions they could not live up to, worded so they often did not understand, and/or the other side never intended to keep (or kept until it no longer served its purpose).
Over the century, they would be placed on smaller and smaller parcels of land in places that could not sustain their way of life. Hunters and hidesmen (and railroad workers) nearly wiped out what were likely in the tens of millions of bison that were a staple of the plains Indian tribes,3 Water was dammed and irrigated to serve only the settlers' crops, leaving the Indians in need. This was not a systematic assault on the Indians' lives but a gradual chipping away that would leave them with next to nothing by the end of the 1800s. It became a matter of survival to accept the harsh conditions of the reservation or the allotment system (or the spiritual and psychological ethnic cleansing of assimilation). That or extinction.
The Shoshone were in that sort of predicament. The settlers were taking the good land, killing or driving off the game (partly a result of clearing land for their own agriculture or livestock). Times were bad. As early as the founding of Salt Lake City (around mid century) it was written "what will be the reward of these poor wretches in the next world I cannot pretend to say, but surely they cannot be a more wretched state than this" (www.genealogical-institute.com 1). In some cases, by winter they would be near starving. This sometimes led to stealing livestock (even horses) by some bands in order to survive. As this could and occasionally did result in confrontations it was felt a better policy to share a certain amount of food/grain rather than create more conflict.
As years went by, more people passed through, as well as more and more settlers and miners arrived taking more land. Life for the Indians became more difficult (not impossiblesome were able to maintain an existence on the ever decreasing amount of land/resources allowed them), confrontation began to grow hostile. This was exacerbated by deprecations from settlersbut mainly by the soldiers. Add to that soldiers already frustrated by missing out on the conflict out East (some itching for action of any kind) and many who already hated the Indians as a group and the seeds of the massacre were planted well before that bitter cold day in January.
There were incidents between soldiers, settlers, and Indians. Some violent. In November 1862, Major Edward McGarry (under Connor) was dispatched to an area where there were reports of stolen livestock being held. A miner had reported that he had spoken to a group of Indians who said they had nothing against the settlers but would "retaliate" against white travelers for deprecations and harassment by McGarry's troops (McGarry was considered by his men to be a drunk).
The Indians found out about his arrival and cut the ropes to the ferry. He managed to capture four and held them as hostages. When the Indians refused to give up the cattle (if they had any), McGarry had them executed on the spot, spending 51 bullets to do the job. Another version includes the claim of at least two "skirmishes" between McGarry's men and the Indians who are identified as being under chief Bear Hunter (who was the head of the band that would be massacred) and involved a hostage exchange of captured Indians for a white boy who had been captured and raised by the Indians for two years. There may be aspects of truth to each story. Either way, animosity between the soldiers and the Indians grew.
Connor got his excuse to move against the Northwestern Shoshone (despite it being unclear that they had anything to do with the real and/or alleged chargesnot that it mattered). In mid January (1861), a miner came forth and signed an affidavit claiming that he and seven others had been attacked by Indians (one killed). He also said ten others had been killed at another time. Since Shoshone and Bannock Indians lived and roamed the area (some actually guilty of crimes up to and probably including killingwhether by provocation, retaliation, self-defense, or revenge) it was simply assumed who the culprits were and warrants were quickly signed for chiefs Bear Hunter, Sagwitch, and Sandpitch. Connor was charged with bringing them to justice.
Bringing them to justice, however, did not mean such trivial matters as trials (fair or not). Rumors quickly spread of plans to "exterminate" the Indians. He told the US Marshall who had given him the warrant that he was ready to move against the hostiles and that he had "no intention to take any prisoners." He also felt it would be best to do this "little Indian killing" soon because of the frigid January weather would leave the "warriors...settled and encumbered with their wives and children" (www.thehistorynet.com). It also seemed unlikely that soldiers would mount an expedition in the ice and snow in subzero temperatures.
Two groups of soldiers moved out from separate locations to begin the long march of around 140 miles through frozen snow that was two to five feet deep. Going was slow and it became difficult to speak because the men's beards froze from exhaling. Of the total group of about 275, over 70 would be put out of commission due to the intense cold (most had frozen feet). They took with them 15 wagons, enough supplies for 20 days, and two twelve-pound mountain howitzers, each with 50 rounds (they would not be used in the engagement).
The Indians were not caught completely off guard. Shoshone from the band saw the soldiers coming while picking up grain from a farm. They returned to the village and prepared to fight rather than pull up camp and flee into the bitter January cold. They were living on a creek off the Bear River (Beaver Creeklater renamed Battle Creek) about four miles from present day Preston, Idaho. There were natural bluffs and a ravine in which they entrenched themselves. They also woven together willow branches to serve as cover.
