Historians consider it the worst Native American massacre in US history. Despite this, few people have heard of it.
According to historians and tribal leaders, the Bear River Massacre of 1863 near what is now Preston, Idaho, killed roughly 350 members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, making it the bloodiest — and most lethal — slaying of Native Americans by the US military. The Indians were slaughtered after soldiers attacked them in a valley where they were camping for the winter, killing approximately 90 women and children.
According to Charles S. Peterson, a historian at Utah State University who wrote the foreword to a book called “The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre,” the main reason the Bear River slaying is lost – or ignored – in history classes is because its “carnage [was] eclipsed by Civil War battles” raging at the time. It’s ironic, he says, given that the well-known Native American woman — Sacagawea — was Shoshone and became famous for guiding explorers Lewis and Clark across the West earlier in the 19th century.
The Shoshones were once a nation of 17,000 people, divided into several bands that spanned parts of Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. They followed the seasons. They went fishing in Salmon, Idaho, in early autumn. They would travel to Utah in the spring and summer to gather seeds, berries, and roots.
They hunkered down in the Cache Valley, which runs through northern Utah and southeast Idaho, when the cold weather hit. The willow and sagebrush in the valley shielded them from the wind and snow of winter blizzards, and the “Big River,” or “Boa Ogoi” as the Shoshones called it, was teeming with fish, and the area was abundant in wild game.
The Shoshones and other tribes faced a slew of hardships and troubles in the 1800s as the United States government sought to rid the country of what officials referred to as the “Indian problem.” Settlers moving west and Mormon farmers encroached on Shoshone territory, and miners caused skirmishes as they passed through on their way to find gold.
After the Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln dispatched regiments from the Union Army’s 3rd Regiment California Volunteer Infantry stationed at Fort Douglas near Salt Lake City to protect the mail routes and telegraph lines that ran through the Cache Valley area. However, many of the troops were dissatisfied with their presence and desired to be on the front lines of the Civil War.
Ten miners traveling south on the Montana Trail were said to have been murdered by Indians on January 5, 1863. A day later, a group of White men on their way to Salt Lake City became disoriented and were allegedly robbed by Indians. A White man named John H. Smith was fatally shot during an argument about returning some livestock.
According to the tribe’s history website, she was afraid the teepee would catch fire and told him to lie very still. However, when Yeager raised his head, he found himself staring down the barrel of a soldier’s gun. According to Shoshone historians, Timbimboo later told how the soldier raised and lowered his gun twice while looking into his eyes. Then he dropped it and walked away.
The land where the massacre took place has been privately owned since 1863. Landowners claimed decades ago that they tried to plow the land for farming but were frequently met with human remains thought to be those of Indians.
It was designated a national historic landmark in 1990, after Mae Parry and other Shoshones fought for decades to have it recognized as a massacre rather than a battle, as some historical markers had done. In 2018, the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation purchased approximately 550 acres of Bear River land. The tribe, which now has a population of about 560 people, intends to construct an interpretive center to commemorate the history and those who died at Bear River.