Site of Deadliest Native American Massacre Identified in Idaho

Bear-River-Massacre-featured

A peaceful patch of farmland in southeastern Idaho likely holds a grisly, bitter history — but the full story remains hidden, at least for now.

Archaeologists surveying acreage along the Bear River, just north of the town of Preston, say there are “compelling” signs that it’s the site of an event whose gruesomeness is matched only by its obscurity: the largest single massacre of Native Americans in U.S. history.

The researchers say their investigations may ultimately bring to light the lost story of the Bear River Massacre, a daybreak raid carried out by U.S. soldiers on a winter village of the Northwest Band of Shoshone, killing as many as 250 men, women and children on a January morning in 1863.

“It is really pretty amazing that the single largest Indian massacre is very poorly known,” said Dr. Ken Cannon, an archaeologist with USU Archeological Services who recently led a survey of the site.

“If you go through all your history books, you’re not going to find anything that’s taught [about this]. …

“So if we are able to find physical remains of the massacre, that might make it more accessible to people, to get people talking more about this event.”

Last year, the Idaho State Historical Society hired Cannon’s firm to conduct the first-ever archaeological investigation related to the incident, with a view to determining where exactly it took place and identifying any artifacts, so that the site could be commemorated as a historic battlefield.

Bear-River-massacre-site
A view from a bluff overlooking the site of the Bear River Massacre, near Preston, Idaho. (Photo courtesy K. Cannon/USU)

Despite the infamy of the event, its physical legacy has been hard to track, Cannon said.

“The general area was known, but what’s been frustrating us is that there’s been so much modern construction that’s gone on there,” he said.

Traces of the destroyed Shoshone village have been all but obliterated by generations of infrastructure, from a narrow-gauge railroad laid down through the site in the late 1800s, to a canal dredged decades later, to a modern federal highway that runs nearby.

“We have a sense of where the pieces and parts were, but actually finding the exact location, that’s been frustrating in some respects,” Cannon said.

“But it’s archaeology, and it’s a process that we just have to work through.” [See a recent discovery from the late 1800s: “‘Mysterious’ Winchester Rifle From 1882 Found Leaning Against Tree in Nevada National Park“]

Among the tools his team has called on are three historic maps, drawn by witnesses of the massacre, which have helped the researchers identify landmarks and ultimately recreate what Cannon calls “that one horrible morning.”

According to accounts from the time, at dawn on January 29, 1863, a regiment of 200 California Volunteers approached a village where some 390 members of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone were wintering, near the confluence of the Bear River and a frozen creek.

The aim of the regiment’s commander, Col. Patrick Connor, was to “chastise” the Shoshone, as he put it in a letter to the War Department, for a series of recent raids and deadly attacks on white settlers.

Having spotted the village from a nearby bluff to the southeast, Connor sent troops down to the floodplain and across the Bear, where they opened fire.

Bear River Massacre mural
A mural in the Preston, Idaho, post office, painted by Edmond J. Fitzgerald in 1941, commemorates “The Battle of Bear River.” (Photo courtesy U.S. Postal Service)

Shoshone riflemen returned fire, killing about 14 of the Volunteers. In response, Connor sent down another wave of troops to surround and subdue the village.

“That set up what initially was a battle, but that lasted a very short period of time,” Cannon said.

“The Shoshone probably ran out of ammunition, and they were overwhelmed by the California Volunteers.

“And then that’s when it becomes a massacre, when [the Volunteers] flanked and routed the village and started killing men, women and children where they stood.”

Witnesses describe Shoshone fleeing into the frozen river, where some drowned and others later froze to death. Another account tells of a baby found alive the next day, perched high in a tree, presumably placed there by a parent in a desperate bid to protect it.

Although the final counts vary, most estimates place the toll at 23 soldiers, and approximately 250  Shoshone, killed in the span of about four hours.

Grim as they are, these depictions nonetheless give researchers clues about the lay of the land as it appeared more than 150 years ago. The course of the Bear River changed over time, Cannon explained, and the creek by the village — for a time remembered as Battle Creek — has since been diverted by irrigation projects.

“That was the most important landmark for us — to understand where the course of Battle Creek was — because that’s where the village was,” Cannon said.

