Bear River Massacre (1863)
The Bear River Massacre, or the Battle of Bear River or Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place in present-day Idaho on January 29, 1863.
After years of skirmishes and food raids on farms and ranches, the United States Army attacked a Shoshoneencampment, gathered at the confluence of the Bear River and Beaver Creek in what was then southeastern Washington Territory. The site is located near the present-day city of Preston in Franklin County, Idaho. Colonel Patrick Edward Connorled a detachment of California Volunteers as part of the Bear River Expedition against Shoshone Chief Bear Hunter.
Hundreds of Shoshone men, women and children were killed near their lodges, while only two dozen soldiers died.The number of Shoshone victims reported by local settlers was higher than that reported by soldiers.
Early history and causes
A Shoshone encampment in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, photographed by W.H. Jackson, 1870
Cache Valley, originally called Seuhubeogoi (Shoshone for “Willow Valley”), was the traditional hunting ground for the Northwestern Shoshone. They gathered grain and grass seeds there, as well as fished for trout and hunted small game such as ground squirrel and woodchuck; and large game including buffalo, deer, and elk. This mountain valley had attracted fur trapperssuch as Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, who visited the region. Cache Valley was named for the trappers’ practice of leaving stores of furs and goods (i.e., a cache) in the valley as a base for hunting 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 his settlement of Mormon pioneers. Instead, Young chose Salt Lake Valley. In the long term, Mormon settlers eventually moved to Cache Valley as well. As early as July 31, 1847, a 20-man delegation of Shoshone met with the Mormons to discuss their land claims in northern Utah.
Immigrant pressures causing Shoshone starvation
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, European Americans had established their first permanent settlements and farms in Cache Valley, starting at Wellsville, Utah and gradually moving northward.
Brigham Young made the policy that Mormon settlers should establish friendly relations with the surrounding American Indian tribes. He encouraged their helping to “feed them rather than fight them”. Despite the policy, the settlers were consuming significant food resources and taking over areas that pushed the Shoshone increasingly into areas of marginal food production. David H. Burr, Surveyor General of the Territory of Utah, reported in 1856 that the local Shoshone Indians complained that the Mormons used so much of the Cache Valley that the once abundant game no longer appeared. The foraging and hunting by settlers traveling on the western migration trails also took additional resources away from the Shoshone. As early as 1859 Jacob Forney, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah, recognized the impact of migrants, writing, “The Indians…have become impoverished by the introduction of a white population”. He recommended that an Indian Reservation be established in Cache Valley to protect essential resources for the Shoshone. His superiors at the United States Department of the Interior did not act on his proposal. Desperate and starving, the Shoshone attacked farms and cattle ranches for food, as a matter not just of revenge but 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 doled it out. He suggested furnishing the Shoshone with livestock to enable them to become herdsmen instead of beggars.
On July 28, 1862, John White discovered gold on Grasshopper Creek in the mountains of southwestern Montana. Soon miners created a migration and supply trail right through the middle of Cache Valley, between this mining camp and Salt Lake City. The latter was the nearest significant trading source of goods and food in the area.
Outbreak of the Civil War
When the American Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was concerned that California, which had just recently become a state, would be cut off from the rest of the Union. He ordered several regiments to be raised from the population of California to help protect mail routes and the communications lines of the West. Neither Lincoln nor the U.S. War Department quite trusted the Mormons of the Utah Territory to remain loyal to the Union, in spite of their leader Young’s telegrams and assurances.The Utah War and Mountain Meadows massacre were still fresh in the minds of military planners. They worried that the Mormons’ substantial militia might answer only to Young and not the federal government.
Col. Patrick Edward Connor was put in command of the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Regiment and ordered to move his men to Utah, to protect the Overland Mail Route and keep peace in the region. Upon arriving in Utah, he established Camp Douglas (adjacent to the current location of the University of Utah) as the primary base of operations for his unit. It was within a few miles of the Mormon Temple construction site and downtown Great Salt Lake City.
Warnings and conflicts with Cache Valley settlers
Several incidents in the summer and fall of 1862 led to the battle between Bear Hunter and Col. Connor. These were related to broad struggles between indigenous peoples and European-American settlers over almost the entire United States west of the Mississippi River. The attention of most of the nation’s population was focused on the Civil War in the eastern states. Some historians have overlooked these incidents because they occurred near the ill-defined boundary of two different territories: those of Washington and Utah. While the incidents took place in proximity, the administrative centers dealing with them were more than 1,000 miles apart (1,600 km), so it was difficult to integrate reports. As an example, for years residents and officials believed Franklin and the area of conflict were part of the Utah Territory. Residents of Franklin sent elected representatives to the Utah Territorial Legislature and were part of the politics of Cache County, Utah until 1872, when a surveying team determined the community was in Idaho territory.
