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.
 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.