Northwestern Shoshone bring new life to the site of the Bear River Massacre
On a recent Thursday, Rios Pacheco walked around a grassy bluff down a dirt road near Preston, Idaho. He said dozens of artifacts lie beneath the ground, like old farm equipment and rail spikes from the 1800s.
“Bottles that people treasure now because they're made out of real glass and old cans that are made out of real tin,” he said.
Extremely lucky diggers may even find dinosaur bones. Pacheco is a spiritual leader for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation. He said the land, and the Bear River flowing below, are sacred.
“So this place was a place to winter camp and to share all the food sources, share different types of clothing, share different things that they gathered through the summer,” Pacheco said.
Shoshone bands from as far away as Nevada and Wyoming would meet in present day Franklin County, Idaho, because high bluffs and willows shielded families from the harsh winter. A hot spring also keeps the river flowing all season.
"That's why this area we call 'Wuda Ogwa' today, is a place of renewal, of new life,” Pacheco said. “When they left this place, they would leave with new children, because children would have been born here."
But this was also a place of death. For the past 150 years, farmers have supposedly been finding human remains. This is the site of the Bear River Massacre, which nearly wiped out the Northwestern Shoshone people.
In 1863, the U.S. Army was stationed in Utah, where tensions between Mormon settlers and Indigenous peoples had been boiling for years. On a frigid January day, soldiers attacked and slaughtered hundreds of Shoshone. Pacheco said many women jumped in the river to hide as they fled the killing fields, sometimes smothering their own children to save others.
“So these ladies, a few of them had children that cried. So they had to cover their mouths, nothing would stop them,” he said. “They knew that as the soldiers were now coming along the riverbank on their horses, if they heard that they would break through, and kill all those people.”
Estimates vary, but the army likely killed between 270 and 600 Shoshone that day – often with their bayonets to save ammunition. It’s perhaps the largest massacre of Indigenous people in U.S. history.
The Shoshone abandoned the site after that, only holding occasional memorials and putting up a monument. The land was used for cattle grazing until a few years ago.
Brad Parry is vice chairman for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation. He helped acquire 550 acres at the massacre site in 2018 and remembers at first standing on a bluff looking out over the land not knowing what to do with it.
“It snowballed from just, ‘Hey, let's take out some trees and plant some more trees,’ to, ‘Hey, let's do this. Let's create a river. Let's create ponds. Let's create more wetlands,’” he said.
The goal is to build an interpretive site with an amphitheater, education center and trail system. The tribe will also overhaul the land itself, returning it to what it looked like before white settlers arrived.
“This has all been active irrigation for grass pasture for cows. Our objective is to change that,” said Brian Andrew, an engineer working on the project.
Workers have been removing invasive species, establishing native plants and re-routing irrigation ditches. Parry said the efforts have shocked some locals.
“Right now, it's just really hard for a farmer to imagine taking land out of agriculture, and taking your water out of the ditch that their grandparents spent years digging,” he said.
But he said a lot of people become supportive when they learn that this project should bring animals back to the area and restore a blue-ribbon trout fishery. It also means there will be more water in the Bear River, which flows to the shrinking Great Salt Lake.
Parry said there’s been so much interest in the project that he’s now turning down volunteers and partnership opportunities. The entire restoration is on a 10- to 20-year timeline, but he hopes his tribal members take pride in the site for generations.
“Going there for the longest time when I was younger was just so sad. You know, my grandparents would cry. We'd start to cry just because it was so horrific,” Parry said. “The last few years that's changed. I don't get as sad going there. There's more of a peaceful feeling.”
Parry hopes visitors will feel a sense of coexistence and forgiveness. They can see a ranching history that goes back generations, and an Indigenous history that goes back centuries – long before a bloody day in 1863.
This story was made possible through a reporting fellowship with the Intermountain West Joint Venture.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.