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Sagwitch: Shoshone Survivor of the Bear River Massacre, Mormon Convert

By: David G. - December 08, 2010

Sagwitch: Shoshone Chieftain, Mormon Elder, 1822-1887. By Scott R. Christensen. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999.

Scott R. Christensen has written a landmark biography of Sagwitch, the Northwestern Shoshone chief who converted to Mormonism a few years after the Bear River Massacre of 1863. Sagwitch (1822-1887) witnessed one of the most transformative periods in the history of the North American West, when European and then American colonial powers incorporated Shoshone homelands into colonial and global economies. Sagwitch himself was a survivor of the incredible violence that American expansion entailed, somehow escaping when over three hundred members of his band were slaughtered by U.S. troops stationed at Fort Douglas in January 1863. For over two decades following the massacre, Sagwitch sought to rebuild his people within the religio-cultural milieu of Mormonism. Christensen has done an admirable job, utilizing ethnohistorical techniques, combining oral histories with Sagwitch’s descendants, a rich array of images, and archival materials.

Born in 1822, Sagwitch likely did not live long before meeting people of European descent. Traders as well as overland trail travelers passed through his traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing grounds (Idaho, northern Utah, and Wyoming), followed by the Mormons, who came to stay. Sagwitch attempted to maintain good relations with these new neighbors; however, as their hunter/gatherer economy eroded, the Shoshones became more reliant on Mormon good will and raiding immigrant trains and Latter-day Saint settlements for survival, which caused considerable contention when Mormon farmers and ranchers began filling up Cache Valley. Christensen describes the escalation of tension and violence in the late 1850s and early 1860s, including increased involvement of the U.S. Army in maintaining order in the region. The editor of the Idaho Enterprise suggested in the summer of 1862 that Colonel Patrick Edward Conner launch a winter campaign against indigenous peoples guilty of depredations, a suggestion that was chillingly prescient.

In the winter of 1862, the cycles of violence and retaliation reached a fever pitch, and the legal authorities of Cache Valley asked Colonel Conner and his California volunteers to execute an arrest warrant for the killing of a miner, John Henry Smith, on Sagwitch and other Shoshone chiefs. Although the area where Sagwitch and the others were staying was technically in Washington Territory—and therefore outside of Conner’s jurisdiction—Christensen argues that the Colonel was eager for a fight with the Indians, in part because he was frustrated and bored being stationed in the West rather than in the East for the Civil War. Conner’s troops attacked Sagwitch’s village in the early hours of the morning on January 29, 1863. The Shoshones saw them coming, and made some defensive arrangements, but Connor’s volunteers eventually overpowered Sagwitch’s warriors and a whole-scale slaughter occurred of men, women, and children. The soldiers burned the village and took most of the supplies and horses, and witnesses reported that some soldiers raped surviving Shoshone women. Sagwitch somehow escaped with only a wounded hand and perhaps found refuge with a local Mormon family. Although exact numbers of slain Shoshones are hard to determine, 250-300 likely lost their lives (and possibly as high as 500), including Sagwitch’s wife and some of his children. Conner lost 17 men, with well over a hundred wounded and/or frostbit. Local Mormons showed kindness to the survivors; however, Christensen argues that most if not all Latter-day Saints saw the hand of God in the massacre, with the Logan First Ward minutes stating: “We, the people of Cache Valley, looked upon the movement of Colonel Conner as an intervention of the Almighty” (58). Conner and his men were heralded as heroes, and two months to the day from the massacre (March 29, 1863), he was advanced to the rank of Brigadier General.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the Shoshones struggled to survive. In July 1863, Indian Office agents finally signed a treaty with the Shoshones (the Treaty of Box Elder, which applied the terms of the Treaty of Fort Bridger), guaranteeing them compensation for government use of agricultural and military posts and emigrant roads that ran through Shoshone territory, as well as compensation for game killed by whites. Notably, this treaty did not extinguish Shoshone title to their lands. Thereafter, Christensen notes, Sagwitch no longer fought against the government or the Mormons, and used his influence to convince other bands to cease fighting. Christensen acknowledges that

the Mormons enjoyed an interesting and unique relationship with Native Americans. They managed to maintain generally peacable [sic] and friendly relations with Indian groups even as their European-style settlements displaced them, forcing the Indians to find new homes and adopt new lifeways. It was a gradual process, but the results were not less dramatic than if a conquering army had abruptly and forcibly taken the region from them. Many Native Americans resented the white settlers for their losses, though a general Mormon policy of kindness and relative generosity toward them seemed to soften that impact considerably (82).

