John W. Gunnison was a West Point graduate who had been sent to Utah 1849–50 as an assistant for Captain Howard Stansbury’s topographical survey. Wintering in the Utah territory, Gunnison found time to study his unusual hosts and their singular religion. The result was his influential book, The Mormons,in which he attempted to navigate the usual extremes of the time, Mormon polemics and gentile censure. Three years later in October 1853, Gunnison returned to Utah as a newly named captain of his own government survey. Gunnison divided his command and led eleven men into the Sevier basin for what he thought would be the last mapping session of the season. The expedition had a much greater finality. At daybreak on October 26, a band of Pahvant Indians surprised and killed Gunnison along with seven of his men. Four others fled and narrowly escaped.
A century and a half after the event, the Gunnison Massacre may seem to be a footnote in Utah’s unfolding. But footnotes in history often reflect or even determine larger issues. In the nineteenth century and recently with the publication of a new book dealing with the event, the Gunnison Massacre has been used to suggest that the Mormon kingdom was guilty of criminal acts and conspiracy.Reflecting the rumors of the alleged violence of pioneer Mormonism, the various conspiracy theories suggest that Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders, supposedly angry with Gunnison for his recent book, either killed the soldier and his party, or they directly or indirectly created a climate which led their followers to do so. Then the Mormons allegedly tried to conceal their role by manipulating the trial of the Pahvant Natives who were charged with the atrocity.
In the document below, President Young tells his side of the story. In the fall of 1855, almost two years after the massacre, Young wrote to Jefferson Davis, U.S. Secretary of War at the time and Gunnison’s former superior. When Young wrote his letter, the Gunnison trial had already been held—with less than favorable repercussions for the Mormon people. An all-LDS jury refused to follow the judge’s instructions to convict or acquit on a first-degree murder charge and found the indicted Pahvants guilty, instead, of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The verdict outraged government officials and many American citizens, who clearly hoped the Indians might be executed. The Mormons, it was charged, were disloyally coddling the Indians for their own purposes. So strong was the public outcry that the episode became a turning point in Utah-Federal relations.
Obviously disturbed over the continuing rumors linking Mormons with the event, Young penned a strongly worded letter which ran twenty-two handwritten pages (not counting several long appendices). Utah’s Congressman, John M. Bernhisel, received the letter from Young and dutifully sent it to Davis. But the cautious territorial delegate never published it. He wrote President Young expressing his feeling that “there is not an individual to be found at present who gives any credence to the libelous charge that Captain Gunnison was massacred by some of our people.”Bernhisel may have had additional reasons for his decision. Since it documented the tawdry conduct of some of Utah’s Washington-appointed officials, the report undoubtedly would have embarrassed the administration. With Young’s pungent temper also on display, Bernhisel likely felt the letter was better left to a private circulation. It is published here for the first time.
Young’s letter is a good place to begin a study of the Gunnison affair. The letter summarizes what Mormons at the time believed had taken place and therefore contains important, unpublished data about the episode. It also gives a glimpse into the personality and concerns of Brigham Young. The reader, for instance, will not have to probe too deeply to find evidence of Young’s beliefs that he and the Mormon people were chronically misunderstood and that their opponents were sometimes indiscreet or even malicious. Once more, the nineteenth-century Mormon sense of embattlement is clear.
In terms of history, Young’s manuscript holds up well. Even without the careful documentation that a modern scholar might give these events, the letter gives a broad outline of what actually happened. In addition to Young’s data, the edited text as printed below appends in endnotes further information drawn from Church records, militia reports, and private and government documents. Together, this old and new evidence confirms President Young’s basic conclusion: the Mormons were not protagonists in the affair.
Copies of Young’s report are found among the Jefferson Davis Papers at Rice University and also among the Governor’s Papers, Brigham Young Collection, at the LDS Church Archives in Salt Lake City. The typescript that follows maintains the original spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar insofar as the sometimes faint writing can be accurately read.
Great Salt Lake City
September 8th 1855.
