Almo is a very small town in southern Idaho. The population is Less than 200possibly less than 100. In fact, the whole county is sparsely populated. In 1999-2000 there were around 21,500 people, over 9,300 living in the county seat of Burley. The town has only two things that make it of interest to people who don't live there. One is the City of Rocks, a National Historic Reserve. The "city" is made up of many granite columns and towers of rock (as old as 2.5 billion years old) that early pioneers referred to as "a city of tall spires" or "steeple rocks" (www.idahoparks.org) Some tower as high as 600 feet into the air. The second reason can be found in a six foot stone monument shaped like the state that sits across from the post office. On it is written:
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY
OF THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN A MOST
HORRIBLE INDIAN MASSACRE 1861.
THREE HUNDRED IMMIGRANTS WEST BOUND
ONLY FIVE ESCAPED.
ERECTED BY S & D OF IDAHO PIONEERS
In other words, the second greatest massacre by Indians in the 19th century west.1
The Almo massacre was one of the forgotten events in the settling of the West (the reason will be examined below). The first mention did not even occur until 1927, when Charles Walgamott wrote about speaking to an old trapper who had been in the area fifty years earlier and was able to give a full account of the story. Walgamott also tracked down W.M.E. Johnson, a man whose family had purchased the land on which the massacre had taken place. At the time, there were still signs of the horror that had taken place. Johnson had also heard the story from an old Indian.
A large wagon train (60 wagons) was moving west through the territory when it was beset by Indians (Bannocks and Shoshone). The wagons circled for protection and the pioneers dug trenches underneath (the dirt was then pushed to the edge of the circle). The Indians and the settlers settled into a siege. While there was some food, water became a problem and men who tried to get water from a creek were shot. Now and then Indians would fire into the circle, sometimes picking off one of the men or a family member. A wife, a child. Horses broke free and rampaged within the compound creating danger, confusion, and panic. Outside there was the "constant yelling of the Indians and howling of their dogs, [making]a scene too wild and awful to contemplate."
It soon became clear that staying would allow the Indians to slowly wipe out the whole party. The water problem was also serious. After four days, the trail guide and a woman (she had distinguished herself by her marksmanship) snuck away in the middle of the night, crawling along the ground until they made it to the mountain. Later that night, four more made to escape: a man, two women, and a nursing infant. They similarly crawled across the earth and through the underbrush and grass for miles. In order to keep up, the young mother had to clench the infant's clothes in her teeth and carry it that way so she had both arms free. Eventually they were rescued by kind Mormons who fed (they had survived on eating rosebuds and roots) and gave comfort to the escapees.
When the rescuers returned to the site of the siege, they found the entire wagon train slaughtered: 294 innocents. They dug wells and buried the slain.
An amazing story of cruelty, fear, perseverance, and survival. If it had happened.
There are serious problems with the account and corroborating evidence. Historian Brigham Madsen, who has written extensively on the area around Utah and the various Indian tribes that lived there dug into the story and found numerous inconsistencies and a lack of any supporting evidence. First the "evidence."
This would clearly have been one of the great atrocities of the westward expansion of the century, yet no account of it exists prior to the 1927 story. The deaths of nearly 300 immigrants would be big news throughout the Westwhether published or word of mouth. It was also a time when Indian attacks were big news and widely reportedeven ones that never happened.2 Madsen found no newspaper account, nor any mention or reference in records from the Indian Service, War Department, or from the state and territory. There simply is no mention of the alleged massacre until that story in 1927.
Then there are problems with the story, itself. There is the aspect of the Indians riding around the circle of wagons. This was an action that was rare if it ever happened at all. From a strategic point of view, it would leave them and their horses open and vulnerable to attack from those within the circle. The likely origin for the "practice" was from "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" show, which was immensely popular in the later 19th century and widely traveled. There were also many imitators that put on similar shows. During the "reenactments," William Cody would stage bison hunts, stagecoach robberies, and Indian battles (using real Indians). The circling of the Indians was necessary because the crowd surrounded the action which sometimes took place inside something that was akin to a circus ring. By 1927, about a half century of novels, wild west shows, and the more recent medium of film had exaggerated and even created the conventions of what would be believed as the "true" West. It is also unlikely that they were able to dig wells in which to place nearly 300 bodies within a few days (again leaving no apparent evidence).
So what about the monument (the numeric discrepancies in the inscription aside)? It was part of an effort to attract more tourists to that part of Idaho (to see the City of Rocks, primarily). Two newspapers got together and created an "Exploration Day" (17 October 1938) to draw visitors. The monument was created for the occasion. The opening day was inclement and most of the attendees were part of the Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneersthe ones who had donated the monument.
In the years since it was erected, the commemorative stone became a part of the fabric and identity of the town, the citizens having a spot in their heart for the fraud. During the 1990s, the Idaho Historical Society tried to have the object removed but ran into opposition from the people of Almo (a number of whom believed it was actually factual). Its removal was shelved for the time being.
Keith Tinno, tribal chair for the Bannock-Shoshone, demanded an apology from the people of Almo and the removal of the offending object. While some conceded that an apology is be in order, there is a general refusal to remove the monument. It's "out of the question" and "it's a part of the area's history and culture" (www.hcn.org).
History and culture rooted not only in fraud but in the perpetuation of the lie.
1The 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 westward expansion of the country into their territory. Around 1000 warriors attacked the fort where around 400 had gone for protection. Ignoring the reports of approaching Indians from slaves, the gates were left open, allowing what transpired. The Creek wiped out nearly everyone. There were only 36 escapeesthe number not including the Black slaves who were "freed" by the Creek (they would be the source of what had happened).
2Historian John D Unruh Jr, researched accounts of Indian interaction in newspapers and the diaries of travelers during the 1800s. He found that they were often "embellished" and exaggerated (sometimes invented) for the "folks back East." This also led to "fictional massacre reports in newspapers in the 1850s."
In fact, Unruh discovered in journals (32 total) from immigrants on the Oregon Trail between 1835 to 1850, the number of accounts that were "negative" reflections of Indian interaction were fewer than "positive" or "neutral" (the example given in Loewen is "saw an Indian") ones. Of 105 references, it broke down as 41 positive, 35 neutral, and 29 negative. Though things did change over time as relations strained due to encroachment on Indian land, loss of game, hunger, and deprecations (which led to Indian hostility and sometimes violence), he found that of the 400,000 or so pioneers that crossed the West between 1842 and 1859 less than 400 were killed by Indians.
James W. Loewen Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong 1999 (quotes from here unless cited)
"An alleged massacre comes under fire" 4 April 1994 High Country News at www.hcn.org/servlets/hcn.Article?article_id=249
If anyone knows the current status of the monument, please let me know. thank you.