Scientists Study Lost Site of Largest Native American Massacre

Cavalrymen killed at least 250 Shoshone men, women, children in Idaho in 1863
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 1, 2015 7:19 AM CDT
Scientists Study Lost Site of Largest Native American Massacre
A view of the site of the Bear River Massacre near Preston, Idaho.   (K. Cannon/USU Archaeological Services)

By the end of that frigid day in January 1863, the blood of at least 250 men, women, and children stained the ground in Idaho. But rather than occupying a dark place in American history, the victims of the nation's single largest Native American massacre—Shoshone Indians slaughtered in a daytime raid by United States cavalry—have largely been forgotten. Few know the story of the Bear River Massacre, reports the Herald Journal, and no one knows precisely where it took place, leading the Idaho State Historical Society to commission the first survey of the area just north of Preston in hopes of learning more. Since August of last year, archaeologists have employed three historic maps as well as geophysical and excavation techniques to pinpoint the exact site and the Shoshone village, and they hope to erect plaques to commemorate the battlefield when they do.

"Nobody knows about these events. They've been lost, and yet they're incredibly important," one of the lead archaeologists tells Western Digs. "The Shoshone probably ran out of ammunition, and they were overwhelmed by the California Volunteers." The four-hour battle also claimed the lives of 23 soldiers. Witnesses described watching Shoshone flee into the frozen Bear River, where some drowned and others froze, while a baby was reportedly found the next day alive, perched high in a tree, in what looked to be a bid to protect it. So far a magnetic gradiometer has found a large, black square, "suggestive of what a house floor might look like," one archaeologist says. That site will be excavated next month, in concert with the Shoshone people; the results will be made public in November or December. (Meanwhile, the mystery of Roanoke Island may finally have been solved.)

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