Alta California Report of the Bear River Massacre

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Battle of Bear River (1863)
75218Battle of Bear River1863Verite

Letters from Utah—No. 1.

[From the Resident Correspondent of the Alta California.]

[By Mail and Pony Express.]

Salt Lake City, U. T., Feb. 7th, 1863.

In good faith, I promised to write to the Alta my own observations and study of institutions, men and manners in Utah; but finding that there was more to see and more to learn than I had anticipated, the anxiety to be reliable has week after week suggested delay. I would not now break the silence between us—with the subjects proposed for discussion—as I am not confident of being fully in possession of the data, facts and figures to enable me to handle matters impartially; but as the unexpected engagement between our volunteers and the Indians will unquestionably be of deep interest to your readers, I propose to open our relationship from Utah with

The Expedition.

The rumored circumstances which gave rise to the expedition against the Indians are numerous and diversified: the civil party figuring in it evidently desirous of seeking a large share of the glory, to which they have as little claim, in reality, as if their immaculate greatness had been unknown in the land. The conception of the expedition is due to Col. P. Edward Connor, and the brilliant execution of his plans and their glorious results are exclusively the well-earned honors of his brave officers, and his no less brave men. Judge J. F. Kinney did certainly issue a writ for the apprehension of Indian chiefs Sand Pitch, Sag-witch, and Bear Hunter, on the charge of murdering miners passing to and from this city and the new gold mines in Washington and Dacotah Territories; and that writ was as certainly placed in the hands of Marshal Gibbs for legal service; but the volunteer expedition was not the Marshal’s posse comitatus.

Col. Connor—from the first reports of the murder of immigrants on the Humboldt and various other localities along the Northern route to California, last summer—determined on cutting off the savages, and commenced the carrying out of his designs by the cavalry expedition from Ruby Valley, last fall, in which Major McGarry was so very successful in the accomplishment of his commander’s instructions, save and except in his inability to find trees on which to hand the murderous savages. Since that time, the Indian attacks upon the whites, traveling to and from the Dacotah mines, have only added determination to determination to rid the country of this terrible scourge—this perpetual reign of terror; and, whenever there was the slightest hope of reaching the savages, the gallant Major was ordered in pursuit. Twice, since the arrival of the Volunteers at Salt Lake, expeditions have been sent into the northern settlements of this Territory—the first for the recovery of a white boy retained by the Indians, and the second for the recovery of immigrant property. From reliable information recently furnished Col. Connor of the locality of the Indians who had been engaged in this murderous work for the last eight years, was the expedition undertaken, the more recent attacks and murders only adding to the incentive to “make clean work of the savages.” Preparations for the expedition were in progress, when Marshal Gibbs called upon the Colonel for a military escort till a civil posse had been called, tried and failed; but at the same time informed the Marshal that the was preparing to start for that place, and would inform him of his intended departure the night preceding the time fixed that he might accompany the expedition; but he could promise him no prisoners—it was not his intention to have any. This much, as a prelude is not without its interest, as it will have its bearing on the record, and will award to the sword instead of the ermine the initiation of a struggle that will eventuate in “freeing the country of its foes.”

The March of the Troops.

