Shoshone try to gain ownership of historic Washakie Cemetery

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The patch of ground isn’t much to look at. Surrounded by sagebrush and tall, dry grass on a hillside just south of the Idaho state line, there’s no water – and the only access is a two-track dirt path. But looks deceive.

The parcel, just shy of 5 acres, is the resting place of more than 200 Northwestern Shoshones, including Sagwitch, the chief who led survivors of the 1863 Bear River Massacre into the Mormon Church.

And now the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, headquartered in Brigham City nearly 35 miles to the south, is taking steps to gain ownership of the Washakie Cemetery, surrounded on all sides by the band’s 180-acre “reservation” near Portage.

Mark Bedel, the band’s new executive director, says the idea is to “complete the reservation as it was intended.”

Bedel and Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, the band’s natural-resources manager, appeared last week before the Box Elder County Commission, asking that the cemetery be turned over to the tribe.

But it turns out the county does not own the cemetery, as the tribe had been told. Instead, the Washakie Cemetery is listed on Box Elder’s property rolls as belonging to George M. Ward, the 1920s-era bishop of the Washakie Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ward died in 1950, and apparently the land, tax-exempt because it’s a cemetery, was never transferred to his heirs.

The Washakie Cemetery is where it is because of Sagwitch. He was buried in the field where he died of pneumonia, probably in 1887, as his sons carried him on a stretcher back to the Washakie settlement, writes Sagwitch’s biographer, Scott R. Christensen, in the 1999 book Sagwitch: Shoshone Chieftain, Mormon Elder, 1822-1887.

Sagwitch had been harboring one of the settlement’s LDS administrators, Isaac Zundel, from polygamist-hunting federal agents, in a camp in Rough Canyon to the west, says Sagwitch’s great-great grandson, Jon Warner, now the director of the tribe’s Housing Authority.

Over the years, other Shoshones who lived in the Washakie settlement were buried around the chief, and the field became a cemetery. Some tribal members still choose to be buried there, says Timbimboo-Madsen.

And the remains of other natives excavated from early burial sites found on federal properties, such as at Hill Air Force Base, have been reinterred at Washakie. The graves are marked both by homemade markers and formal headstones, including one placed on Sagwitch’s grave in 1963 by the Sons of the Utah Pioneers.

Sagwitch and two sons survived the Bear River Massacre on Jan. 29, 1863, when the U.S. Cavalry – it was responding to friction between the Shoshones, and Mormon settlers and Oregon Trail pioneers – attacked the Shoshone camp west of Preston, Idaho. More than 300 Shoshone, many of them women and children, died that day.

In the years after the slaughter, Sagwitch and his band refused to join other Shoshone and Bannock Indians on the Fort Hall reservation in southern Idaho.

Instead, they joined the LDS Church and, under the its protective wing, learned to farm near Corinne in Box Elder County. The hostility of non-Mormons there, however, pushed them farther north to Washakie, where the church bought thousands of acres for a settlement.

By the mid-1900s, the Shoshones had largely left their homes at Washakie, moving to Ogden and northern Davis County to work in the defense industry – or to Fort Hall. Many visited Washakie only on occasion.

The LDS Church closed down the Washakie ward in 1966, and in the early 1970s, burned the remaining homes, Christensen wrote. The land was sold to a private ranching operation.

Those who considered Washakie home, however, considered it an insult from the church they loved, and eventually the band bought back the 180 acres so they could qualify as a federally recognized tribe. That recognition came in 1988.

That reservation is held by the federal government in a trust for the Northwestern Band. There is evidence that the heirs of George Ward tried to turn over the cemetery to the tribe, likely in tandem with the creation of the reservation. Two quit-claim deeds were filed with the Box Elder Recorder by Ward’s descendants in 1989.

However, the deeds were not effective, apparently because they were not on record as owners of the cemetery. At least one of those descendants, Ward’s son, J. Moroni Ward of Tremonton, has since died, according to genealogy records. Now the band will have to sort through probate records to find surviving heirs or perhaps hire a title company to sort out ownership, says Bedel.

“It just may take some time.”

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This article first appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune Ms. Moulton can be reached at kmoulton@sltrib.com