The story of the Bear River Massacre isn’t well known outside Utah and Idaho. For many years, the complete story was only told by the descendants of the few who survived the attack on a Shoshone camp in 1863. Members of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation gathered at the site January 29th to mark the 150th anniversary.
A drum circle and a color guard opened the ceremony near the spot where the U-S Army attacked a Shoshone encampment next to the Bear River in 1863.
Darren Parry is vice-chair of the Northwest Band of Shoshone. The story was passed to him by his grandmother, Mae Timbimboo Parry. In an interview with KUER, he begins the story with the arrival of Mormon settlers in the Cache Valley. Soon they were crowding out the plants and animals the Shoshone depended on.
"Once Cache Valley was gone from the Indians and their ability to sustain life in the Cache Valley, they were left to either starve to death or steal," Parry says. "I think the Mormon settlers were a little fed up with the Indians taking things and them trying to feed them, and sent word to Salt Lake to have the Fort Douglas people come up and take care of the problem."
About 600 Shoshones from several different bands were camped next to the Bear River for the annual Warm Dance. A few who’d gotten up early spotted the soldiers as they crossed the river and attacked at dawn.
"The Indians had very limited resources, Parry continued. "There were a few guns, very few bullets, and bows and arrows. That was it. Within the first half an hour, everything they had to fight with was expended. From then on, it was a wholesale massacre. They killed babies, women, children, raped women, and it was just a horrible scene."
As the soldiers went through the encampment, shooting or bayoneting everyone they could find, many of the Shoshones tried to escape by jumping in the river. Tribal chair Jason Walker told those gathered for the memorial service it was just sheer panic.
"It was all about fighting for your life," Walker said. "You left your family. You left your girlfriend. You left your wife. You left your kids. If you’d seen ‘em murdered, y’know, the soldiers were not here to police any situation. They were here to annihilate us."
17 soldiers died the day of the attack and several more died from their wounds later. Among the Shoshone, witnesses counted at least 250 bodies at the site, but many more people were swept away as they tried to escape across the river. Estimates of the number who died that day run as high as five hundred. The Army has never apologized for the massacre.
But that’s not the end of the story. A few years later, many of the survivors, led by Chief Sagwitch, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like other Mormons, the Shoshones stood in for their deceased ancestors at baptisms and other ceremonies held in LDS temples. And those recently discovered temple records are today the only written source for the names of many who died in the massacre. At the memorial service, those names were read by 11-year-old Brooklyn Timbimboo and her grandmother, Patty Timbimboo Madsen.
In the 1860’s U-S Army surgeons sent the remains of two people who died in the massacre to their headquarters in Washington, DC. They were eventually housed in the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian’s Eric Hollinger met with tribal leaders in December and returned the remains of a young man about 17 years old and a young woman about 22. Hollinger said the museum had incorrect information about who they were.
"We were able to confirm that they were Shoshone, that they were from the Bear River Massacre site, most likely," Hollinger told KUER. "But because they were very young individuals and one was a female, we concluded they could not have been Chiefs Bear Hunter and Lehi."
The remains will be buried this summer in the cemetery at Washakie, where the Shoshones homesteaded and built a farming community in the last century.
Cody Merchant played his flute for the 200 or so people gathered at the commemoration, which concluded with a Mormon prayer. Those who chose to look up at that moment saw a golden eagle circling just above.