In writing my books, I always try to visit the locations where the historical events occurred. In the second book of the Across the Great Divide series, The Search, the main character, Will Crump, journeys west, looking for peace after surviving the Civil War and a Union prison camp. Instead, he finds Red Cloud’s War, love, and strife. The setting for most of the story is now Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, the homeland of the Shoshone. I traveled to Idaho and Wyoming to write the book, visiting many Shoshone sites. My book retrospectively looks at the Bear River Massacre.
Darren teaches Indigenous History at the University of Utah, was a candidate for Congress, and speaks widely on environmental and indigenous issues. He’s a sixth-generation descendant of Chief Sagwitch, an eyewitness of the Bear Creek Massacre, the largest massacre of Native Americans in history, yet little chronicled in history books.
January 29, 1863, near modern-day Preston, Idaho, a band of Western Shoshone Native Americans were in winter camp. The dwellings were scattered about, the deep snow covering the ground all along the river. Families were nestled in, sleeping, the embers of last night’s fire still giving a little warmth, as they huddled under buffalo robes. There had been hints of trouble, warnings that soldiers were coming, and incidents where warriors from other bands had killed two white men. Relations between the soldiers and the Native Americans were becoming tense. A white neighbor came to warn the band about soldiers coming, but Chief Sagwitch believed they were coming to talk, to seek justice and learn who had killed the white men. The Civil War was raging in the East, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued – the eyes of white America were not on the West.
The day was bitter cold, with snow on the ground and ice floating in the river. Cannons from the nearby ridge opened fire with grapeshot. The Shoshone had a few rifles with faulty powder. They tried to defend their families with bows and arrows. Soldiers charged the camp, and were initially repelled, but flanked on two sides and overwhelmed the defenders with superior numbers and firepower. Chaos ensued. One woman picked up a pistol to protect her baby and was shot by an officer. Women were shot trying to swim the river with babies on their backs, a vain attempt to escape.
Newspaper accounts talked of Colonel Patrick E. Connor coming to “punish” the Indians for the attacks on white men, and celebrating the deaths of the “savages”.
The picture (bottom left) above is the actual massacre site, which is different than the location of the marker from the National Park Service. Bottom right is a commemorative plaque, suggested by a child visiting the site, who wondered about all the children who died that day. One young mother, hiding under the overhanging cliff by the river where a hot spring kept them warm, had to suffocate her baby to keep her quiet and avoid discovery by the marauding soldiers. She survived, forever haunted by having to kill her baby. The soldiers would have slaughtered the twenty or so people hiding in the cave had the baby made noise.
You can read more of Darren’s history of the event at
Another huge factor in the Shoshone story is the coming of the transcontinental railroad, which joined at Promontory Point, Utah, about sixty miles from the Cache Valley, home of the Northwestern Shoshone. Top left is my photo of the last crosstie for the transcontinental railroad, where the golden spike was driven. Top right is a photo of the first train to cross the joined tracks, on May 10, 1869. The coming of the railroad was a death knell for the Shoshone way of life. It opened the lands to floods of settlers, who killed off bison, the Shoshone’s main source of food. They brought disease, chased off game, and claimed land, forcing the Indians onto ever smaller reservations. Washakie, the great Eastern Shoshone chief, was able to negotiate and retain a portion of the Shoshone homeland on the Wind River reservation – but the U. S. government assigned them to share it with the Arapahoe, their enemies.
“The white man roams the mountains all over, hunting for the gold and silver that belongs to the Indians until he sells the land. When have I interfered with him? The railroads pass through my country and have scared the game all away. Still, I have made no objection to this, nor do I want to.” – Chief Sagwitch, 1876
Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History (p. 23). Kindle Edition.
If you’re ever in Idaho on January 29, the commemorative gathering is held every year, remembering the massacre, and a vanished way of life.