Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bear River Massacre

Patrick Conner
While the United States was engaged in a Civil War they could not neglect border defense. Indians were still a serious force to be reckoned with, and the pre-war army was scattered through frontier forts to defend against Indian attacks. The American settlers moving west into the Cache Valley in what is now northern Utah and southern Idaho settled among the Indians, as the area was rich in furs. But as the numbers of white settlers increased, the natural resources diminished, and the Shoshone Indians, who relied on hunting for food, began to starve.

Abraham Lincoln was worried the new state of California would be cut off from the United States as it was bordered by Utah Territory, and the loyalty of the Mormon militia there was doubtful. Therefore he ordered several regiments of California troops to be raised to defend the area. One of these was the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry, which moved to the Salt Lake City area to keep the peace. The 3rd California was commanded by Patrick Conner, an Irishman who immigrated to America and joined the army, fighting in the Mexican and Indian wars.

There were several incidents of violence between the settlers and the Shoshone Indians in the preceding years. In early December, 1862, Col. Connor sent Major Edward McGarry on an expedition into the Cache Valley to recover some livestock thought to have been stolen by the Shoshone. The Indians fled at the soldiers' approach and all made their escape, except for four warriors. Although they did not seem to be the thieves, McGarry said that if the livestock was not returned by the next day, the Indians were to be executed. It was not, and so the four men were executed by firing squad.
Conner heard reports that the Shoshone were determined to avenge the warrior's death, and that they had attacked a party of lost miners, even killing one of them. This was the final straw. Conner prepared to lead the 3rd California on an expedition against the natives. He tried as best he could to keep the attack a secret, so that they would not flee as they had before McGarry's attack the year before. He set out in late January with two columns, one with 80 men of the 3rd California under Captain Samuel Hoyt, the other 220 men of the 2nd California Cavalry under Conner himself.

Conner was in position on January 28th, and he had his men moving for a surprise attack at 3:00 am on the morning of January 29th, 150 years ago today. It was the dead of winter and even colder than usual, the temperature that morning may well have been around -20° F. The first American units arrived at the camp at around 6:00 am. The Indians were unprepared for the attack. They thought that the United States would try to negotiate, instead of resorting to an attack. However, when Conner's men attacked, their advance was halted by the Shoshone fire. Conner sent McGarry around to flank the village, and positioned a line of troops to block any attempt to escape.
Site of the massacre
After the fight had gone on for two hours, the Indian's small supply of ammunition ran out. While trying to quickly make bullets to continue the fight, they had to resort to the traditional bows and tomahawks when the soldiers charged. As the Indian resistance broke down, the fight soon turned into a massacre. Most of the men were killed, even women and children were shot. There are reports of soldiers assaulting the women and beating out their children's brains. Killing any survivors who had not escaped the village, they burnt the houses and most, if not all, of the supplies. The California troops lost 14 men killed, and 49 wounded.

Some Shoshone had escaped. Chief Sagwitch was shot in the hand, and escaped on horseback. His horse was killed, and he survived by floating in a hot spring, hidden under some brush. Estimates of Shoshone casualties vary. Connnor reported killing 224 of 300 braves and capturing 160 women and children. Many years later a settler reported counting 493 Indians killed, and the son of the chief said that half of the Indians escaped, and 156 were killed. Whatever the death toll, the Shoshone tribe was destroyed. Chief Sagwitch and the survivors of the tribe joined the Mormon church.


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