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Indecisiveness of Battles
Bear River Massacre
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
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The Bear River Massacre and the American Civil War
The Bear River Massacre and the American Civil War
by Lonny L. Grout

Along U.S. Highway 91, in the Southeast corner of Idaho, twenty miles from the Idaho/Utah border is the site of the Bear River Massacre. The site is one of the best kept military history secrets in America. On the 29th of January, 1863, during the American Civil War occurred one of the greatest massacres of Native Americans by U.S. troops in American history.[1] This site is just a mile north of the present day town of Preston, Idaho, a town more known for being the site for the movie Napoleon Dynamite, than being known for one of the greatest atrocities of the 19th Century. The incident at Bear River in the Cache Valley is not well known. However, it is not my goal to make it better known, as some great authors have already taken on this endeavor, and have accomplished much toward that end. I instead intend to investigate whether or not the Bear River Massacre should be considered a battle of the Civil War.

In the earliest parts of the Civil War, the Confederate Government moved quickly to annex the Indian Territory in an attempt to use the natives against the Union. It is true that Native Americans fought on both sides of the war. The Confederacy was able to make alliances with the Cherokee, Chactaw, Chickasee, Creek and Seminole[2] , however there were no formal alliances between the Shoshone of Cache Valley and the Confederacy. It is evident that the Shoshone were interested in protecting their own interests. However, the inciting of the American Indians against the Union caused the Federal government to take a harsher stance against the natives. This would be just as true in the Utah and Washington territories as it was in the east.

When one thinks of the Western theatre of the Civil War, they tend to think of Tennessee, and perhaps Missouri, but not as far west as present day Idaho. Yet the most compelling argument that this was a battle of the Civil War is that the Union troops involved in the massacre were California Volunteers called for the purpose of the war. When the war broke out in 1861, President Lincoln was concerned that California, by then a state, would be cut off from the rest of the United States. He ordered, with congressional authorization, several regiments to be raised from the population of California that were to help protect the lines of cummunication to the west.[3] Also, the American government still did not trust that the Mormon settlers in the Utah territory under Brigham Young, would continue to stay loyal to the Union. The Mountain Meadows Massacre which occurred in Utah ON September 11, 1857 was still fresh in the minds of the federals, to whom it appeared that the Mormon militia seemed to answer only to Brigham Young directly.[4]

In response to the possible threat, the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Regiment was created and Col. Patrick Edward Connor was put in command. The Regiment was ordered to move out to Utah with the specific orders to protect the Overland Mail Route and to keep the peace in the region.[5] Also the unit was to act as a force of observation in order to forestall any joint activity between Mormon recalcitrants and Southern sympathizers seeking to secure the Southwest for the Confederacy.[6] The creation of this Union Volunteer unit was done because of the war and was given specific orders that were of concern due to the war. When Connor arrived in Utah, he established Fort Douglas as the primary base of operations for his unit, within sight of downtown Salt Lake City.[7] It appeared that the Federal government perceived both the Mormons of the region and the American Indians of the region to be a possible threat to the Union cause.

Col P. Edward Connor after his promotion.
Picture public domain

Cache Valley was the hunting grounds for a group of Northwestern Shoshone, who originally called the Valley Seuhubeogoi (Shoshoni for Willow Valley ). Here the Shoshone gathered grain and grass seeds, as well as hunting both small game as well as large game including deer, elk and buffalo, and were able to fish for trout in the streams and rivers.[8] This mountain valley had also attracted the attention of fur traders and trappers, and this is where Cache Valley derives its name. The idea that trappers left stores of their furs and goods (a cache of furs) in this valley as a central staging area for hunting trips in the surrounding mountain ranges.[9] This band of 450 Shoshoni under war chief Bear Hunter had watched uneasily as Mormon farmers had moved into their home of Cache Valley in the spring of 1860 and three years later had appropriated all the land and water of the verdant mountain valley.[10] In fact, the first town officially founded in present day Idaho (at that time part of the Washington territory) was the town of Franklin. The settlement was so close to the Utah border that the Mormon settlers believed that they were in Utah, until later surveying showed that they were not.