When a resident of Summit Creek (now Smithfield) found his horse missing, he accused a young Shoshone fishing in nearby Summit Creek of having stolen the animal. Robert Thornley, an English immigrant and first resident of Summit Creek, defended the young Indian and testified for him. Nonetheless, a jury of locals convicted him and hanged him for stealing the horse. Local history recorded the Shoshone’s name as Pugweenee. Later information reveals that Pugweenee is the Shoshone word for “fish” and so the man may have been saying, “Look at my fish,” or “I was just fishing.”
The young Indian man was the son of the local Shoshone chief. Within a few days, the Shoshone retaliated by killing a couple of young men of the Merrill family who were gathering wood in the nearby canyon.
Massacre near Fort Hall
During the summer of 1859, a settler company of about 19 people from Michigan were traveling on the Oregon Trail near Fort Hall when they were attacked at night, by people they assumed were local Shoshone. Several members of the company were killed by gunfire. The survivors took refuge along the Portneuf River, where they hid among the bullrushes and willow trees. Three days later, Lieutenant Livingston of Fort Walla Walla, leading a company of dragoons, met the survivors. He investigated the incident, and documented what he called the brutality of the attack. According to the Deseret News of 21 September 1859, a detachment of Lieutenant Livingston’s dragoons found five bodies at the scene of the massacre who were horribly mangled. A girl of only five years old had her ears cut off, her eyes gouged out, both legs amputated at the knees and by all appearances was made to walk on her stumps. 
Reuben Van Ornum and the Battle of Providence
On September 9, 1860, Elijah Utter was leading migrants on the Oregon trail when they were attacked by a group of presumably Bannock and Boise Shoshone. In spite of settlers’ attempts to placate the Native Americans, the Indians killed nearly the entire migrant party and drove off their livestock. Alexis Van Ornum, his family, and about ten others hid in some nearby brush, only to be discovered and killed. Their bodies were discovered by a company of U.S. soldiers led by Captain Frederick T. Dent. Lieutenant Marcus A. Reno came across the mutilated bodies of six of the Van Ornums. Reports from survivors were that four Van Ornum children were taken captive by the attacking warriors.
As a direct result of this attack, the Army established a military fort near the present location of Boise, Idaho, along the migrant trail. Colonel George Wright requested $150,000 to establish a military post able to sustain five companies of troops.
Zachias Van Ornum, Alexis’ brother, heard from a relative on the Oregon Trail that a small white boy of his missing nephew Reuben’s age was being held by a group of Northwestern Shoshone, likely to be in Cache Valley. Van Ornum gathered a small group of friends and traveled to Salt Lake City to get some help from the territorial government. There he visited Col. Connor at Fort Douglas and asked for help to regain his nephew. Col. Connor agreed and sent a detachment of cavalry under the command of Major Edward McGarry to Cache Valley to rendezvous with Van Ornum near the town of Providence, Utah.
Van Ornum located a small group of Shoshone warriors being led by Chief Bear Hunter. He and McGarry’s men followed the Shoshone as they retreated to nearby Providence Canyon. After the Indians opened fire, McGarry gave the order “to commence firing and to kill every Indian they could see.” A skirmish between the Shoshone and the U.S. Army lasted for about two hours after the Shoshone established a defensible position in the canyon. Finally Chief Bear Hunter signaled surrender by climbing a foothill and waving a flag of truce.
Together with about 20 of his people, Chief Bear Hunter was taken prisoner and transported to the soldiers’ camp near Providence. When asked about the young white boy, Bear Hunter said that the boy had been sent away a few days earlier. McGarry instructed Bear Hunter to send his people to bring back the white boy. He held Bear Hunter and four warriors hostage. By noon of the next day, the Shoshone returned with a small boy who fit the description of Reuben Van Ornum. Zachias Van Ornum claimed the boy was his nephew and took custody, departing to return to Oregon.
The Shoshone protested, claiming that the boy was the son of a French fur trapper and the sister of Shoshone chief Washakie. The federal troops left with Van Ornum and the young boy, McGarry reported to Col. Connor of their rescue of the boy “without the lost or scratch of man or horse.” Bear Hunter complained to the settlers in Cache Valley, arguing they should have helped him against the soldiers. After a confrontation between Bear Hunter, some warriors from his band, and nearly 70 members of the Cache Valley militia, the settlers donated two cows and some flour as the “best and cheapest policy” as a kind of compensation.
