A monument to mayhem in Idaho’s Cassia County marks the murderous spot of violence as savage as any in the lore of the Oregon Trail.
“ALMO, IDAHO,” reads the stone’s dedication. “TO THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE MOST HORRIBLE INDIAN MASSACRE, 1861.”
Local historians say it was here below the “Silent City of Rocks” near the quiet village of Almo where a band of Northern Shoshone obliterated a Missouri emigrant wagon train. Three hundred pioneers defended a circle of 60 wagons. Horses stampeded, trampling children. Defenders fired through a hail of bullets and arrows until the water ran out on the fourth fatal day.
Five pioneers escaped. One courageous young woman took a goat trail to safety in Brigham City, Utah, fleeing 100 miles. Another scrambled on hands and knees while carrying, in her teeth, an infant suspended by swaddling clothes.
A posse from Brigham City found 285 corpses. Some had been scalped and dumped in a well.
“Undoubted [it was] the greatest Indian disaster ever,” said the rancher who first published the story. Charles Walgomott of Twin Falls, writing in 1927, had heard the story decades before from a Utah trapper and teamsters who ran freight through the City of Rocks. Fresh details emerged in later retellings. Professor Merrill D. Beal of Idaho State blamed “red barbarity” and denounced “the most horrible and wanton slaughter of all.”
Surely, if true, such carnage would be crimson enough to quell revisionist sobbing over the plight of Idaho natives. If only the U.S. Indian bureau or a newspaper had sent a reporter. If only a survivor had published a memoir. None did.
No newspaper reported the massacre because it never actually happened. Not a shred of documentation survives.
“There was no Almo Massacre,” said historian Brigham Madsen of the University of Utah, having combed pioneer diaries and newspapers for any mention of Indian trouble, however slight.
Still, the civilized need the savage to play the ultimate “other” in frontier morality tales. At Fort Boise in Parma, the “savage” marauds with his villainous hatchet in a blood-splattered concrete statue of the Indian Big Foot. At Walters Ferry, in a kitsch frontier mural, the Indian stalks pioneer cabins. Near American Falls, he haunts Devils Gate where the Idaho parks department has mislabeled sinister boulders, calling them Massacre Rocks.
Fables need fabled places — and none more fabulous than the ghoulish ghostscape called City of Rocks. Granite domes and steeples cluster in twisted formations above the boulder city where emigrant wagons branched south toward gold mines in California.
Once a Shoshone stronghold, its battlements had sheltered a defiant Shoshone chief named Pocatello who sent warriors to confiscate emigrant livestock. But death by ambush was rare on the overland trails. From 1855 to 1867, historians count a total of 55 emigrant deaths by combat in Idaho. Cholera, typhoid, gun accidents, food poisoning and dangerous river crossings — all decimated the 2,000-mile wagon migration, but combat killed more Indians than pioneers. Only about 4 percent of the death toll resulted from Indian ambush.
The bloodiest and perhaps most fearsome of those attacks was a Bannock raid on eight Wisconsin wagons in the badlands of Owyhee County. On Sept. 9, 1860, east of Murphy, horsemen in war paint and breechcloths charged Hollywood-style with a whooping frontal assault. Teenager Charles Utter is said to have killed five charging marauders as fast as he could reload. Eighteen emigrants fled on foot through the cover of sagebrush. Two bolted on horseback. In 30 frantic hours, 20 emigrants died.
“We pursue an invisible foe,” said Col. George Wright, the Oregon District commander. But all the Army could do in 1860 was dispatch 40 troops from Fort Walla Walla. Near Farewell Bend, they discovered six emigrant corpses. Twelve survivors huddled upriver. Frostbitten and muttering blankly after 45 days of exposure, they had survived mostly on moss and the cannibalized flesh of their own dead children. The living were raving mad.
A few years passed before Lincoln’s Army found adequate troops to hunt down perpetrators. An 1862 sweep from the Boise River to Bruneau found only small encampments of shivering natives too miserable to attack. Soldiers returned the following year to corral 40 unarmed Shoshone. Many later died of disease and exposure in a Fort Boise refugee camp.
Frontier soldiers of another sort were meanwhile too impatient for prisoners of war. “Kill everything,” said Col. Patrick E. Connor of the California Volunteers. On Jan. 27, 1863, on Battle Creek off Bear River north of the Mormon village of Franklin, Connor surrounded a Shoshone encampment with 300 troops and two howitzer cannons. Four hours of methodical fire killed an estimated 368 Shoshone, including 90 women and children. Twenty-two soldiers died.
“It was [Connor’s ] intention from the very beginning to kill every living person,” said Shoshone elder Mae Parry, a witness to the extermination. But The New York Times reported “general satisfaction at the destruction of this thievish and murderous crew.” The battle, said The Times, had been “short, sharp, and decisive.” It had been “intervention of the Almighty,” said Latter-day Saints leaders in Logan. It had struck “terror” into “savage hearts,” said Utah’s superintendent of Indian affairs.
It had been the bloodiest slaughter of Indians ever west of the Mississippi. More deadly than more celebrated disasters — perhaps double the death toll, for example, of the 1890 massacre of the Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee — the battle, or massacre, at Bear River seldom reached history textbooks. Ray Billington’s “Western Expansion” (1949) condensed the Snake River Indian wars to a single inaccurate sentence: “Shoshoni and Bannock tribes ceded their lands in return for annuities and two small reservations.”
Badly reported, the so-called Battle of Bear River became all the more tragic a half century later when the Daughters of Utah Pioneers marked the site. The 1932 marker justified the killing of women and children by calling them “combatants.” The Indians, after all, had been “guilty of hostile attacks.”
Chief Pocatello was long retired on the Fort Hall reservation by the time Idaho, in 1879, organized Cassia County. Latter-day Saints, by then, had platted rectangular hamlets at Almo, Marion, Elba and Oakley. No matter the brutal winters. No matter the crickets that followed the ’hoppers to finish off drought-stricken crops. Idaho, in fable, was bright and warm. An acre of potatoes would grow, it was said, 250 bushels. A pound of seed would yield 100 pounds of grain.
Briefly the region thrived after 1909 when bankers from Pittsburgh invested in reclamation. Oakley Dam on Goose Creek, completed in 1915, spread ditch irrigation through a wheat- and grain-growing hub. But the farm economy staggered and repeatedly crashed in the 1920s and ’30s. Cassia farmers looked to the feds for Snake River water projects. Newspapers and chambers of commerce also wanted a national park or monument at City of Rocks.
The year 1938 brought hope that Congress might favor Cassia County. Letters to President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt requested the honor of their attendance at a frontier gala and tour. Old timers in buckskin would recount the massacre story at a grand celebration below City of Rocks.
FDR sent his regrets. But on Monday, Oct. 17, 1938, in the wet chill of Almo’s schoolyard, the governor, a senator and a park official huddled among reporters to watch a thick slab of granite unveiled. The shrine seemed to confirm national martyrdom status. Almo, it was said, was now Idaho’s answers to the Alamo in Texas and Custer’s Last Stand at Montana’s Battle of Little Bighorn. A counterweight to balance memories of the Indian war, Almo in tandem with the Battle of Bear River completed the circle of racial violence.
Almo marked the crime. Bear River marked consequences. Together, the two Idaho historical markers implied loss and redemption, cause and effect.
Belatedly, in 1988, Congress created City of Rocks National Reserve. Climbers with nylon ropes and hard-shell helmets scale Chief Pocatello’s stronghold. Wagon ruts furrow the pioneer trails through a fractured ancient landscape where history stays simple and firmly planted like fables carved into stone.
Todd Shallat, Ph.D., directs the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.