Jerry O’Sullivan: What the Bear River Massacre teaches us about confronting ugly parts of history

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Items left in memory at the site of the Bear River Massacre in Franklin County, Idaho, Tuesday August 9, 2016. Research is underway to determine precise locations of the Shoshone village US soldiers wiped out in a surprise attack Jan. 29, 1863. Some 300 to 500 Indians died in the attack, making it the West's worst massacre yet the event is little known.

“We have God inside of us but we have the Devil inside of us too, and under certain circumstances, most people will do most anything.”

— Rod Miller

Historian and author Rod Miller said those words about a long-forgotten massacre of Native Americans on the Utah frontier 160 years ago.

The words have stayed with me long after I visited Salt Lake City last June to learn about a man and a period that was key in the origins of Utah territory and its road to statehood.

How do we remember our history?

Do we intentionally brush over and forget the hard history of our past?

Do we learn anything from it?

The story of Gen. Patrick Edward Connor had me pondering such questions since I first learned about the man at one time known as “the first gentile in Utah” and also “the father of Utah Mining.”

Less remembered is his role in directing the Bear River Massacre on Jan. 29, 1863, when the men of the California Volunteers, stationed at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, butchered over 400 men women and children of the North West Band of the Shoshone at their winter encampment, near what is today Preston, Idaho.

A connection across the Atlantic

I visited Bear River as part of a project to make a radio documentary on the man and the story, primarily because of his Irish origins.

Connor, like me, is from County Kerry Ireland — a “Kerryman” as we say at home.

For many, Irish-American history has a romanticism about it. The “tired and poor huddled masses” who left for America and rose up and out of the tenements of New York to help build the nation and had John F. Kennedy Jr. in the White House by 1960 and Joe Biden today.

What is less celebrated is the dark side of that story, like the actions of Connor.

Connor was born and raised near the small village of Ballyferriter which sits on the edge of the Dingle Peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic on the west coast of Ireland.

Keep going west and the next stop is America.

It’s a beautiful coastal community, popular today with tourists who marvel at its glorious shoreline and sea views.

One hundred and ninety years ago, Patrick O’Connor was born the eldest son of Thomas O’Connor and Mary Sullivan. They were peasant farmers seeking out a living in Ireland’s single-crop potato subsistence system that would collapse dramatically a few years later at the start of the Great Irish Famine.

The Connor family set off for the New World sometime in the 1830s.

The life he subsequently led is emblematic of the rags-to-riches stories of many Irish immigrants who left.

War, business and politics all played out through the army life, the Mexican-American War and some California gold rush riches before landing at the head of the California Volunteers in Utah.

The Volunteers were raised from the Stockton Blues militia that Connor had set up in Stockton, California, to chase Mexican bandits. At the onset of the Civil War, they signed up and intended to head east to the main theater of the war against the Confederacy. But the Army had other ideas.

The government wanted Connor and his men to protect the overland trails and the mail and telegraph routes that linked the Union with California, a crucial link, especially during the war.

The other reason — to keep an eye on the Mormons, who were not trusted by Washington and certainly not by Connor.

His relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Brigham Young was marked by an ongoing war of words, though, amazingly enough, the two never met.

When he first set up Fort Douglas on what is now the campus of the University of Utah, he pointed its cannons directly at Young’s residence, The Beehive House. Young, for his part, had a standing militia ready to fight the federals at the first sign of trouble.

Shortly after arriving in Salt Lake City, Connor wrote to his superiors telling them the Mormons were “traitors, fanatics, murders and whores.”

He despised Young and the church because he abhorred the practice of polygamy and also saw the Mormons as being un-American.

Indeed, Connor was a naturalized American citizen by this time and a true believer in the Constitution and the westward expansion of American civilization.

The Mormons and the Native Americans were a threat to all that.

A frontier atrocity

Bear River started with the killing of a miner and ended up with the largest massacre of Native Americans in history — dwarfing the much better-known Sand Creek and Wounded Knee atrocities.

