Sunday, February 7, 2010

"What Was the Bear River Massacre?"

"What Was the Bear River Massacre?"
by Jessie L. Bonner

PRESTON, Idaho – "Tribal members descend in late January each year to the burial ground near the Bear River where soldiers felled hundreds of their ancestors in one of American history's bloodiest, but little remembered, massacres. Descendants of the Northwestern Shoshone who were decimated in their winter encampment in a surprise attack 147 years ago, they stamp their feet in the cold and offer songs and prayers to the dead. Bodies from that distant morning were never officially counted, and the bones were long ago scattered to the surrounding hills.

The commanding Army officer involved counted 220-270 dead. Settlers who went in later found many more bodies in ravines or under deep snow and put the number as high as 500, a figure cited in a National Park Service history. The tribe estimates 400 of their number were killed. No more than 60 survived. Any of those numbers are larger than the much more well known massacres at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where some 146 Lakota Sioux were gunned down in 1890, and at Sand Creek, Colo., where an 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed in 1864.

And yet, history books make little mention of Bear River, perhaps because the nation was elsewhere engaged in the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg with its estimated 51,000 casualties was later that same year, one of the bloodiest ever on American soil.

Those who chose to remember the Bear River Massacre this year gathered around the small monument that marks the ground. The colorful dreamcatchers and handkerchiefs fastened to tree branches hung stiffly in the freezing cold. Carolyn Neaman, a 62-year-old retired nursing assistant whose uncle filled her with both respect and horror for the site near Preston, Idaho, about 100 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, recounted her elder's words. "'If you're really quiet,' he said, 'you can hear the cavalry coming down the hills,'" Neaman said. "He told us to listen really, really quiet and you can hear a lot of things that go on. You can hear men and women crying, and little kids. "I've heard it," Neaman said.

The federal government designated the Bear River Massacre site as a National Historic Landmark in 1990, acknowledging that many of the victims were women and children. The Northern Shoshonee were encamped along the "Bia Ogoi" or Bear River for the Warm Dance, a yearly winter ritual to drive away the cold. Col. Patrick E. Connor and about 200 soldiers from the 3rd California Infantry attacked at daybreak on Jan. 29, 1863. Several sources, including Army reports, historical tracts and carefully preserved oral histories from the tribe, describe what happened.

Connor and his men had been sent in response to growing tensions between the Indians and white settlers in the region. A miner and two other settlers had been killed, and the Shoshone were blamed, although they insisted other Indians were at fault. There were reports three Shoshones had stolen some horses and cattle earlier that month. Survivors recounted the "battle" as a day of savagery, ending with soldiers smashing infants' skulls, raping dying women and dispatching the wounded with bullets, clubs and axes. Connor recorded 14 troopers killed in the attack, with one National Park Service account offering a higher number of dead soldiers.

Since the 1970s, both Indians and non-Indians have gathered without formalities at the Bear River site, sometimes during the worst of winter, to mark the anniversary. Interest has gone back and forth, said Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, cultural and natural resource director for the Northwestern Shoshone. "For us to publicly display that emotion is hard," said Timbimboo-Madsen, a 58-year-old descendant of the survivors. "But when people want to know, you have to be able to put that behind you and tell the story."

Her great great grandfather, Chief Sagwitch Timbimboo was among tribal members who escaped. He was shot in one hand before tumbling into the frozen river and floating under some brush. After nightfall, he and a few warriors fled on ponies. Her great grandfather, Yeager Timbimboo, was 12 when the soldiers attacked, she said. He lay still in the blood-soaked snow until a soldier realized he was alive. The boy was allowed to live. Today, the tribal members are both thankful for the survivors, Timbimboo-Masden said, and wish to honor those who perished. This year, the group sang songs and sprinkled sage over a fire pit to represent unity. They prayed that they would understand what happened and ultimately, forgive.

If not for the massacre, the Northwestern Shoshone would have continued to thrive, the descendants believe, following the seasons over a range that included eastern Nevada, northern Utah, southern Idaho and Wyoming. The tribe would number in the thousands rather than 500. They might have acquired a reservation to call home. In the years that followed the massacre, some of the survivors were taken under the wing of the Mormon church. Some tribal members later dispersed to Shoshone reservations at Fort Hall in Idaho, Wind River in Wyoming, Skull Valley in Utah and Duck Valley in Nevada.

The Bear River gathering this year included several dozen students from Utah high schools, including a film club that traveled to the ceremony to make a documentary about how the tribe is now addressing the horror of an almost forgotten massacre. Timbimboo-Masden said past generations were not open to sharing the story because they were too close to the carnage. "So you have the next generation, my generation, who says it's time to change," she said. "It's time to heal."

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