Bear River crossing
On December 4, 1862, Connor sent McGarry on another expedition to Cache Valley, this time to recover some stolen livestock from Shoshone. The Shoshone broke camp and fled in advance of the Army troops and cut the ropes of a ferry at the crossing. McGarry got his men across the river, but had to leave their horses behind. Four Shoshone warriors were captured and held for ransom, although they did not appear related to the theft. McGarry ordered that if the stock was not delivered by noon the next day, these men were to be shot. The Shoshone chiefs moved their people further north into Cache Valley. The captives were executed by a firing squad, and their bodies were dumped into the Bear River. In an editorial, the Deseret News expressed concern that the execution would aggravate relations with the Shoshone.
Incident on the Montana Trail
A.H. Conover, operator of a Montana Trail freight-hauling service between mining camps of Montana and Salt Lake City, was attacked by Shoshone warriors. They killed two men who accompanied him, George Clayton and Henry Bean. Arriving in Salt Lake City, Conover told a reporter the Shoshone were “determined to avenge the blood of their comrades” killed by Major McGarry and his soldiers. He said the Shoshone intended to “kill every white man they should meet on the north side of the Bear River, till they should be fully avenged.”
Attack on the Montana Trail
The final catalyst for Connor’s expedition was a Shoshone attack on a group of eight miners on the Montana Trail. They had come within 2 miles (3 km) of the main Shoshone winter encampment north of Franklin. The miners missed a turn and ended up mired and lost on the western side of the Bear River, unable to cross the deep river. Three men swam across to Richmond, where they tried to get provisions and a guide from the settlers. Before they returned, the other five men were attacked by Shoshone. They killed John Henry Smith of Walla Walla, and some horses. When the Richmond people returned with the advance party, they recovered the body of John Smith. They buried him at the Richmond city cemetery.
The surviving miners reached Salt Lake City. William Bevins testified before Chief Justice John F. Kinney and swore an affidavit describing Smith’s murder. He also reported that ten miners en route to the city had been murdered three days before Smith. Kinney issued a warrant for the arrest of chiefs Bear Hunter, Sanpitch, and Sagwitch. He ordered the territorial marshal to seek assistance from Col. Connor for a military force to “effect the arrest of the guilty Indians.”
Due to such reports, Connor was ready to mount an expedition against the Shoshone. He reported to the U.S. War Department prior to the engagement:
I have the honor to report to you that from information received from various sources of the encampment of a large body of Indians on the Bear River, 140 mi (230 km) north of this point, who had murdered several miners, during the winter, passing to and from the settlements in this valley to the Bear River mines east of the Rocky Mountains. And being satisfied that they were part of the same band who had been murdering emigrants on the Overland Mail Route for the last 15 years, and the principal actors and leaders in the horrid massacre of the past summer. I determined, although the season was unfavorable to military expedition in consequence of cold weather and deep snow, to chastise them if possible.
Military action in Cache Valley
In many ways, the soldiers stationed at Fort Douglas were spoiling for a fight. In addition to discipline problems among the soldiers, there was a minor “mutiny” among the soldiers where a joint petition by most of the California Volunteers made a request to withhold over $30,000 from their paychecks for the sole purpose of instead paying for naval passage to the eastern states, and to “serve their country in shooting traitors instead of eating rations and freezing to death around sage brush fires…” Furthermore, they stated that they would gladly pay this money “for the privilege (original emphasis) of going to the Potomac and getting shot.” This request was declined by the War Department.
Throughout most of January 1863, soldiers at Fort Douglas were preparing for a lengthy expedition traveling north to the Shoshone. Connor also wanted to keep word of his expedition secret, in order to make a surprise attack upon the Shoshone when he arrived. To do this, he separated his command into two different detachments, that were to periodically come together on their journey to Cache Valley. His main concern was to avoid the problems that McGarry had faced in the earlier action, where the Shoshone had moved and scattered even before his troops could arrive.
Reaction to this military campaign was mixed. George A. Smith, in the official Journal History of the LDS Church, wrote:
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.
On the other hand, the Deseret News in an editorial expressed:
…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.
The first group to leave from Fort Douglas was forty men of Company K, 3rd Regiment California Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Captain Samuel W. Hoyt, accompanied by 15 baggage wagons and two “mountain howitzers” totalling 80 soldiers They left on January 22, 1863.
The second group was 220 cavalry, led personally by Connor himself with his aides and fifty men each from Companies A, H, K and M of the 2nd Regiment of Cavalry, California Volunteers which left on January 25. As orders specific for this campaign, Connor ordered each soldier to carry “40 rounds of rifle ammunition and 30 rounds of pistol ammunition”. This was a total of nearly 16,000 rounds for the campaign. In addition, nearly 200 rounds of artillery shot were brought with the howitzers. As a part of the deception, the cavalry were to travel at night while the infantry moved during the day. Accompanying Connor was the former U.S. Marshal and Mormon scout, Orrin Porter Rockwell.
