Chief Bear Hunter and Boa Ogoi [1]

January 29 marks the anniversary of the day in 1863 when the worst massacre of native Americans in our history took place in Utah territory.  Colonel Patrick Edward Connor led a group of about 300 California volunteers north from Camp Douglas in Salt Lake City.  They reached the winter encampment of the Northwestern band of Shoshone on Bear River, about 4 miles north of what is now Preston, Idaho, early in the morning and attacked when most of the camp was still sleeping.


The Shoshone in the Cache Valley had initially had a friendly relationship with the early Mormon settlers.  They had agreed to allow the Mormons to use their land to hunt and graze cattle, but perhaps without understanding all the implications of that agreement. Within a decade, there were significantly reduced numbers of deer and elk, and the Shoshone were starving.  A relatively small number of them began stealing from the white settlers and rustling their cattle.  In addition, gold had been discovered in Montana, and the miners and Indians came into conflict, with murders committed on both sides.  The pressure gradually built for the army to do something about the continuing friction with the Shoshone.

The latter-day saints’ position with regard to war against the Northwestern Band of Shoshone is hard to identify.  Many of the Mormons in Cache Valley were happy to give cattle and grain to help feed them.  As the army was preparing to march north, Elder George A. Smith wrote:

“It is said that Col. Connor is determined to exterminate the Indians who have been killing the Emigrants on the route to the Gold Mines in Washington Territory. Small detachments have been leaving for the North for several days. If the present expedition copies the doings of the other that preceded it, it will result in catching some friendly Indians, murdering them, and letting the guilty scamps remain undisturbed in their mountain haunts.”

The Deseret News took the opposite position and expressed an editorial opinion in favor of Connor’s expedition:

“…with ordinary good luck, the volunteers will ‘wipe them out.’ We wish this community rid of all such parties, and if Col. Connor be successful in reaching that bastard class of humans who play with the lives of the peaceable and law abiding citizens in this way, we shall be pleased to acknowledge our obligations.”

Brigham Young is particularly frustrating to try to read on this issue.  He had received emissaries from Chief Bear Hunter in his office and negotiated with them, and advised church members in the area to “feed them, don’t fight them”, in an effort to avert bloodshed.  But a reporter for the Sacramento Union reported that the Mormon leader had said that the Mormon settlers had suffered enough at the hands of the Shoshone and that the Mormons might pitch in and help the troops.  Perhaps the most damning fact of all is that Orrin Porter Rockwell personally led the troops from Salt Lake City to Bear River.

The details of the battle, which quickly turned to a massacre, are horrifying.  The encampment was overrun, and Connor lost control of his men.  The Shoshone men were killed, the children were killed, and the women were raped and killed.  (It is interesting to note the cynical wording on the marker:  90 combatant women and children were killed.) Chief Bear Hunter was first tortured, then bayoneted through the head.  Most of those who survived did so by jumping into the freezing water of Bear River and waiting for the soldiers to leave.  Connor’s official report notes that he burned over 70 Indian lodges and destroyed their food stores by burning them or scattering the food on the snow.  Most estimates place the number of Indian dead between 350 and 400, with approximately 150 women and children survivors, who were left on their own in the winter.  The army recorded 21 troop fatalities.

Although this massacre was much worse than other actions by the army against Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado, Washita River, Oklahoma, and Wounded Knee, South Dakota, it is the least well-known.  Perhaps it is because that at the time it occurred, the nation was in civil war and preoccupied with battles in the eastern part of the country.

Today, the Northwestern Shoshone band counts about 500 members.  Almost all of them live in Northern Utah and Southern Idaho.  Many of them eventually became LDS and lived in the town of Washakie, part of a church farm near Corinne, Utah.  The farm was sold and the town was abandoned in 1974.

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[1] Bear Hunter was the chief of the Shoshone camped at Bear River, or Boa Ogoi in his language

Readers who want to learn more about this tragedy can look to the work of Brigham Madsen, the acknowledged expert.  His books, The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre, as well as Glory Hunter: A Biography of Patrick Edward Connor are considered authoritative.

Comments

  1. As a girl from Northern Utah, I was a bit dismayed that the first time I really learned about this was when I was editing my aunt’s novel Just Shy of Paradise (I’m biased, but you all should go forth and read). It was a truly horrible event that should be remembered and understood. Thank you, Mark, for helping it become a bit more known.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Mark.

  3. Currently, there is a marker off to the side of the road put up, I believe, by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. It is the one with the language that basically blames the Indians. If I remember correctly, it was put up in the 1930s.

