As promised, this week I commence being your tour guide. We’ll begin with the nearest place I can think of besides the lake and local parks – Massacre Rocks, Register Rock and the Oregon Trail. These might be words you’ve heard often, but they are featured in history classes all over the world, and many people travel here just to see these things.
The Oregon Trail passed the site of Aberdeen long before the town was thought of. It followed the east side of the Snake River south from Fort Hall on a route now covered by the American Falls Reservoir, and passed through the present town site of American Falls.
About 20 miles further west, it passed through a narrow gap in the rocks, where a wagon train was once ambushed by Native Americans, with some fatalities. It wasn’t a ‘massacre’ really but the name remains. Massacre Rocks State Park has been established close to the site of this event. There is a visitor center here with historical information, and paths lead down to the Snake River. At the very opposite end of the site from the visitor center, there is a subway under the road leading to a well-signed relic of the Oregon Trail, where the wagon ruts can still be seen. They were clearer before a wildfire several years ago but they can still be seen. These paths are great for youngsters with too much energy to clamber up and down. The subway under the road is paved and suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.
A very short drive further on, there is a picnic area at Register Rock. The rock itself is large and marked a campsite on the trail. Many passing settlers scratched their names and other messages on the rock over time. Some faded, but the rock has been covered now so that many surviving specimens can be preserved. Nearby, another rock bears profile drawings of a Native American chief, and a preacher, drawn by a boy who later became an accomplished artist.
This ‘tour’ is a great springboard for discussion on the deprivations the pioneers suffered walking on the trails – have your kids do the walk in bare feet for five minutes and remind them the pioneers did that for months! It is also a great opportunity to explain about the tribes, what the invasion from ‘the white people’ meant to them, and to set straight some of the old stories of terrifying “Indians” who attacked innocent white people for no reason.
The relationship between the native people and the passing settlers became more and more tense; their travels had a big impact on the native grazing areas and on the wild game they hunted for food. The pioneers left a plethora of dead animals on the side of the trail which the tribal members understandably objected to. Most of the problems pioneers had with “Indians” that were unprovoked were teenage warriors eager to show how tough they were. Pioneers began to get the idea that shooting at the tribal people was some sort of sport – which only attracted revenge attacks. The original aggravators had moved on and so the next train was on the receiving end of the attacks, which seemed unprovoked to them, and only increased the feelings.
In addition to this, bandits that were ‘white men’ dressed up as ‘Indians’ to get away with murder and plunder. One such case happened near American Falls where eight emigrants were killed, scalped and butchered and a five year old girl had her legs cut off at the knee and both eyes gouged out; she was said to have been made to walk on the severed stumps before expiring. Such acts were then attributed to the tribal people, even though they had nothing to do with it. Accounts of this attack in all its gory details, and attributed to the tribal people were published in many newspapers, which were read by the next groups of travelers coming along. Thus adding to the undue fear of the native people on behalf of the pioneers, and leading to more animosity between the two groups. Chief Pocatello ordered retaliation attacks, which of course were also widely published and the retaliation part was also left out.
Despite the numerous gruesome stories, Captain Medorem Crawford, Commander of the 1862 Emigrant Service, wrote to the Secretary of War; “These are all the evidences of Indian depredations that have come under my observation, and I am satisfied that many of the statements published on this subject are greatly exaggerated”. Ten men and one girl were buried under boulders by the rocks and this was deemed enough to call the nearby site “Massacre Rocks” from then on.
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