“If we could identify that particular feature on a landscape and work back from there … we’d most likely have the best chances of finding an archaeological signature of the winter village.” [Explore the site of another pivotal conflict: “First Evidence Found of Storied Battle That Stopped Spain’s Eastward Expansion“]

Taking their cues from the maps and other sources, Cannon’s team began surveying the land with ground-penetrating radar, magnetic gradiometer and metal detectors.

Bear river massacre site
Archaeologists surveyed the site with ground-penetrating radar, magnetic gradiometer and metal detectors. (Photo courtesy K. Cannon/USU)

Although the land has been used intensively since the 1860s, Cannon said, these technologies can pick up traces of the Shoshones’ lodges, like rock alignments, hardened floors, and old charcoal hearths.

“We think the lodges would have a geophysical signature because they’d have a central hearth, they have rocks that ringed the lodges that kept the canvas down, and then every one of them was burned, so those things burning in place should leave a geophysical signature behind,” Cannon said.

While evidence so far is scant, the surveys have produced faint indications of where the ruined village might rest.

“We’ve got some anomalies that look really interesting,” Cannon said.

“One magnetometer image has a semicircle alignment that may be one of the lodges. So the stuff that we see coming out of the geophysics is what we see as most compelling at this point.

“But until we excavate, we’ll never know what exactly they are.” [Read about the newly found site of another important conflict: “Plains Indian Fortress With Moat, ‘Underground Apartments’ Unearthed in Oklahoma“]

Cannon’s team will resume work this spring, using aerial thermal imaging and other methods to explore the possible lodge sites more closely.

All of the groups involved in the research, he said — from government agencies and landowners to the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation — remain “very serious about protecting the heritage” surrounding one of the West’s forgotten tragedies.

“Nobody knows about these events,” he said. “They’ve been lost, and yet they’re incredibly important.

“So if we are able to find physical remains, we may be more able to make this event more visible to the general public.”


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Discussion

  1. Garth Winn

    My grandmother lived about ware this took place .
    As a kid i also lived there .
    They once called it the bottoms .
    I would like to know more of what you have found .
    The Winns still owns land there .

    1. Gerald Warner

      Garth, Dies your family have Native ancestry? If so do you know any of these people….WINN, AUDREY
      WINN, AUDREY* – PIT RIVER TRIBE, CA
      WINN, CAROLYN – MUSCOGEE CREEK
      WINN, FRANKLIN DAVID
      WINN, LAWRENCE
      WINN, RICKY S
      WINN, SHARI LUCILLE
      WINN, TEDDY R – MUSCOGEE CREEK
      WINN, TRACY A
      AUDREY WINN
      AUDREY WINN
      BEVERLY A WINN
      BEVERLY ANN WINN ESTATE
      JERRY S WINN
      LESLIE E WINN ESTATE
      MELISSA ROSE WINN ESTATE
      SUSAN J WINN

  2. John Winn

    My Mother, aunt and uncle were born in Preston and my Great Grandmother lived in a house across the street from where the Massacre monument is. The area was once called the WInn bottoms.

  3. Garth Winn

    Garth Winn . In my last post I just put the bottoms .
    It should be the Winn bottoms .
    My dad told me on the top of the monument where the lodge is there is
    a bottle with the names of the people who gave a rock for it .

  4. g

    commemorated as a historic battle..this site should be a fucking graveyard, a memorial..disgusting. a statue so all shall know how they came at dawn with guns against spears and bows in glorious battle to free the land of that ilk…. Would the statue be of a soldier or of a native i wonder? Would the site symbolize the lives lost in the bloodshed and the culture that was culled for more land..or would it symbolize tyranny at its best? Would it symbolize how just because they were deemed savages they didn’t have a right to live in their homeland?

    one day, another country may invade the usa and take our home from us and build statues of their conquering, sites for their people to visit and feel grateful that they did so.

  5. John Fields

    It seems the media has not researched the worst mass shooting in American history. They believe Orlando is it. I`m saddened that our Native Americans have been omitted from our history. 250 men, women,& children were massacred at Bear River Idaho, on Janurary 29th 1863 by U.S.Soldiers.

  6. David Edelen

    No, Horseshoe Bend Alabama was the worst in 1814 I think. Over 800 Creek Warriors massecred.