    The Indians from time to time put up ribbons and god’s eyes on the site. I’ve found them very touching.

    The tribe has bought land on the actual massacre site and is preparing to build its own monument. I’m hearing they intend to present the unvarnished truth. One of the locals told me that was a bit controversial.

  4. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Mark. I’d never heard of this before and I’m horrified. But I’m also a little confused. Who’s Fuller? Was he another leader of the army with Connor? Did Rockwell act as a guide under Col. Connor or did he have some other role?

  5. Mark Brown says:

    EmiG, sorry for the confusion. I’ve corrected the post now. There was no Fuller, only Connor, and Rockwell was the guide.

  6. Thanks for the clarification, Mark. There are a couple of other references to “Fuller” in the 3rd to last paragraph, too.

  7. Mark Brown says:

    EmiG, can I hire you as a proofreader? Thanks for your corrections.

    The only excuse I can think of is that I was multitasking and watching Fullerton State play a basketball game while I wrote the post.

  8. Thank you for this, Mark. Reading your post made me feel similarly as when I read Walker, Turley and Leonard’s, Massacre at Mountain Meadows– kind of sick inside.

  9. Mark, I’ve been aware of a few massacres of Native Americans involving 19th century Mormons, but have never heard of this one. How many others were there (rough estimate)?

  10. Dear Admin, this is urgent. Please get in touch with me as soon as you can.

  11. Glad to help, Mark. And it provided such an excellent object lesson into how modern events can bleed into our perception of history. Fullerton…Fuller… Ha! :)

    I have to say, it’s unclear to me from the post just how much Mormons were involved. I need to read the books referenced at the bottom for more info, of course, but could the newspaper editorial have been referring to the “relatively small number” of Shoshone who were stealing and cattle rustling? And the same with BY’s comment overheard by the reporter? Were Connor or any of the 300 volunteers LDS? Rockwell was somewhat of a mercenary, so if he was hired as a guide from point A to point B that doesn’t necessarily implicate Mormons or the Church in the attack itself, does it? I’m somewhat of a neophyte to this part of Church history, so please feel free to further my education!

    Regardless, it’s despicable that the encampment was attacked while everyone was sleeping and that so many were massacred without provocation. Any involvement, even peripheral or passive, by the Church would be horrific.

  12. To there credit, some of the local residents did take in some of the survivors, mostly children, and care for them.

  13. Wow. Thanks for posting this, Mark.

  14. Here’s the tribal website’s material on the massacre: http://www.lemhi-shoshone.com/bear-river-massacre.html

  15. Sadly, the “care for the babies” scenario was not always the mandate. My former office mate, Sondra Jones, a real scholar on these matters, reported at least one incident of pioneers shooting Native American children under the “nits make lice” idea.

  16. I grew up in the area and vaguely knew the story from Utah history classes. My grandmother, however, seems to have known more, although she would have heard the story from her grandmother. Anyway, every so often local members of this tribe would wander through the backyards or even come in the her house. I distinctly remember her giving away dry goods such as sugar and flour. She never called them either Indians or Native Americans. To her, they were always “the beautiful Lamanite people.”

    Mogs

  17. I heard about this first way back in the 1980’s, and read a pretty detailed account in a book about the California Volunteers. The temperature at the time was well below zero, so the Shoshone left without food or shelter were in a very bad way. If I recall, Connor lost more of his California Volunteers as casualties to the freezing weather than to actual wounds. To get to the battle site, the infantry that Connor brought had to wade the Bear River to attack that morning. His cavalry fared somewhat better. Connor and his men had planned on coming East to fight in the Civil War, so there was some resentment at being posted to Fort Douglas to watch over the Mormons. Connor and his men were itching for a fight, and it is not surprising that they went on a rampage. While few if any Mormons were actually involved in the battle itself, Mormon settlers in all the towns on the march back to Salt Lake helped to care for the wounded, and the victims of frostbite, a fact that Connor chose to overlook when making reports about the lack of help he received from them both on the march north to Bear River, and the return.

  18. DANIEL ROSENTHAL says:

    Three other little known major massacres
    1. Ash Hollow September 3 1855 86+ Lakota killed
    70 taken hostage.
    2. Whitestone Hill North Dakota September 3 1863
    150+ Lakota killed; 156 taken hostage
    3. Marias River Montana January 23, 1870
    217 Blackfeet killed 140 captured and turned
    loose to starve and freeze to death.

    There were many other, smaller killings of native
    people; e.g. Rush Spring in 1859; Grand Ronde
    in 1856; Sappa Creek in 1875….

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