I’m always a little peeved when someone depicts the shape of Idaho from memory, getting it a little wrong. This monument stretches the state from east to west, giving it a fat panhandle hardly worthy of the name. But that’s the least of the issues with this monument. The number of pioneers killed is a little off. By 300.
The earliest recorded mention of what would have been about the worst massacre ever in the old West was in 1927. That was 66 years after it was supposed to have taken place.
A 1937 article in the Idaho Statesman about the effort to erect a monument at the site noted that, “Idaho’s written histories, for some reason, say little or nothing of the Almo Massacre.”
Esteemed historian Brigham Madsen decided to look into the massacre. Madsen was a meticulous researcher and truth seeker. He checked newspapers of the time, which typically carried every clash between Indians and settlers with practiced sensationalism. Nada. He checked records from the War Department, the Indian Service, and state and territorial records. Zip.
His conclusion was that there was no such incident. So why did the Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneers put up the monument? In his opinion, it came about when a couple of area newspapers came up with something called “Exploration Day” in 1938. It was meant to bring tourists to Almo to gawk at City of Rocks, a nearby area of rock pinnacles that stands well enough on its own grandeur, thank you very much, and needs no help from a monument.
The promotion seemed to work, though President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent his regrets when invited to the unveiling of the monument. In 1939, the Statesman carried a detailed account of the massacre, notably starting with this paragraph: “Public interest in the City of Rocks near Oakley was revived recently by the second official exploration. Efforts to have the area designated as a national monument are progressing.” The detailed account gave practically a blow-by-blow description of the massacre, leaving out only the names of a single person who died there or the names of any of the five survivors.
So where did all the detail about the massacre come from? I found the account in a book called Six Decades Back, by Charles Shirley Walgamott, published first by Caxton in 1936 and republished by University of Idaho Press in 1990. Many of the newspaper accounts are lifted word for word from the book. Walgamott relied on the memory of W.M. E. Johnston who was a 12-year-old living in Ogden, Utah at the time of the alleged massacre. He remembered stories about the event from that time. About a dozen years later he and his family moved to the Almo area and began farming at the massacre site. He claimed they often plowed up old coins, pistols, and other evidence that it had taken place.
Merle Wells and other historians at the Idaho State Historical Society agreed with Madsen that the event never happened, and in the mid-1990s they proposed to take the stone down in the interest of accuracy. The residents of Almo were not at all thrilled with that idea. They had grown up hearing the story of the Almo Massacre. It was part of their cultural fabric. So, the stone stayed in place.
So did the City of Rocks. It should be on your bucket list to see the City of Rocks National Reserve, now jointly managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service. While you’re there, check out Castle Rocks State Park. Oh, and that monument, if you’re curious.