Connor and his men arrived shortly after midnight on 29 January. He had them surround the camp. Though there was trouble crossing the ice, soon they were in position.
When both groups were in sight of each other, Bear Hunter came out waving his robe and reportedly said something like "Come on you California sons of bitches. We're ready for you" (other Indians may have done the taunting or taunted also). Angered, Connor ordered his men to chargea serious tactical error. Of the 21 soldiers who would die and 46 who would be wounded as a result of the massacre, most died in the initial charge. Connor had them retreat and split them into three groups, attacking from the front and both flanks (with cavalry units). A boy who had traveled with the soldiers recorded in his journal that Connor ordered the men to "Kill every thing, nits make lice" (www.genealogical-institute.com 2). The "nits" phrase was a favorite of Colonel John M. Chivington who would lead the Sand Creek massacre a year later. Heinrich Himmler would later describe the Final Solution as being "the same as delousing."
In the words of one of the participants:
With a deafening yell the infuriated Volenteers with one impulse made a rush down the steep banks into their very midst when the work of death commenced in real earnest.... Midst the roar of guns and sharp report of Pistols could be herd the cry for quarters but their were no quarters that day.
(www.wovoca.com; misspellings in original)
The "battle" began early in the morning. Two hours later the Indians were out of ammunition and left with arrows and close quarters weapons. The massacre then began in "earnest." Soldiers fired until the rifles were out of bullets and then went at the Indians with pistols and knives and bayonets. And axes. Women and children (about two-thirds of the slain) died along with men. There were rapes. Seventy-five lodges were burned to the ground and 1000 bushels of wheat and flour and 175 horses taken. Bear Hunter and his subchief Lehi were killed. According to Shoshone oral history, Bear Hunter was kicked and tortured and, when he only offered silence, was finally killed with a bayonet shoved through his skull, ear to ear. There are stories of others who escaped. Some by lying still among the slaughter. Others swimming in the freezing waters of the creek to the river and away (the cold actually slowed the bleeding in Sagwitch's legs, allowing him to painfully escape. One child had to stare twice down the barrel of a pistol aimed at his head. Finally the soldier lowered the gun and left him alive.
Unsurprisingly, Connor's version of what happened was of a great victory against a hardy foe:
Being exposed on a level and open plain, while the Indians were under cover [gave them] the advantage, fighting with the ferocity of demons.... My men fell thick and fast around me, but after flanking them we had the advantage and made good use of it. I ordered a flanking party to advance down the ravine on either side, which gave us the advantage of gunfire directed from either flank and caused some of the Indians to give way and run toward the mouth of the ravine.... I had a company stationed who shot them as they ran out.... Few tried to escape but continued fighting with unyielding obstinacy, frequently engaging hand to hand with the troops.
A somewhat better account comes from the participant quoted earlier:
The fight lasted four hours and appeared more like a frollick [sic] than a fight.... The wounded cracking jokes with the frozen, some frozen so bad that they could not load their guns [and] used them as clubs. No distinction was made between Officers and Privates, each fought where he thought he was most needed.
When it was over, the jocular "frollickers" had succeeded in their "little Indian killing." William Hull (the boy who had followed with the soldiers) gave the best post "battle" description with
The first sight to greet us was an old Indian walking with arms folded, slowly amongst the dead, the head bowed in grief, lamenting the dead. He didn't speak to us and soon left toward the North. Never will I forget the scent, dead bodies everywhere. I counted them, eight deep in one place and in several places they were three to five deep. All in all we counted nearly four hundred, two-thirds of the number being women and children. Several women were cut exposing unborn babies. We found two Indian women alive, whose thighs had been broken by the bullets. Two little boys and one little girl were badly wounded (she had eight flesh wounds in her body) they were very willing to go with us, we took them on our horses to the sleigh and made them as comfortable as possible.
Those were the only survivors reported by Hull. Over 200 were dead. The lowest recorded figure is around 240. There may or may not have been additional captured Indians.4
The soldiers took their dead and wounded and started back. The Indians were left to freeze to the ground. The townspeople from nearby Franklin, Idaho did whatever they could to aid and give comfort to the tired and wounded soldiers. Others did the same along the way. His guide, another Mormon, also arranged for the sleds that carried the dead and wounded back to the camp. Aid from the Mormon people was deliberately left out of Connor's official report even though he praised them for the help at the time. He also lied about aid during the march there, saying they "seemed indisposed to divulge any information regarding the Indians and charged enormous prices for every article furnished my command" (www.historynet.com). For his part, he was promoted and honored as a hero (though there was some criticism over the number of soldiers who died in the massacre). He had killed more nits and lice in one day than anyone else in recent memory.