On Thursday, the 22d ult., Capt. Samuel N. Hoyt, with sixty-nine men of Company K, accompanied by a train of fifteen baggage wagons, taking with them two howitzers, left Camp Douglass, with “secret instructions,” secret so far as his duties, etc., were concerned, but public enough for the “Indian runners” to know that the Camp on Bear river was the destination of the troops. Through the snow, the Infantry plodded along, till beyond the confines of the city on the west, where the train received the volunteers. Taking into account the recent snows, the northerly climate, and the roads that would have to be made over the summit of mountains separating Cash and Box Elder Valleys, the Infantry were to pursue their march leisurely, with the view also that the Indians might learn the strength of the Volunteers, and basing calculations thereon, would gather in to their stronghold and have a battle. The ruse was successful. Two Indian boys, one of them in the service of a mountaineer, reached the Indian camp with the intelligence of the march, numbers, etc. The Indian chiefs were unconcerned, gave orders to their warriors to prepare, while they visited, as usual, the settlements. On the morning of the sixth day’s march, as Captain Hoyt and his men entered the town of Franklin, Bear Hunter left it, the chief seeing nothing to alarm him. That same evening, after a two night’s ride, the one of seventy miles and other of thirty-five miles over the mountains, in deep snow and with a piercing, cold, bitter wind that nearly disabled a third of the command, Major McGarry, with two hundred and twenty cavalry, accompanied by Col. Connor and his aids, at midnight rode into the settlement and fraternized with the infantry. The Indians could know nothing of the approach of any cavalry beyond the mounted escort to the baggage train, and thus far the plan for their destruction had been successfully concealed. The infantry had orders to march at the first hour of the morning, and the cavalry to rest for a few hours. The unbroken roads impeded the progress of the infantry, and the heavy howitzers were clearly to fall in the rear, yet concealment being success, the cavalry dashed on at its appointed hour and reached the banks of Bear River before the dawn of day had fully illuminated the field of contest.

The orders to “dismount,” “load arms,” “mount” and “forward,” soon succeeded each other, and Major McGarry—accompanied by Major Gallagher—led the way into the river with Company “K,” Lieut. Darwin Chase and 65 men; Company “M,” Capt. Geo. F. Price and 55 men; Company “H,” Capt. Daniel McLean and 55 men; and Company “A,” Lieut. John Quinn and 45 men. The passage of the river was extremely difficult, from the hard ice at its bottom underlying the current that carried also broken sheets of ice with it, to the incessant annoyance and danger of upsetting the horses and their riders. The companies of Price and Chase first reaching the north bank of the river, had orders to advance, and after a short gallop they halted at the foot of the mountains to form in line of battle. The companies of McLean and Quinn were soon up in the rear; but before the men had all dismounted, the Indians has saluted them with a shower of lead, wounding one of the volunteers.

Col. Connor had remained for a short time behind, on the south bank of the river, giving instructions for the passage of the infantry and howitzers, when they should get up, and had instructed Major McGarry to surround the ravine in which the Indians were camped, and had no expectation of opening the fight till the infantry had arrived; but the Indians precipitated the engagement, and the Major, unable to outflank them with the first two companies at his disposal, ordered them to advance as skirmishers. The Colonel was over the river and up to the fight in a few minutes after, and the other companies advanced in the same order.

The Position of the Indians.

The winter quarters of this band was probably first selected for protection from the blasts of winter, as the ravine was over twenty feet deep, and open only to the south; and as, probably, soon after its occupancy, they saw the advantages of the defences it afforded in case of attack, and, as found by the troops the Indians had exhibited exellent engineering in its defence. At that place Bear river flows almost directly due west, though its general course is southwest. The ravine occupied by the Indians was almost due north and south, though embellished with curves enough east and west and west and east. The banks of the ravine are almost perpendicular, and only accessible by a few artificial, intricate windings, except at the mouth of the ravine, near the river, where it widens and loses its depth. The troops, to approach the ravine, had to pass over two “benches,” or slight declivities, which necessarily exposed them to the fire of the Indians, before they could have time to see the position of the latter. Anticipating the attack from the east—as in fact it was the only position for attack—the Indians used freely the pick and shovel, and cut artificial benches in that side of the ravine, so that they could rise at will to see their enemy, fire away, and descend again out of danger. Their lodges were also well protected at the bottom by rocks and earth, and being planted in positions conveniently surrounded by thick willows, they may be said to have had a miniature Sebastopol. The Volunteers now say that with the same number of troops as Indians in such a position, they could have held at bay 2,000 soldiers. The sides of the ravine perpendicular, protected by benches east and west; the north end of it lost in the mountain, and the south end bordering on the river, they undoubtedly fancied themselves in perfect security. As confirmation of this, was the fact that they had all their ponies tied up together, and the squaws and papooses were about the lodges as usual.

The Fight.

