Massacre at Bear River




Cache Valley, originally called Seuhubeogoi (Shoshoni for Willow Valley), was the traditional hunting grounds for the Northwestern Shoshone, particularly as a gathering place for grain and grass seeds, as well as hunting both small game like woodchuck and ground squirrel; large game animals including deer, elk, and buffalo; as well as trout from the rivers. This mountain valley had also attracted the attention of fur traders and trappers, where trappers and explorers like Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith made visits to the region. The name Cache Valley derives its name from the fact that these fur trappers left stores of their furs and goods (i.e., a cache of furs) in this valley as a central staging area for hunting trips in the surrounding mountain ranges.

So impressed were the trappers by the region that they recommended to Brigham Young that he consider the valley as a location for the original settlement of Mormon pioneers. Instead, Young chose Salt Lake Valley, even though Mormon settlers would eventually move to Cache Valley. As early as July 31, 1847, a Shoshone delegation of about 20 met with the Mormons to discuss land claims over northern Utah.

The establishment of the California and Oregon trails, as well as the establishment of Salt Lake City in 1847 brought the Shoshone people into regular contact with white colonists moving westward. By 1856, the first permanent settlements and farms in Cache Valley were established, starting at Wellsville and gradually moving northward.

A significant policy established by Brigham Young at the time recommended that the Mormon settlers establish friendly relationships with the surrounding American Indian tribes, particularly with a policy to "feed them rather than fight them". Even with this policy, however, significant food resources were being consumed and areas taken by settlers pushing the Shoshone increasingly into areas of marginal food production. In addition, foraging and hunting by settlers traveling on the western migration trails took additional resources away from the Shoshone. As early as 1859 this was recognized by Jacob Forney, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah, who wrote "The Indians...have become impoverished by the introduction of a white population". He further recommended that an Indian Reservation be established in Cache Valley to protect essential resources for the Shoshone. This recommendation was ignored by the U.S. Dept. of Interior and his superiors. The Shoshone, desperate and starving, found attacking nearby farms and cattle ranches not just a matter of revenge but a matter of survival.

In the early spring of 1862, Utah Territorial Superintendent of Indian Affairs, James Duane Doty, spent four days in Cache Valley and reported: "The Indians have been in great numbers, in a starving and destitute condition. No provisions having been made for them, either as to clothing or provisions by my predecessors...The Indians condition was such-with the prospect that they would rob mail stations to sustain life." Doty purchased supplies of food and slowly it doled out. He suggested furnishing them with stock to enable them to become herdsmen instead of beggars.

For a final precipitant to events in Cache Valley, gold was discovered by John White on Grasshopper Creek in the mountains of southwestern Montana on July 28, 1862, just north of Cache Valley. This led to the establishment of a migration and supply trail right through the middle of Cache Valley between this mining camp and Salt Lake City, the nearest significant source of goods and food in the area.

Col. Patrick Edward Connor was put in command of the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Regiment and ordered to move his men to Utah, with specific orders to protect the Overland Mail Route and keep the peace in the region. Upon arriving in Utah, he established Fort Douglas (adjacent to the current location of the University of Utah) as the primary base of operations for his unit, within sight of the Mormon Temple construction site and downtown Salt Lake City.   On December 4, 1862, Connor sent Major Edward McGarry on another expedition to Cache Valley, this time to recover some stolen stock from an encampment of Shoshone. In spite of attempted secrecy, the Shoshone were able to break camp and flee before the Army arrived, cutting the ropes of a ferry at the crossing. McGarry was able to get his men across, but without his horses. Four apparently unaware Shoshoni warriors were captured and held for ransom, where McGarry ordered that if the stock was not delivered by noon the next day, these men were to be shot. The Shoshone chiefs responded by moving further north into Cache Valley, and the captives were executed by a firing squad, their bodies dumped into the Bear River. In an editorial, the Deseret News expressed concern that the execution would make the Shoshone most hostile and vindictive.