Pressure was put on the Shoshone of the valley by both the continued movement of Mormon settlers northward as well as the establishment of the Oregon and California trails which put this Shoshone group in constant contact with settlers. Brigham Young encouraged peaceful relations with the surrounding Native American tribes, especially with his policy to, "feed them rather than fight them".[11] Even with this policy, the competition for the food and resources of the valley intensified. This problem was recognized by was recognized by Jacob Forney, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah in 1859 when he wrote, "The Indians...have become impoverished by the introduction of a white population,” in a letter to his superiors. He further recommended that an Indian Reservation be established in Cache Valley to protect resources for the Shoshone. This recommendation was ignored by the U.S. Dept. of Interior and his superiors.[12] It is likely that general indifference to Indian affairs was the reason the recommendation was ignored, however it is also likely that superiors in Washington were also busy with looming Civil War they were soon to face. Once the war started, this type of solution was taken from the table and replaced with Union troops.

These conditions were just ripe for conflict to occur between the Shoshone of the valley and the settlers. The Shoshone were desperate and struck back by attacking nearby farms and ranches, not as a revenge mechanism, but rather as a matter of survival. Add to this problem that gold was discovered In July of 1862 in the southwestern mountains of Montana, just north of Cache Valley. Miners with dreams of striking it rich established a migration trail between the mining camp and Salt Lake City which went right through Cache Valley.[13] The Shoshone were now competing with pioneers moving west on the Oregon and California trails; miners going to Montana, and Mormon settlers moving further north. With the Shoshone starting to strike back, it would not be long before some settlers would start to pressure Col Connor to act.

The soldiers of the 31st Infantry Regiment at Fort Douglas were understandably disgruntled with their current assignment. They had joined in order to fight the Civil War. Most of these Californian volunteers felt so strongly about this that they had drawn up a joint petition to request $30,000 be withheld from their paychecks in order to pay for passage to the eastern states where the fighting was. The request had stated that they wished to “serve their country in shooting traitors instead of eating rations and freezing to death around sage brush fires..." For certain, this statement was from someone who spent time in northern Utah and southeast Idaho. Furthermore, they stated that they would gladly pay this money "for the privilege of going to the Potomac and getting shot."[14] The request was turned down by the War Department, after some encouragement from Col Connor who emphasized that he needed the soldiers where they were at. It seemed that the Californians were looking for a fight.

The final action that incited Connor to take action against the Shoshone was an incident that took place along the Montana Trail. A group of miners traveling generally along the trail got lost and found themselves on the western side of the Bear River. This was unfortunatley just two miles from the main Shoshone winter encampment in the Valley. The river was too deep to cross, and three men swam across the river and went to Richmond, Utah to seek a guide to assist the rest of the party which waited. The Shoshone attacked this group, killing John Henry Smith of Walla Walla. The rest of the group did make it back to Salt Lake City where they gave an afidavit to the chief justice John F. Kinney on the murder of Smith. Kinney issued warrants for the Shoshone Chiefs Sanpitch, Sagwitch, and Bear Hunter. Col Connor was sought out for assistance in carrying out the warrants.[15] For Connor, the warrants were merely another reason to perform an attack he already wished to conduct. This is reflected in Connor’s words to the U.S. War Department”

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 miles 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.[16]

It is apparent by Connor’s words that he felt the expedition he was about to take against the Shoshone were within his wartime orders. The reference to the Overland Mail Route was likely included to specifically tie the event with the orders he had been given. The wording and sending of this message to the War Department showed that Connor did indeed believe that he was about to conduct a battle of the war.

On January 22, 1863 the first infantry company of 80 men under Capt. Samuel W. Hoyt left Fort Douglas to head north towards Cache Valley. The company had 15 wagons and two howitzers with them. On January 25th the second group left comprised of 220 Cavalry and led by Connor himself. Connor had split up his forces as to not make it obvious his intent to attack and to gain the element of surprise. As further deception, the infantry moved during the day and the cavalry moved at night.[17] Before Connor had left on the expedition to Bear River he announced that he intended to take no prisoners.[18]

On the 28th of January, the infantry element arrived near the town of Franklin. Three Shoshone who were in the town saw the troops, and hurried back to their camp to warn the others. It would appear that Connor would not get his full surprise he had wished for. Connor had met up with the infantry later that day and still wishing for the element of surprise, and a swift attack, issued orders to move out at 1:00 A.M. The problem was that this was the coldest time of the year for the region, and locals claimed it was even uncommonly cold that year. This time of night had temperatures that were well below zero. There was also deep snow on the ground, although I found no mention of how much snow, over a foot would be likely for this region during this time of year. It was reported to be so cold that the ration of whiskey that the soldiers had was reported to have frozen solid during the night. The cold made it difficult for Connor to find a local to act as a guide, and the movement had to be put off until 3:00 A.M.[19]

The first elements to arrive at the battle Shoshone encampment at Bear River was the 2nd California Calvary Regiment under Maj. McGarry. They arrived at approximately 6:00 A.M. on the 29th of January, 1863. Due to the snow and the weather conditions, Connor had difficulty getting his soldiers into a proper battle line. The weather had played another important role in that the howitzers never made it, getting caught in a snow drift six miles from the encampment.[20]

The Shoshone were indeed expecting the attack. Bear Hunter and the other Shoshoni chiefs made some defensive arrangements around their encampment, the greatest of which was to select a location for the encampment that was naturally defendable. In addition to this the Shoshone had taken willow branches which had been woven into makeshift screens to be used as hiding the position and numbers of Shoshone. They also dug a series of entrenchments to be utilized as fighting postions along the eastern bank of Beaver Creek as well as along the Bear River. Natural barriers would be their best defense.[21]

Bear River Massacre Site looking Northeast with monument shown.
Picture by Lonny Grout

The Shoshone knew that the soldiers were coming, as they were warned by the three Shoshone the day before. However, Connor was likely successful in his deception to mask the number of troops he had. The Shoshone chiefs were not expecting a full attack, but were rather expecting that the Army had come to negotiate with them.[22]

Connor then attacked. He showed a great amount of arrogance by ordering a direct attack against the Shoshone village. The troops of this first wave found the Shoshone warriors entrenched behind the ten-foot eastern embankment of Beaver Creek (afterwards called Battle Creek). They charged across the open plain through the snow in front of the village. The attackers were quickly beaten back by the well fortified defenders. The California Volunteers suffered most of their twenty-three casualties in their first charge across the open plain. After this failed charge, Connor decided that a change of tactic was needed and instead chose to flank the village. Connor sent several small groups to attack the village from the flanks as well as from behind in a total envelopment of the village. This tactic was also to ensure that none of the Shoshone escaped. This tactic proved to be much more effective, but was aided by the fact that at about 8:00 A.M. the Shoshone defenders had ran out of ammunition. In fact some reports claimed that the soldiers found Shoshone attempting to cast lead bullets during the battle and died with the molds still in the hands.[23]

Bear River Massacre site, looking east toward the Shoshone camp. General Connor came down the slope. Picture taken from the Internet.