The killing was the excuse that Connor needed to carry out an expedition — he informed the local marshal that he was welcome to travel along with warrants, but it was not his intention to arrest anyone.

Over several days and nights in freezing cold conditions, he brought his men up into the Cache Valley. They lost 70 men to illness and frostbite, and his cannons got bogged down in the snow.

However, on the morning of Jan. 29, 1863, his cavalry under Maj. Edward McGarry arrived at Bear River and launched an attack.

The initial frontal attack was reckless, and the majority of men the volunteers lost that day died in the charge, repelled by the Shoshone in their defensive positions.

Connor, who had been with the bogged down cannons, then arrived to take charge and ordered his troops to flank the village on both sides.

The defenders ran out of ammunition and the killing began in earnest.

The work was done over several hours. Shoshone Chief Bear Hunter was tortured and killed — many of his people fled into the freezing river and died, but many more were brutally killed with gun, axe and by hand. An account of one of the soldiers would later say the men “were off the hook.”

Connor, then a colonel, was promoted to brigadier general after.

I spoke to historians, professors, authors, poets and to Darren Parry of the North West Band of the Shoshone. I relied heavily on the excellent work of the late Brigham Madsen who wrote a biography of Connor 30 years ago.

What I learned from Connor’s story has resonances for today’s political debate in confronting ugly parts of history — not just in America.

Confronting ugly history

Here in Ireland, we have just had a national historical look back at what was called the “Decade of Centenaries,” reflecting on the Great Lockout of 1913 through the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, which ended in 1923.

The worst atrocities of the Civil War happened here in Kerry.

At Ballyseedy, eight prisoners of war were murdered by being tied to a landmine that was then detonated by National Army forces — fellow Irishmen who had a year previously been on the same side against the English.

It’s a war and event that poisoned our politics for decades afterward.

The Irish Civil War was largely forgotten, buried deep and not taught in a significant way in schools. Many of those who took part refused to speak of it. Even now, 100 years on, there are controversies surrounding its commemoration.

Failure to acknowledge what had happened and why led to divisions and political recriminations.

People on the losing side, who were fighting for the version of Ireland they believed in, were sidelined and denied work in the new Free State. Families suffered extreme poverty and were denied military pensions.

Many left Ireland forever.

Students departing Irish schools had a color-by-numbers version of Irish history, and were more ready to buy into the idea of violence as the only means of achieving the unification of the country.

Similarly listing Bear River as a battle fits neatly into the idea of manifest destiny, of primitive and savage Native Americans being in the way of progress. Not dealing with the truth makes it easier for minorities’ concerns to be brushed aside in the future.

When I spoke to Professor Edward T. O’Donnell for my documentary, he put it this way: “History can make us proud and patriotic, but that is not its function — it should also chasten us, pull us up short and help us to make better choices in the future.”

Today there is a large plot with a plaque at Connors’ grave at the Fort Douglas Post Cemetery, as well as a statute that once stood on the grounds of the University but has since been tucked away in a corner of the garden of the Fort Douglas military museum. The plaque tells of a “soldier-statesman of great energy and vision.”

There is no mention of Bear River, but neither is there a rope around its neck or a clamour for its removal — it, and he, remain largely forgotten.

Parry, whose ancestors survived the massacre, said: “I’m not here to hit anyone over the head with hard history. I’ve realized a long time ago that we are all in the same canoe, it won’t do me any good to shoot a hole in the bottom of it. So, my message is: Let’s talk about hard history but in the context of how it can make us move forward and be better people to each other. How can we use a tragedy like this to make the world a better place?”

It’s a good question.

Jerry O' Sullivan

Jerry O’Sullivan is a native of Kenmare in County Kerry, Ireland, and is an award winning broadcast journalist who has worked in radio for 26 years both at national and local level. He was part of the founding team of Newstalk Radio, Irelands first talk radio station in 2002 and has worked in sports and current affairs. He currently presents the flagship current affairs show Kerry Today on Radio Kerry, County Kerry’s local radio station.