Controversy Over Bear River Massacre Archaeological Survey
An archaeological exploration of the Bear Creek Massacre grounds, where 450 Northwestern Shoshone men, women, and children were killed on January 29, 1863, has been approved by the tribal council.
“Generally speaking, I believe it’s a good thing,” said Darren Parry, vice-chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation. “As a council of seven we voted unanimously to approve it, but there are two schools of thought. Some people are against it.”
Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, the cultural director for the tribe, is strongly against any archaeological work near the massacre area, but the council felt a survey was important to the future of the site. Parry, who is a close relative of Timbimboo-Madsen, believes: “You can keep people out of the area once a narrative is known. We own about 35 acres of it now, and we are trying to purchase about 100 acres from several different families. One family is thinking about developing it. I don’t think that will ever happen, but mapping it could definitely be to our benefit.”
Parry said that archaeologist Kenneth Cannon, president of USU Archeological Services, and his crew are not planning a massive dig over the 100 acres. So far, they have only used ground penetrating radar. “They have found some things in the area, some bullets, and it’s not going to be everywhere. It (the massacre site) is going to be right where the village was.” An agreement between the tribe and Cannon includes having a tribal member present if any digging is to be done.
Cannon has many reasons for pursuing the task. “There’s been so much development out there in the last 150 years. Between road construction, agriculture, building irrigation ditches, the land has changed dramatically. Every time we get a metal detection hit, the majority has been from fence posts and tractor parts—not really anything we can trace to 1863.”
The Bear River Massacre was largely ignored in American history, at least partly because of the national focus on the Civil War. Colonel Patrick Edward Connor led the attack on the Shoshone. According to History.net, he was unhappy with being assigned to the west and hoped to make a name for himself by attacking the Shoshone. Leading the Third California Volunteers, they traveled for hundreds of miles, throughout the nights, in order to remain hidden. They descended upon the wintering Shoshone band at 6 a.m. on January 29, 1863.
History.net notes that Connor was famed for his dislike of Native people. “It was not my intention to take any prisoners,” he said before the massacre. One Mormon leader reported Connor’s goal was to “exterminate” the Indians and he “did not want to deprive his soldiers of what he called ‘a little Indian killing.’”
It was a brutally cold day, and Connor’s men suffered frostbite and their horses refused to cross the icy Bear River. Within the first half hour, the Shoshone killed or wounded almost all 23 of the volunteers, but by noon, hundreds of Shoshone people lay dead, according to a Department of the Interior study.
“The site needs to be better demarcated and protected; and also, people don’t know much about it,” Cannon said. We (the mainstream) really don’t understand what went on in that time period. We are trying to identify where it is and bring better attention to help people understand, even accept and recognize, the darker part of our history.”
A small team of archaeologists are currently searching for evidence of tipis, packed earth, fires, and rock circles that may have protected the base of tipis from the winter winds. There were believed to have been around 70 lodges in the winter camp, Cannon said.
The past 150 years have changed the landscape. “The Bear River has moved somewhat,” Cannon said. Landslides and fine-grained, sandy areas moved when saturated, and “A big slide changed the course of the river in the1980s.” At times, the fields were flooded, he said.
While Cannon is searching for the winter village, Parry says his people have always known where it is. When he was young, he visited the area with his grandmother, Mae Parry. “She told me where the massacre site was at, and where most of the killing took place. All of our families were taught about that,” Parry said.
Parry feels that Cannon is just trying to tell a story, adding, “I think if you’d ask most of the tribe, they’d say, let’s find out what happened and then we can make our own decisions based on what we’ve been taught and what science says.”
“There are two schools of thought,” Parry said. “Most approve, but some people, including Patty, are against it.”
As an elder, Timbimboo-Madsen said history has taught her to mistrust. “Sometimes I think they have the best of intentions, but to me, it’s how they view us. They’ve never lived our lives. To me, they are there to do a job. To me, why would they want to do it? Why is it so important to go up and start digging? What would it change?”
Regarding the massacre, Timbimboo-Madsen said, “There are certain things you just don’t talk about,” she said. “You remember, you talk about it with your family, and it’s the history of your people, but you don’t reveal everything. Once you do, it’s going to be taken away from you or somebody else is going to exploit it. It needs to stay unknown.”
With a heavy sigh and while choking back tears, Timbimboo-Madsen said, “This is something that touches my heart deeply, because I want those who passed before me to know that we never forget you, you’re always with us and I want to make you proud. The sacrifice you made for us, that’s so little of a thing to do for someone who gave so much.”