Tag Archives: Bear River Massacre

American Western Memory and History

This Smithsonian link here is a good write up on a hard, sobering chapter in American western history. The Sand Creek Massacre, like the Whitestone Hill massacre (September 1863, northern Dakota Territory), and the Bear River Massacre (January 1863, Idaho), were never forgotten. This article says the Sand Creek Massacre was lost and rediscovered: it’s highly doubtful that Lakota, Cheyenne, Dakota, among others, “forgot” what happened in 1863 and 1864 when they converged on Custer and the 7th in late June of 1876. Not in the least. And if chatting with the descendants of the historical participants of these conflicts, you’ll know that the memories and stories were never forgotten. In some cases the stories went underground. They are re-emerging today, and justly taking the place as the official interpretation. It is powerful stuff. It continues to compel me to listen, study, and reflect.


Official and Un-Official (authentic) Remembrance

The memorial tree at the Bear River Massacre site in southeastern Idaho. Photo from July 2013.

The memorial tree at the Bear River Massacre site in southeastern Idaho. Photo from July 2013.

This last July, Molly (an accomplished artist who is also my girlfriend) and I had a chance to tour the northern inner-mountain American West. One of the stops on this road tripped concerned a massacre site from 150 years ago, this at Bear River in southeastern Idaho. It seems appropriate to talk about and consider memorials and remembrance, especially today (09/11/2013).

While at Bear River, I documented the site, and this morning I thought I’d finally get around to posting an audio-video short to help others who aren’t immediately able to visit get a slice of the sense of place. In the video there are three official memorials, but what I was really pulled toward the day we visited was the un-official memorial tree. This in my mind was all the more authentic because of its un-official-ness: often times, official memorials get politicized (or they can), and this officialdom and politicization undermines the sacredness intrinsic to reflection and mourning that can be emotionally spontaneous. Infrastructure can also undermine that reflection, something Muir went on about at length in the 19th century, and something we’re contending with in the Bakken today.

Back to the July 2013 audio clip, though. Toward the end of the clip, I started closing in on the un-official memorial tree at the Bear River Massacre site. For a glimpse of some of the memorials and remembrances, click on the link referenced above (or the Bear River Massacre tag below). Or best of all, visit the site directly.


Visiting the Bear River Massacre Site

A photo from a July 15, 2013 visit to the Bear River Massacre site.

A photo from a July 15, 2013 visit to the Bear River Massacre site in southeastern Idaho.

A couple days ago Molly and I made a site visit to the Bear River Massacre in southeastern Idaho. The massacre happened in late-January 1863 when a U.S. Army group of California Volunteers led by Col. P.E. Connor attacked a domestic, non-combatant encampment of Shoshone. It is interesting to contextualize this site with others throughout the United States.

Nine months later, General Alfred Sully described his actions at Whitestone Hill against families of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota as a “murderous slaughter” of a “promiscuous nature.” This action happened on the northern Great Plains (in presentday North Dakota) only 9 months after the Bear River Massacre. Massacre was, sadly and to put it mildly, a part of the Total War battle rubric (check out John Fabian Witt’s latest work on Lincoln’s rules for war). It is called genocide and ethnocide today.

Today, 150 years later, the Bear River Massacre site remains active with memorials of all kinds. If you are driving from Salmon, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah, take exit 36 off of I-15 onto Highway 91. You’ll need to follow the exits, because there isn’t any signage that will guide you to this painful chapter in American history. At the site is a stone obelisk, and for the last 150 years different groups have brought different interpretations to the site.

Some items of remembrance at the Bear River Massacre site. Photo from July 15, 2013.

Some items of remembrance at the Bear River Massacre site. Photo from July 15, 2013.

The Bear River Massacre site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Today a beautiful memorial tree has taken on the task of an anchor for remembrance and mourning. A variety of individuals have placed items in the tree. A cursory sample of items observed on the July 15, 2013 day of my visit to the site included numerous dream catchers; tobacco pouches; a pair of glasses; a penny; beads on leather necklaces (one read “HOPE”); a wood flute; synthetic flowers; a tin pale filled with beads and chewing tobacco; pieces of rawhide with art on them; and suspenders. The tree is active and alive, as are the memories.

In addition to this, if you want to read up on contemporary scholarship specific to the Bear River Massacre, check out Kass Fleisher, The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004) and John Barnes, “The Struggle to Control the Past: Commemoration, Memory, and the Bear River Massacre of 1863” in The Public Historian, Vol. 30, No. 1 (February 2008).

Photo from July 15, 2013.

Photo from July 15, 2013.