While not downplaying potential economic motivations for Sagwitch’s interest in Mormonism, Christensen also points out that Natives found Mormon visionary culture, Book of Mormon doctrines that identified Indians with Israelites, the Saints’ healing abilities, and polygamy appealing, along with a shared sense of marginalization from mainstream white America. In the early 1870s, a “mysterious movement” swept through the Native communities of Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, which according to Indian Agent George W. Dodge had Mormon undertones and had produced wide-spread conversions to Mormonism. In the spring of 1873, one of Sagwitch’s fellow chiefs had a vision, where three messengers told him “’that the ‘Mormons’ God was the true God, and that he and the Indians’ Father were one; and that he must do it; that he must be baptized, with all his Indians, that the time was at hand for the Indians to gather, and stop their Indian life, and learn to cultivate the earth and build houses, and live in them’” (84). Sagwitch believed the vision, and sought out Mormon George Washington Hill, who had developed a reputation among the Shoshones due to his healing gifts and ability to speak Shoshone fluently. Hill baptized Sagwitch and his band in May 1873, and a few days later the “Patriarch to the Lamanites,” Dimick Huntington, ordained Sagwitch an elder (for a picture of the ordination record, see 92). Hill set Sagwitch and his people up on a farm in Franklin, ID, and zealously instructed the Shoshone Mormons in both the Gospel of Salvation and the ways of civilization (agriculture, permanent houses, etc.), thereby demonstrating the close connection between the two for Mormons. In February 1875, Sagwitch and his wife received their endowment and were sealed in the Endowment House.

Over the next few years, the Shoshones attempted to settle on church farms, but either bad location or racism forced them to move several times. The farms provided fodder for “Gentile” claims that the Mormons were inciting the Indians against non-Mormons, leading to a call-out of troops in 1875 and an eviction and relocation for the Shoshones. Christensen describes Shoshone efforts, aided by white missionaries, to adopt farming and utilize homesteading laws, a process that on the one hand legally alienated the Natives from their tribes yet allowed Sagwitch’s people to remain on their ancestral homelands, rather than move to a reservation at Fort Hall, ID. The Saints were apparently more successful in helping their indigenous charges adopt “civilization” than the government, and the white Mormon administrators of the farm occasionally allowed the Shoshones to hunt and gather, as long as these activities did not interfere with the harvest. Other tribes periodically visited the Mormon Indian settlements so they could “have a meeting ‘as far from the white man as they can get easily’ in order to receive instructions and baptism” (151).

Christensen provides rich details on the Native’s religious lives. In 1880 the church established of a ward at the Indian settlement, with meetings conducted almost entirely in Shoshone (except for the sacrament prayers). White leadership tolerated continued use of traditional healing practices, although they also encouraged priesthood blessings. The leadership also permitted the Shoshones to conduct traditional marriage ceremonies. One of Sagwitch’s sons was called as a missionary among his own people, and covert plans were discussed to send unofficial Shoshone missionaries to the reservations– where white Mormons were not allowed preach–to spread the Gospel. Sagwitch’s people dedicated countless hours to the construction of the Logan temple, and after its dedication performed ordinances for their deceased relatives.

Christensen discusses Sagwitch’s death, explaining that “it is truly sad, but not so surprising, that the death of a man of such obvious note and historical importance could be missed entirely by the larger Anglo culture that had displaced Sagwitch and his people and occupied their lands” (185-86). Sagwitch’s people, however, did not forget him, as over two hundred of his descendants and relatives have chosen to be buried around his grave. Sagwitch’s descendants remained dedicated to the church. His son Yeager spoke in General Conference in 1926. Another son, Moroni Timbimboo, became the first Native American Mormon bishop in 1939 (and, with his counselors, the first indigenous bishopric), while other descendants served as missionaries. Sadly, Christensen traces the gradual decline and eventual disappearance of the settlement founded by Sagwitch (as his descendants assimilated and moved away), although Christensen ends on a positive, describing the federal recognition of the Northwestern Shoshone band in 1988 and the tribe’s purchase of much of the old settlement for its headquarters.

On its own terms, the biography succeeds, and provides a solid example of what capable scholars can do with such biographical studies. We have solid article-length pieces on Jane Manning James (Coleman, p. 144-64), Elijah Abel, Walker Lewis, and the Ute Chiefs Waccara and Kanosh, but to my knowledge, this is the only full-length study we have of a non-white Mormon, at least that has been published by a major university press. However, scholars who are interested in what Sagwitch’s life reveals about broader themes of Native American accommodation with Western religions, such as Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, will likely come away wanting more from Christensen’s work. The biography also hints at, but does not explore, the place of white Mormons in the broader history of settler colonialism in the West. On the one hand, white Mormons were just as adept at violently dispossessing Indian from their lands as other white Americans and they pushed “civilization” just as ardently as the government and other Christian groups. But on the other hand, Sagwitch and other Natives seemingly found Mormon beliefs about Native peoples more appealing and affirming than what other white Americans were offering. Christensen therefore provides a solid contribution to Mormon studies that will allow future scholars to conduct these broader inquiries.



13 Comments

  1. The farms provided fodder for “Gentile” claims that the Mormons were inciting the Indians against non-Mormons, leading to a call-out of troops in 1875 and an eviction and relocation for the Shoshones.

    Well they had been, hadn’t they?

