History Stories

Location: Bear River massacre site in Preston, Idaho.
Expert: Bob Goldberg, History Professor at University of Utah

In 1863, a terrible event occurred at Bear River on the border of Utah and Idaho: the massacre of nearly 500 Shoshone men, women and children. California Volunteer soldiers under Colonel Patrick Connors “marched in deep snow in 20 below zero weather, to basically destroy the Shoshone Nation which was camped in winter quarters at Bear River,” says Bob Goldberg, History Professor at University of Utah. Fourteen American soldiers perished during the attack.

Members of the Shoshone tribe in the late 19th century. (Credit:  The Library of Congress)

Members of the Shoshone tribe in the late 19th century. (Credit: The Library of Congress)

But the history was not always told this way. There were three sets of monuments to the massacre, Goldberg explains, which tells a story of its own about how our country has thought of and dealt with our violent past. “What I found so interesting was the transformation of perspectives over time. The historical consciousness and judgment changed, and you actually see it in the monuments that decorate the battlefield,” Goldberg says.

The oldest monument to the massacre, which was erected in 1932, is actually a memorial for the white American soldiers, and doesn’t mention the horror of the attack from an indigenous perspective.The second monument, however, begins to hint at details of the massacre. “You look at the second monument and you get more of a sense that somebody might have died here, [people] who were basically camping peacefully under banks of this river,” says Goldberg. More recently, “there is this series of kiosks in regard to the battle which present a Native American review of what happened,” Goldberg explains.

Upper Bear River, Utah, 1869. (Credit: The Library of Congress)

Upper Bear River, Utah, 1869. (Credit: The Library of Congress)

The history of the Bear River massacre, which was one of the largest attacks on Native Americans west of the Mississippi, is not always emphasized in public school history books. At the time of the attack, which was in the midst of the Civil War, the government and historians relied on the Colonel’s reports alone, and considered it to be a victory. There was little understanding that the land was occupied, since it was not occupied by whites.

“These particular sites really make what happened a true event,” says Goldberg. “As opposed to something that’s in the history books or on a film or something you can easily be in denial about.”

How to Get to the Bear River Massacre Site:
The Bear River Massacre site and its monuments can be accessed by car in Preston, Idaho, along US Highway 91.

This story is the second in a series about amazing historical travel destinations in America.Read the first installment, on where to go in Ohio, right here.

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