Contrary to my usual custom, in regard to the various false, malicious, and slanderous Reports, set in motion against my character, by wicked and designing men, I consider, the one in regard to the Gunnison massacre, and my alleged interference with the Jury, influencing their minds in their decision of that case.
As one calling for a reply, and vindication on my part, I am often made aware of, the utter uselessness, and folly of seeking to vindicate my character, from such foul aspersions, as are occasionally raised against me; from the simple fact, that although, the foul aspersion can be bruited far and wide, held to the fluttering breeze by every press, and rolled as a sweet morsel under every tongue, yet when the vile slander is fairly refuted, and truth appears in the most incontestable manner, it is permitted to lie quietly upon the shelf to slumber, the [page 2] sleep of death or if by chance, it should get published in some obscure nook, or corner of this great Republic, be most religiously suppressed, as though in fear that the truth should be Known, and beleived.Still in this case under consideration, I feel it incumbent upon me, for my own satisfaction, and that of my friends, as well, as the relatives of the lamented Gunnison, who have desired me to furnish all the details, and particulars of that unfortunate occurrence, and the subsequent trials, before the U.S. Court, of the Indians supposed to have been engaged therein; to gather up, and publish to the world, all the facts in the case. so far as it is possible at the present date.
After premising so much, I will proceed to the details, only remarking, that I did furnish as full a detail of the massacre, and the attending circumstances at the time to the War Department, dated G.S.L. City Nov. 30, 1853. and which I find by comparing with facts elicited since that time, and now before me, literally true, so far as it goes.
A Copy of that Report, marked A, is hereby subjoined.[page 3]
On the 18th of July 1853, the Utah Indianscommenced open hostilities, by killing a man by the name of Kiel at Payson, and driving off a few cattle; they continued waylaying, and shooting who they could find. During the remainder of the summer, and fall, men were frequently killed while going to the Kanyons for wood, traveling from one settlement to another, and in various places in the Territory, while pursuing their peaceful avocations.
The Pauvan Indians, are a band of Utahs, inhabiting Millard County, about 150 miles south of this City. Soon after hostilities had commenced, they visited Walker Indian Chief, and the Utahs, who had taken to the mountains with the view of joining him, and his party in the war against the whites. For some reason unknown to us, but probably attributable to the uniform Kindness extended to them by the settlers in Millard County; they soon returned, and said, that they were not going to fight, unless Walker, [page 4] and the Utahs made them do so, and appeared to be greatly under their influence when they were ranging in their neighborhood, and not so much when farther away.
The principal scenes of actual hostilities, transpired at Sanpete, Juab, and Utah Counties, although, one person was shot while on guard in Fillmore City, & many Cattle were Killed.Kenosha, the Pauvan Chief, who was always peaceably disposed, finally concluded, that to take some of his braves into the mountains, on a hunt, would be productive of better feeling than to remain in the settlements, where they were continually excited by accounts of bloodshed enacted elsewhere in the Territory.
It is a difficult matter for an indian, to restrain his natural propensity; slaughter when the breath of war is on the breeze. It Kindles a flame in his bosom, which is only quenched by the flow of blood.
Captain Hildreth &C[ompany],before the massacre, during the absence of the Pauvan Chief Kenosha, upon his hunt, were going the Southern route to California, arrived at at [sic] Fillmore, in Millard County, about the 23rd of September a.d. 1853. For corroborating [page 5] testimony, see statement of Saml P. Hoyt herewith subjoined, marked, B.
On that night, this Company which traveled under the direction of a Captain Hildreth encamped on Meadow Creek, about Eight miles south of Fillmore City; while encamped some Indians came to their Camp, for the purpose, (as they say) of trading with them as is their usual custom; they were roughly treated; told to leave, &c; but they concluded that it was their land, and they had a right to remain. The whites then required them to give up their arms, which they all agreed to, but one Tonif, who had only bow, and arrows, upon which one of the Company of the name of Hartendeavoring to force them from him, he stabbed him in the abdomen, upon which, Hart shot Tonif with his revolver, who, after running a few rods, dropped down, and died.