As the dismounted cavalry advanced towards the ravine, the Indians, who had been on the benches bordering upon it, tantalizing our troops to advance, immediately retreated, and, as the volunteers approached, sent out their deadly fire, which sent down the men “like the leaves of autumn.” The completely concealed and protected Indians had then before them the fight as they wanted it, but the Colonel immediately ordered the men to cover themselves as well as they could and save their ammunition, while he ordered Major McGarry and a detachment of men to climb the mountain to the north, outflank them, and take them in the rear from the west side. Skirmishing as they went northward, the detachment outflanked the Indians on the left, while the other cavalry engaged them in front. By this time the infantry, under Captain Hoyt, had arrived. Hearing the firing, while they were yet at a distance, the infantry hastened up to the river, and in their eagerness for a share of the fight attempted to ford the river on foot, but finding it impossible, with safety to themselves and to their arms, fell back. The cavalry horses were sent over to them, and dripping wet, on a severely cold morning, our brave volunteers mounted, crossed the river, and galloped up to the battle. They were immediately ordered to support Major McGarry in his flanking movement, and with this increased force the object was accomplished.

Capt. Hoyt got to the west side of the ravine, and while a portion of his men kept up their fire directly in the rear of the Indians, the others were stretched out in a perfect cordon over the north end of the ravine, forming, with the cavalry in front, about three-fourths of a circle. By this enfilading fire from three points, the Indians were gradually driven to the centre and southward. They exhibited the daring of men who fully comprehended the forlorn position they then occupied, made no attempt to run, but fought doggedly, contesting with every man the moment they could behold him. As the battle continued, the Indian position was clearly untenable, the Colonel ordered a detachment of mounted cavalry to get round the ravine, to the west side, on the borders of the river, with the view of cutting off their retreat, as the complete investment of the ravine rendered that their only hope of escape should they attempt even that. As expected, they ultimately broke and hurried to the mouth of the ravine, where portions of Companies K and M were prepared for them on the east. The Indians fought bravely; but now, away from their lodges and places of natural and artificial defence, it was their turn to feel the weakness of exposure. The Indians there fell in heaps. Some attempted to escape into the river, but the keen eye of the Volunteer, avenging the helpless immigrants, the women and children whose blood had been unatoned, and the fresh flowing blood of his comrade, lying at his feet, was in a moment upon the fleeing form of the savage, and the deadly rifle did its work, and few escaped. Other Indians sought refuge in the thick willows of the ravine, and on the border of the river; but the order to scour the bushes dislodged the sneaking foe. Some of them, counting, no doubt, on the fate that surely awaited them, revealed the places of their concealment by the deadly fire they kept up from the willows, and one after one was dislodged, and the silence of grim death began to reign where before the hills had reverberated with the incessant crack of the rifle. The last of the enemy waited his chance, and, while Major Gallagher was leading on a detachment into the bushes, let blaze at the Major, sent his ball through his left arm and into his side. Loading again, before they could see his place of concealment, the Indian fired again, and knocked a volunteer from his horse, who was close by the side of the Colonel. A volley from the detachment, in the direction of the blaze that revealed the Indian’s concealment, ended the bloody struggle.

The Killed and Wounded.

On the side of the Indians, probably from ten to fifteen escaped; but not more than the latter number. The dead counted is variously set down at from 225 to 267. The former figure was from the pen of the Colonel to Lieut. Col. Evans, announcing the battle and its results. Since that, the figures have amounted to the latter, estimate, which I think is still below the number killed in the ravine and in the river. In four hours was this dreadful carnage completed, with a comparatively insignificant loss to our troops, yet with a heave loss to many dear homes. The following is an accurate

List of the Killed and Wounded in the Battle, and the other Casualties of the Expedition.

Second Cavalry, CompanyA.”—Killed—Privates James W. Baldwin and Geo. German. Wounded (mortally)—Private John W. Wall; (badly) privates James S. Montgomery, John Welsh, William H. Lake; (slightly) Private William Jay. Feet frozen (badly)—Corporal Adolphe Spraggle, Private John D. Marker; (slightly) Bugler J. Kearney, Privates Samuel L’Hommedieu, R. McNulty, and G. Swan.