    It’s kind of discouraging reading the history of Mormon-Indian relations versus what one kind of hopes would have happened. Of course given the social realities of the times on both sides combined with the inexorable and unstoppable influx of settlers it probably was unlikely we could have done that much better. Still I recall the first time I heard of Porter Rockwell’s involvement with one of the massacres and how bad I felt…

    Comment by Clark — December 8, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  2. In a broad sense, you’re right that Mormon interpretations of the BoM and the memory of Mountain Meadows (JDL’s trials in the 1870s kept the massacre in the news and part of Corinne’s hysteria in the 1870s stemmed from a belief that the white Mormons were planning a second Mountain Meadows) gave the residents of Corinne some basis for their charges. But Christensen finds no evidence that the Shoshones and the white missionaries were planning to attack on Corinne in 1875. When the troops arrived and conducted a brief investigation, they found no real basis for the eviction, but ordered it anyway.

    Comment by David G. — December 8, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  3. Almost thou persuadest me to read about the Utah period. This sounds great.

    Comment by smb — December 8, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  4. I’ve read Hill’s account of the mass Indian baptisms (which is extraordinary) and there is an old article from the 1940s in the Utah Humanities Review that treats the Shoshone conversions; this sounds like a much needed update and I appreciate the pointer.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 8, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

  5. smb: I figured you’d like the reference to Sagwitch’s grave and the Shoshone cemetery. There’s also a few references in the text to Sagwitch not wanting to move to the Fort Hall reservation, since he wanted to stay near the graves of his ancestors.

    J: Christensen pulls together several sources that mention mass Indian baptisms all over the place in the 1870s, not just among the Shoshones. I think, but I’m still not completely clear on this, that they’re part of the first Ghost Dance movement of the decade. I hope to do a post sometime about what looks to me like a “Mormon-Native Great Awakening” of the 1870s.

    Comment by David G. — December 8, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

  6. That is interesting, David. When I reviewed Paul Reeve’s last volume I was curious as to why he didn’t treat the influence of the Ghost Dance, as I had seen some Ghost Dance related materials at the Pipe Springs national monument; but Paul indicated that there wasn’t any documented influence down South where he was working. I’m quite interested in these mass baptisms and consequently look forward to your work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 8, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  7. Thanks for the detailed review, David. This looks like a significant contribution. Can you say a bit more about the types of sources Christensen used to reconstruct Sagwitch’s life? And do you think that the source material available could be used in a way to produce something similar to Greer’s reinterpretation of Catherine Tekakwitha’s life?

    Comment by Christopher — December 9, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  8. Sure Chris. Christensen relies primarily on sources written by whites who interacted with Sagwitch (such as George Washington Hill), newspaper accounts that describe Sagwitch, church and government records, and oral histories with Sagwitch’s descendants.

    Not having read Mohawk Saint in full (I’ve just read some of it via Amazon), I won’t be able to answer your question in a really satisfactory way. Greer relies a lot on the writings of the Jesuit Claude Chauchetière in his reinterpretation, correct? I think the biggest issue here stems from the types of questions that Greer was asking of the source material, and I think that those same questions could frame a study of Sagwitch’s life.

    Comment by David G. — December 9, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  9. Yeah, Greer takes the narrative from two posthumous hagiographies of Tekakwitha written by two Jesuit missionaries who knew her–Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec. He reads each source against the grain, so to speak, and relies on anthropological and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the Mohawk world in which Tekakwitha was raised and that, according to Greer, continued to shape her religiosity and life even after her conversion to Catholicism.

    It sounds like Christensen did a great job in contextualizing Sagwitch’s life and his conversion to Mormonism. I’m excited to read this book at some point.

    Comment by Christopher — December 9, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  10. Ah, ok. That makes sense. Yeah, Christensen doesn’t do much with Shoshone religion or survivals after Sagwitch’s conversion. My sense is that more could be said there, if those questions were brought to bear on the sources. Hopefully Ardis P. will alert him to my review and he can give his take on that.

    Comment by David G. — December 9, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

  11. Good work. I read this when it was first published. There were several mass baptisms in 1875 and a general feeling among outsiders that there was yet another Mormon-Indian conspiracy afoot. Taugu (aka Coal Creek John) a Southern Paiute leader was ordained an Elder that year and given a written commission of sorts to baptize and preach among the Southern Paiutes. I’d be interested in a Ghost Dance connection among the Shoshone. My colleague Greg Smoak published an article on the alleged Mormon-Shoshone Ghost Dance connection. I don’t recall if he addresses these mass baptisms or not. One Indian agent report called the mass baptisms a “corruption akin to the spirit actuating the famed Mountain Meadows massacre.” I tried to interest a grad student in doing an MA project on this, but he went in a different direction. I’ll be interested in what you have found David.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — December 9, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  12. David, I just sent Scott an email with a link, since I haven’t run into him this week.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 9, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

  13. Thanks, Paul. Good stuff. I’m not clear from the online Mormon bib if Smoak’s article on Fort Hall and the Ghost Dance deals with the 1890 Ghost Dance or the 1870s one. I’ll have to check it out (and his earlier one).

    Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by David G. — December 9, 2010 @ 11:03 pm