It was at this point that Battle of Bear River had ended and the Bear River Massacre had begun. Col. Connor lost control of his soldiers, and by his previous statement he likely did not care. Either way, he bears the responsibility of the poor behavior of his Californians. The Shoshone became more desperate once their ammunition ran out and continued to fight by any means including the use of tomahawks and bows. At least one soldier was reportedly injured by an arrow. The soldiers seemed to lose all sense of control and discipline. After most of the men were killed, soldiers proceeded to kill men, women and children indescrimenantly to include reports of raping and molesting women. Those who resisted or refused to abide by the soldiers’ wishes were killed. There were even reports that soldiers had held infants by their heels and then "beat their brains out on any hard substance they could find." One local resident stated that many soldiers pulled out their pistols and shot several Shoshoni people at point blank range. The soldiers also destroyed the village by burning many of the Shoshoni posessions and dwelling structures to include killing anyone who was still left inside. Other reports stated that some soldiers went through the village bashing the heads of the wounded with axes to include women and children.[24]

From a purely military point of view, Connor’s fortune was that the Shoshone had ran out of ammunition. Every advantage was afforded to the Shoshone fighters that day. The weather was exceptionally cold, and the snow very deep. The weather had not allowed the Union troops to get their howitzers to the battlefield, so they were not a factor. The site of the fight was very well naturally fortified, and the fighters were bold in their tenacity to fight. All of these factors favored a strong defense. Better supplied Shoshone warriors could have made this a very different day for history and for Col Connor. The results of the initial attack showed that the casualties for the 3rd California would likely have been much higher had the ammunition situation been better. I know that one is not to play the “what if” game with history, but every advantage did favor the defense.

Sources seem to differ on the total number of Shoshoni killed in the massacre, with the number varying between 200 and 400. However the most reliable sources put the number at least at 250 to include at least 90 women and children. The village was assessed to have a population of approximately 450, so there were survivors. A total of seventy-five Indian lodges were burned, 1,000 bushels of wheat and flour taken, as well as 175 Shoshone horses. While the troops cared for their wounded and took their dead back to Camp Douglas for burial, the Indians' bodies were left on the field for the wolves and crows.[25]

Chiefs Bear Hunter and Sub Chief Lehi had died, but Chief Sagwitch somehow managed to survive despite being shot twice. Others managed to survive by hiding in the willow brush near the Bear River. Once the soldiers assessed the battle to be finished, they retired back to their encampment near Franklin. The locals at Franklin opened their homes to the wounded soldiers and provided them aid. There were also some reports that locals had aided a few of the Shoshone wounded. Although the local settlers seemed to be divided on the actions of Connor, the results were that the remaining Shoshone became much closer with the Mormons, as the friction between the Mormons and Col Connor continued to grow. After all, it was Connor’s war-time orders to keep both the Mormons and the local American Indians in check during the war. Some Shoshone were even baptized in the Mormon Church to include Chief Sagwitch himself.[26]

Further evidence that Col Connor thought that his action was indeed a battle of the Civil War come from his official report on the incident. The following is an excerpt from that report:

To give you an idea of the desperate character of the fight, you are respectfully referred to the list of killed and wounded transmitted herewith. The fight commenced about 6 o'clock in the mording and continued until about 10. At the commencement of the battle the hands of some of the men were so benumed with cold that it was with difficulty they could load their pieces. Their suffering during the march was awful beyond description, but they steadily continued on without regard to hunger, cold, or thirst, not a murmur escaping them to indicate their sensibilities to pain or fatigue. Their uncomplaining endurance during their four nights' march from Camp Douglas to the battle-field is worthy of the highest praise. The weather was intensely cold, and not less than seventy-five had their feet frozen, and some of them I fear will be crippled for life.

I should mention here that in my march from this post, no assistance was rendered by the Mormons, who seemed indisposed to divulge any information regarding the Indians and charged enormous prices for every article furnished my command. I also have to report to the general commanding that previous to my departure Chief Justice Kinney, of Great Salt Lake City, made a requisition for troops for the purpose of arresting the Indian chiefs Bear Hunter, San Pitch, and Sagwich. I informed the marshal that my arrangements for our expedition against the Indians were made, and that it was not my intention to take any prisoners, but that he could accompany me. Marshal Gibbs accordingly accompanied me and rendered efficient aid in caring for the wounded.

