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The cultural specificity of memory and commemoration : the Bear River Massacre (1863) and the Sand Creek Massacre (1864)

Hopson, Susannah


Susannah Hopson


[From the introduction]:
This work is a study of the collective remembrance of two Native American massacre sites, Bear River (1863) and Sand Creek (1864). I have chosen to consider these two particular massacres because they both occurred during the American Civil War and took place in America’s western territories. Both massacres have been the subject of very interesting, yet substantially different, memorialization projects and their representations contrast greatly, particularly within Euro-American public and scholarly memory. The Sand Creek Massacre has a wide, varied historiography and is remembered within American history as one of the most brutal and violent massacres of indigenous peoples in the American West. By contrast, despite the number of Natives slaughtered at Bear River exceeding numbers at Sand Creek, the Bear River Massacre has a very limited historiography and to date has received little attention in American public memory.

This thesis explores the problems inherent in attempting to apply the concept of collective memory to the Euro-American and Native American remembrance of Bear River and Sand Creek from the time of the massacres until the present day. I reveal memory and commemoration at the two massacre sites to be culturally specific and demonstrate that different Euro-American and Native cultural memories are not easily transportable across disparate ethnic boundaries, a fact existing collective memory literature often fails to acknowledge. This has made the process of creating a collective memory that crosses Native and Euro-American cultures very difficult. Currently, at both Bear River and Sand Creek, different tribal and Euro-American memories of the massacres remain polarized and culturally specific, yet they co-exist at a shared site of atrocity. However, and somewhat paradoxically, I also argue that the contested process of attempting to collectively remember across disparate groups has aided in a process of healing, reconciliation and historical understanding.

In order to demonstrate the cultural specificity of memory at Bear River and Sand Creek, I critically explore the notion’s roots before examining in depth an anomaly in Western American history: how one of the biggest massacres in this history, the death of approximately 250 Northwestern Shoshoni at Bear River in Southeastern Idaho, has been consistently under-emphasized by popular and academic historians, as well as in American public memory. I contend, therefore, that Bear River cannot be entirely categorized with instances of violence against Indian peoples in the formation of the 1800s American West. I argue that this lacuna is a result of limited cross-cultural historical representation from the Mormon Church, the Northwestern Shoshoni, Unionaffiliated soldiers and Euro-American settlers. Each of these histories tends to remain separated in American scholarly and public memory. As I shall demonstrate, this has resulted in the relative obscurity of Bear River. I analyze key reasons for this underemphasis, focusing primarily on the history of Mormon settlers in the region and the relative public silence of the Northwestern Shoshoni regarding tribal history of the massacre.

The second part of this thesis centers on the better-known history of how 165-200 Cheyenne and Arapaho were massacred at Sand Creek in 1864. I pay close attention to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Southeastern Colorado, considering the problematic impact different Native and non-Native notions of place have had on constructing the collective and public remembrance of the massacre. I argue that a site of such resounding loss is subject to too many contested interpretations to serve as a viable means of expressing a form of collective memory. However, I also argue that the desire to articulate loss and voice reconciliation at Sand Creek has nonetheless led to a positive interaction across Native and non-Native boundaries that has aided in a process of healing and cultural understanding.


Hopson, S. (2017). The cultural specificity of memory and commemoration : the Bear River Massacre (1863) and the Sand Creek Massacre (1864). (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 7, 2018
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords History
Public URL
Additional Information School of Histories, Languages and Cultures, The University of Hull
Award Date Jan 1, 2017


Thesis (19.1 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2017 Hopson, Susannah. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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