CompanyH.”—Killed—Privates John K. Briggs and Chas. L. Hollowell. Seriously wounded—Capt. Daniel McLean; Sergeant James Cantellon*; Corporals Philip Schaub and Patrick Frauley; Privates Michael O’Brine*, H. L. Fisher, John Franklin, Hen. Connor, Joseph Clows, Thomson Ridge, James Logan. Slightly wounded—Privates Barbele, C. Hutchinson, Frank Farley*.

CompanyK.”—Killed—Privates Lewis Anderson, Christian Smith, Shelbourne C. Reed, Adolphus Rowe and Henry W. Trempf. Seriously wounded—Lieut. Darwin Chase*; Private Wm. Slocum*. Badly wounded—Privates Albert N. Parker, John S. Lee, Walter B. Welton, Nath’l Kinsley. Slightly wounded—Segt. Sylvanus S. Longley, Corp. Benjamin Landis, privates Patrick H. Kelly, Eugene J. Brady, Silas C. Bush, John Daly, Robert Hargrave, Morris Illig, Alonzo A. P. V. McCoy. Frozen feet—Sergt. Wm. L. Beach, Corpls. Wm. L. White and James R. Hunt, privates Stragdee Ansley, Mathew Almone, David Bristow, Fred. W. Becker, Nathaniel Chapman, Sam’l Caldwell, Joseph Chapman, John G. Hertle, Chas. B. Howe, Joseph Hill, George Johnston, Jefferson Lincoln, Arthur Mitchell, James McKown, Alonzo R. Palmer, Charles Wilson.

CompanyM.”—Killed—Wagoner Asa F. Howard, privates George C. Cox, Geo. W. Hoton, Wm. Davis. Seriously wounded—Sergeant Anthony Stevens*, Corporal L. W. Hughes, privates W. H. Wood, L. D. Hughes, J. Legget, E. C. Chase, F. Barcafer. Slightly wounded—Sergeant Lorin Robbins, privates R. Miller, M. Forbes, P. Humbert, bugler A. Hoffner. Feet frozen—Sergeant John Cullen, Corporals A. P. Hewitt, Wm. Steel, privates W. W. Collins, James Dyer, John McGonagle. Hand frozen—private A. G. Case.

Third Infantry, CompanyK.”—Killed—Privates John E. Baker and Samuel W. Thomas. Seriously wounded—Sergeants A. J. Austin, E. C. Hoyt; privates John Hensley and Thomas B. Walker. Feet Frozen—Sergeants C. J. Herron and C. F. Williams; Corporals Wm. Bennett, John Lattman and John Wingate; privates Joseph German, James Urquhart, Wm. St. John, Algeray Ramsdell, James Epperson, A. J. T. Randell, Wm. Farnham, John Baurland, Giles Ticknor, Alfred Pensho, B. B. Bigelow, J. Anderson, F. Baeralso, F. Branch, A. L. Bailey, Wm. Carleton, D. Donahue, C. H. Godbold, J. Haywood, C. Heath, J. Manning, Wm. Way.

* Died since arrival in Camp Douglas.

Major Gallagher and Lieut. Berry were without commands at the battle, but were acting as volunteer aids to the commanding officer. Both of these officers were wounded toward the end of the battle—the Major as already noticed, and the Lieutenant severely in the right shoulder.

The Return to Camp.

As soon as the battle was over the wounded were carried to the surgeon’s tent and had his first, best and unremitting attention. The dead were gathered up and placed in the baggage wagons, the lodges of the Indians and their property were destroyed. There were sixty-eight lodges in all and provisions enough to serve the whole band for a number of months. The lodges were burned, and what could not be used by the troops, or made saleable to the Government was destroyed save enough to subsist upward of a hundred and twenty squaws and pappooses who had survived the raging storm of battle. On the south side of the river bank the Volunteers encamped for the night, to enjoy refreshment, rest, and to fight their battles o’er again, as they grouped in peace together around the bivouac fires. Next morning the wounded had the attention of the Colonel and Dr. Reed, and every means of speedy transportation was engaged to rush them on to quarters. The doctor started with them in sleighs over the deep snows, till, within twenty-five miles of camp, he found other conveyance, and arrived with his wounded charge between the night of Monday and Tuesday following.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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