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Over the past few summers I have tackled the National Road, the Oregon Trail, and I've motorcycled to the Arctic Circle (Yukon) and Alaska. In the summer of 2013 I tackled Illinois Route 1. Starting on the south side of Chicago, Illinois 1 is the longest state highway, meandering south until it ends in Cave In Rock, Illinois, on the banks of the Ohio River. Once again, I operated with the assistance of Verizon Wireless, using an Apple iPhone and Nokia Lumia 928 to make all photographs.

Pass the Past

Posted: June 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: General posts | 2 Comments »

Saturday I visited Preston, Idaho the town where the movie Napoleon Dynamite was filmed. But Preston was the site of something much more important, and tragic, than a quirky independent film. Before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning.

I started the day in Guernsey, Wyoming, heading west along the Trail toward Idaho. Traveling through the famous South Pass through the Continental Divide. Although likely known for centuries to indigenous people, the discovery of this 20-35 mile-wide prairie section through the Rockies by fur trapper Robert Stuart in 1812 eventually allowed for easy crossing of the Divide by emigrants. Without the Pass, emigrants would not have been able to trickle through, and then flood over, the Rockies into Oregon. It was this mass migration that secured the territory for the U.S. rather than Mexico or Great Britain. As “convenient” as the South Pass was, it was still no picnic to roll a wagon, or as the Mormons sometimes did, transport all the worldly goods in pushcarts, through the region. The Pass reaches a respectable elevation of 7,400 feet, and is no stranger to fickle weather patterns. During my ride through the Pass, it was a windy 46 degrees.

Our hero next to his faithful steed in the South Pass, Wyoming (circa 1845).


I also followed parts of the Mormon Trail on Saturday.  The Mormon Trail paralleled much of the Oregon Trail until eventually heading south toward Salt Lake. Because of the hospitality offered by the rest of the country during this time (yes, Missouri and Illinois, I’m calling you out) the Mormons decided to blaze their own trail; A trail more challenging than the Oregon.

Mormon Trail, Southeastern Idaho.

Now, on to the tragedy part of the day.

North of present day Preston, Idaho one of the most shameful moments in the history of America took place; The Bear River Massacre.  Here is a brief rundown of what took place.  For a MUCH better explanation of the massacre and the events surrounding it, I suggest you go here or, for an even more thorough analysis, here.

The Bear River Massacre, as it became known, was the largest massacre of American Indians by the U.S. Army (California Volunteers) in our nation’s history. On January 29, 1863 in bitterly cold conditions (as low as -20F) California Volunteers attacked a village of Shoshone Indians in their winter camp near Preston.

Initially, the Shoshone held their ground. It was during the first assault, a frontal attack, that most of the Army’s 14 deaths and 49 wounded occurred. But eventually the Shoshone ran out of ammunition. (The Army had brought more than 16,000 rounds of ammunition but because of the deep snow, they never did get their two cannons in the battle.)

Now facing an ammo-less enemy, the undisciplined Volunteers continued shooting men, women and children. There were unspeakable acts of brutality against many of the women and children, including rape of the women and beating children to death. The camp was burned to the ground, and any Shoshone found hiding were shot at close range. While some Shoshone were able to escape, the dying and wounded were left to freeze and to the mercy of wolves. Wounded troopers were taken to the nearby town.

The number of Shoshone fatalities has been estimated as low as 200 and as high as 494. Even if the low count of 200 were correct, it would still make the Bear River Massacre the greatest massacre of American Indians by the U.S. Military in this nation’s history. By comparison, the horrific Wounded Knee massacre is estimated at about 150.

Why have so few people heard of this event? Many historians point out that it occurred during the Civil War, and therefore news of the massacre did not reach many citizens. Although located in present-day Idaho, at the time the scene of the massacre was in open territory.

While researching the Oregon Trail I stumbled upon this forgotten moment of American History. I decided that this was one of the places I really wanted to make sure I visited. North of Preston, just off of Idaho Hwy 91 there is a small roadside memorial. It is a very moving place.

A memorial to the Army soldiers that died has been at the site since 1932. In 1953 the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers added a plaque commemorating the local  “peaceful inhabitants of the vicinity” (Franklin, Idaho) who gave aid and comfort to wounded soldiers, and “two Indian women and three children” after the battle.  To the left of the stone memorial is a Shoshone Prayer Tree used to remember the Shoshone that died that day.

Boyd  Redington reads a plaque commemorating the assistance following the Battle by the residents of Franklin, Idaho.

Looking down into the valley where the Bear River Massacre occurred.

A string of beads hangs from the Prayer Tree near the Bear River Massacre site.

A photo hangs from the Prayer Tree near the Bear River Massacre site.

In 1990 the site received National Historic Landmark status, and in 1993 was renamed “The Massacre at Bear River Site.” In 2008 the Shoshone Nation bought the site, and is developing the grassland as a picnic/rest area and memorial.





2 Comments on “Pass the Past”

  1. 1 Jobie Skaggs said at 10:46 am on June 20th, 2011:

    You have entered my old stomping grounds. My folks live in the Pocatello area with some also in Central Oregon. Preston is stunning. Both the natural and “human” history only underscore the beauty and power of the West.

  2. 2 Ann said at 4:59 pm on June 20th, 2011:

    your narrative is very moving. I can only imagine how touching it is to be there. Isn’t it amazing what humans are capable of doing to each other?

    The landscape is beautiful!

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