He would later take part as the US representative in the treaties that the Shoshone signed accepting reservation status and receiving money and provisions ($2,000 worth) to "relieve their immediate necessities, the said bands having been reduced by the war to a state of utter destitution" (Treaty with the ShoshoniNorthwestern Bands 1863). As usual, the reason for their state is swept from view. If it were acknowledged, it would have been blamed on the Indians, themselves, for such character (racial) flaws as their "unyielding obstinacy."
Connor continued his work as "peacekeeper" in the region. In 1865 he attacked another peaceful Indian village (Arapaho) after which it was razed and burned to the ground. Unsurprisingly, it made the survivors join other bands as part of the growing "Indian Wars." He was relieved of command in 1866, and became a proponent of establishing and expanding mining interests in Utah (particularly non-Mormon citizens).
The Mormon reaction was generally positive. Connor and his soldiers had punished and disposed of part of the Indian problem. The Mormon leader in Northern Utah wrote to Brigham Young that "I feel my skirts clear of their blood. They rejected the way of life and salvation which have been pointed out to them from time to time (especially the last two years) and thus have perished relying on their own strength and wisdom" (www.genealogical-institute.com 1). A settler from the area of the massacre wrote that "the victory was of immense value to the settlers.... It made the flocks and herds and lives of people comparatively safe" (www.historynet.com). Others felt it the will of God, seeing "the movement of Col. Connor as an intervention of the Almighty" (www.media.utah.edu)
Interestingly, some of the soldiers (apparently holding the same prejudices as Connor) saw the Mormons as instigators. Calling the massacre "This hardest fought battle," an army surgeon asserted that it was "instigated without a doubt by the Mormons. The latter being unfriendly to our army thought they would betray us into the hands of the Indians. They thought by so doing they would make a little speculation out of it themselves. They made the Indians believe they could capture us most easily & agreed to reward them finely if successful." It later "proved the destruction of the Indians" (www.sltrib.com).
Why was what should be a significant black mark on the history of westward expansion and the United States? One thing was the Civil War taking place in the East and drawing most of the attention of the nation and its frontier (understandably so). Another reason is that, despite its proximity to the Utah Territory, it took place in what was then Washington Territory and far from the Puget Sound capital. It was marginalized when it happened. Over the years there has been a reluctance to call the victory a massacre (a glance at current sources shows it still referred to as a battle on occasion) and possible guilt about what one's ancestors encouraged or took part in. There are also those who wish to deny a blemish on the record of the military. That the massacre is still little known is sad.
Moving ahead a century, the land was mostly owned and worked by farmers. There was little hope for redress since it wasn't until 1980 that the tribe was granted federal recognition status. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as a form of settlement, gave the tribe 180 acres (not the site of the massacre) that the tribe uses for a burial ground.
In 1990, the National Park Service designated it a National Historic Landmark. The site was marked by an eight foot monument and bears two plaques. One refers to it as a battle against Indians who were "the peaceful inhabitants in the vicinity." The other, calling it what it was, says that it was "a military disaster unprecedented in Western history" (www.idahostatesman.com). A resource study and environmental assessment was produced in 1995. It was to eventually lead to the purchase of 160 acres, a visitor and cultural center, trails, and upkeep (around $14.4 million total). It would provide for some of the farmers to continue to use their land under park guidelines.
Members of the Shoshone and others sympathetic to the movement to get the site declared a National Historic Site, writing out petitions to Senator Larry E. Craig (R), Idaho, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R), Colorado, and Senator Orrin Hatch (R), Utah. Craig was the only one who wrote back, saying that "I support having a larger display on the site and a visitors' center located in Preston... We should not acquire private property or build massive federal sites. In fact, any Park Service involvement can only come after the large backlog of current projects is resolved...." The letter upset many considering that it only took a few years for the Sand Creek massacre site to gain the status (with help from Senator Campbell, who is half Northern Cheyenne) that was "backlogged" for Bear River. It was a further slap in the face when the Senator wrote that "one reason the plan for increased federal land holdings and on-site visitors' center stalled is because of concerns raised by Tribal descendants" (www.genealogical-institute.com 3). This was news to those descendants. It became clear they would not be getting help that way.
In 2003, the tribe, with the help of Trust for Public Land ("the only national nonprofit working exclusively to protect land for human enjoyment and well-being. ... recreation and spiritual nourishment and to improve the health and quality of life of American communities) and the American West Heritage Center, the tribe was able to purchase 26 acres of the site for $55,000. The Shoshone will help maintain and manage the site and are working on a museum with the American West Heritage Center. The Idaho Department of Transportation has promised to build road access and a sign for the site.
Nothing that can change what happened on 29 January 1863, but perhaps it's less likely it'll remain a forgotten tragedy.
