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This Date in Native History: On January 29, 1863, 450 Northwestern Shoshone were killed along the Bear River, near present day Preston, Idaho, in perhaps the largest massacre in United States history.
Chief Bear Hunter’s band of Northern Shoshone spent the cold months in Utah Territory where they and other Shoshone bands gathered for winter games and the Warm Dance to urge the return of spring. Food was plentiful, the weather mild, and children played along the river, frequently digging foxholes in the banks. There was plenty of wood for fire and natural hot springs—the people were content.
The settlers began to make Utah their home in the 1840s, intruding on Shoshone land and using Shoshone resources. Small skirmishes between the tribes and settlers occurred with increasing frequency and intensity through the 1850s and into the 1860s. With the discovery of gold, violence against the Shoshone increased and the Shoshone increasingly made raids on wagons for food.
Northwestern Shoshone elder Mae Parry recorded the oral traditions of the Bear River Massacre, through the testimony of 13 survivors of the band of Chief Sagwitch. According to Parry, three events changed the course of their history. First, three Northwestern Shoshone “troublemakers” stole some horses and cattle from white settlers. Next, a conflict between miners and another Shoshone band resulted in the death of the miners. Lastly, a fight between Shoshone boys and white boys resulted in the death of two of the Shoshone boys and two white boys.
Although the Northwestern Shoshone were not responsible for all three conflicts, the settlers did not recognize the difference between one band and another. As far as they were concerned all Indians were the same and all were guilty.
The Northwestern Shoshone began to recognize that their very existence was threatened. “They were starting to feel like prisoners in their own country. Many began to feel like trapped animals who would have to fight for their lives to the end,” Parry wrote.
Just two days before the massacre, an older Northwestern Shoshone man named Tin Dup dreamt of what would take place and he urged the tribe to leave the area, which he and his family did. Soon after, a friendly white reported to them that the settlers were pushing for Army Colonel Patrick Edward Connor to remove the Northwestern Shoshone permanently.
It had been Chief Sagwitch’s hope to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the colonel, who had been assigned to Utah rather than the Civil War and was frustrated with his position. He was eager to make a name for himself and had no love for the tribes.
Early in the morning of January 29, Sagwitch saw clouds of dust rising along the riverbanks, kicked up from the hooves of the soldier’s horses. Sagwitch woke the sleeping community, the men reaching for whatever weapons they had at hand.
Still hoping for a peaceful encounter, Sagwitch intended to hand over those who had caused the troubles, but they all knew that it could go badly. Some ran down to the river to prepare for war, climbing into the foxholes made by children, never imagining these hiding places would serve during military conflict.
“It was their intention from the very beginning to kill every living person and destroy the Indian camp from the face of the earth,” Parry wrote. “The Indians tried to defend themselves, but what was an arrow and tomahawk against the rifles and side arms of the soldiers. The Indians were being slaughtered like wild rabbits. Indian men, women, children and babies were being killed left and right. No butcher could have murdered any better than Colonel Connor and his vicious California volunteers.”
Trying to escape the rampaging soldiers, some jumped into the freezing river. Ray Diamond, a nephew of Chief Sagwitch, swam through and under the ice. Chief Sagwitch rode his horse across the river while another man was pulled across by holding the horse’s tail. Women jumped into the water, babies on their backs drowning. One drowned baby floated down the river “among the other dead bodies and blood red ice,” according to Parry’s account.
Chief Bear Hunter, one of the band’s leaders, was whipped, kicked and tortured, until the soldiers ultimately shot him. But the old chief never cried out and the soldiers wanted to see him suffer. To punish him, a soldier heated his rifle’s bayonet and ran it though the chief’s head. His wife and children witnessed this terrible event from behind the willows.
Among the few survivors was Yeager, a 15-year-old son of Chief Sagwitch. He nervously ran all over the camp, managing to dodge bullets amidst the blood and cries of pain. He entered a small grass teepee so filled with people it was actually moving. He and his grandmother left the teepee and lay on the ground hiding among the bodies. “Keep your eyes closed at all times,” his grandmother whispered, “maybe in this way our lives will be saved.”
They lay there for hours until the fighting ended, and the soldiers walked among the scattered, bloodied bodies. Curious, Yeager opened his eyes and found himself looking into the barrel of a rifle pointed at his head. The soldier seemed unable to pull the trigger and lowered the gun. He raised it two more times before he put it down and walked away.
Soquitch, the oldest son of Sagwitch, had tried to escape on horseback, pulling his girlfriend up behind him on the horse. She was shot and killed as they rode away and from a distance Soquitch observed the tragic scene as the soldiers collected their own injured soldiers in what Colonel Connor called, “The Battle of Bear River.”
Later, the remaining survivors returned in shock and sadness. Their food stores had been ransacked. The place of happy memories was now awash with the bloodied bodies of their loved ones. Holding proper burial services for so many was impossible and the bodies were placed in the flowing river.
After struggling for a few years, the small remaining band of Chief Sagwitch asked the Mormons for help. The Mormons built them a 1,700-acre farming ranch and taught them to farm. When the government came wanting to move them to a reservation, the Mormons defended the Shoshone and according to Northwestern Shoshone tribal member Patty Timbimboo, “In July of 1863 there was a treaty of peace in Box Elder County. Some left but we never did. The Mormons asked the government, ‘What can you do for them that we aren’t doing? We are teaching them to become farmers.’”
The Shoshone were offered their own land, “But nobody told them they had to pay taxes, and most of it was lost to settlers who offered to pay the taxes for them,” Timbimboo, who is with the Northwestern Shoshone Culture and Natural Resource Program, said.
Today, January 29, those who died in the massacre will be remembered in a ceremony, as they have been for 155 years.