Tag Archives: Idaho

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.


Sharp’s “Whoop-Up Country” (1955) in Great Plains Historiography

Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. By Paul F. Sharp. (Norman: University of Minnesota Press, 1955. 347 pages.)

Review by Aaron L. Barth

In 1955, Paul F. Sharp pushed the Turnerian model north across the 49th parallel with his Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. In doing this Sharp turned Turner’s national model into an international one, describing the two-decade history of the trail that linked Fort Benton in west-central Montana with Fort McLeod in western Canada. In Sharp’s words, “Here on the northern plains, the two great streams of Anglo-Saxon pioneering that had pushed across the continent finally reached their last west in the same environment.” (Sharp, 1955: 8) A shortcoming of Sharp’s use of “whoop-up” is that he never defines its origins (for example, why would Euro-Americans use this phrase?). Grasslands united the United States and Canada, the matching physiographic and semi-arid plain transcending the geopolitical borders, yet culture carried on in its own respective way. Merchants arrived to these grasslands, acting on behalf of “their London masters — Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, Henry Kelsey, David Thompson, Peter Skene Ogden, and scores of others.” (Sharp, 1955: 33) Castor Canadensis, or beaver (and the Euro-American fetish for top hats), compelled these trappers to move into this area, and with them arrived vestiges of Anglo-American culture.

"Whoop-Up" country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

“Whoop-Up” country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

The way in which Sharp breaks with earlier Anglo-Americentric histories is in his portrayal of the May 1873 massacre (rather than a battle) at Cypress Hills. In the nineteenth century American mind, when Custer and his Seventh Cavalry died at Bighorn, it remained a “massacre.” Yet when the Union army fell upon Native American villages with rifle, cannon and sabre, it remained a “battle.” According to Sharp, neither interpretation did the historical record any justice, or benefit, as they did no “credit to the objectivity or scholarship of those who, by reason of inadequate research or national bias, have perpetuated legend as history or myth as truth.” (Sharp, 1955: 55) Bringing up the topics of legend and history, or myth and truth, is where Sharp slips into a Positivistic, 1950s frame of mind. Three decades later, in 1986, William McNeill would cover this topic with more rigor and tenacity in Mythistory.

In other ways Sharp’s scholarship is dated, at least in his victimization of the Indian as a “drunk,” this inebriation described as the malefactor of the Cyprus Hills massacre. In Sharp’s words, “Whisky was the real culprit and this fight was another of its fearful effects upon the western Indians,” since this was a “frontier society which tolerated the sale of whiskey to the Indians and encouraged violence against them when disagreements arose.” (Sharp, 1955: 77) While Sharp’s scholarship broke from earlier Anglo-American histories, he continued to use paternalistic condescension toward Native America in his interpretation. When it came to interpreting the behavior of whites, however, he aptly allowed for individual agency and explained the differences in how it played on each side of the 49th parallel.

Four years before the massacre of Cyprus Hills, the Hudson’s Bay Company “transferred to the government of Canada its title to the vast preserve granted in its charter of 1670 and known as Rupert’s Land.” Sharp says it was approximately 2,300,000 square miles (italics mine) of land, this unit of measurement a subtle and slight reminder that Sharp’s readership still obliged American rather than Canadian interests. The establishment of a police force (“Law in Scarlet Tunics”) in the Northwest Territories on April 28, 1873 arguably denied the Canadian west a type of “lawlessness” and chaos so typical of the American West. Sharp addressed this, saying that if “every westerner lived by the myth and defended his honor with Colt’s ‘Great Equalizer’ at the slightest provocation, only one honorable man would have survived in each community” (Sharp, 1955: 107) Yet violence still held true, since the decentralized authority in the American West invariably could not stand up against large, roving gangs (unofficial social institutions in their own right). “Decentralization of authority in local governments was the heart of the matter, for through them law enforcement and judicial administration functioned.” (Sharp, 1955: 108) Local and regional laws guided the development of the American West, until they gave way to organized State and Federal systems that replaced the territories. Under the British-Canadian system, though, the myth or reality of disorder compelled London and Ottawa to bring the Empire immediately to bear on their western wilderness. Thus, in the western United States, chaos theory, regionalism, might-is-likely-right, and individual wits reigned. In the British-Canadian west, imperial order for god and country carried the day.

It is important to keep in mind that this history, when launched onto the scene in 1955, was nudging the interpretation of the Indian as “barrier” (as Walter Webb did in his Great Plains, 1933) to the Indian as understandable victim of United States and Canadian policy. A decade later, Vine Victor Deloria, Jr. and M. Scott Momaday (among others) would further this, an intellectual contribution that coincided with advances made by the American Indian Movement. Today, at least in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, scholarship has again shifted. Note, for example, Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), or Elizabeth Fenn’s forthcoming work on the Mandan, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. This scholarship demonstrates how Native American cultures acted rather than reacted to Euro-American encroachment. It is up to Native and non-Natives scholars today to push these interpretive boundaries, and help reshape the understanding of the past, and even the present.