Massacre of Bear River located on US Route 91.


Major McGarry and the first cavalry units of the 2nd Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry arrived at the battle scene at 6:00 a.m., just as dawn was breaking over the mountains. Due to the weather conditions and deep snow, it took some time for Connor to organize his soldiers into a battle line. The artillery pieces never did make it to the battle as they got caught in a snow drift six miles from the Shoshone encampment. As the Shoshone were reaching desperate measures to fight off the U.S. Army, including the use of tomahawks and archery, the soldiers seemed to lose all sense of control and discipline. After most of the men were killed, soldiers proceeded to rape and molest the women of the encampment, and many of the children were also shot and killed. In some cases, soldiers held the feet of infants by the heel and "beat their brains out on any hard substance they could find." Those women who refused to submit to the soldiers were shot and killed. One local resident, Alexander Stalker, noted that at this time many soldiers pulled out their pistols and shot several Shoshoni people at point blank range. The soldiers also deliberately burned almost everything they could get their hands on, especially the dwelling structures that the Shoshone had been sleeping in, and killing anybody they found to be still inside.

While the death toll among the Shoshoni people was very large, there were some survivors of the experience. Most notable was Chief Sagwitch, who was able to help gather the remaining survivors and attempt to keep his community alive. Sagwitch himself was shot twice in the hand and attempted to flee on horseback only to have the horse shot out from under him. Eventually he ran down the ravine and tumbled into the Bear River near a hot spring, floating in some brush until nightfall.

Sagwitch's son, Beshup Timbimboo, was shot at least seven times but survived and lived long enough to be rescued by family members. Other members of the band hid in the willow brush of the Bear River, or tried to act as if they were dead. After the battle was considered over by the Army officers, the soldiers returned to their temporary encampment near Franklin. This gave Sagwitch and the rest of the Shoshone the opportunity to retrieve the wounded and build a fire for those that were still alive.

The residents of Franklin opened their homes to the wounded soldiers that night, and brought in blankets and hay into the church meetinghouse for the rest of the soldiers to avoid exposure to the cold. Connor also hired several residents of Franklin to hitch up sleighs and help bring the wounded back to Salt Lake City.  The California Volunteers suffered 14 soldiers killed and 49 wounded, 7 mortally. Connors estimated more than 224 braves were killed from a force of 300 warriors. He reported 175 horses and some arms captured, and that 70 lodges and a large quantity of wheat were destroyed. A small quantity of wheat was left for the 160 captured squaws and children that he left on the field.

There is a large discrepancy between the number of Indians reported killed by Conner and the number counted by the citizens of Franklin, the latter being much larger. Also, the settlers claim the number of squaws and children survivors to be much smaller than that stated by Conner. In his 1911 autobiography, Danish emigrant Hans Jasperson claims to have walked among the bodies, counting 493 dead Shoshones.  Chief Sagwitch and many members of his band made a much more formal alliance with the Mormons, with many of them being baptized and joining the LDS Church. Sagwitch himself was ordained to the office of an Elder in the Melchizedek priesthood. Eventually members of this band helped to establish the town of Washakie, Utah, named in honor of the Shoshone chieftain. Most of the remaining members of the Northwestern band of Shoshone built farms and homesteads under LDS Church sponsorship, and their descendants became largely integrated into the mainstream LDS society. The remaining Shoshone that did not get involved with this settlement instead went to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.



By Rosa Moosman, February 10, 2010


I remember well the interest in the Bear River Massacre when I was a small girl.  It was called the Battle of Bear River or the Battle of Battle Creek then.  DUP or another historical group had placed a stone monument at the site.  There was a pull off and many people visited the site and read about the happening on the marker.  Nearby school classes visited the site and heard the story.