On the evening of January 28, Captain Hoyt’s infantry finally arrived near the town of Franklin, where they spotted three Shoshone who were attempting to get food supplies from the settlers in the town. The Shoshone received nine bushels of wheat in three sacks. William Hull, the settler who was assisting the Shoshone, noted later:
we had two of the three horses loaded, having put three bushels on each horse…when I looked up and saw the Soldiers approaching from the south. I said to the Indian boys, “Here comes the Toquashes (Shoshone for U.S. Soldiers) maybe, you will all be killed. They answered ‘maybe the Toquashes will be killed too,” but not waiting for the third horse to be loaded, they quickly jumped upon their horses and led the three horses away, disappearing in the distance.
The sacks of grain carried by these Shoshone were later found by the 3rd California Volunteers during their advance the next day, apparently dropped by the Shoshone in their attempt to get back to their camp.
Col. Connor met up with Hoyt that evening as well, with orders to begin moving at about 1:00 am the next morning for a surprise attack, but an attempt to get a local settler to act as a scout for the immediate area led the actual advance to wait until 3:00 am
It should be noted that this military action took place during perhaps the coldest time of the year in Cache Valley. Local settlers commented that it was unseasonably cold even for northern Utah, and it may have been as cold as −20 °F (−30 °C) on the morning of the 29th when the attack began. Several soldiers had come down with frostbite and other cold-weather problems, so that the 3rd volunteers were only at about 2/3 of their strength compared to when they left Fort Douglas. Among the rations issued to the soldiers during the campaign was a ration of whiskey held in a canteen, where several soldiers noted that this whiskey froze solid on the night before the attack.
Shoshone battle preparations
It is apparent that the Shoshone chiefs were far from ignorant of the potential for conflict with Col. Connor’s soldiers, and some minor preparations were made at the same time. Most of this involved mainly gathering foodstuffs from surrounding Mormon settlements, in a fashion very similar to the incident listed above with the residents of Richmond, Utah.
Most of the firearms that the Shoshone had at the time of the attack had been captured in various small skirmishes, traded from fur trappers, white settlers, and other Native American tribal groups, or simply antiques that had been handed down from one generation to another over the years. Clearly they were not as standardized or as well built as the guns issued by the Union Army to the soldiers of the California Volunteers.
Bear Hunter and the other Shoshone chiefs did, however, make some defensive arrangements around their encampment, in addition to simply selecting a generally defensible position in the first place. Willow branches had been woven into makeshift screens, hiding the position and numbers of Shoshone. They also dug a series of “rifle pits” along the eastern bank of Beaver Creek as well as along the Bear River.
Perhaps most ironic was that at the same time the arrest warrant was being issued by Justice Kinney, Chief Sanpitch (named in the warrant) was in Salt Lake City trying to negotiate peace on behalf of the Northwestern Shoshone. A correspondent for the Sacramento Union reported “The Prophet (Brigham Young) had told Sanpitch the Mormon people had suffered enough from the Shoshoni of Cache Valley and that if more blood were spilled the Mormons might just “pitch in” and help the troops.”
While it appears as though the deception by Connor to hide the numbers of his soldiers involved in the confrontation was successful, the Shoshone were not even then anticipating a direct military engagement with these soldiers. Instead, they were preparing for a negotiated settlement where the chiefs would be able to talk with officers of the U.S. Army and try to come to an understanding.
Battle of Bear River
Major McGarry and the first cavalry units of the 2nd Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry arrived at the battle scene at 6:00 am, just as dawn was breaking over the mountains. Due to the weather conditions and deep snow, it took time for Connor to organize his soldiers into a battle line. The artillery pieces never arrived as they got caught in a snow drift six miles (9.7 km) from the Shoshone encampment.
Chief Sagwitch noted the approach of the American soldiers, saying,
Look like there is something up on the ridge up there. Look like a cloud. Maybe it is a steam come from a horse. Maybe that’s them soldiers they were talking about.”
Soon afterward, the first shots of this incident occurred.
Initially Connor tried a direct frontal offensive against the Shoshone positions, but was soon overwhelmed with return gunfire from the Shoshone. The California Volunteers suffered most of their direct combat-related casualties during this first assault.
After temporarily retreating and regrouping, Connor sent McGarry and several other smaller groups into flanking maneuvers to attack the village from the sides and from behind. He directed a line of infantry to block any attempt by the Shoshone to flee from the battle. After about two hours, the Shoshone had run out of ammunition. According to some later reports, some Shoshone were seen trying to cast lead ammunition during the middle of the battle, and died with the molds in their hands.