(part of The Darkness Visible series)
(Shoshone Camp Prior to Massacre at Bear River)
The Shoshone people had lived along the Bear River for as long as they could recall. The land was considered a traditional hunting grounds for the Northwestern Shoshone peoples. It was here that they had hunted for elk and buffalo in the open grasslands and fished for trout along the length of the river itself. It was here that young Shoshone boys had learned to become men amongst their people. It was here that young Shoshone girls had learned from their mothers and grandmothers how to be women in their own right. This was their home.
As the United States pressed westward the Shoshone people found themselves trapped by the white settlers that quickly became attracted to the Shoshone tribal land. With the California and Oregon trails established the Shoshone tribe became locked between wagon trains filled with new faces. Their land was now under siege. Religion, politics, and racism were all being harnessed in this endless flow of aggressive settlers.
From the moment the Mormons established Salt Lake City the Shoshone realized that their days of freedom were officially limited. The leaders of the Shoshone had watched as other tribes had begun to push westward ahead of the white tidal wave. They had seen the suffering of tribes that had resisted the push. And they could already feel the pain that preceded the wagons.
Starvation was often used by the United States to weaken tribes ahead of the migration of white settlers. For the Shoshone the United States cavalry had much the same objective. Soldiers openly shot and killed large herds of buffalo and elk to cull the numbers so as to reduce the food supply of the Native peoples. Grains left unguarded were ordered torched as the US cavalry patrolled the official wagon trails. And if settlers were caught stealing food and confronted the US military routinely sided with the white trespassers.
As the Mormons settled their claimed territory the Shoshone found themselves in direct competition for the shrinking food supplies. Brigham Young had officially came out with a policy of "feed them instead of fighting them" when dealing with the Shoshone. However in reality the Mormons were far from willing to give up any food or to give back food they stole. Instead the Mormons readily turned their backs on the Shoshone as hunger continued to spread throughout the tribe.
"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." Utah Territorial Superintendent of Indian Affairs, James Duane Doty. Spring of 1862.
The United States was well aware of the starvation that was spreading across the Shoshone tribe. From Utah and Idaho all the way down to southern California, the Shoshone people were unable to compete with the United States for resources. This had resulted into the legendary "Indian raiding parties" that Hollywood romanticized in countless films. Yet every attack by Shoshone tribal members can directly be linked to the basic need for food.
President Lincoln was far from honest when dealing with the Shoshone as the United States split and civil war broke out. Instead of waiting for the war with the Confederates to work itself out, Lincoln used the war to cloud his war with the "Western Tribes". The fog of war was thus used to justify genocide.
Ordering the Union cavalry to secure routes to California and keep trade and mail up and running, Lincoln specifically ordered the push into Shoshone lands. With this order to push the Shoshone onto smaller and smaller tracts of land the stage was set for outright slaughter.
In the tradition of dealing with tribes in the old Indian Territory back east the United States first allowed disease and starvation to weaken their target. When disease was not readily available the United States introduced it intentionally by selling tainted clothing and blankets to their targeted community. And if this opportunity was not available the introduction of cheap or free alcohol was then used to afflict the men of the tribe.
The Shoshone people were not spared even the worse intentions of the United States.
The son of a local Shoshone chief near Summit Creek was found fishing when he was accused of stealing a horse. Instead of bringing in an interpreter to figure out what the young man was saying the locals formed a lynch mob. The "court" registered their victim as Pugweenee... the Shoshoni word for "fish".
This incident led to retaliation. Justified retaliation in the fact that the Shoshone had no access to legal reprisals since white courts did not believe that an "Indian's" testimony was equal to that of a white man's. Thus the Christian idea of an "eye for an eye" was put to the test.
And thus the Shoshone world was made blind with just a couple dead white men.
"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." Official Journal of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, as recorded by George A. Smith.
The Shoshone tribal leaders watched as several other incidents played out both prior and after the hanging of a chief's son. They could see the storm clouds gathering as they called their people to the edge of the Bear River. With the approach of the coming storm the chiefs ordered defensive measures be taken. Yet it was obvious to many that the fight was already slanted against them.
Deseret News "...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."
Col. Conner began moving his forces onto the battlefield on January 22nd of 1863. With the first volunteers of 80 men and heavy artillery pieces in tow the United States was committed to ethnic cleansing. Conner himself left on January 25th with 220 US cavalry at his side. In all the United States dedicated 16,000 bullets and 200 artillery shells to the killing of an enemy force of less than 300 able bodied adults (410 Shoshone in total).
As Col. Conner's forces moved toward Bear River the United States attempted to hide its fighting force by having the infantry move by day and the cavalry moving by night. This allowed the United States to stagger its approach and thus keep any Shoshone scout from being able to accurately gauge the total fighting force Conner put forth. It also allowed the United States to make it appear as though the US would strike sooner than it had planned, thus keeping the Shoshone encamped and unable to find food.
