Skip Navigation

What Happened on the Bear River on January 1863

Read some primary and secondary sources

As you read different accounts of the events on the Bear River, ask yourself, Who is the author?  Why did the author write what he or she wrote? To whom is the author writing? 

Does knowing these things help us interpret the primary source? 

Shoshone survivors kept memories of the massacre alive by telling them to their children.  As you read one family’s memory of the event, look for similarities and differences between this account and other accounts. In what ways is it similar? In what ways is it different? How do you explain the differences?  What additional information about the massacre do the Shoshone accounts give us?

Sgt. William L. Beach of Company K, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, California Volunteers, was one of the attacking soldiers. He sketched a map and described the fighting 16 days after the event:

historical photo

Col. Patrick Edward Connor

This View Represents the Battlefield on Bear River fought Jan. 29th/’63 Between four companies of the Second Cavelry and one company third Infantry California Volenteers under Colonel [Patrick E.]Conner And three hundred and fifty Indians under Bear hunter, Sagwich and Lehigh [Lehi] three very noted Indian chiefs…When they had arrived at the position they occupy on the drawing Major McGeary [Edward McGarry] gave the commands to dismount and prepare to fight on foot which was instantly obayed. 

Lieutenant [Darwin] Chase and Capt. [George F.] Price then gave the command forward to their respective companies after which no officer was heeded or needed  The Boys were fighting Indians and intended to whip them.  It was a free fight every man on his own hook…

historical photo

Capt. George F. Price

Cavelry Horses were sent back to bring the Infantry across the River as soon as they arrived When across they took a double quick until they arrived at the place they occupy on the drawing they pitched in California style every man for himself and the Devil for the Indians.  The Colonels Voice was occasionally herd encouraging the men teling them to take good aim and save their ammunition….

The Indians were soon routed from the head of the ravine and apparently anticipated a general stampede but were frustrated in their attempt…. Seing that death was their doom they made a desparate stand in the lower end of the Ravine where it appeared like rushing on to death to approach them

But the victory was not yet won.  With a deafening yell the infuriated Volenteers with one impulse made a rush down the steep banks into their very midst when the work of death commenced in real earnest. Midst the roar of guns and sharp report of Pistols could be herd the cry for quarters but their was no quarters that day. 

Some jumped into the river and were shot attempting to cross some mounted their ponies and attempted to run the gauntlet in different directions but were shot on the wing while others ran down the River (on a narrow strip of ice that gifted the shores) to a small island and a thicket of willows below where they [found] a very unwelcome reception by a few of the boys who were waiting the approach of straglers….

The fight lasted four hours and appeared more like a frollick than a fight the wounded cracking jokes with the frozen some frozen so bad that they could not load their guns used them as clubs.

(Source: Harold Schindler, “The Bear River Massacre: New Historical Evidence,” Utah Historical Quarterly Fall 1999  pp. 300-308.)

Mae T. Parry was a granddaughter of Sagwitch, one of the Shoshone leaders camped at the Bear River.  She wrote this account in 1976: 

(Question: is this a primary source?)

historical photo

Looking east from the Shoshone camp. The troops came over the hill in the background.

Chief Sagwitch, being an early riser, got up just as usual on the morning of January 29, 1863.  He left his teepee and stood outside surveying the area around the camp.  The hills to the east of their camp were covered with a steaming mist.  The mist crept lower down the hill and all of a sudden Chief Sagwitch realized what was happening.  The soldiers from Camp Douglas from Salt Lake City had arrived. 

The Chief was not surprised.  He started calling to the sleeping Indians.  They quickly gathered their bows and arrows, tomahawks and a few rifles…. Chief Sagwitch shouted to his people not to shoot first.  He thought that perhaps this military man was a just and wise man.  He thought that the Colonel would ask for the guilty men, whom he would have immediately turned over to the soldiers  He felt that the rest of them would be saved by doing this….

Many of the Indians ran toward the river and dropped into the snow. They knew that they were not all guilty but they had no choice but to fight for their lives if attacked.  Some had dropped into the holes the children had dug along the river bank.  Never did the grown men realize that they would be using the children’s play foxholes to await real military soldiers….

