Editor's corner: Shoshone largely forgotten in land they were run from
By Charles McCollum
I decided to skip ahead to see how federal agents recorded this day of infamy, a bitterly cold Jan. 29 in 1863 when a U.S. Cavalry detachment led by Col. Patrick E. Connor raided a Shoshone encampment near modern-day Preston and slaughtered an estimated 300 to 400 men, women and children.
Shockingly, there was little mention of it in the book’s collected documents, but one of the notations I did find goes a long way in framing the event from the white man’s point of view at that time.
William P. Dole, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote these words in a letter that fall to the U.S. secretary of the interior:
“It was perhaps unavoidable that, in taking possession of these territories, hostilities should ensue between our own people and the Indians, as the latter knew but little of the vast disparity between their resources and power and our own, and consequently would not listen to any reasonable propositions on our part. Much credit is due to General Connor and the forces under his command for their prompt and efficient services in chastising these Indians for their outrages and depredations upon the whites ...”
If you’ve read accounts of the massacre, you know that what started out as a battle between cavalrymen and Shoshone braves ended in a genocidal orgy that included the point-blank shootings of children and the rape and murder of women.
The initial attack was not without provocation. Shoshone raids in the preceding months had claimed several settlers’ lives. But the carnage carried out by Connor and his men is beyond explanation or defense in a civilized world. The shameful police action has gone down in history as the worst single atrocity against Native Americans.
Descendants of that day’s victims and Native American sympathizers would argue—with much justification, I believe—that the Shoshone attacks on settlers were not without provocation either. The tribe had been pushed to its limit by the encroachment of whites in the region, and there was plenty of blame to go around for the recent escalation of hostilities.
In the same report that saluted Connor for his service, the aforementioned commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote, “The scarcity of game in these territories, and the occupation of the most fertile portions thereof by our settlements, have reduced these Indians to a state of extreme destitution, and for several years past they have been almost literally compelled to resort to plunder in order to obtain the necessaries of life.”
The key factors to note here are the broken treaties and coerced land sales. These acts of aggression had little to do with the Indians' alleged savagery or refusal to adopt Christianity. I'm pretty sure the Indians would've suffered the same fate even if they'd been Christians. As evidence, Christians attacked and killed each other in countless wars in Europe and the Americas (Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, etc.).
When Christians weren't attacking and killing each other, they were subjugating and oppressing each other. In the US, Christianity didn't protect Catholic immigrants, black Baptists, or Mormons from white Protestant bigotry. The Indians' "superstitious" religions and cultures were simply an excuse for Euro-Americans to exercise their rapacious greed.
For more on the Bear River Massacre, see Remembering Bear River and First, Worst, and Forgotten Massacre.