You live out in the country, on land your family has owned for generations. Suppose you were at home on a cold winter’s morning, still tucked in with your children. It’s freezing outside, and you have no appointments today – in fact, the snow and cold have shut off the power, and you’re worried because there isn’t much food in the house. Your children are burrowing under blankets, trying to stay warm.
Your neighbors have been causing trouble lately, claiming you’ve stolen their belongings, destroyed their property. The last confrontation was angry, with shouts and threats. You think the damage is likely from some drunk teenagers that passed last weekend, but your neighbors are sure it was you.
Just as the sun peeks over the horizon, and you’re debating about going back to sleep, you hear a loud crash as your front door breaks in the tinkle of glass as the rear slider is shattered, and gunshots. Someone is invading your home! Your husband is away on business. You frantically search for something to defend yourself, just as the bedroom door bursts open, and your daughter runs in screaming. Right behind her is a tall man in uniform, carrying a gun. He shoots her, then turns the gun on you as you desperately try to fight back with a nearby lamp. You hear the baby crying down the hall, and then searing pain as a bullet creases your head, and another enters your abdomen. Falling to the floor bleeding, you can barely maintain consciousness. You play dead as the nightmare continues. You want to rise, want to defend your children, but you’re afraid, and getting weaker by the second, praying that they won’t find your other child.
Your thirteen-year-old son has grabbed the baby and made it outside, hiding in a pit the children dug to play in, pulling the tarp over the top. He wills the baby to remain silent, covering its mouth, waiting to die or be saved.
After hours, freezing in the cold, he emerges to find his house burned – in fact, all the nearby dwellings destroyed, his family, friends, and neighbors dead.
Sound like something out of a horror movie? That doesn’t happen in America, right? Wrong – it did happen. One hundred fifty-seven years ago today.
January 29, 1863, near modern-day Preston, Idaho, a band of Western Shoshone Native Americans were in winter camp. The dwellings were scattered about, the deep snow covering the ground all along the river. Families were nestled in, sleeping, the embers of last night’s fire still giving a little warmth, as they huddled under buffalo robes. There had been hints of trouble, warnings that soldiers were coming, incidents where warriors from other bands had killed two white men. Relations between the soldiers and the Native Americans were becoming tense. A white neighbor came to warn the band about soldiers coming, but Chief Sagwitch believed they were coming to talk, to seek justice and learn who had killed the white men. The Civil War was raging in the east, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued – the eyes of white America were not on the West.
Newspaper accounts talked of Colonel Patrick E. Conner coming to “punish” the Indians for the attacks on white men. The Deseret News, the official newspaper of the Mormon colony, from the day before the massacre, January 28, 1863, states:
“On the affadavit of William Bevins, miner, before Chief Justice Kinney, on the 19th instance, a warrant was issued and placed in the hands of Marshal Isaac L. Gibbs for the arrest of Bear Hunter, Sandpitch and Sagwitch, chiefs of a band of several hundred warriors of Snake [Shoshone] Indians, now occupying the Cache Valley. “Deseret News, 28 Jan 1863
Bevins claimed that on the 8th of January, he and ten others were attacked, and John Henry Smith was killed, with the miners losing gold dust and other property in the amount of two thousand dollars, and another party of ten men had been killed three days before. The Deseret News makes no mention of how blame was assigned to that particular band for these attacks. Conner, with the 3rd California Volunteers, took cavalry and howitzers with forty days rations, planning to “come up with the redskins eighty or ninety miles from here on Bear River, and with ordinary good luck, will wipe them out if the chiefs named in the writ do not deliver themselves up”. Deseret News
The newspaper reports were carried around the nation, (New York, Detroit, Rocky Mountain News) and painted a picture of a large well prepared Indian force of six hundred warriors, with breastworks and rifle pits, dug in for a battle. Oral history from Shoshone survivors paints quite a different picture, and recent discoveries of diaries, letters, and maps of the soldiers present uphold that oral history. In a 2012 article, award-winning historian Harold Schindler brings to light a long-hidden account from Sergeant William L. Beach of Company K, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, California Volunteers, who wrote an of the attack and sketched a map just sixteen days after the engagement, while he was recuperating from the effects of frozen feet. Beach gives the position of the Native Americans as well as the army units, and chronicles that it took place “in deep snow and bitter cold”. According to Beach, it began as a battle but quickly turned into a massacre. From Beach’s diary:
