January 29 is a dark day in the history of the American West. Early on that morning in 1863 the United States Army attacked a Shoshoni winter camp on the Bear River, just across the Utah border in what is now Idaho. As the sun climbed to its zenith, the soldiers slaughtered somewhere between 250 and 350 people, most noncombatants and many women and children. Witnesses also reported torture, rape, and mutilation.
The Bear River Massacre was the first big Indian killing by the army in the West, and it was the worst—more victims than Sand Creek or Wounded Knee or other better-known incidents. And yet it is largely forgotten, seldom finding its place in history books, and accounts are often erroneous.
We visited the killing field on the anniversary again this year, joining with the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation to commemorate the massacre and celebrate the survival of the Band, most of which was wiped out that day.
For many years, the Bear River Massacre has intrigued me. How such a pivotal event in our history can go unnoticed troubles me. I have written about the massacre in a song with Brenn Hill, “And the River Ran Red,” in poems, in short stories, in a chapter of The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, and in a history book, Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten.
Never should such heinous actions by our government be forgotten. They remind us of the depravity we were—and are—capable of. Mark your calendars, and join us next winter on that hallowed ground on the banks of the Bear River.