For generations the So-So-Goi people moved with the seasons through Southeastern Idaho and Northern Utah, knowing where to find what Mother Nature had provided to sustain their families. When the first European explorers and settlers arrived, they became known as Shoshone – an easier pronunciation for the English tongue.
The Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, whose homeland included all of Franklin County and covered portions of Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, were originally welcoming to the settlers. They shared knowledge of local resources and helped doctor sick settlers.
Friendships found root despite the stereotyping and fears that eventually created what is today known as the Bear River Massacre. By the time pioneers began pushing north from the Logan area, local Native Americans had begun to notice that their new neighbors’ method of securing a livelihood directly impeded theirs.
Pioneer homesteading created barriers to the Shoshone method of hunting and gathering resources. There were big differences in priorities and land ownership was an unknown concept to the native population.
Conflicts inevitably arose, handled by some individuals well, and others in devastating ways. Those conflicts erupted with deaths on both sides, leaving both settlers and Native Americans agitated. Local settlers petitioned the U.S. Army for help to quell their fears and frustrations. Col. Patrick O’Connor was dispatched with his California Volunteers to restore order.
On Jan. 29, 1863, O’Connor led his men in the pre-dawn hours to the bluffs four miles northwest of Preston, overlooking the Bear River. Members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, under the leadership of Sagwitch and Bear Hunter, had remained encamped near the hot springs along the Bear River following a Warm Dance celebration to summon warmer weather. Of the thousands of Shoshone who gathered for the annual event, only Sagwitch’s and Bear Hunter’s group remained. Having been able to negotiate through conflicts in the past, Sagwitch believed he could do the same with O’Connor. For reasons of his own, O’Conner determined to put down any Native American he found, not just the perpetrators of the offenses he had been sent up to address.
At dawn, the California Volunteers attacked. Shoshone scrambled to defend themselves, but without armaments to match the army’s there was little they could do. Accounts vary, depending on who tells the story, but when the conflict was over, between 250 and 500 men, women and children lay dead at the campsite. A few solders, too.
Sagwitch and very few others managed to escape death, saving the tribe from complete annihilation. Today, their descendants number just about what they were before the massacre, says current chairman, Darren Parry. His people have maintained their identity and in 2018, the tribe purchased the land on which their ancestors once celebrated – land that is now sacred as the burial grounds for those who lost their lives that day.
In their honor, and as a tribute to the people the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation have become, the tribe will break ground on an interpretive center overlooking the site in 2020.