The Company also fired several times at the Indians, wounding one, or two others, and Kept one in Camp tied to a wagon wheel all night, who said, that he suffered severely with the cold. It is presumable, however, that his sufferings was partly from fright, as the weather was not very cold. [page 6] During this affray, Captain Hildreth was absent from his camp, taking care of his stock. Upon learning the facts, he regretted exceedingly what had transpired, and said, if he had been present, he might have prevented it. He further said, that he would settle it, if he could by giving presents, not so much upon his own account, as he was able to take care of himself, and Company, but being acquainted with Indian character, he feared that some other persons, or company would have to suffer, in consequence of it. Thus inadvertently predicting the revenge, which, shortly after, was poured out upon the devoted heads of Captain Gunnison, and party.
Kenosh, having been sent for, came in, and succeeded in measureably quieting the excitement, although Kenosh, & Quentsaid, they would not fight, but they stated, at the same time, that some of the “Pauvan Boys,” as they called them were mad, and might fight; among these, the sons of Tonif, were the principal, although there were many who [held] him in high esteem. Tonif, was an elderly man, of considerable influence among his tribe, and considered one of their head men. It was not supposed, that those who still felt dissatisfied would commit any hostilities upon the whites, except it might be Captain Hildreth’s company. [page 7] They followed them to seek an opportunity of revenge, nearly out of this Territory.
The excitement died away, and Kenosh went out again upon his hunt, and all appeared quiet.
On the 24th of October Captain Gunnison arrived at Fillmore City, at which place, he visited with a few men, leaving the main party camped at Cedar Springs. about 10 miles north of the City, he transacted various business in that place,—was informed of the peaceable disposition of the Indians in that region, as well as what, had previously occured with them, at Captain Hildreth’s camp.He returned to his camp, and on the next day, 25th of Octr, started for the “Sevier” where the party was divided, Captain Gunnison with his scientific, and guide; a Mr. Wm. Potter, ( ) [parenthesis material erased] who he had employed at Manti, in all 12 persons, proceeded down that stream towards the Sevier Lake, intending to survey the same, and the remainder passing up that river, some fourteen miles, where they encamped, intending to remain, until they should be required by Captain Gunnison & party. [page 8]
Captain Gunnison, arrived at the first small Lake, or pond, about 3 P.M. and encamped on a small grass plat, almost entirely surrounded by willows. Mr. Potter, his guide, remonstrated with him, and proposed a more open encampment, a short distance off, but was over=ruled by Captn. G.Some of the party went shooting ducks, in and about, the river, and Lake. There were no indians in sight, but an indian heard the shooting and crept up, till he could see the hunter, and then followed him, till he saw, where the party were encamped,—he observed their numbers and returned to his tribe. Here he raised the war cry! raised a false scalp upon a war pole, & excited the Indians to revenge upon the Americans, (as he called the party, and which he avered he knew to be Americans, because he had heard them swear,) the Killing of Tonif, who was his father.
The Indians held a war dance until about midnight, when they proceeded (about thirty five in number) to the camp of Captain Gunnison, where they remained quiet until after daylight, and when the party were all collected together, eating their breakfast, raised a terrific yell, and made a sudden [page 9] and deadly attack upon them.
Captain Gunnison, having every confidence in his knowledge of the Indian character, and ability of Commanding a good, and peaceful influence,immediately sprung upon his feet, and ran out of the tent, raised his hands, and called upon the indians as friends, assuring them of the fact that they were friends, until he fell covered with wounds. The party, were all killed except 4 persons who succeeding in obtaining their horses, made their escape. Mr William Potter, of Manti city employed by Captain Gunnison, as guide, was among the number who were slain. The entire amount of property, field notes, papers, instruments, firearms, and ammunition in the hands of the surveying party, fell into the hands of the Indians.
