Tuesday, Jan. 29, marks the 150th anniversary of the Bear River Massacre.
On that day in 1863, a detachment of U.S. troops attacked the winter camp of the Northwestern Shoshone near today’s Preston, Idaho. The soldiers slaughtered men, women and children, including numerous of the elderly and sick, and committed other atrocities. When it was over, more than 300 had perished, making the Bear River Massacre the single greatest loss of Indian lives in American history.
Sagwitch survived the near annihilation of the Northwestern Shoshone, although he sustained gunshot wounds and lost family members at the Bear River Massacre. He witnessed the progressive destruction of his people until they were destitute and on the brink of starvation.
Yet in 1873, when a compelling dream instructed tribal leaders to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and abandon their nomadic lifestyle, Sagwitch peacefully, humbly and courageously led his band in a new direction.
They not only survived but, in time, they thrived
“Accepting the gospel saved us … ,” asserts Darren B. Parry, presently vice chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and a direct descendant of Sagwitch.
Parry marvels at his ancestor’s valiant faith, at the remarkable sequence of events that resulted in blessings and how the Mormon religion – the gospel of Jesus Christ – helped his people gain hope and the ability to forgive in the aftermath of the massacre.
The story of Chief Sagwitch and the conversion of Shoshone massacre survivors to the Mormon faith is told in a fascinating article published in the January 24 edition of the Deseret News.
Early in 1873, one of Sagwitch’s fellow chiefs had a vision in which three men visited him. One of the three messengers told him “that the Mormon’s God was the true God … that he and the Indian’s Father were one; that he must go to the Mormons and they would tell him what to do; that he must be baptized, with all his Indians; and that the time was at hand for the Indians to gather, stop Indian life, and learn to cultivate the earth and build houses…
Scott R. Christensen, historian and author
In early 1873, one of Sagwitch’s fellow chiefs had a vision in which three messengers told him that “he must go to the Mormons… that he must be baptized, with all his Indians… and that the time was at hand for the Indians to … cultivate the earth and build houses”.
The chiefs believed the dream was the will of the Great Spirit. They sought out a trusted contact in the Mormon community — former missionary George Washington Hill, who had once visited their lands and spoke their language. With Hill’s help — and the blessing and encouragement of Church President Brigham Young — LDS missionary work was begun among the remnants of the Shoshone people in the Bear River valley.
Teaching began on May 5, 1873, and by the end of the day, more than 100 individuals had been baptized and confirmed .
Shortly after their baptisms, Sagwitch and three other tribal leaders met with Brigham Young and were given the Melchizedek Priesthood. Two years later, Sagwitch and his wife received the temple endowment and were sealed in marriage by President Wilford Woodruff.
Between 1873 and 1877, nearly 1,200 were baptized in the Bear River, including members of various bands and tribes throughout the Intermountain West. They buried their weapons of war and became peaceful, faithful members of the church.
In 1880, a ward of the Church was established in the Indian community at Washakie. With the exception of the sacrament prayers (read from the Book of Mormon in English), the meetings and administration of the ward were conducted in Shoshone.
The members at Washakie proved to be among the most faithful in the church. They contributed heavily to the construction of the Logan Temple and, following its dedication, were among the first to perform work for their kindred dead.
Through the years, these members also maintained a high level of church attendance and distinguished themselves through generous payment of tithing and offerings.
After his death in 1887, Sagwitch’s descendants displayed a strong commitment to their LDS faith.
His son Beshup Timbimboo, who survived the massacre at age two with seven wounds, became one of the Church’s earliest Native American missionaries, ultimately serving three proselyting missions.
Soquitch, Sagwitch’s oldest son, served as a priesthood leader at Washakie for many years, and fulfilled a special ministry to the sick of his people.
Yeager Timbimboo, another of Sagwitch’s sons who survived the massacre, gave an electrifying address in Shoshone at the Church’s general conference in 1926, his remarks being translated simultaneously to English by his bishop.
In 1939, Sagwitch’s grandson Moroni Timbimboo became the first Native American bishop in the Church.
Numerous other descendants have served missions and fill various positions in the church to this day.
Since I have accepted this gospel, I have felt to be a friend to this people, and I have no desire to kill, or do anything wrong that would displease the Spirit of the Lord.
Yeager Timbimboo, speaking at the 1926 General Conference
“After everything he (Sagwitch) had been through … by one man accepting the gospel, thousands of lives, including mine, were changed,” says tribal leader Darren Parry.
In 2012, artists Linda Christensen, Mike Malm, and Cheryl S. Betenson painted a mural depicting missionaries and a group of Indians during a baptismal confirmation on the banks of the Bear River in the 1870s.
The colorful mural now hangs in the baptistry of the new Brigham City Temple. Part of it is visible, to the far right, in the photograph alongside.
If you find this story interesting, be sure to read Trent Toone’s outstanding article in its entirety in the Deseret News.