“When the soldiers appeared shortly after daybreak on January 27 [sic], the Shoshonis were waiting in their defenses. About two-thirds of the command succeeded in fording ice-choked Bear River. While Connor tarried to hasten the crossing, Major [Edward] McGarry dismounted his troops and launched a frontal attack. It was repulsed with heavy loss. Connor assumed control and shifted tactics, sending flanking parties to where the ravine issued from some hills. While detachments sealed off the head and mouth of the ravine, others swept down both rims, pouring a murderous enfilading fire into the lodges below. Escape blocked, the Shoshonis fought desperately in their positions until slain, often in hand-to-hand combat. Of those who broke free, many were shot while swimming the icy river. By mid-morning the fighting had ended. On the battlefield the troops counted 224 bodies, including that of Bear Hunter, and knew that the toll was actually higher. They destroyed 70 lodges and quantities of provisions, seized 175 Indian horses, and captured 160 women and children, who were left in the wrecked village with a store of food. The Californians had been hurt, too: 14 dead, 4 officers and 49 men wounded (of whom 1 officer and 6 men died later), and 75 men with frostbitten feet.”Wiliam Beach, Company K, 2nd California Volunteers
Bear Hunter was grievously wounded, and then tortured and killed. Conner made no attempt to parley, to carry out an arrest, or to determine guilt. Newspaper accounts show that: ” At the onset of his expedition against the Bear River band, he announced that he was satisfied that these Indians were among those who had been murdering emigrants on the Overland Mail Route for the previous fifteen years. Because of their apparent role as “principal actors and leaders in the horrid massacres of the past summer, I determined . . . to chastise them if possible. He told Marshal Isaac L. Gibbs that Gibbs could accompany the troops with his federal warrants if he wanted, but it was not intended to have any prisoners.” However, there have been many who have questioned whether Connor’s soldiers actually tangled with those responsible for the attacks on the miners.
Another soldier present stated that although Conner told them to avoid killing women and children, in the thick of battle he heard a warning cry that a woman a few yards away had an ax, and he shot her. Imagine for a moment that your family and friends were being slaughtered all around you, and men on all sides are shooting guns, murdering everyone – one appears in front of you with a gun, as you hold your baby – wouldn’t you grab an ax if one was handy?
But what about the Shoshone perspective? Much Native American history is oral in nature, rather than written, passed down through generations. It has been said that when an elder dies, it is like a library of rare books burned down. Children learn the stories from their grandparents and great grandparents, though, with remarkable accuracy.
Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwest Band Tribal Council of the Shoshone Nation, had family that was slaughtered, and one or two that survived the Bear River Massacre. He is a direct descendant of Chief Sagwitch. In his book “The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History”, Copyright © 2019 by Darren Parry, he details the account from his family’s history. Darren learned the history of his people from his grandmother, Mae Timbimboo Parry, granddaughter of Sagwitch.
Many schoolchildren know only vaguely about the Shoshone, from hearing about Sacagawea, the guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition. The name “Shoshone” comes from Sosoni, a Shoshone word for high-growing grasses. Shoshones call themselves Newe, meaning “The People.” Darren recounts how in his early years in school, he found that the history of his people was either absent or inaccurate from most of the texts. His grandmother filled in the gaps and made corrections.
“She was our storyteller, our tribal historian. The title is important to my Native people; the tribal historian makes sure our traditions and way of life carry on, with histories that have been passed down for generations. My grandmother remains with me now, though her body does not; there are times of each day when I feel her presence. Sometimes, when I am speaking with children about my culture and traditions, I feel her with me and hear her stories speak to me like they did in my youth. …Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History . Kindle Edition.
“For hundreds of years the stories were always the same, with never a word out of place. It had to be this way. It had to be accurate. If I was ever distracted or looked tired she would stop. This was the only way that important events would become memory and be passed down to future generations. Have you ever had a memory sneak out of your eye and roll down your cheek? I have those all the time when I think about the stories she shared.”Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History . Kindle Edition.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that none of the stories that my grandmother told me weren’t in history books. At first I was confused. I believed that historical events were absolute. But now I realize that history is always about perspective. And then one day I read a quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.” I guess that explains why Native American histories and perspectives have rarely been written.Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History . Kindle Edition.
