The Mountain Meadows Massacre killed around 100 immigrants from Arkansas in the Utah Territory. But did you know that a massacre of 2-3 times more Native Americans from the Shoshone Tribe were killed by the U.S. Army just 6 years later? Historian Will Bagley tells the disturbing details.
Will: Brig[ham Madsen] said that the greatest achievement of his long career as a historian was to get the references to the Battle of Bear River changed to the Bear River massacre, which is still a controversial question. But it definitely was a massacre.
GT: Okay, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the Bear River Massacre?
Will: Well, it’s another example of the Whites Want Everything. The Shoshones had used Cache Valley, which is absolutely gorgeous, as a refuge for generations. About 1860, the Mormons start moving into Cache Valley in force. Some of the angrier Shoshones begin stealing cattle and committing a few acts of random violence. But it’s not nearly enough to provoke what happens. The initiating event is that Shoshone raiders attack and kill a bunch of miners on their way to Utah.
Will: A federal judge swears out a warrant and the commander at Camp Douglas decides to execute it in the middle of winter in late January, and P. Edward Connor, as he called himself, was a Colonel in the California militia. He leads a force of, I think about 150 men north to Bear River, where the Shoshone have a winter camp near several hot springs. He tries to launch a surprise attack early in the morning. It takes too long. There’s no surprise and it does start as a battle because the Shoshones are entrenched, and they fight back with all their might. Now whether they really expected to be attacked is an open question, because the camp was still full of women. There’s one document where it speculates that the Bear River massacre was staged to get the army out of Utah. If you think of it from Brigham Young’s standpoint, it was a win-win situation. If the Army won, he got rid of the Shoshones, and if the Shoshones won, he got rid of the Army.
Will: But the Army were professional soldiers, and they did turn the tide of the battle, and they then rioted, and they began slaughtering Indians and women and children. That’s controversial too, but the Shoshone memories of this are devastating and extremely powerful.
GT: Do we know how many people died in that? I don’t.
Will: The Army reported 235, and there are Mormon sources that put the number at 500 or 450 or something. But the thing is, the Army had no motivation to underreport the number of Indians they killed, and Connor got promoted to general based on his great victory. So if they’d actually killed 500 people, they probably would have been happy to report that.
GT: That’s terrible.
Will: It is.
GT: What year did this occur approximately?
Will: Early 1863.
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