It was bitterly cold early on the morning of Jan. 29, 1863, when soldiers from Fort Douglas approached the Shoshone camp on the Bear River — so cold that several were suffering from frostbite.
In the camp, Shoshone families were just waking up and eating breakfast.
The massacre that followed — somewhere between 224 and 490 Shoshone died— would forever change the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone.
“Most people don’t (even) know it happened,” said Darren Parry of Pleasant View, a descendant of one of the survivors. “They have no idea what took place, and how many Indians were wiped out.”
Members of the tribe mark the anniversary with a memorial ceremony on the site each Jan. 29. This year’s memorial, starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday, has special significance because it’s the 150th anniversary of the massacre, and because the remains of two killed in the battle have been returned to the tribe by the Smithsonian Institution.
The anniversary is also a time for reflection about how perceptions about the massacre have changed over the years.
Over those 150 years, three plaques have been placed near the site of the Bear River Massacre.
“An early one praised the soldiers and settlers. The second one, from the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, talked about women helping the wounded soldiers, and then the more recent one ... talks more about it being a massacre,” said Robert Voyles, director of the Fort Douglas Museum. “You can see a change in attitude just from the three monuments there.”
The initial story
The first plaque, dated 1932, was erected by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers in cooperation with other groups. It tells about Col. P.E. Connor leading soldiers from Fort Douglas against “Bannock and Shoshone Indians guilty of hostile attacks on emigrants and settlers.”
The initial reaction of some area settlers to news of the massacre was relief.
Brigham Young’s policy was to keep peace by giving food to local tribes. “They (the settlers) were tired of having to give rent for use of land,” said Scott Christensen, an archivist with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ church history department.
“And some were greatly intimidated and frightened by Indians, so it’s inaccurate to say all Mormons were disgusted by what happened.”
But those who actually went to the site and saw what happened were horrified, said Christensen, author of the book “Sagwitch: Shoshone Chieftan, Mormon Elder, 1882-1887” (Utah State University Press, 1999).
James H. Martineau, the Cache County surveyor, arrived as the killing was ending. He drew a map of the scene, and wrote on it, “many of the Squaws were killed because they would not submit to lie down and be ravished.”
William Hull, who went to look for survivors, wrote: “Never will I forget the scene, dead bodies were everywhere. I counted eight deep in one place and in several places they were three to five deep; all in all we counted nearly four hundred; two-thirds of this number being women and children. We found two Indian women alive whose thighs had been broken by the bullets. Two little boys and one little girl about three years of age were still living. The little girl was badly wounded, having eight flesh wounds in her body ...”
Though these civilians were shocked, Col. Connor’s report characterized the event as a military victory.
“He was promoted from colonel to general,” said Rod Miller, author of “Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten” (Caxton Press, 2008).
That official version of events was accepted by many people for about 100 years.
Fundraising to put a monument at the massacre site started in 1917.
“One enthusiast of that project, at that time, was quoted as saying, ‘If ever any soldiers deserve to have their memories perpetuated, for deeds of service and sacrifice, then the battle ground at Battle Creek deserves to be so marked,’ so it’s clear they’re interested in the event as a heroic battle against the Indians,” said Christensen.
That interpretation was countered by Frank Warner, who wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper. Warner, originally named Beshup Timbimboo, was a toddler at the time of the attack; he was found with seven wounds, still carrying his frozen breakfast. He was adopted and grew up to be an educator.
“He asserted that the proposed monument would be nothing more than ‘a monument to cruelty,’ ” said Christensen. “Warner clearly understood how a political agenda could taint the interpretation of the past. He commented that the massacre of his people had been labeled a battle. ‘I can’t help but reflect how some men can make distinction between a battle royal and a massacre. I’ve heard a Mr. Dyer, who took part in this battle, make the statement that it was a royal battle, but the battle of General Custer was a horrible massacre.’ ”
In spite of his protest, the monument was erected and justified the deaths of women and children by describing them as “combatant.”
An evolving view
The second plaque was added to the site in 1953, also by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.
This plaque also lays the blame squarely on the Shoshone, saying: “Attacks by the Indians on the peaceful inhabitants of this vicinity led to the final battle.”
Emphasis is on the female settlers, and the kindness in accepting the responsibility to care for soldiers wounded in the battle.
The plaque also states that the settlers gave homes to two Indian women and three children who survived the battle.
Attitudes started changing as survivors’ descendants, such as Mae Timbimboo Parry, shared their stories. Historian Brigham Madsen’s1985 book, “The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre” (University of Utah Press) also made a big difference.
On Oct. 18, 1990, the National Park Service formally dedicated the ground as a national historic landmark, adding new interpretive signs and changing the name from the “The Battle of Bear River” to the “Bear River Massacre.”
All three of the plaques have been left on the site.
“That tells something, too, but the new signage reflects a more accurate view,” Christensen said.
The government’s change of attitude is demonstrated in more than written signs. Laws about keeping remains and artifacts were changed in 1989, through the National Museum of the American Indian Act.
The Smithsonian Institution is working to return to their people the remains of American Indians held for years in the museum’s collections. The remains of two American Indians, held since 1898, were recently identified as members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone. Historians believe they were both killed in the Bear River Massacre.
Parry, who is vice chairman of the tribe, went to Washington, D.C., to bring them home. A third set of remains, found later in Weber County, was also returned.
Out of respect for the victims, the bones will not be displayed at the Jan. 29 memorial. They’ll be buried when spring comes, in the Washakie cemetery in Box Elder County.
Finding the good
In some ways, the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone never recovered from the massacre.
The band is still small in numbers. Parry says there are 536 members living along the Wasatch Front.
Parry has been able to find the good that came with the bad. Many of the survivors, including his third great-grandfather, Sagwitch, joined the LDS Church and learned to farm. Without a reservation, their children went to school and mainstreamed into the larger society.
For Parry, those things are blessings.
“Down the road, if Native Americans are going to thrive, education is the key,” he said.
But some tribal members want the old ways back, said Parry, and the massacre was still a tragic event no matter how you look at it.
“With the Shoshone, it’s a very living part of their history, and very painful,” said Voyles.
Miller says he’s talked to members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, and they don’t harbor ill feelings.
“They want to move on, but at the same time it’s such a pivotal event,” he said. “Most of their people were killed, and who knows what they could have accomplished if so many had not died. How many futures were wiped out? ... I don’t want to speak for them, but they certainly want to remember it.”
We all should remember, he said.
“I think it’s important we never forget the terrible things we’re capable of, and try in some way to make amends to the people who have been wronged,” said Miller. “I’m not sure how to make those amends, but remembering what happened is at least a start.”