  7. Aaron S

    The full story of this chapter in our history is really pretty fascinating and it takes some digging to find out all of the details. It would make a great book. So Connors had orders to occupy Salt Lake as a sort of military governor. The Mormons were not trusted in Washington and there were rumors circulating that they might join the Confederacy if Jefferson Davis would agree that they be autonomous after the war. B.Young wanted an independent Mormon state of “Deseret”, free from the Republic of the US.

    There were no troops to be had to send to Utah from the east because of the Civil War raging. So the California volunteers were ordered to Utah. Connors resented the post because there was no glory in it and didn’t like the Mormons. The feeling was mutual as Connors built a fort on the heights overlooking Salt Lake City with cannon trained upon the city. The Mormon leaders complained bitterly. Connor’s leading Lieutenant was also resentful as he had been a Morrisite.

    The Morrisites are not well known. They were a separate group of Mormons who did not follow Brigham Young and instead believed in the words of Joseph Smith’s brother who said the Smith did not want Young to lead the Church after his death but John Morris. These Morrisites were brutally massacred themselves when they got to Utah by Young’s men. Another chapter not well told in the history books. Morrisites were considered apostates and were not to be assisted in any way upon pain of death by a Mormon Church member.

    Reports came from Franklin of Shoshoni Indian problems. There had been horse stealing and pie stealing. People simply don’t understand that this was the native way. The whites had left their horses out to graze and the Indians figured, well they must not care about them that much so they would take them. Then they would bring them back and trade them to the whites. These Indians had never had blueberry pie before and the sugary sweet taste amazed them. They couldn’t get enough. So they began stealing pies when they could or they would trade the pioneers own horses back to them for some pie. It was really rather harmless because no one was killed or anything.

    Once these reports got to Connor he saw this as an excuse for GLORY. He outfitted an expedition to go from Salt Lake to Franklin in order to deal with these pesky “hostiles”. This is absolutely extraordinary in that it was the dead of winter – the coldest time of year with immense amounts of snow. Most people would consider it crazy to march soldiers through the mountain passes into Idaho just to deal with a band of Indians in the dead of winter.

    Connors got his battle and there was bravery on both side. Chief Pocatello (which our city of Pocatello is named after) got away with some of his best warriors. He had been harmless, but after what had happened there at Battle Creek, he and his band began raiding all the way up to Glenn’s Ferry and Eagle Rock. The Morrisite Lieutenant I was talking about was wounded but would have survived according to the old accounts I’ve dug up. However, the local Mormons who were great heroes in this matter because they didn’t even want any harm to come to those people in the first place, assisted with helping the wounded on both sides. They rescued the Indian women and children and they used horse drawn sleds to get all of these wounded back to Franklin. Our poor Lieutenant however was not touched by them – because they found out he was a Morrisite and allowed him to bleed to death.

    Connors got his glory. The war reports were exaggerated and he was hailed as a conquering hero. He was promoted to Brigadier General for his actions.

    I’ve been digging up facts about all of this for a long time so thought I would share. Some of this stuff can only be found in very old rare out of print books now. I continue to be in love with my native Idaho and all of its nearly lost stories. Eagle Rock was a haven for outlaws at the time and this is almost forgotten now. So many interesting stories.

    Respectfully,

    Aaron R. Shields
    Lieutenant Colonel,
    US Army (Retired)

    1. mary akers

      Thank you !!!!! Lieutenant Colonel Aaron R.Shields
      First for your service to our country, and second for help save history and shareing it with us

    2. Jim Scott

      I found this description of the Bear River Massacre while searching for Indian depredations in Idaho. It seems complete and certainly instructive, congratulations to you, Col Shields. Also much of what you describe is featured in the Utah State Hisrorical 1st or 2nd issues 2017, adding credence to your narrative.
      While not Blackfeet there were two other major massacres in Idaho worth mentioning: the Ward Massacre just east of Ft Boise where 22 emigrants lost their lives in 1854, this by Shoshone Indians, a second more bloody battle near Castle Rocks in 1862 resulted in the loss of 30 or so souls and several others wounded. Proximity would do dictate the attackers were also Shoshone.
      Both these battles were along and during the development of the Oregon Trail where several tribes took umbrage to the crossing of their land by immigrants.
      It also would seem that greater depredations were in Idaho than in the Southwest.
      These two attacks resulted in both Ft Boise and Ft Hall closing until sufficient military was available to ensure safety along the trails.
      “An Enduring Legacy”, DUP, 1989; Idaho Historical Qtrly

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