I take great pleasure in awarding to Major McGarry, Second Cavalry Cavalry California Volunteers; Major Gallagher and Surg. R.K. Reid, Third Infantry California Volunteers, the highest praise for their skill, gallantry, and bravery throughout the engagement, and to the company officers the highest praise is due without invidious distinction for their bravery, courage, and determination evidenced throughout the engagement. Their obedience to orders, attention, kindness, and care for the wounded is no less worthy of notice. Of the good conduct and bravery of both officers and men California has reason to be proud.

We found 224 bodies on thefield, among which were those of the chiefs Bear Hunter, Sagwich, and Leight. How many more were killed than stated I am unable to say, as the condition of the wounded rendered their immeidate removal a necessity. I was unable to examine the field.

I captured 175 hroses, some arms, destroyed over seventy lodges, a large quantity of wheat and other provisions, which had been furnished them by the Mormons; left a small quantity of wheat for the sustenance of 160 captive squaws and children, whom I left on the field. The chiefs Pocatello and San Pitch, with their bands of murderers, are still at large. I hope to be able to kill or capture them before spring. If I succeed, the Overland Route west of the Rockey Mountains will be rid of the bedouins who have harassed and murdered emigrants on that route for a series of years. In consequence f the number of men left on the route with frozen feet and those with the train and howitzers and guarding the cavalry horses, I did not have to exceed 200 men engaged. The enemy had about 300 warriors, mostly well armed with rifles and having plenty of ammunition, which rumor says they received from the inhabitants of this Territory in exchange for the property of massacred emigrants.

The position of the Indians was one of great natural strength, and had I not succeeded in flanking them the mortality in my command would have been terrible. In consequence of the deep snow, the howitzers did not reach the field in time to be used in the action.

I have the honor to remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

P. Edw. Connor,

Colonel Third Infantry California Volunteers, Comdg. District.

Lieut. Col. R.C. Drum, U.S. Army, Assisant Adjust-General, Department of the Pacific.[27]

Of course there is a great amount of bias in this report, however there is still much that can be learned from it. The greatest item that stands out is what is not in the report. There is no mention of the massacre that took place. There is no mention of how the Californian Volunteers behaved after the fighting was done. Yet Connor stated to Marshall Gibbs that his intent was to take no prisoners.

Connor also was certain to mention that the Mormons were of no assistance durring his mission to attack the Shoshone. This is significant as his military mission was to keep both the Mormons and the American Indians in line, and Connor had to emphasize that both were a problem. He stated that the Mormons not only would not provide any information, but also charged the soldiers enourmous prices for any goods they bought. Further he mentioned that the goods which the Shoshone had were all furnished by the Mormons as well. To top this off, when Connor embellished that the Shoshone had plenty of ammuntion (something we know is not true) and were well armed, that rumor says “they received from the inhabitants of this Territory in exchange for the property of massacred emigrants.” This was a double hit intended to vilianize both the American Indians and the Mormons, and tie both toward the massacring of emigrants. Again, Connor did his best to tie both to his war time mission.

Connor finishes by stating, “The chiefs Pocatello and San Pitch, with their bands of murderers, are still at large. I hope to be able to kill or capture them before spring. If I succeed, the Overland Route west of the Rocky Mountains will be rid of the bedouins who have harassed and murdered emigrants on that route for a series of years.” Here he does two things. First he ties it again to his mission by mention of the Overland Route and to keep peace in the region. His persistant theme is that he is doing exactly that. The second point that he makes is that he wanted to continue with his mission by pursuing the other Chiefs he feels are responsible as well for harassment on the route.

