For hundreds of years, the banks of the Bear River along the Utah-Idaho border provided good winter camping for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation. Known to them as Boa Ogoi, the river’s hot springs offered warmth and renewal, and winters were relaxing and joyful. But that peace was upended when federal troops invaded the camp on January 29, 1863 and killed everyone they encountered.
Shoshone Chief Sagwitch awoke early that morning. He watched what he thought was mist rising over the riverbanks before realizing that it was an approaching army. These were federal troops led by Colonel Patrick Connor from Camp Douglas in Salt Lake City. Connor knew where to find the Shoshone, since this spot on Boa Ogoi was a favored winter camp. By day’s end, the soldiers slaughtered between 350 and 500 men, women, and children during what was the deadliest massacre of Native people in the American West.
The riverbanks of Boa Ogoi became a site of horror. Frozen ground – and fear of returning soldiers – prevented the few survivors from properly burying their dead. They threw bodies into the river, rather than leave them for animals and the elements. Forced to flee their ancestral lands to survive, Sagwitch led his remaining people away from Boa Ogoi to seek safety elsewhere. The site remains a sacred burial ground to the victims lost in the massacre.
In the years that followed, the story of the so-called “Battle of Bear River” was told only from the soldiers’ perspective. But we now know this was no battle, and the Shoshone fought for years to tell their own story on their own land. In 2018, the tribe purchased the massacre site, and is building an interpretive center and restoring native plants and habitat. Reclaiming this hallowed ground provides some healing and hope to a site previously associated with horror and anger.The Bear River Massacre was a cataclysmic event that forever changed the Northwestern Band’s association with Boa Ogoi. But today, their efforts to reclaim its riverbanks once again are a testament to the resilience and perseverance of the Shoshone people.
See Hyrum City Museum, exhibition file for Bear River Boa Ogoi: the River is Life, curated by Courtney Cochley, 2021; Darren Parry, The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History, Salt Lake City: By Common Consent Press, 2019; John Devilbiss, “A Healing Ground,” Utah State Magazine, Winter 2021.