On Jan. 29, 1863, hundreds of Native American women, children and men were slaughtered by U.S. cavalrymen on the banks of the Bear River in southern Idaho.
The murdered innocents have remained anonymous to modern-day Utahns until this week, when the names of 40 of the victims were read aloud at the site by their relatives. The names were kept in their memories through Shoshone oral traditions, and archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints yielded records taken from some survivors who later joined the church.
For more than a century the horrible massacre was wrongly called The Battle of Bear River. But it was no battle. The soldiers of the U.S. Army's 3rd California Volunteers surrounded the Shoshone village at dawn while the people slept and shot, stabbed and bludgeoned the villagers through the early morning hours.
The cavalrymen had ridden from Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City in the bitter cold of January to attack the band that had gathered on the riverbanks for traditional ceremonies to beckon the spring. Their orders were to punish the Indians so harshly they would forever stop harassing supply caravans and pioneers who were moving in ever greater numbers onto what had always been their land.
There had been unwarranted killings of both Indians and immigrants, leading to the massacre: A band of Indians had killed a group of miners; soldiers had executed innocent Indians suspected of killing settlers. But those camped on the Bear were peaceful. As Mormon pioneers had expanded their settlements north into Cache Valley, the Shoshone lost hunting territory, and the wildlife diminished. Many were hungry, even starving.
An arrest warrant was issued for three Shoshone chiefs, and Col. Patrick Connor and his men headed north to kill any Indians they found. The Indians were unprepared, believing negotiations were planned to end their disputes with the army and the settlers. They were armed with only a few old guns, tomahawks and bows and arrows, but still managed to kill about a dozen soldiers and wound about 50 among the nearly 300 well-armed and mounted cavalry.
Stories abound of rape and other atrocities at the Bear River village. All the Shoshone dwellings and stored food were burned so that the few survivors had no shelter from the frigid cold.
While a marker at the site now correctly labels the attack a "massacre," it is only proper to publicly remember those original residents who died as white settlers pushed into the West.