The history was told from one point of view at the time and the Indian's point of view was barely mentioned.  Settlers in Franklin in Cache County were frightened of the Indians who had a winter camp on Battle Creek.  (Bear Lake County was part of Cache County at this time) The Indians had what I suspect was a good time scaring the women and children when the men went out to the field, flocks or forests.  Indians also felt free to slaughter an animal or two if they felt the need for meat.  The settlers petitioned the authorities in Salt Lake City to do something about the "Indian problem".  The authorities turned the problem over to Colonel P E Conner who believed in the ultimate solution.

He took a body of about 200 soldiers up to Franklin in the middle of the winter of 1863.  When the settlers in Franklin heard what they planned to do, they would not participate directly.  They did, however, follow the soldiers with wagons to they could take care of the wounded.  Conner and his force found more than 400 Shoshone in the winter camp.  They camped on the bluff a couple of miles away from the Indian camp and struck at daybreak on Jan 20.  They began to slaughter the men, women and children.

There were a few Indians who survived.  One chief swam under the ice of the creek to escape the soldiers.  A few children survived and were taken into the homes of the Franklin settlers or other Northern communities. Pretty well everyone in the area was appalled at what the soldiers had done, but were relieved that they were no longer bothered by the Indians.  The massacre is hardly recognized nationwide, but is larger in scope that any other such happening in the West.  Thirty years ago or more, a local historian was instrumental in getting an interpretive sign placed at the site that recognized the place as a massacre.

The Shoshone now make an annual observance at the massacre site with lots of people who have interest in the history of the area.  The battle opened up all of southeastern Idaho for settlement by whites.  It was that same year that Bear Lake Valley was settled and many more communities were founded soon after.

The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre

Another article on the Massacre by Brigham D Madsen (1985)

On 29 January 1863 Colonel Patrick Edward Connor and about 200 California Volunteers attacked a Northwestern Shoshoni winter village located at the confluence of Beaver Creek and Bear River, twelve miles west and north of the village of Franklin in Cache Valley and just a short distance north of the present Utah-Idaho boundary line. This band of 450 Shoshoni under war chief Bear Hunter had watched uneasily as Mormon farmers had moved into the Indian home of Cache Valley in the spring of 1860 and now, three years later, had appropriated all the land and water of the verdant mountain valley. The young men of the tribe had struck back at the white settlers; this prompted Utah territorial officials to call on Connor's troops to punish the Northwestern band. Before the colonel led his men from Camp Douglas at Salt Lake City north to Bear River, he had announced that he intended to take no prisoners.

As the troopers approached the Indian camp in the early morning darkness at 6:00 a.m., they found the Shoshoni warriors entrenched behind the ten-foot eastern embankment of Beaver Creek (afterwards called Battle Creek). The Volunteers suffered most of their twenty-three casualties in their first charge across the open plain in front of the Shoshoni village. Colonel Connor soon changed tactics, which resulted in a complete envelopment of the Shoshoni camp by the soldiers who began firing on the Indian men, women, and children indiscriminately. By 8:00 a.m., the Indian men were out of ammunition, and the last two hours of the battle became a massacre as the soldiers used their revolvers to shoot down all the Indians they could find in the dense willows of the camp.

Approximately 250 Shoshoni were slain, including 90 women and children. After the slaughter ended, some of the undisciplined soldiers went through the Indian village raping women and using axes to bash in the heads of women and children who were already dying of wounds. Chief Bear Hunter was killed along with sub-chief, Lehi. The troops burned the seventy-five Indian lodges, recovered 1,000 bushels of wheat and flour, and appropriated 175 Shoshoni horses. While the troops cared for their wounded and took their dead back to Camp Douglas for burial, the Indians' bodies were left on the field for the wolves and crows.

Although the Mormon settlers in Cache Valley expressed their gratitude for "the movement of Col. Connor as an intervention of the Almighty" in their behalf, the Bear River Massacre has been overlooked in the history of the American West chiefly because it occurred during the Civil War when a more important struggle was taking place in the East. Of the six major Indian massacres in the Far West, from Bear River in 1863 to Wounded Knee in 1890, the Bear River affair resulted in the most victims, an event which today deserves greater attention than the mere sign presently at the site.


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