Sagwitch and Bear Runner camped with their bands along the river. Darren describes the scene:
The area was centrally located in the Shoshone country, where the different bands of Northwestern Shoshone gathered for meetings, winter sports and fun, and games. They took part in foot races, horse races, played a game similar to hockey, and danced. In the winter, dried deer hides were used as sleds. In the summer, the children would dig foxholes along the banks of the river and play war. Over time, the foxholes got larger and deeper as the children played their games; it was later reported by the military and the white settlers from Franklin that these children’s play holes were rifle pits that had been quickly dug as defensive pits against Connor’s soldiers, although this would have been impossible in the frozen ground of winter.Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History . Kindle Edition.
So much for rifle pits and breastworks, braced for an attack. On the fateful day, Chief Sagwitch came out of his tipi, looked around and saw the soldiers coming.
Without so much as asking the Indians for the guilty party, the Colonel and his men began to fire on the Indians. Arrows were nothing compared to Army rifles. Indian men, women, children, and babies were slaughtered like wild rabbits. Most of the violence took place along the river and among the willows. According to the Indians, the massacre started early in the morning and lasted until the early afternoon. The Bear River, frozen solid in the morning, was now starting to flow. The Shoshone people were jumping into the river and trying to escape by swimming across. The blazing white snow was brilliant red with blood. The willow trees that were used for protection were now bent down as if in defeat. The old dry leaves that had been clinging to the willows were flying through the air like whizzing bullets.Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History . Kindle Edition.
The Shoshone fought bravely, defending their homes, their wives and children. They beat off the initial frontal assault, but eventually, the soldiers broke through. When they did, it was wholesale slaughter. One mother managed to swim the river, and hide in the brush and willows with her baby – but she was forced to smother her baby to keep from giving away her position and having them both killed [Parry]. Others, men, women, and children, were shot while swimming the ice-cold river. Soldiers went about shooting the wounded.
The twelve-year-old son of Sagwitch ran through the hail of bullets and found his grandmother. She suggested they leave the others and go lie among the dead. They did so, but the boy almost died when he moved as the soldiers went about shooting the others. Three times a soldier pointed a gun at his head, but relented, and did not pull the trigger. No one knows why. Sagwitch’s infant daughter also survived, though his wife was killed.
Their village, belongings, food – everything was burned and utterly destroyed. They were left without resources, in the middle of winter, those who survived the carnage. The official body count did not include those washed downriver after being shot, or the dead thrown in the river to avoid animal consumption – the ground was too hard to dig graves.
“Chief Sagwitch ultimately realized that there were two different groups in his world. One group was greedy and wanted everything. The other group only wanted to live and travel around their land as they had done for centuries. The first group made their wishes and dreams come true by making themselves the conqueror of the second, at the expense of a defenseless people who only wanted to be left alone.”Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History . Kindle Edition.
Reports vary, but estimates range as high as 400 Native Americans murdered that day. The accounts of the massacre continue to be mired in controversy. What is clear is that a large number of Native Americans were killed with no cause.
After such a heinous act, you would expect consequences – war crimes trials. That isn’t what happened. Newspapers around the country celebrated the army’s “success”, and Patrick Conner was promoted to Brigadier General as a reward for the action. Items the army salvaged from the massacre site were sold.
Sale of Indian possessions from Bear River
Deseret News 11 February 1863 page 4
Bear Creek Massacre was the largest of many massacres of Native Americans during the latter half of the nineteenth century, yet is often passed over by history textbooks that chronicle Sand Creek, and Wounded Knee. Patrick Conner would go on to commit another similar atrocity with the Northern Arapaho at Tongue River on August 29, 1865. There he gave explicit orders that no Indian above twelve years old was to survive. News of these orders reached Washington, resulting in relieving Conner of command, but too late to prevent tragedy.
Studying the prejudice and carnage of the past is wasted if it only brings us to a “Tut tut that’s too bad.” Instead, it should spur us on to do better, to heal wounds, right wrongs, and reach Across the Great Divide. As Darren Parry says:
“Sometimes history challenges us to think about an uglier past that we would rather not have. But that is really the power and benefit of history. It connects us to the past. It connects us to our humanity and our inhumanity. And it offers us a way to move forward, to a new relationship, that is a twenty-first century relationship based on respect. Respect for the truth and what happened in that past moment. That is when you get the possibility for reconciliation.”Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History . Kindle Edition.
The site of the massacre is now largely owned by the Western Shoshone tribe, after many efforts to purchase it. Darren says that if you sit there quietly, you can hear the voices of those who died.
If you would like to learn more about the Western Shoshone tribe, the Bear River Massacre, and the relationship with the Mormon Church, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Darrell’s book, “The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History”.