Utter Massacre on the Oregon Trail


In 1860, eight families from the mid-West joined together to follow the Oregon Trail to Oregon. They were attacked by Indians when near their destination.

Thousands of emigrants traveled from the eastern states to the West Coast via the Oregon Trail. The group known as the Utter train assembled in southern Wisconsin. The two largest groups were the Elijah P. Utter family with 12 and the Joseph Myer family with 9. The Daniel Chase party from Illinois had five members. The Alexis Van Ornum family had seven members.

They followed the usual route of the Oregon Trail and arrived at Fort Hall, Idaho on August 21, 1860. They heard about other Indian attacks along the Snake River plain by the Shoshoni. Some discharged troopers went along with the Utter train. Twenty-two other soldiers escorted the train as far as Twin Falls, Idaho. From there they crossed the Snake River and headed west across the Bruneau River.

On September 9, eight wagons, 44 people, and 100 animals were attacked by about 100 Indians while heading northwest of Castle Creek near the Oregon border. The train formed a defensive circle to protect the livestock. The Indians charged, trying to stampede the stock. Finally they made friendly gestures and the white men agreed to give them food. But the Indians attacked again as soon as the wagons started to move. Several animals and three white men were shot. About 20 Indians were killed.

The Indians charged again in the morning. Four white men were killed and several were wounded. The Indians kept up the attack and 25 to 30 were killed. But the white men could not hold them off and the Indians began to ransack the wagons. Ultimately Mr. and Mrs. Utter and four of their children were killed. Twenty-seven survivors fled and hid a short distance away. The next morning, the emigrants continued West on foot. They rested during the day and traveled at night. They had very little food and had to kill both family dogs.

Eventually they reached the Owyhee River in Oregon. There they managed to shoot ducks and geese and capture frogs and lizards for food. Shoshoni showed up and traded fish for guns. Ultimately though, several of the younger children died of starvation. The survivors ate the bodies to save themselves.

Henry Snyder, an ex-soldier from Fort Hall who abandoned the train and fled, eventually got word to The Dalles. The army sent troops from Fort Vancouver. Jake and Joe Rieth, reached the Umatilla Reservation. Bryan Dawes immediately dispatched supplies to their last known location, but did not find the survivors.

About October 11, Captain Frederick T. Dent set out from Fort Walla Walla with 100 men to look for survivors. On October 19, scouts found two of the survivors on a branch of the Burnt River. They were almost skeletal with little clothing.

But they were too late for the Van Ornum group. After staying at the Owyhee shelter for two weeks they left. About two miles northwest of Farewell Bend, Oregon they were slaughtered by Indians. A day or two later they found the Owyhee camp and found 12 survivors. Four Van Ornum children had been taken captive by the Indians. The rescue expedition arrived back at Fort Walla Walla on November 7, 1860.

Elias D. Pierce launched an expedition to look for the missing Van Ornum children. Two years later they were still missing. Major Edward McGarry led an expedition to the Cache Valley in November 1862. After a brief skirmish the major recovered one of the boys, Reuben. The other three were thought to have died of starvation while captive.


  1. The Utter Disaster on the Oregon Trail. Donald H. Shannon, Snake Country Publishing, Caldwell, Idaho, 1993