After the Massacre
Captain Morris,who was waiting in camp about 28 miles up the Sevier river, waiting the return of the scientific party, upon hearing the horrid news, immediately jumped upon his horse, ordering the party to follow, and proceeded with all haste to the fatal spot. He arrived at the first bodies that were found dead about dark, and encamped for the night; his command were considerably [page 10] scattered, many of the horses giving out, and not able to keep up, with those belonging to the officers, which were better fed. Those who came into camp passed a sleepless night, holding their bridle reins in their hands, and others who did not succeed in arriving at the Camp wandered about some two days without a morsel of anything to eat, and were finally found by some travelers, in the most destitute condition, without gun, ammunition, horse, and almost without clothing.
Captain Morris, passed on the next morning to where the other dead bodies were lying, and immediately returned to Cedar Springs, the place where he had left on the morning of the 25th with Captain G. & party. He reached this place on the 28th, and on the 29th forwarded by Express furnished by the citizens of Fillmore city, the particulars to me at Great Salt Lake City, which arrived on the evening of the 31st of October 6 P.M.Upon the receipt of the sad intelligence, I immediately sent an Express, accompanied by an Interpreter, and a few presents, to aid Captain Morris, in the recovery of the lost property, and in any such matters as might be needful.
I learned by the Express that Kenosh the Pauvan Chief was not at the massacre, and probably knew nothing of it, until it was [page 11] accomplished. I therefore considered that through him, the property might be recovered, if the proper influences, and appliances were used, and advised, that an effort be made through him for that purpose. This party met Captain Morris, with his command, at Nephi, Sixty-five miles north of Fillmore, with his command proceeding to Great Salt Lake City, where he intended to go into Winter Quarters. They were surprised that no effort had been made to recover the lost property, and also, that the bodies had been left upon the ground, a prey for wolves, and other ravenous beasts, and birds of prey,—not even having received a temporary burial. Captain M. sent one man with the Express, who arrived at Fillmore on the 3rd of November, and proceeded immediately to carry out their instructions, by gathering that portion of the lost property, brought in by friendly Indians, embracing all the Note books, and all the instruments, except the Odometer,and on the 4th dispatched Mr. Call, with two friendly Indians, and nine men including the man from Captain Morris party, to bring in the remains of Captain Gunnison, and Mr. Wm. Potter, (of Manti) [page 12] the Guide, and bury the rest on the spot.
The soldiers, who knew where the dead bodies were located, this being the only manner of identifying them, as the wolves, and beasts of prey had completely torn off their flesh. The remains were all buried upon the spot, except Captain Gunnison, and Wm Potter. The remains of Captain Gunnison, although the most thorough search was made for it, could not be found, except on[e] leg bone, and some of the hair, the bone, and what was found of Mr. Potter was taken to Fillmore, and decently interred.
Why Captain Morris did not bury the dead bodies, before he thus left them a prey to the ravenous beasts of the Desert, I do not know. True, it is as he said, that he had no tools for digging a grave, but a guard could have been placed over them, or an Express could have been sent to Fillmore for tools, or teams, to have conveyed them thither, which would have been the proper course. Upon having interrogated Captain Morris upon this point, he replied, that he had thought of throwing the bodies into the River, but had no means of burying.Kenosh, exceedingly regretted the occurence, and said, had he been there, he would have prevented it, [page 13] but it is thought, that it would have been a difficult matter for him. He is a young man, and many of those engaged in this affair, were old men, particularly friendly to Tonif, who was Killed by the emigrants under Captain Hildreth, and although nominally under Kenosh, were considered rather a detached band. In the absence of emigrants or travelers, whereon to wreak their vengeance, these Indians were gathering as many of their tribe as possible, with the intention, of making an attack upon Fillmore, and then passing on join the hostile Utahs, who were still in active hostilities against the whites.
It was not known to the inhabitants of Millard County, that there were any indians in that particular region. It was known that a portion were off hunting, and so far as known at the time Captain Gunnison visited Fillmore City, that they were generally peaceably disposed.
The excitement consequent upon the Killing of Tonif, having measurably subsided; in this however it appears, the inhabitants were mistaken, as they would probably find out, or have soon learned to their cost, had not the arrival of Captain Gunnison & party in their immediate vicinity furnished them the opportunity of venting their pent [page 14] up vengeance.
