A battle on the morning of January 29, 1863 between Northern Shoshone Indians and a regiment of army volunteers near Franklin, Idaho turned into a rout and a massacre of Native Americans worse than the episode at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. Colonel Patrick Connor, a ’49er, and his California Volunteers had enlisted to fight the Confederacy and were instead called upon to patrol the trails of northern Utah and southeastern Idaho. The volunteers had chafed at their duty in the remote west and had written a note of protest: they wanted to “serve their country in shooting traitors instead of eating rations and freezing to death around sage brush fires….” When the regiment was ordered to arrest the leaders of a Shoshone band for raids and murders along the California Trail in Idaho, soldiers were eager to take decisive action.
Colonel Connor split his force into two groups, to prevent rumors of an impending attack from reaching the Shoshone people. The Army and the Mormon residents of Utah and Idaho had not been on particularly friendly terms since the “Mormon War” of 1857 to 1858. Connor was concerned that the settlers would pass a warning to the Shoshonis if they spotted a military expedition underway. The Indians did catch sight of the soldiers in Franklin on the 28th and made preparations to defend their camp, but evidently did not imagine that they would face a full-scale battle.
The volunteers made their initial assault about 6:00 a.m. in below-zero cold against warriors who were in a very defensible position. Most of the 22 troopers killed in the battle died in the first charge. The combat might have gone badly for the soldiers if not for the fact that the native fighters ran out of ammunition.
Overcoming the frantic efforts of warriors to defend the camp using bows and arrows, knives and hatchets, Connor’s men carried out his order to take no prisoners. The soldiers methodically shot warriors, old men, women and children. Helpless wounded Indians were killed with hatchets. So far as is known, Colonel Connor made no move to restrain the frenzy of slaughter. Estimates of Indian deaths ran as high as 368. Mormon settlers from Franklin went to the site of the battle to rescue survivors, both soldiers and Indians. 164 native women and children, and a few men, had escaped. The settlers treated many wounded people and many suffering from frozen feet due to the intense cold.
The War Department was busy with huge Civil War battles in the eastern states. The fight at Bear River appeared to be no more than a successful campaign of modest size. Colonel Connor’s report to Washington, D.C. did not mention that a large number of non-combatants had been killed. Connor was promoted to General for his actions at Bear River. The massacre at Bear River was a dark chapter in Idaho’s history. However, it broke Indian resistance along the California Trail and allowed settlement of eastern Idaho to proceed.

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