Sunday, September 9, 2018

Indians Attack Utter Wagon Train, Survivors Resort to Cannibalism [otd 9/9]

On September 9, 1860, a wagon train rumbled along the Oregon Trail, leaving its campsite on the western side of Castle Creek (about 30 miles west of today’s Mountain Home, Idaho). Most of the emigrants were from Wisconsin, and the nominal leader was Elijah P. Utter*.
Attack on circled wagons.
Retouched still shot from an old Western movie.

Having gotten a late start, the train was well behind the last of the “normal” groups when it reached the Fort Hall area. From there, a party of dragoons provided an escort as far as Rock Creek. There is some uncertainty as to why the troops returned east without waiting for the expected escort from further west. Whatever the case, a troop from Fort Boise did not come for the simple reason that they thought the traveling season was over.

After leaving Castle Creek, the train turned northwest and ascended some high ground. An ominous cloud of dust turned into a mass of Shoshone and Bannock warriors, singing war songs. The emigrants circled the wagons and prepared to defend themselves, while the Indians screamed and waved blankets, trying to stampede the stock.

Heavy fire began on both sides, with the warriors riding around the enclosure, rousing great swirls of dust. Donald Shannon, who has researched the Utter disaster extensively, said in an Idaho Public TV interview, “This was one time that Hollywood sort of got it right.”

After an hour or so, the attackers drew off and signed for a parley: no harm done, we want to be friends … all we want is food. Caught far from water, the pioneers agreed and fed quite a few who entered the wagon circle. Then the Indians disappeared. The whites rolled out of their defensive position. Continuing along the Trail, they did not take the most obvious direct route to reach the river. The Indians reappeared, threatening the train from a distance.
Area of Utter Massacre. D.H. Shannon image.

The emigrants began their descent to the half-mile-wide plain that spread for over a mile along the river. Almost immediately, the Indians resumed their attack and killed three men. The whites struggled into a circle again, at a location far from water. This time the warriors pressed the attack. They continued into the evening, and then yelled and fired at any movement during the night.

After a second day of siege, the emigrants made a desperate attempt to break out. They left half the wagons behind for the Indians to loot, but that failed to entice all the attackers away. Only when the whites abandoned all the wagons and other possessions did the Indians cease their attacks.

If anything, the horrors suffered by the emigrants after that were worse, but the details are gruesome … and beyond the scope of this article.

In the end, 25 of the 44 people in the train died in the attack or from starvation later. Some unfortunates resorted to cannibalism to survive. Additionally, four children were abducted – three of them soon died and the other never returned to his family. No other Indian attack on the Oregon and California trails caused greater casualties and suffering.

* “Utter” was the preferred family spelling of this Germanic name. Many early accounts gave the name as “Otter,” which suggests that the Old World spelling was “Ütter.” The Ü (u-umlaut) is pronounced rather like the English “ou” or “oo.” (But not quite … my old-school German teacher insisted on the proper, somewhat guttural sound.) Thus, people recording verbal accounts might perhaps be excused for writing it down as “Otter.”
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
Donald H. Shannon, The Utter Disaster On The Oregon Trail, Snake Country Publishing, Caldwell, Idaho (1993).


  1. I would like to know, Why did the Indians attacked this wagon train and not all that went though the area of the attack? I would like to know what cause the Indians to only these guys and not the other trains that was passing through.

  2. According to the D. H. Shannon reference, the Utter wagon train was "the last of the season." The trains ahead of them, and the Army, thought they had taken the Utah-Nevada route to California, rather than heading across Idaho. So the cavalry patrols along the Oregon Trail had been somewhat relaxed. Also, it seems like the smallish Utter train had a pretty good herd of animals -- oxen and horses. The combination of a possible rich haul and the lighter Army presence probably tempted the Indians to attack.