One of the biggest questions about the Bear River Massacre is, why is it not very well known? This is despite there being works done with the express purpose of making the massacre better known. The Bear River Massacre is certainly less well known than Wounded Knee, another great travesty, but yet not as great when numbers are considered. The Massacre at Wounded Knee resulted in over 150 Lakota killed and 50 wounded. The biggest reason Bear River seemed to go unnoticed is that it happened in the middle of the Civil War. January 1863 was a viotale time in the war, as both sides were not where they wanted to be, and the war continued on in a stalemate. Antietam, September 17, 1862 saw the bloodiest single day of the war with 23,000 killed, during the battle, and as many as 27,000 total with the actions before the battle; And then Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 resulting in approximatley 18,000 casualties (killed and wounded). This was the environment in which Colonel Connor operated against the Shoshoni in January 1863. The other reason the massacre was not very well known is because it happened in Idaho, a place not well known for its military history.

Because this incident occurred during the Civil War, it continued to be not very well known. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers erected a monument on the site in 1953, which is still there today. The monument is not without its contreversy. One plaque reads:

Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

No. 186

Erected July 1953

Pioneer Women

Attacks by the Indians on the peaceful inhabitants in this vicinity led to the final battle here January 29, 1863. The conflict occurred in deep snow and bitter cold. Scores of wounded and frozen soldiers were taken from the battlefield to the Latter Day Saint community of Franklin. Here pioneer women, trained through trials and necessity of frontier living, accepted the responsibility for caring for the wounded until they could be removed to Camp Douglas, Utah. Two Indian women and three children found alive after the encounter were given homes in Franklin.
Franklin County.

SPC Jake Whittaker observes the monument at the Bear River Massacre site during a staff ride with the Idaho National Guard. Picture was taken looking east.
Picture by Lonny Grout

The term, “Attacks by the Indians on the peaceful inhabitants in this vicinity led to the final battle…” shows a bias that some have had issues with. The Battle of Bear River did not become better known as the Bear River Massacre until Dr. Brigham D.Madsen (University of Utah) wrote his book, The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre in 1985. This caused the Idaho Historical marker at the site to now have the heading, “Bear River Massacre”. It currently reads:

Bear River Massacre

Very few Indians survived an attack here when P.E. Connor's California Volunteers trapped and destroyed a band of northwestern Shoshoni.

Friction between local Indians and white travelers along this route led Connor to set out on a cold winter campaign. More than 400 Shoshoni occupied a winter camp that offered ideal protection in Battle Creek Canyon. But they suffered a military disaster unmatched in western history when Connor's force struck at daybreak. January 29, 1863.

Idaho State Historical Marker looking north.
Picture by Lonny Grout

The site was declared a National Historic Landmark on June 21, 1990 (National Register Number: 73000685).[28] Through the 1990s there was much discussion on what to do with the site. Some thoughts included making the site a National Park or National Monument. After a lot of controversy of what to do with the land, the 26 acre site was turned over to the Northwestern Band of the Shoshoni Nation on March 21, 2003. Bruce Parry, executive director of the tribe stated, "This is sacred land to us. It is the burial ground of our ancestors and it is deeply satisfying to have it protected."[29]

People gather at the site on the anniversary of this historic event in order to commemorate it. Controversy still remains, and probably always will, concerning some of the wording of the markers at the site, and how the massacre is still viewed today, which is not different from just about every event in human history. This tragic event, however, was overshadowed due to the timing of its occurrence during the U.S. Civil War. A war that this massacre was very much a part of.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Lonny Grout.

Written by Lonny L. Grout. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Lonny L. Grout at:

About the author:
Lonny Grout has a BA in history from Excelsior College, and is pursuing a Masters of Military Studies in Land Warfare from AMU. He is an intelligence analyst on active duty in the National Guard (AGR), and has 19 years of military service. He was editor in chief in the 90s of a local periodical, The Eclectic Review, and has written articles for history and intelligence journals. Tours he has served include Bosnia and Iraq. He is a recipient of the MICA Knowlton Award for excellence in Military Intelligence, and was inducted as an Outstanding Young American (OYA 1999 edition). In addition to studying military history, he enjoys writing and fishing. He lives on a small farm in Idaho with his wife, Laura, and six children.

Published online: 02/23/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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