1863 – The Bear River Massacre: New Historical Evidence

by Harold Schindler

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Controversy has dogged the Bear River Massacre from the first.

The event in question occurred when, on January 29, 1863, volunteer soldiers under Colonel Patrick Edward Connor attacked a Shoshoni camp on the Bear River, killing nearly three hundred men, women, and children. The bloody encounter culminated years of increasing tension between whites and the Shoshonis, who, faced with dwindling lands and food sources, had resorted to theft in order to survive. By the time of the battle, confrontations between the once-friendly Indians and the settlers and emigrants were common.

So it was that “in deep snow and bitter cold”

Connor set forth from Fort Douglas with nearly three hundred men, mostly cavalry, late in January 1863. Intelligence reports had correctly located Bear Hunter’s village on Bear River about 140 miles north of Salt Lake City, near present Preston, Idaho. Mustering three hundred warriors by Connor’s [p. 301] estimate, the camp lay in a dry ravine about forty feet wide and was shielded by twelve-foot embankments in which the Indians had cut firing steps. . . .

When the soldiers appeared shortly after daybreak on January 27 [sic], the Shoshonis were waiting in their defenses.

About two-thirds of the command succeeded in fording ice-choked Bear River. While Connor tarried to hasten the crossing, Major [Edward] McGarry dismounted his troops and launched a frontal attack. It was repulsed with heavy loss. Connor assumed control and shifted tactics, sending flanking parties to where the ravine issued from some hills. While detachments sealed off the head and mouth of the ravine, others swept down both rims, pouring a murderous enfilading fire into the lodges below. Escape blocked, the Shoshonis fought desperately in their positions until slain, often in hand-to-hand combat. Of those who broke free, many were shot while swimming the icy river. By mid-morning the fighting had ended.

On the battlefield the troops counted 224 bodies, including that of Bear Hunter, and knew that the toll was actually higher. They destroyed 70 lodges and quantities of provisions, seized 175 Indian horses, and captured 160 women and children, who were left in the wrecked village with a store of food. The Californians had been hurt, too: 14 dead, 4 officers and 49 men wounded (of whom 1 officer and 6 men died later), and 75 men with frostbitten feet. Even so, it had been a signal victory, winning Connor the fulsome praise of the War Department and prompt promotion to brigadier general.[1]

Controversies over the battle have tainted it ever since. For one thing, Chief Justice John F. Kinney of the Utah Supreme Court had issued warrants for the arrest of several Shoshoni chiefs for the murder of a miner. But critics have questioned whether the warrants could legally be served, since the chiefs were no longer within the court’s jurisdiction.[2] The legality of the federal writs was irrelevant, however, to Colonel Connor, commander of the California Volunteers at Camp Douglas. At the onset of his expedition against the Bear River band, he announced that he was satisfied that these Indians were among those who had been murdering emigrants on the Overland Mail Route for the previous fifteen years. Because of their apparent role as “principal actors and leaders in the horrid massacres of the past summer, I determined . . . to chastise them if possible.” He told U.S. marshal Isaac L. Gibbs that Gibbs could accompany the troops with his federal warrants if he wanted, but “it [p. 302] was not intended to have any prisoners.”[3] However—and this is another controversy—there have been many who have questioned whether Connor’s soldiers actually tangled with the guilty Indians.

Source: rsc.byu.edu