Bear River Massacre – Warnings and conflicts with Cache Valley settlers

Published on March 1, 2013 by Carol

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A picture of young Reuben Van Ornum seated
in the middle. His uncle Zachias, is to his left

Several incidents in the summer and fall of 1862 led to the battle between Bear Hunter and Col. Connor. These were related to broad struggles between indigenous peoples and European-American settlers over almost the entire United States west of the Mississippi River. The attention of most of the nation’s population was focused on the Civil War in the eastern states. Modern historians have overlooked these incidents because they occurred near the ill-defined boundary of two different territories: those of Washington and Utah. While the incidents took place in proximity, the administrative centers dealing with them were more than 1000 miles apart, so it was difficult to integrate reports. As an example, for years residents and officials believed Franklin and the area of conflict were part of the Utah Territory. Residents of Franklin sent elected representatives to the Utah Territorial Legislature and were part of the politics of Cache County, Utah until 1872, when a surveying team determined the community was in Idaho territory

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Pugweenee

When a resident of Summit Creek (now Smithfield) found his horse missing, he accused a young Shoshone fishing in nearby Summit Creek of having stolen the animal. Robert Thornley, an English immigrant and first resident of Summit Creek, defended the young Indian and testified for him. Nonetheless, a jury of locals convicted him and hanged him for stealing the horse. Local history recorded the Shoshone’s name as Pugweenee. Later information reveals that Pugweenee is the Shoshone word for “fish,” so the man may have been saying, “Look at my fish,” or “I was just fishing.”

The young Indian man was the son of the local Shoshone chief. Within a few days the Shoshone retaliated by killing a couple of young men of the Merrill family who were gathering wood in the nearby canyon

Massacre near Fort Hall
During the summer of 1859, a settler company of about 19 people from Michigan were traveling on the Oregon Trail near Fort Hall when they were attacked at night, by people they assumed were local Shoshone. Several members of the company were killed by gunfire. The survivors took refuge along the Portneuf River, where they hid among the bullrushes and willow trees. Three days later, Lieutenant Livingston of Fort Walla Walla, leading a company of dragoons, met the survivors. He investigated the incident, and documented what he called the brutality of the attack

Reuben Van Ornum and the Battle of Providence
On September 9, 1860, Elijah Otter was leading migrants on the Oregon trail when they were attacked by a group of presumably Bannock and Boise Shoshone. In spite of settlers’ attempts to placate the Native Americans, the Indians killed nearly the entire migrant party and drove off their livestock. Alexis Van Ornum, his family, and about ten others hid in some nearby brush, only to be discovered and killed. Their bodies were discovered by a company of U.S. soldiers led by Captain F.T. Dent. Lieutenant Marcus A. Reno came across the mutilated bodies of six of the Van Ornums. Reports from survivors were that four Van Ornum children were taken captive by the attacking warriors

As a direct result of this attack, the Army established a military fort near the present location of Boise, Idaho, along the migrant trail. Colonel George Wright requested $150,000 to establish a military post able to sustain five companies of troops

Zachias Van Ornum, Alexis’ brother, heard from a relative on the Oregon Trail that a small white boy of his missing nephew Reuben’s age was being held by a group of Northwestern Shoshone, likely to be in Cache Valley. Van Ornum gathered a small group of friends and traveled to Salt Lake City to get some help from the territorial government. There he visited Col. Connor at Fort Douglas and asked for help to regain his nephew. Col. Connor agreed and sent a detachment of cavalry under the command of Major Edward McGarry to Cache Valley to rendezvous with Van Ornum near the town of Providence, Utah

Van Ornum located a small group of Shoshone warriors being led by Chief Bear Hunter. He and McGarry’s men followed the Shoshone as they retreated to nearby Providence Canyon.[ After the Indians opened fire, McGarry gave the order “to commence firing and to to kill every Indian they could see.” A skirmish between the Shoshone and the U.S. Army lasted for about two hours after the Shoshone established a defensible position in the canyon. Finally Chief Bear Hunter signaled surrender by climbing a foothill and waving a flag of truce.

Together with about 20 of his people, Chief Bear Hunter was taken prisoner and transported to the soldiers’ camp near Providence. When asked about the young white boy, Bear Hunter said that the boy had been sent away a few days earlier. McGarry instructed Bear Hunter to send his people to bring back the white boy. He held Bear Hunter and four warriors hostage. By noon of the next day, the Shoshone returned with a small boy who fit the description of Reuben Van Ornum. Zachias Van Ornum claimed the boy was his nephew and took custody, departing to return to Oregon.

The Shoshone protested, claiming that the boy was the son of a French fur trapper and the sister of Shoshone chief Washakie. The federal troops left with Van Ornum and the young boy, McGarry reported to Col. Connor of their rescue of the boy “without the lost or scratch of man or horse.” Bear Hunter complained to the settlers in Cache Valley, arguing they should have helped him against the soldiers. After a confrontation between Bear Hunter, some warriors from his band, and nearly 70 members of the Cache Valley militia, the settlers donated two cows and some flour as the “best and cheapest policy” as a kind of compensation.

Incident on the Montana Trail
A.H. Conover, operator of a Montana Trail freight-hauling service between mining camps of Montana and Salt Lake City, was attacked by Shoshone warriors. They killed two men who accompanied him, George Clayton and Henry Bean. Arriving in Salt Lake City, Conover told a reporter the Shoshone were “determined to avenge the blood of their comrades” killed by Major McGarry and his soldiers. He said the Shoshone intended to “kill every white man they should meet on the north side of the Bear River, till they should be fully avenged.”

Attack on the Montana Trail
The final catalyst for Connor’s expedition was a Shoshone attack on a group of eight miners on the Montana Trail. They had come within two miles of the main Shoshone winter encampment north of Franklin. The miners missed a turn and ended up mired and lost on the western side of the Bear River, unable to cross the deep river. Three men swam across to Richmond, where they tried to get provisions and a guide from the settlers. Before they returned, the other five men were attacked by Shoshone. They killed John Henry Smith of Walla Walla, and some horses. When the Richmond people returned with the advance party, they recovered the body of John Smith. They buried him at the Richmond city cemetery.

The surviving miners reached Salt Lake City. William Bevins testified before Chief Justice John F. Kinney and swore an affidavit describing Smith’s murder. He also reported that ten miners en route to the city had been murdered three days before Smith. Kinney issued a warrant for the arrest of chiefs Bear Hunter, Sanpitch, and Sagwitch. He ordered the territorial marshal to seek assistance from Col. Connor for a military force to “effect the arrest of the guilty Indians.”

Due to such reports, Connor was ready to mount an expedition against the Shoshone. He reported to the U.S. War Department prior to the engagement:

    “I have the honor to report to you that from information received from various sources of the encampment of a large body of Indians on the Bear River, 140 miles north of this point, who had murdered several miners, during the winter, passing to and from the settlements in this valley to the Bear River mines east of the Rocky Mountains. And being satisfied that they were part of the same band who had been murdering emigrants on the Overland Mail Route for the last 15 years, and the principal actors and leaders in the horrid massacre of the past summer. I determined, although the season was unfavorable to military expedition in consequence of cold weather and deep snow, to chastise them if possible.”

Source: Legendsofamerica

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