Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Battle of Bear River

Refer to caption
The Battle of Bear River by Edmond J. Fitzgerald
Preston, Idaho Post Office
Image by Jimmy Emerson. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

The post office in Preston, Idaho features a mural depicting one of the worst massacres of American Indian people in American history, the Bear River Massacre of 1863. Titled The Battle of Bear River, the mural was painted in 1941 by watercolor artist Edmond J. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, one of seven children, was born in Seattle in 1912 and attended the California School of Fine Arts where he studied with Lee Randolph. He was heavily influenced by artist Eustace Zeigler, and the two had neighboring studios in Seattle. Fitzgerald also spent time painting in Alaska and on the Oregon coast. In 1940, he married one of his art students, Mary Louise Streets. A ceramic artist herself, she helped Fitzgerald with his mural projects. In addition to this mural in Preston, Fitzgerald also painted the murals in Ontario, Oregon and Colville, Washington. He appears to have been determined to include Indian people in his depictions of history in the Pacific Northwest, as all 3 of his murals feature American Indians. Fitzgerald served for 26 years in the Naval Reserves, and commanded a landing craft during World War II. His teaching assignments included the Newark Academy of Art, Parson's School of Design, and the New York Academy of Design. Fitzgerald was a past President of the Allied Artists of America and the American Watercolor Society, for whom he became the first Honorary President and also a regular exhibition juror. His professional memberships included The Artist's Fellowship and the National Society of Mural Painters. Edmond Fitzgerald died in Cincinnati in 1989.

Fitzgerald’s mural remains as a graphic reminder of some of the violence perpetrated against American Indians in the United States. When Mormon pioneers first began settling in what is now northern Utah, they entered the country of three major bands of Northwestern Shoshone. A band of 450 Northwestern Shoshone, under the principal leader Chief Bear Hunter, resided in today’s Cache Valley and along the lower reaches of the Bear River. For 15 years, Chief Bear Hunter witnessed the continued loss of land, valley water, grass seed and wild game to the Mormon settlers and their cattle, driving his people closer to starvation. The Shoshone launched a rebellion, which was settled with the granting of provisions from the Mormons along with a fragile peace. Shoshone resistance to the disruption of the settler invasion, came to the attention of the U.S. Marshall, who turned the matter over to Union military Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, of the Third Infantry of 200 California Volunteers. Connor was bent on confronting both the Indians and the Mormons for what he considered to be their “treasonous actions.” Warrants for the arrest of three Shoshone Indian chiefs–Bear Hunter, Sandpitch and Sagwitch were ordered. Connor announced that he intended to take no prisoners. He and his troops set out from Ft. Douglas, Utah, in the deep snow of January 1863 towards Chief Bear Hunter’s camp, 120 miles north near present-day Preston, Idaho. The Shoshone camp included about 300 Shoshone warriors defensively placed in the Battle Creek ravine west of Bear River. Shortly after dawn on January 29, Connor’s troops appeared across the river and began crossing.

Some troops made an unsuccessful frontal attack easily withstood by the Shoshone, who inflicted numerous casualties. Connor then sent troops to where the ravine cut through the bluffs. Some of the troops covered the mouth of the ravine to prevent any Indians from escaping, while other soldiers moved down the rims, firing on the Indians below. This gunfire killed many warriors, and some began jumping into the icy river to escape, only to be shot in the water. As the killing continued, Connor’s men appeared to lose control. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen women forcefully raped, people shot at point blank range, and babies bludgeoned to death. The massacre stopped at 10 o’clock that morning, having lasted four hours. According to Connor’s own account, 224 bodies were found in the field, including those of Chief Bear Hunter and Chief Lehi. After taking horses and arms, Connor burned the Shoshone lodges and left a meager supply of grain for the women and children he had captured and then released. Connor acknowledges there may have been many more casualties, but the cold and the condition of his own wounded troops necessitated his hasty removal from the site without a full inspection. Accounts by both sides give a range of Shoshone dead from 255, rising to 400. The official National Park Service form that declares the massacre site a National Historic Landmark includes a lengthy narrative of the massacre, including details of the buildup and the aftermath. The author notes that “neither the senior officers, nor the reports and stories told by other whites reference any Native Americans wounded, or any male Shoshonis captured.”

In contrast, casualty figures from the Civil War at the same point in time were usually four wounded to one dead. The absence of reports of wounded Shoshone or male Shoshone prisoners indicate that all were slain or left for dead, or, as the National Park Service author observes, “Connor and his soldiers evidently believed that the only good male Indian was a dead Indian.” Though the massacre at Bear River has not received the same level of publicity as other encounters such as the Wounded Knee massacre of Lakota in South Dakota, in 1890, it is regarded by many as the single worst massacre of Indian people in American history.

History’s recognition of these events has been problematic, and it has taken over a century for the massacre itself to be formally acknowledged as such. A metal plaque on a monument to the massacre erected in 1953 by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers says the massacre was provoked by an “attack by the Indians on the peaceful inhabitants” in the area and that the Indians were “guilty of hostile attacks on emigrants and settlers.” The Bear River Battleground was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990 and renamed the Bear River Massacre Site in 1993. This reflected an effort by the descendants of the Shoshone murdered there to change the official name of the event to reflect the reality of the engagement. The event was known to them as the Massacre at Boa Ogoi. A picture of the mural is posted on the website of the Preston, Idaho Business Association, on the History page. After the Bear River Massacre drove the Shoshone out of the area and onto reservations, Mormon Latter-Day Saint (LDS) settlers arrived in 1866 and founded a community, which was originally called Worm Creek. This name was changed to Preston, in honor of Preston, England, a city of importance to the LDS movement. The townsite was fully laid out in the 1880s.

The mural, while seeming to paint a fairly direct and impartial picture of the events at Bear River, still elicits one or two questions. By all accounts, the weather on this day in January was extremely cold. The river is described as “icy,” and eyewitness accounts note how soldiers who got wet in the river had their uniforms freeze to their skins. Connor lamented the serious damage done to many of his men by frostbite. In this case, one might wonder why the artist chose to paint the Shoshone as nearly naked. All the Shoshone warriors in the mural are clad in nothing but a loincloth, and occasionally a war bonnet. Historic photographs of Shoshone people clearly show them wearing a many layers of clothing in the cold months. The overall design of the mural is violent and bleak, with a central figure of a soldier on a horse shooting a Shoshone at close range with a rifle. Bodies are sprawled on the snow, and as the eye moves to the right of the mural, the sky grows darker and becomes black with the smoke from burning tipis. This is an accurate detail for Fitzgerald to have included, as eyewitness accounts report that after the massacre ended, Connor burned the tipi poles of the Shoshone to keep his men warm, leaving the women and children survivors with no means of shelter. As disturbing as the story behind the mural is, it at least serves as an ever-present reminder of the violent history of the area, and the regretful means by which the town of Preston was opened up to white settlement.

By Meghan A. Navarro


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Indians at the Post Office