Miller discusses violence committed by and against Indians during the settlement of the West. He points out that more travelers were killed by the accidental discharge of weapons than by indigenous people.
When we think of Indian attacks, the circling of wagons comes to mind. Those wagons are probably on the plains, if the images from motion pictures are a guide. So, Plains Indians get the blame, or credit, depending on your point of view.
Miller says, “Careful research into the peak years of overland emigration, 1840 through 1860, shows that of more than 300,000 white travelers, only 362 were killed by Indians. Very few were killed by the celebrated tribes of the Great Plains.” He goes on to point out that about 90 percent of those who were killed by Indians died west of South Pass.
“In other words,” Miller says, “the vast majority of clashes and killings between native tribes and westbound settlers occurred in the heart of Shoshoni homelands.”
The Shoshoni often vigorously defended their land. Defense, of course, can seem like aggression when viewed through the eyes of those under fire.
So, the Bear River Massacre, deplorable as it was, did not take place in some alcove of history free from previous conflict. Was it a response by Col. Conner and his troops that was out of scale in comparison to previous attacks by Shoshonis? Yes. But how many dead would have been the perfect rejoinder?
The death toll at the Bear River Massacre can never be known with certainty. Contemporaneous reports place the loss to the Shoshonis as high as 496. That means that the military retaliation on that frigid January day in 1863 may have killed, in one attack, more Indians than the number of whites killed by Indians during the westward migration.