A lone Shoshone warrior emerges from his lodge on a cold winter morning and see’s steam rising from the bluffs across the small valley. Steam usually means a large body of animals so the warrior quickly checks to his right and confirms that the pony herd is still there. He looks back to the bluffs and then recognizes the soldiers that are descending down into the valley. The alarm is given.
At the onset of the Civil War the Secretary of War called on states and territories for volunteers to protect the Union. Stockton, California, called on Patrick Edward Connor, a Mexican War veteran to organize and train volunteers for war. Connor rose to the rank of Colonel and was ordered to take his infantry and cavalry to protect the Overland Trail in Nevada and Utah and especially to keep an eye on the Mormons because their loyalties were questionable. Colonel Connor and his California volunteers had anticipated achieving glory on the eastern battlefields and tried to buy their place into the war by donating their pay, but they were denied. Instead they established Fort Ruby in northeast Nevada and Camp Douglas on the eastern foothills overlooking Salt Lake City.
When the Mormons had settled in Utah, as in all white settlements, they settled on the best lands and squeezed out the natives. The Mormon philosophy “It is cheaper to feed the natives than to fight them,” wasn’t working with the Northwest Shoshone. The Shoshone were starving because the settlers had taken their best lands; lands that had produced grain and seed that the Shoshone needed to survive. The Shoshone figured that since the whites had taken from them, they in turn could take from the whites. They started with the store houses along the Overland trail and moved on to attacking supply and wagon trains heading to Oregon, Washington, and California. Attacks on white settlements in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming were becoming all too common. The soldiers were chasing reports of attacks with very little results. Reports were also coming in that white bandits dressed as Indians were the culprits of some of the attacks. Suspicions were that the Mormons were engineering these Indian attacks with their “native feeding” program, although lately, when the Mormon settlers tried to negotiate food rations, the Shoshone didn’t beg for food, they demanded and took it.
Tensions were high and conditions were intolerable to the settlers. Utah’s Chief Justice John F. Kinney issued arrest warrants on Shoshone chiefs Bear Hunter, Sanpitch, and Sagwitch to answer to crimes perpetrated by their tribesmen. Justice Kinney advised the territorial marshal to request military assistance in serving the warrants. Mormon settlers in the Cache Valley reported that the villages of Chiefs Bear Hunter and Sagwitch were wintering north of them near the hot springs at Bear River.
To hide his movements from the natives Colonel Connor decided that his troops would march at night and rest in settlements during the day. He also had his cavalry and infantry take separate routes. However the subzero temperatures experienced during the moonlit marches took their toll with 75 soldiers unable to complete the march due to frost-bite. Connor received assistance from famed Mormon frontier man Orrin Porter Rockwell to locate the Shoshone village and guide the military to it. Rockwell was also beneficial in negotiating staples and aid for Connors army from Mormon settlers.
In the predawn hours of January 29th, 1863 Connor’s infantry led out from Franklin, Washington Territory, ahead of the cavalry, but were shortly over-taken. The mounted soldiers arrived on the southern bluffs to see the village of 75 lodges nestled against the northern hills across the small valley. The military horses of the California volunteers crossed the icy waters of the Bear River and started to flank on the right. The Shoshone had received reports days ago that the army was coming and figured they would “parade around and make loud noises” in attempts to serve the warrants, so as the soldiers rode around the east side of the village the Shoshone started to taunt the soldiers with shouts and displays of white scalps. Colonel Connors aggressive second in command Major McGarry ordered his men to turn about and dismount. Shooting erupted on both sides with 16 military casualties. Hearing the fighting commence, Colonel Connor hastened the infantry to the battle field, but the foot soldiers were stopped by the four feet deep ice laden river. Connor ordered some of the cavalry mounts back from the line to assist in the crossing. With this accomplished Connor then directed McGarry to flank the north east hills to block any possible escape routes the Shoshone may have had to their rear. He also directed Lieutenants Clark and Quinn’s cavalry to flank to the west between the Indian village and their pony herd. While Connor organized his infantry for a frontal attack.
Connor hadn’t come to parley with the Shoshone nor had he come to try to make arrests, Connor came for a battlefield victory and the glory that would follow. The battle was fierce at first with the soldiers reloading weapons with fingers numbed by the cold river crossing, until the Shoshone’s limited ammunition supply was depleted. Boxed in on three sides and backed up against the bluffs the Shoshone could do little to slow the advance of the soldiers up to and through the village and the massacre began.
Mormon settlers watched the battle from the safety of the bluffs. To their way of thinking it didn’t matter who was the loser in this confrontation, whether it was the insolent Indians or the Mormon hating soldiers. Either way it was a win-win. What they were not prepared for was the ghastly aftermath of the battle. They watched in horror as the soldiers ravaged wounded and dying Shoshone females and bashed in the heads of infants. Colonel Connor had always been a strict disciplinarian of his troops and yet seemed to be indifferent of what was happening on the killing ground.
The Shoshone that were able to escape the village to the willow-protected shores of the river faced drowning while trying to swim across the freezing waters as soldiers fired at them. Four hours between the first and last shot, Connor counted 224 dead Shoshone combatants. No count was taken on the dead Shoshone non-combatants. For weeks Shoshone bodies of all ages and gender were found floating down river. The Shoshone that were lucky enough to escape the slaughter on foot were scattered in all directions. Some died of wounds or starvation, some froze to death and a few made it to Shoshone villages in Nevada, central Idaho, western Wyoming and even to the Ute Reservation in the north eastern Uintah Basin. Since the few Native survivors were so scattered it has been near impossible to get an accurate count of Shoshone loses due to the massacre. The best estimates total just under 300.
Colonel Connor lost 22 men in the engagement and he and his men were nursed and assisted by Mormons on their return to Camp Douglas. Two months later Colonel Connor achieved recognition when he was promoted to Brigadier General. That summer Connor was in Denver where he spoke with Colorado volunteers General John Chivington about his Indian policy, that ” only through demonstrations of complete annihilation would the American Indian become submissive enough to treaty with.” Connor stated this numerous times during his Great Basin and Powder River Campaigns and acted upon it whenever possible.
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