During the fall, and winter of 1854 & 5 Col E. J. Steptoe, who was with this command wintering in this, (G.S.L. City) conceived it his duty, to bring to justice those Indians engaged in this deed of blood.He conversed with me upon this subject, and I freely gave him my views, and advice in relation thereto.
It was my opinion, that inasmuch, as the massacre took place during war, that no Court acting in accordance with Law, and Justice, could convict those Indians before any Court, where, the Laws of either the Territory, or the United States were fairly administered. If it was desirable to bring them before the Courts, it was decidedly my opinion, that they could be obtained much cheaper, and easier, in an amicable, and peaceful manner by presents to Kenosh, and others, than by making any hostile demonstration against them.
The Colonel, in my Judgment very properly pursued the peaceable course. He employed Mr. George Bean, Indian Interpreter,to go to Fillmore, and ascertain the probable success of the undertaking. Mr. Bean, found Kenosh [page 15] willing to do as he was required, and finally succeeded in securing in Fillmore, Seven men, the number required by Col Steptoe to be given up for trial. The Col considered that number satisfactory, and upon the return and favorable report of Mr. Bean, sent a small detachment of troops to receive, and guard the prisoners to this city. They were accordingly brought here, accompanied by one Squaw, the wife of one of the prisoners, and quartered in the Barracks of the soldiers, whose shameful conduct in abusing this Squaw, was made a matter of Complaint by her husband to me, and several others. He said, he wished that she might be removed, fearing, that the soldiers would actually Kill her: the prisoners were removed to another place, as soon as the Complaint came to the Knowledge of Col Steptoe.
It was during the imprisonment of those Indians, in this city, that it was suggested by Col Babbitt,and others, to have the indians under the Habeas Corpus act, upon the ground that they were illegally held, not being in the Judicial District, in which the crime was committed, and being held exclusively by [page 16] the Military without an indictment, and not by Judicial Authority. Mr. Babbitt, did ask my opinion upon the subject. I advised him, to leave the whole matter with the court; the very reverse of what was alledged against me, of instructing the Attorney General of the Territory to have them so released.
On the 10th March Hon John F. KinneyOfficers of Court, and Col Steptoe with a large escort of soldiers, with prisoners in charge, met in Nephi City to hold the court, which from various words, and sayings, such as selecting the place of execution on their way down &c was supposed would undoubtedly result in the execution of the Indians; judging from all that was said, a listener would have come to the conclusion, that the case was, (to say the least), prejudged it appeared to be the entire object, and intent of the principal portion to slay some indians; seeming to think, that it would reflect, more, or less Glory upon somebody and a small share upon all who should act any conspicuous part in the forthcoming tragedy.
The first two days, after the arrival at Nephi, there was more drunkenness than sobriety, Bacchus, much to our surprise, found among [page 17] his worshippers, and devotees, the highest, as well as the lowest; the civilian clothed with Judicial ermine, as well as Gallant Militaire, first paid their humble adoration to the God of inebriation. The misfortune was, that they all considered themselves capable of doing business: hence, the insults, and abuse to the jurors by the prosecuting Attorney, and others, as shown in the accompanying documents, marked (C).