1Technically, the worst Indian massacre within the area of the US and Canada would be one that took place during the Powhatan Wars (1622-1646) with 800 or more killed in one attack (1624). Given the nature of a long-standing ongoing conflict, that might be disputed by some. Incidentally, the Wars (brought on by years of injustices suffered by the Indians and ignited by the execution of one of their own for a suspected murder) also had the worst massacre by Indians prior to 1800s. On the morning of 22 March 1622, warriors swarmed the tobacco fields and surrounding settlements, killing almost 350 men, women, and children. Atrocities were perpetrated by both sides. During peace negotiations, colonists poisoned over 200 of the Indians there for the purpose of approving and signing a treaty to end the conflict.
The worst massacre by Indians of the 19th century took place at Fort Mims (1813) during the Creek War (1813-1814), an uprisiing/rebellion against the expansion of the country into their territory. Around 1000 warriors attacked the fort where around 400 people had gone for protection. Ignoring the reports of approaching Indians from slaves, the gates were open. The Creek wiped out nearly everyone with only 36 escapeesthe number not including the Black slaves who were "freed" by the Creek (they would be the source of what happened at Fort Mims). Also during the war was the attack at Horseshoe Bend (1814) which left anywhere from 750 to 1000 dead Creeks. While some parts of the battle resembled massacre (shooting people as they tried to escape by swimming across the river (this includes women and children) and widespread mutilation of the dead, it isn't generally considered a massacre (it is the largest number of Indian casualties in a single battlean exception mentioned below).
The worstthough one might try to argue it part of a war (attacks following a four month siege and epidemic)would be the (re)capture of Tenochtitlan (now the site of Mexico City) in 1521 during which thousands were killed off. Well over 20,000 died after the Spaniards retook the city (every living thing was a target). This is left off the above list because of location, primarily. Another reason would be the time element involved. None of which detract from the sheer enormity of the horror involved.
2Another task was to keep the "hostile Mormon factions from inciting Indians against non-Mormon settlers passing through the region" (Waldman 1). There is another little known incident (partly because of an attempt by some Mormon factions to cover it up) that occurred in 1857, known as the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which about 120 men, women, and children who were part of a wagon train were murdered by Mormon militia possibly aided by Paiute Indians. There is some controversy as to whether the Indians were involved or not (or the extent if they were). Forensic evidence has been little help in sorting out the full story.
3The Americans were aware of what they were doing, even seeing it as furthering the cause of taking care of the Indian "problem." In his 1873 report to Congress, Interior Secretary Columbus Delano stated that "The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors." Famed Indian fighter, General Philip Henry Sheridan (possibly the originator of the phrase "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead") upon being asked by some "concerned Texans" how the slaughter of the bison could be stopped, answered "let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance" (Brown). It was thought that the destruction of the bison would help bring an end to the "problem" posed by the Indians standing in the way of "civilization."
4Waldman mentions 164 women and children taken captive but the other sources do not. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of historian Brigham Madsen's book on the Shoshone which probably has the best historical account and cannot be more certain with the information I have. For that I apologize.
"Harsh Vengeance at Bear River" www.historynet.com/we/blharshvengencebearriver
"Bear River Massacre" www.genealogical-institute.com/fawn.htm (1)
"The Bear River massacre; from a local eye-witness" www.genealogical-institute.com/william_hull.htm (2)
"No one hears the cries of those massacred 138 years ago or their descendants today" www.genealogical-institute.com/no_one_hears (3)
"Massacre site gets long-delayed blessing" Idaho Statesman 25 March 2003 www.idahostatesman.com/Search/story.asp?id=36050
"Bear River Was Army Massacre" Salt Lake Tribune 24 January 2000 from www.wovoca.comhidden-history-bear-river-massacre.htm
"Bear River Massacre Continues to Haunt Utah History After 140 years" Salt Lake Tribune 26 January 2003 ww.sltrib.com/2003/Jan/01262003/utah/23485.asp
"Hushed History of Bear River Massacre Remembered" Salt Lake Tribune 30 January 2003
"Territory in Transition" historytogo.utah.gov/cc820terri.html
Utah History Encyclopedia, Bear River Massacre www.media.utah.edu/UHE/b/BEARRIVMASS.html
"The trust for public land Tribal Lands Bulletin, Spring 2003" www.tpl.org/tier3_cd.cfm?content_item_id=11946&folder_id=217
"About TPL" The Trust for Public Land www.tpl.org/tier2_sa.cfm?folder_id=170
"Massacre on the Oregon Trail in 1860" Columbia Spring 1987 www.wshs.org/columbia/0187-a2.htm
Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West1970; Carl Waldman Atlas of the North American Indian (revised edition) 1985, 2000; Carl Waldman Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to 1900 (revised edition) 1990, 2001