Four miles north of Preston,
Idaho, the Bear River quietly ambles through green valleys and
sagebrush covered mountains, the Shoshone call this place Boa
Ogoi. Something happened on this site that is little known to
U.S. history. But it is seared forever into the memory of the
On January 29, 1863, the militia of the U.S. Army's Third California
Volunteers, under the command of Colonel Patrick E. Connor, rode
down the frozen bluff and massacred some 350 Northwestern Shoshone
Indians - the largest slaughter of Native Americans in the history
of the country. Estimates of the dead are nearly double those
of Wounded Knee, S.D., and Sand Creek, Colo. It was a clash of
two diverse cultures trying to share the same land, and the Shoshone
lost. The Shoshone, comprising several bands, had close contact
with the white settlers moving in the ever-growing tide of westward
expansion. They found themselves in the unenviable position of
being precisely where immigrants would pass on their way to the
Pacific; that, combined with the critical perception people had
of Native Americans at the time, resulted in a recipe for disaster.
The Shoshone were a starving people that winter, and the occasional
friendly offerings of food by nearby residents had dwindled as
the Shoshone were blamed for skirmishes and the atrocities to
other groups nearby.
Soon after the founding of Salt Lake, Peter Skene Ogden wrote,
"What will be the reward of these poor wretches in the next
world I cannot pretend to say, but surely they cannot be in a
more wretched state than this." It was a commonly held notion
at the time. Native Americans were viewed as poor, starving beggars
who didn't understand the concept and benefits of a Manifest Destiny,
or, as Col. Patrick E. Connor believed, violent savages who needed
to be destroyed at all costs.
Skirmishes had broken out all along the Utah frontier leading
to the Utah War, and the overland mail routes had been under attack.
Individual murders had been taking place and the local constituencies
were at their wits end. Utah Governor Frank Fuller and various
other officials asked the Secretary of War to come in with a temporary
regiment of mounted rangers.
It seems that the few people doing most of the talking did not
understand the Northwestern Shoshone, and did not distinguish
that particular band of the tribe from the others. There were
troublemaking bands that took a few horses and cattle, were involved
in an altercation with settlers (two Indians and two white settlers
were killed), and ate the stolen cattle because of hunger. None
of these bands, however, were of the Northwestern Shoshone, but
all were tarred with the same brush.
It was in this environment that Col. Connor and his California
Volunteers rode toward the area of the Bear River. It was so cold
that winter that merely exhaling caused men's mustaches to freeze.
Before setting out for Bear River in southern Idaho, nearly 75
of Connor's 275 men were left behind in Utah's Brigham City due
to frozen feet before the remainder of the regiment made the hard
Along the riverbanks on the icy morning of January 29, 1863, Chief
Sagwitch rose early. A white friend of the Shoshone had come to
tell them that Col. Connor was coming to the camp to "get
the guilty parties." Chief Sagwitch had expected a visit
for just that purpose and on that January morning, as he realized
the steam drifting from the mountains was getting lower, he realized
too that the soldiers were at last there.
As he called to the others who were still asleep, men tumbled
from their tepees and grabbed their weapons. In the frenzy, Sagwitch
yelled for the men not to be the first to shoot. As his granddaughter
Mae Parry recounts in her story Massacre at Boa Ogoi, "He
thought that perhaps this military man was a wise and just man.
He thought the Colonel would ask for the guilty men, whom he would
immediately have handed over."
The encounter did not happen the way that Chief Sagwitch thought
it would. The Colonel asked no questions. The regiment commenced
firing, and the Indians were being "slaughtered like wild
rabbits." Seeing themselves vastly outnumbered, the Shoshone
began jumping into the freezing river in an attempt to escape.
No one was spared men, women nor children.
One survivor was Anzee Chee. She was chased by soldiers, but was
able to hide under a bank that overhung the river. She suffered
wounds in the shoulder and chest and the loss of her baby, who
was tossed into the icy water to be drowned.
Chief Bear Hunter was known as a leader by the soldiers. He was
kicked and tortured, and finally, because he would not cry out,
had a fire hot rifle bayonet run through his ears. It proved to
be painfully true that arrows were no match for rifles.
There were close to 450 men, women and children in the camp that
day. If Connor had arrived a few weeks earlier, during the Shoshone's
Warm Dance, the death toll could have been higher. The traditional
Warm Dance, to bring back warm weather and drive out the cold,
brought many bands together to play games and to socialize. Colonel
Connor, who prided himself on knowing the ways of the Indian,
was unaware of the Shoshone Warm Dance tradition.
Throughout the battle, the wounded urged their chief to escape.
After surviving two of his horses in battle, Sagwitch finally
escaped on a third. Another Shoshone escaped with him by grasping
the horse's tail as they rode across a frozen section of the river.
One incident tells of Yeager Timbimboo (or Da boo zee, meaning
cottontail rabbit), who was the son of Chief Sagwitch. Only twelve
years old, Yeager was caught up in the bloodshed, looking for
shelter as bullets whizzed past him. He spied a grass teepee so
full of people that it was actually moving. He entered the teepee
and there he found his grandmother. She was afraid that soon the
teepee would go up in flames, but she had a plan. She and the
boy would go out among the dead and be very still, not making
a sound or, as she instructed him, "not even open your eyes."
Surrounded by the dead, they remained still on the intensely cold
ground all day until Yeager, whose curiosity got the best of him,
raised his head and looked down the gun barrel of a soldier who
saw that he was still alive. Yeager told later that the soldier
raised his gun and lowered it two times while looking into his
eyes. The soldier finally lowered the gun and, perhaps weary from
the blood spilled there, walked away.
Another of the chief's sons escaped with a girlfriend. She rode
behind him on his horse as they raced for the surrounding hills.
He made it, but she died from the bullets that found their mark.
Tale after tale of that day's intimate sorrow, rage and courage
became the saddest chapters of the Northwestern Shoshone history.
Scenes of desperation, the courage to survive, and the loss of
the dream that they would find justice at the hands of their perpetrators
also fell upon them that day.
The Bear River Massacre was very important to southern Idaho and
Utah. It marked the ending of some real conflict between whites
and Shoshone in the territory. The decimation of the Indian population
allowed the settlers and farmers to encroach further in to traditional
Shoshone territory without fear.