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Since 1938, a stone monument in the southern Idaho village of Almo has borne witness to the "horrible Indian massacre" of nearly 300 settlers at that spot along the Old West's California Trail.

The story itself has lived much longer, as oral history, enduring tales of a doomed 1861 wagon train of men, women and children and of their bloody scalps hanging from manes and bridles of ponies ridden by jubilant Shoshone-Bannock warriors.But the days of the legend and its 6-foot marker carved in the shape of Idaho may be numbered. Several prominent historians now agree that the Almo Massacre has less substance than the smoke from a pioneer campfire.

"There is some opposition from people in Almo. They've had it for 55 years, that monument, and they've believed in it," says Brigham D. Madsen, a retired University of Utah historian whose 40 years of research led him to conclude the massacre story was a fable.

"Myths die hard," he said. "It will take a while to educate the people there. . . Perhaps they will come to the conclusion to do something about this embarrassment."

In an article published in the latest Idaho State Historical Society quarterly journal, Idaho Yesterdays, Madsen notes that no date, other than 1861, has ever been assigned to the massacre, and that it went unreported in any newspapers that year or in War Department or Indian agents' reports.

Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., defends both Madsen's scholarship and conclusion that the Almo Massacre never occurred.

Had it happened, the carnage at Almo would have been second only to the 500 lives lost to an 1813 attack on Fort Mims, Ala., for the worst American Indian massacre of the 19th century, Bearss said.

"It would not have gone unreported. Something of that magnitude? No way," he said. "It would have been in the nearest press out there, in Salt Lake City, and picked up in California and the Eastern press as well."

Indeed, the first written mention of the Almo Massacre Madsen could discover was Charles S. Walgamott's 1927 reminiscences. The Idahoan recalled an 1875 visit to the site with "an old trapper who gave us a detailed account of the tragedy."

Walgamott also included secondhand accounts, purportedly 50 years old at the time, of victorious Indians riding through Brigham City, Utah, proudly displaying fresh scalps.

Madsen suggests the massacre story got its strongest push in the 1930s, when local newspaper editors used it to hype the nearby City of Rocks geological site - now a national reserve - as a tourist attraction and to campaign for an ill-fated irrigation proposal.

Merle Wells, a staff historian for the Idaho State Historical Society, said his own research supports Madsen's findings. But he is more concerned with what he describes as a "somewhat awkward situation" involving the monument in Almo, a close-knit community of less than 300 near the Utah-Idaho border.

"We're trying to work out a quiet way to handle this without having another Almo Massacre now," Wells said. "What we need is to have people working together. . .We're trying to uncircle the wagons, or something."

Almo resident Kathleen Durfee, for one, is not ready to relegate to the realm of fiction the stories told by great-grandparents who settled in the area in 1878.

"The story has been handed down for so long," she said. "I believe it is important to the people of Almo. A lot of them are fourth-, fifth-generation people who live here and they've heard and told the stories about the massacre for years.

"It's part of your history, part of what you are," Durfee said.

Bill Jones, a retired Almo schoolteacher, remembers the tale as an accepted part of local history taught to his students.

"When you grow up and people just tell you this, you believe in it. It's kind of like Santa Claus, and now you wonder if it did happen," he said. "If this thing never did happen, it ought to be changed or something."

Keith Tinno, chairman of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation's Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, heartily agrees. He sees the monument to the mythical massacre as an affront to his people's honor and history.

"We always questioned that," Tinno said, noting that tribal traditions mentioned nothing like the Almo Massacre. "We questioned that our ancestors ever had done such a thing.

"We were being accused of something that we'd never done. We need an apology, a public type of apology saying we were accused of something we didn't do."

As for the monument itself, Tinno would be satisfied with Madsen's suggestion: replacing its bronze plaque with one honoring Pocatello, a prominent chief of the last century whose name was adopted by a southeastern Idaho city.

Della Mullinix, president of the Sons & Daughters of Idaho Pioneers, admits that rededicating her group's marker as a monument to Pocatello's memory "would be pretty hard for us to swallow."

Like many in her 42-member organization, the 82-year-old Boise woman's roots reach deep into the land.

"My grandfather came here in 1875, my father was born here in 1880, and I was born here in 1911. We love the West," Mullinix said.

The apology Tinno seeks is readily given, however.

"You tell him that Mrs. Mullinix, the daughter of pioneers, apologizes," she said. "I'm sorry that the monument was put up, if it is going to hurt the Shoshone Indians.

"We're all Americans. An Indian is a true American, if there ever was one, because they were here before we were."