On January 29, 1863, a regiment of about 200 volunteers, led by Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, murdered an estimated 300 Northwestern Shoshone men, women and children in what is modern-day Franklin County, Idaho.
Almost 150 years after what is remembered as the Bear River Massacre, the remains of two of the slain are slated to return home for burial.
R. Eric Hollinger, supervisory archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., said these remains, which have been in the Smithsonian’s possession since 1898, were biologically identified as descendants of the Northwestern Shoshone. By historical consensus, both were declared victims of the massacre.
Hollinger said the remains—which consist of two crania—will be repatriated to their people along with the skeleton of another Shoshone discovered in Utah’s Weber County in 1930. That individual, he said, is determined to have died sometime after 1350.
“We’re pleased to be able to work with the tribe to effect the return of these individuals that have been away from home for so long,” Hollinger said. “It’s a very sad story as far as how [the remains] came to be so far away and here in the Smithsonian, but we are happy when we are able to assist with the return and help these individuals go home and be reunited with their people, with their descendants.”
Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, cultural and natural resource manager with the Northwestern Band of Shoshone, said her nation plans to take possession of all three sets of remains sometime before the 150th anniversary of the Bear River Massacre in January 2013.
“On January 29, we always gather,” she said. “We have a memorial and this one will be certainly an important one because it will be 150 years, and to be able to bring them back.… I don’t know. It’s never closure.”
Recalling the massacre, Timbimboo-Madsen said Connor and his men were sent from California “to keep an eye on the Mormons and to deal with the Indians.”
“It was an event that, you know, pretty much devastated our people,” she said, noting that today the population of the Northwestern Shoshone is an estimated 520.
Hollinger said there had previously been speculation that the remains of the two slain Shoshone were those of chiefs Bear Hunter and Lehi. But after further evaluation, it was concluded that one was male and most likely in his teens and the other was female, possibly in her 20s. “[Archaeological] assessment from the physical remains said that these could not be the chiefs,” he said.
According to Timbimboo-Madsen, the location of the slain Shoshone chiefs remains unknown.
Timbimboo-Madsen cites the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 as the motivation behind the return of the three Shoshone remains. According to the law, when American Indian remains and funerary items are identified by museum archaeologists, they must immediately try to repatriate them to their respective nations.
“The display of remains—that was a little hard to take,” Timbimboo-Madsen said. “And to have the mind-set of the people to change that and to look at us as human beings, for the law to change…look how long it took for that to happen.”
Hollinger said he fully supports the repatriation of American Indian items and bones and that to his knowledge, the remains of the three Shoshone had never been on display.
“These remains were in boxes for most of the time that they were in the museum,” he said. “But Native American remains—we haven’t displayed in quite some time.”
Timbimboo-Madsen said the two partial skulls and skeleton will be interred in the earth on their reservation near the massacre site.
“It’s not so much a celebration,” she said. “It’s doing something for them that they haven’t had. To lay them to rest is the most important thing.”