Many Indian women also jumped into the river and swam with babies upon their backs.  Most of them died.  One Indian lady, Anzee chee, was being chased by the soldiers.  She jumped into the river and went under an overhanging bank.  By keeping her head up under the bank she was saved….

Yeager Timbimboo or Da boo Zee (cotton tail rabbit) a son of Chief Sagwitch, was about twelve years old and remembered the fight very well.  He re-told the story several times a year…. Yeager Timbimboo told of feeling excited as any young boy would have during the fighting.  He felt as if he was flying around.  He dashed in and out among the whizzing bullets but was not hit.  He heard cries of pain and saw death all around him.  The little Indian boy kept running around until he came upon a little grass teepee…Indisde the grass hut Da boo zee found his grandmother, Que he gup. 

She suggested they go outside and lie among the dead.  She feared the soldiers were going to set the teepee on fire any moment.  The boy obeyed and pretended to be dead.  ‘Keep your eyes closed at all times,’ his grandmother whispered, ‘Maybe in this way our lives may be saved.’ Yeager Timbimboo and his grandmother lay on the freezing battlefield all day.  At the end of the day the soldiers were moving among the Indians in search of the wounded to put them out of their misery. 

Yeager, being a curious boy, wanted to watch the fighting once more.  This nearly cost him his life.  A soldier came upon him and saw that he was alive and looking around.  The military man stood over Yeager, his gun pointing at the young boy’s head ready to fire.  The soldier stared at the boy and the boy at the soldier.  The second time the soldier lowered his rifle the little boy knew his time to die was near.  The soldier then lowered his gun and a moment later raised it again.  For some reason he could not complete his task….

Toward evening the field of massacre was silent, except for the cries of the wounded soldiers being carried away.  The Northwestern Shoshones who had escaped watched as the wagons left the camp.  As they drove off, the wagon wheels made a very mournful sound as they squeaked along the snow.  Blood drippings could be seen along the trail they left.  The Indians had done some damage to the military with the little they had.  The Indians fought mostly by hand. 

By nightfall the Indians who had escaped were cold, wet and hungry.  There was no food to be found, for the soldiers had done a good job of scattering their food on the ground and setting fire to it.

(Source: Mae T. Parry. “Massacre at Boa Ogoi” in The Shoshone Frontier and the Bear River Massacre by Brigham D. Madsen. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985.)

Mary Ann Weston Maughan reflected on the event in her history:

January 28, 1863.  Col. Connor passed through Logan with a company of 450 Soldiers from Camp Douglas, and on the 29th he came upon and attacked a band of Indians in a ravine 12 miles northwest of Franklin.  The Indians resisting the soldiers, a battle was fought lasting 4 hours.  18 soldiers were killed and wounded.  Col. Connor captured 150 ponies and returned through Logan.  Next day the Brethren in Wellsville broke the road through the canyon for them to get through the deep snow.  The people of Cache Valley believed this movement to be sent by the Almighty, as the Indians had been stealing our stock and causing us so much trouble day and night that patience had ceased to be a virtue.  This broke the power of the Indians.

(Source: Kate B. Carter, ed. Our Pioneer Heritage, vol. 2. Salt Lake City, Utah: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1959, pp. 387-389.)            

Draw conclusions

How did the attitudes of the participants affect the way they saw the event?

Was the 1863 conflict between the Shoshone and Colonel Conner’s troops a massacre or a battle? Why?

In the end, Mary Ann Weston Maughan was correct.  The Bear River Massacre “broke the power of the Indians.”  After the massacre, the U.S. government and Shoshones signed the Treaty of Box Elder, in which the Indians agreed to stop resisting the settlers.    

A note: Most historians today consider this event to be a massacre. If it resembled a battle at first--as the Shoshones defended themselves against attack--it quickly became a cruel killing spree. However, to the settlers in Cache Valley and others, this event was a good thing. It solved their "Indian problem," and for many decades most people called it the Bear River Battle. Now, thanks to efforts by the Shoshone people, historians who have studied primary documents to piece together what really happened there, and others, it is usually known as the Bear River Massacre.

How does a name reflect (and affect!) people's attitudes about an event? Who gets to choose the name for an event and tell the story about it?

Back to the introduction.