Three only of the prisoners were indicted, and just put upon their trial. It appears, that Kenosh, with Indian shroudness, was for making the best bargain that he could; therefor replied, when asked, why he did not deliver those who were the most guilty, that he would rather spare old decript men, and even Squaws who were of little account, than his young men. It is worthy of remark, that those indians who were the very leaders, were known by all the Officers to be at Nephi, as also at Fillmore, while Judge Kinney, and Col Steptoe, with escort were visiting that place in the fall previous, soon after their arrival in the Territory; at which time, Kenosh proposed to give them up, if they would give him some presents,but they declined to take them for this reason, as they avered “owing to [page 18] the unprotected situation of the Southern Settlements.” It will also be observed, that they required man for man; for so many Americans, as they called them as was slain, must be paid by claiming so many of that tribe of Indians who committed the deed. This mode of dealing was well understood by the Indians, as it is a custom with them to settle differences in the same manner; with this difference, when they are not very mad, they will substitute horses for men,—taking a horse, instead of a man. To have carried out this policy strictly, eight should have been required, as there were eight men killed, but one of them being a citizen of Utah, Mr. Potter, of Manti. It was not considered of importance sufficient, to require the atoning blood of an Indian, to compensate, unless, indeed, the killing of Tonif by the Americans was considered a set off, of one in the trade as understood by the Indians. The Indians, however, soon found out, that the Americans were not very mad, as they soon released all but three of the Indians, for the release of which, Kenosh would have been extremely reluctant, to have given a horse each to have them redeemed. Nevertheless the trial went on [page 19] and it was shown, that the prisoners were more or less engaged in the massacre, by Indian testimony alone, but none of them were the leaders. It was shown, that the massacre took place, during the existence of actual hostilities between the Utahs, and whites; that this band had not participated in the Killing of any of the whites, but had suffered the loss of one of their principal men by the whites, during the war. It has been stated in the public prints, by a Report said to be made by a Reporter at the time upon these points, and testimony leading thereto, was over=ruled by the Court, but Judge Kinney, who Presided, said to me that they were not. I therefore rather give credit to his own words, than the report alluded to.
The court did finally charge the Jury, that they must find the prisoners guilty of murder in the first degree, or acquit them entirely. The Jury did find a verdict of manslaughter, and were told by the Court, and other members of the bar, that they had violated their Oaths.But the court finally accepted of the verdict, and sentenced the prisoners to the extent of [page 20] the Law of the United States for that crime; stating to the Indians, that had it been left to the Court to say, they would have been hung.
There was other business before the
CourtGrand Jury, and before the Court; one item of which was to indict those men who had killed Tonif; but contrary to all usage, and custom, the Court dismissed the Grand Jury, and adjourned the Court.
Not having tis true, hung up the Indians, as was manifestly their wish and design, but being partially compensated & mollified by successful worship, and adoration at the shrine of venus, and Mrs. Ammon.they had successfully tried some of the indians, and some of the Squaws, see accompanying documents marked (D).
They were tried by the Laws of the United States, instead of the Laws of the Territory. An effort was made by Mr. Babbitt, on the part of the defence, to have them tried by the Laws of the Territory, but was over=ruled by the Court; when however, the verdict was given, the Court enquired, if he could not sentence them under the Law of the Territory, as the punishment for the crime of manslaughter [page 21] was greater under these Laws, than the Laws of the U S. The argument of the defence was, that inasmuch as the Court had over-ruled them in their attempt to get the trial before the Court under the Statutes of the Territory, that now it should not depart from its own ruling; this argument, prevailed with the court.
After the Trial
The convicts, were delivered into the Penitentiary near Great Salt Lake City on the 26th day of March A.D. 1855 and made their escape on the night of the 31st
on or aboutof the same month.
After waiting a few days, to see if any one would take interest enough in the matter, to re=capture them, and finding there was not, I sent for, and obtained them, and they are now, and have been since their re=capture in the prison of the Territory according to the sentence of the Court.
So far as influencing the Jury in their verdict, I utterly disclaim having anything to do with it, neither did the Jury admit that they had received any such instruction from me, or been so influenced in any manner whatever, as alluded, or alledged in the reports [page 22] given, and published, that charge is an unmitigated falsehood, made without the least shadow of proof,and we consider, the whole affair, a Judicial farce, unworthy of honorable men, and reflecting no credit upon any of the parties concerned; neither resulting in any good influence upon the Indians.
Thus I have given, an unvarnished statement of the whole affair, as it is generally understood by all who have any Knowledge of the matter.
The accompanying papers, though not as full and complete as they might be, still most conclusively show all the main facts in the case; whatever is not fully shown therein is of notorious truth, such as Mr. William Potter a citizen of Manti, having been slain with the rest of the party; which fact seems to have been studiously left out in all the reports of the late trials.
I have the honor to be Hon. Jefferson Davis
Secretary of War
Your Obd Sert
signed Brigham Young.
Gov. & Ex=officio Supt of