Tragedy at Bear River: two very different historical narratives

PRESTON, IDAHO–I knew on our drive this morning that Preston, Idaho, is famous as the setting for the Napoleon Dynamite movie. (You can even download “Napoleon Dynamite’s sweet map” of the town.) I did not know that just north of Preston on US Highway 91 is a place of great sadness — and some lessons about history.

Confluence of the Bear River and Battle Creek north of Preston, Idaho.

Bear River and Battle Creek join here in a fertile valley with green meadows and quiet farms. In January 1863, US Cavalry and infantry attacked a camp of Shoshone in what became known as the Battle of Bear River — and then much laterĀ  as the Bear River Massacre. You can follow the links to read the full story. I want to call attention to the separate narratives of the conflict found in two sets of memorials on the site:

Older account of the Battle of Bear River on a memorial erected by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers and other groups.

A modern sign that is part of a memorial established by the Western Shoshone on a hilltop overlooking the site.

History as with science requires evidence to support hypotheses, and all such ideas are provisional because we never have all the information we need. Some hypotheses are stronger than others, though, as we weigh the evidence and the arguments. The tragedy at Bear River is a case where the more complete story only emerged into the public generations later. It is difficult to believe that one of the largest massacres of Native Americans in history is still so poorly known 147 years later.

Shoshone prayer tree at Bear River.

About Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Professor of Geology at The College of Wooster. He specializes in invertebrate paleontology, carbonate sedimentology, and stratigraphy. He also is an expert on pseudoscience, especially creationism.
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