What occurred on the morning of January 29th of 1863 has been officially recorded as a "battle". This classification is given since the Shoshone had not simply laid down and died like the United States would have liked them to do. Instead of starving to death or allowing disease to claim their numbers the Shoshone had stood up and fought back. And it is this fact that hinders the United States from teaching this part of its history as what it was... ethnic cleansing. Genocide.
Looking down from the high ground Col. Conner was able to take his time sighting in the Shoshone positions. He knew that his soldiers could fire from greater distances than the Shoshone could. And even though his artillery had been delayed, Conner wanted blood far too badly to wait. After all, he knew that his forces out gunned the Shoshone. He knew that his forces were more maneuverable than the Shoshone. And most of all, Conner knew that the Shoshone had women and children to worry about while his forces were all young men.
Just after 6 am in the morning, while the sun was just peaking down over the mountains, Conner ordered his troops to open fire. Soon gun smoke wafted over the snowy filled hilltop. The −20 °F air and deep snow would soon be filled with blood and the stench of death.
Foolishly closing the gap between his lines and the Shoshone encampment, Conner's volunteers suffered the majority of their losses as the Shoshone desperately defended their camp. Yet Conner refused to wait till he could direct artillery onto the rear of the camp. Instead Conner quickly regrouped his forces and made the final push into the Shoshone camp.
What appeared to be an overkill of ammunition on the part of the United States quickly showed just how cruel Conner had been in his planning. It was clear by the middle of the short battle that the Shoshone were unable to muster the same firepower as the United States. Soldiers reported watching Shoshone men and women attempting to cast iron into musket balls as the cavalry swept the flanks. Conner had planned to out shoot the Shoshone and thus be the last ones firing as the Native Americans resorted to tomahawks and bows and arrows to defend themselves.
From the moment the last shot was fired in the defense of the Shoshone camp the battle was over. The massacre had begun.
Order amongst the lines of United States soldiers rapidly descended into vitriolic hatred for the Shoshone. Cavalry used their horses to run down fleeing Shoshone women and children. Infantry were reported to have engaged in rape right on the battle field as the Shoshone women attempted to fend off their attackers. Yet even with the initial displays of barbarism the surviving Shoshone would never have been prepared for what occurred throughout the rest of the day.
Conner himself was seen standing at the edge of the battlefield while he watched his soldiers savage the survivors. United States infantry were seen grabbing children by their legs while a comrade used their rifle or any hard object to "beat their brains out". Dismounted cavalry soldiers swept the battlefield with pistols drawn as they shot survivors at point blank range. Other soldiers readily tore down the Shoshone dwellings setting fire to the materials and killing anyone found hiding within.
By the end of the day Conner's forces appeared to leave the battlefield only once they had tired themselves out. The few Shoshone who survived had either fled in the start of the battle or hid in the willows along the river while pretending to be dead. In all the end the death toll was staggering given the shooting portion of the battle had been so incredibly short.
Of the estimated 410 Shoshone at the encampment and estimated 246 were killed on the day of the massacre. Of the survivors (note this means they survived the day of the massacre) 164 were wounded or taken prisoner by Conner and his soldiers. Of the "braves" that Conner estimated were present (300) it also appears that only half of those were even at the "battle".
Conner on the other hand lost only 21 soldiers during the short period of time that the Shoshone were able to fire back. Of these 21 there are no numbers given to account for friendly fire or soldiers killed after the gunfire became pronouncedly one sided. Even more importantly it is unclear whether or not the numbers given can even be trusted since a tradition of exaggerating battles existed amongst US soldiers at the time.
No matter how we look at this day in United States history however the fact remains that Col. Patrick Conner embarked upon a campaign to "exterminate" the Shoshone at Bear River. His actions, and those ordered by the United States government, were clearly intended to ethnically cleanse Willow Valley (Seuhubeogoi). The campaign of genocide embarked upon by this particular commander sadly is not unique when talking about the history of the Shoshone or other Native Americans. The Massacre of Bear River was just another tragedy in the even going genocide of the Native American peoples.
Today the Shoshone people still face racial discrimination and ethnic persecution. With each passing Congress the policy of the United States continues to push a slow bleed of the Shoshone people and their heritage. The whitewashing of the history books is just another step in erasing the memory of the Shoshone from the American consciousness. When talking about the Shoshone nation we often overlook that these are the people who gave the United States that common face we see on the gold dollar... Sacajawea.
More importantly, we also fail to learn from the tragic history our two nations share and how we can right the wrongs committed by our fathers. Until this occurs there will forever be a division between the the Shoshone people and the country that continues to try to erase them from their homeland.