John K. Briggs had enlisted in 1861. The following is taken from The Union Army, vol. 4:
After the completion of its organization and a short period at
Camp Alert for drill and discipline, the regiment was
stationed by companies at various posts in California, Nevada,
Utah and New Mexico. During its long term of service this
regiment marched thousands of miles, and skirmished with
Indians from New Mexico to Oregon. It saw hard service in
California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.
The same source says:
During the month of Jan. 1863, Cos. A, H, K and M, under Maj.
McGarry, constituted the larger part of a force under the
general command of Col. Connor of the 3rd Cal. infantry, which
moved on an expedition against the Snake and Shoshone Indians
on Bear River, in northern Utah and southern Idaho. These
Indians had murdered and plundered many emigrants on the route
to California, and more recently had been murdering miners
passing to and from Salt Lake City to the new gold mines in
Washington and Dakota Territories.
On the 28th the Indians were found admirably posted in a
ravine north of Bear River, but after a severe engagement
lasting several hours they were finally dislodged from their
natural fortress and almost annihilated.
The commanding officer congratulated his troops by saying this:
After a rapid march of four nights in intensely cold weather,
through deep snow and drifts, which you endured without murmur
or complaint even when some of your numbers were frozen with
cold and faint with hunger and fatigue, you met an enemy who
have heretofore, on two occasions, defied and defeated regular
troops, and who have for the last 15 years been the terror of
the emigrants -- men, women and children -- and citizens of
those valleys, murdering and robbing them without fear of
punishment. * * * You encountered the enemy, greatly your
superior in numbers, and had a desperate battle. Continuing
with unflinching courage for over 4 hours you completely cut
him to pieces, captured his property and arms, destroyed his
stronghold, and burned his lodges.
Coupled with other evidence, an eyewitness account of the event was discovered in the 1980's and revealed much different circumstances. Brigham Madson wrote the following in 1985:(14)
On 29 January 1863 Colonel Patrick Edward Connor and about 200 California Volunteers attacked a Northwestern Shoshoni winter village located at the confluence of Beaver Creek and Bear River, twelve miles west and north of the village of Franklin in Cache Valley and just a short distance north of the present Utah-Idaho boundary line. This band of 450 Shoshoni under war chief Bear Hunter had watched uneasily as Mormon farmers had moved into the Indian home of Cache Valley in the spring of 1860 and now, three years later, had appropriated all the land and water of the verdant mountain valley. The young men of the tribe had struck back at the white settlers; this prompted Utah territorial officials to call on Connor's troops to punish the Northwestern band. Before the colonel led his men from Camp Douglas at Salt Lake City north to Bear River, he had announced that he intended to take no prisoners.
With all this said, it will never be known how John K. Briggs felt about what he was asked to do. Apparently California enlistees in the army in the 1860s were generally expecting to fight in the Civil War, but found themselves hunting down Native Americans across the expanse of the West instead.
As the troopers approached the Indian camp in the early morning darkness at 6:00 a.m., they found the Shoshoni warriors entrenched behind the ten-foot eastern embankment of Beaver Creek (afterwards called Battle Creek). The Volunteers suffered most of their twenty-three casualties in their first charge across the open plain in front of the Shoshoni village. Colonel Connor soon changed tactics, which resulted in a complete envelopment of the Shoshoni camp by the soldiers who began firing on the Indian men, women, and children indiscriminately. By 8:00 a.m., the Indian men were out of ammunition, and the last two hours of the battle became a massacre as the soldiers used their revolvers to shoot down all the Indians they could find in the dense willows of the camp.
Approximately 250 Shoshoni were slain, including 90 women and children. After the slaughter ended, some of the undisciplined soldiers went through the Indian village raping women and using axes to bash in the heads of women and children who were already dying of wounds. Chief Bear Hunter was killed along with sub-chief, Lehi. The troops burned the seventy-five Indian lodges, recovered 1,000 bushels of wheat and flour, and appropriated 175 Shoshoni horses. While the troops cared for their wounded and took their dead back to Camp Douglas for burial, the Indians' bodies were left on the field for the wolves and crows.
Although the Mormon settlers in Cache Valley expressed their gratitude for 'the movement of Col. Connor as an intervention of the Almighty' in their behalf, the Bear River Massacre has been overlooked in the history of the American West chiefly because it occurred during the Civil War when a more important struggle was taking place in the East. Of the six major Indian massacres in the Far West, from Bear River in 1863 to Wounded Knee in 1890, the Bear River affair resulted in the most victims, an event which today deserves greater attention than the mere sign presently at the site.
all text and photographs © 1998-2007 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted