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.
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. 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.