Bear River Massacre Site Returned to Tribe (UT/ID)

Preston, Idaho, March 21, 2003 – The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, with support from the American West Heritage Center, a heritage preservation and education project in Wellsville, Utah, today turned over to the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation the 26-acre site where an estimated 350 or more members of the tribe were massacred in 1863.

“This is sacred land to us. It is the burial ground of our ancestors and it is deeply satisfying to have it protected,” said Bruce Parry, executive director of the tribe.

“We were pleased that the American West Heritage Center asked us to assist them with this project and to work with the Northwestern Band of Shoshone to help get their lands back. It is a deeply moving example of the kind of local and national teamwork required to protect lands which are important for tribes and communities around the nation,” said Alina Bokde, the TPL project manager who put the transaction together.

The American West Heritage Center initiated the project after completing, with tribal leadership, the planning and design of a cultural and interpretive center at the Center to help the tribe tell its story. Ronda Thompson, executive director of the American West Heritage Center, said, “I am so happy that today, the Northwestern Shoshones are back in control of land which is so important and meaningful to their history – the site of the Bear River Massacre. It is a tragic story which has been overlooked for far too long. We are glad to have been involved and are grateful to all the donors who made it a reality.”

The 26-acre site is in the Bear River Valley, near Preston, Idaho which itself is just north of the Utah-Idaho border. The 439-member Northwestern Shoshone tribe is based in Brigham City, Utah, about 70 miles north of Salt Lake City. The site is comprised of two parcels, one of 19 acres and the other 7 acres, which TPL purchased privately.

Originally, the Northwestern Shoshone lived in the region between the Bear Lake Valley and the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. The 26 acres are part of the 1,691-acre Bear River Valley, which was a gathering site for the entire Shoshone nation to perform the “warm dance.” That dance was part of a Shoshone nation celebration that normally occurred in December.

The massacre, on Jan. 29, 1863, occurred when the Shoshones were at their winter camp in the Bear River Valley. U. S. volunteer soldiers, after increasing tension developed between whites and the Shoshones, attacked the camp. The fighting turned into a slaughter and the estimates of the total number of Shoshone killed range as high as 350 members of the tribe, including a number of babies.

The massacre was little known until historian Brigham D. Madsen wrote a book about it in 1985, “The Shoshone Frontier and the Bear River Massacre” in which he first referenced it as a massacre. Until then, non-Native Americans always referred to it as a “battle.”

“The massacre site is a sacred and holy spot because the bodies of the Shoshone were never buried, but were left to the wolves and the coyotes to devour,” said Madsen. “Therefore, it is good that it is finally being recognized and preserved. It is wonderful that the Trust for Public Land is helping save this land.”

The Trust for Public Land, established in 1972, specializes in conservation real estate, applying its expertise in negotiations, public finance, and law, to protect land for people to enjoy as parks, greenways, community gardens, urban playgrounds, and wilderness. TPL has taken the lead as a national conservation organization to develop a tribal lands program which will restore to tribes the ownership of lands which contain significant cultural, historical, and natural resource values. Across the nation, TPL has helped protect more than 1.4 million acres. For more information, visit TPL on the web at