Wars in Utah
Mormon Battalion (Founded in 1846)
In July 1846, under the authority of U.S. Army Captain James Allen and with the encouragement of Mormon leader Brigham Young, the Mormon Battalion was mustered in at Council Bluffs, Iowa Territory. The battalion was the direct result of Brigham Young’s correspondence on 26 January 1846 to Jesse C. Little, presiding elder over the New England and Middle States Mission. Young instructed Little to meet with national leaders in Washington, D.C., and to seek aid for the migrating Latter-day Saints, the majority of whom were then in the Iowa Territory. In response to Young’s letter, Little journeyed to Washington, arriving on 21 May 1846, just eight days after Congress had declared war on Mexico.
Little met with President James K. Polk on 5 June 1846 and urged him to aid migrating Mormon pioneers by employing them to fortify and defend the West. The president offered to aid the pioneers by permitting them to raise a battalion of five hundred men, who were to join Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, Commander of the Army of the West, and fight for the United States in the Mexican War. Little accepted this offer.
Colonel Kearny designated Captain James Allen, later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, to raise five companies of volunteer soldiers from the able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in the Mormon encampments in Iowa. On 26 June 1846 Allen arrived at the encampment of Mt. Pisgah. He was treated with suspicion as many believed that the raising of a battalion was a plot to bring trouble to the migrating Saints.
Allen journeyed from Mt. Pisgah to Council Bluffs, where on 1 July 1846 he allayed Mormon fears by giving permission for the Saints to encamp on United States lands if the Mormons would raise the desired battalion. Brigham Young accepted this, recognizing that the enlistment of the battalion was the first time the government had stretched forth its arm to aid the Mormons.
On 16 July 1846 some 543 men enlisted in the Mormon Battalion. From among these men Brigham Young selected the commissioned officers; they included Jefferson Hunt, Captain of Company A; Jesse D. Hunter, Captain of Company B; James Brown, Captain of Company C; Nelson Higgins, Captain of Company D; and Daniel C. Davis, Captain of Company E. Among the most prominent non-Mormon military officers immediately associated with the battalion march were Lt. Col. James Allen, First Lt. Andrew Jackson Smith, Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, and Dr. George Sanderson. Also accompanying the battalion were approximately thirty-three women, twenty of whom served as laundresses, and fifty-one children.
The battalion marched from Council Bluffs on 20 July 1846, arriving on 1 August 1846 at Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), where they were outfitted for their trek to Santa Fe. Battalion members drew their arms and accoutrements, as well as a clothing allowance of forty-two dollars, at the fort. Since a military uniform was not mandatory, many of the soldiers sent their clothing allowances to their families in the encampments in Iowa..
The march from Fort Leavenworth was delayed by the sudden illness of Colonel Allen. Capt. Jefferson Hunt was instructed to begin the march to Santa Fe; he soon received word that Colonel Allen was dead. Allen’s death caused confusion regarding who should lead the battalion to Santa Fe. Lt. A.J. Smith arrived from Fort Leavenworth claiming the lead, and he was chosen the commanding officer by the vote of battalion officers. The leadership transition proved difficult for many of the enlisted men, as they were not consulted about the decision.
Smith and his accompanying surgeon, a Dr. Sanderson, have been described in journals as the “heaviest burdens” of the battalion. Under Smith’s dictatorial leadership and with Sanderson’s antiquated prescriptions, the battalion marched to Santa Fe. On this trek the soldiers suffered from excessive heat, lack of sufficient food, improper medical treatment, and forced long-distance marches.
The first division of the Mormon Battalion approached Santa Fe on 9 October 1846. Their approach was heralded by Col. Alexander Doniphan, who ordered a one-hundred-gun salute in their honor. At Santa Fe, Smith was relieved of his command by Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke. Cooke, aware of the rugged trail between Santa Fe and California and also aware that one sick detachment had already been sent from the Arkansas River to Fort Pueblo in Colorado, ordered the remaining women and children to accompany the sick of the battalion to Pueblo for the winter. Three detachments consisting of 273 people eventually were sent to Pueblo for the winter of 1846-47.
The remaining soldiers, with four wives of officers, left Santa Fe for California on 19 October 1846. They journeyed down the Rio Grande del Norte and eventually crossed the Continental Divide on 28 November 1846. While moving up the San Pedro River in present-day Arizona, their column was attacked by a herd of wild cattle. In the ensuing fight, a number of bulls were killed and two men were wounded. Following the “Battle of the Bulls,” the battalion continued their march toward Tucson, where they anticipated a possible battle with the Mexican soldiers garrisoned there. At Tucson, the Mexican defenders temporarily abandoned their positions and no conflict ensued.
On 21 December 1846 the battalion encamped on the Gila River. They crossed the Colorado River into California on 9 and 10 January 1847. By 29 January 1847 they were camped at the Mission of San Diego, about five miles from General Kearny’s quarters. That evening Colonel Cooke rode to Kearny’s encampment and reported the battalion’s condition. On 30 January 1847 Cooke issued orders enumerating the accomplishments of the Mormon Battalion. “History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry. Half of it has been through a wilderness where nothing but savages and wild beasts are found, or deserts where, for lack of water, there is no living creature.”
During the remainder of their enlistment, some members of the battalion were assigned to garrison duty at either San Diego, San Luis Rey, or Ciudad de los Angeles. Other soldiers were assigned to accompany General Kearny back to Fort Leavenworth. All soldiers, whether en route to the Salt Lake Valley via Pueblo or still in Los Angeles, were mustered out of the United States Army on 16 July 1847. Eighty-one men chose to reenlist and serve an additional eight months of military duty under Captain Daniel C. Davis in Company A of the Mormon Volunteers. The majority of the soldiers migrated to the Salt Lake Valley and were reunited with their pioneering families.
The men of the Mormon Battalion are honored for their willingness to fight for the United States as loyal American citizens. Their march of some 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs to California is one of the longest military marches in history. Their participation in the early development of California by building Fort Moore in Los Angeles, building a courthouse in San Diego, and making bricks and building houses in southern California contributed to the growth of the West.
Following their discharge, many men helped build flour mills and sawmills in northern California. Some of them were among the first to discover gold at Sutter’s Mill. Men from Captain Davis’s Company A were responsible for opening the first wagon road over the southern route from California to Utah in 1848.
Historic sites associated with the battalion include the Mormon Battalion Memorial Visitor’s Center in San Diego, California; Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial in Los Angeles, California; and the Mormon Battalion Monument in Memory Grove, Salt Lake City, Utah. Monuments relating to the battalion are also located in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, and trail markers have been placed on segments of the battalion route.
– Susan Easton Black
Utah War (1857-1858)
The Utah War, 1857-1858, was a costly, disruptive and unnecessary confrontation between the Mormon people in Utah Territory and the government and army of the United States. It resulted from misunderstandings that transformed a simple decision to give Utah Territory a new governor into a year-long comedy of errors with a tragic potential. Had there been transcontinental telegraphic communications at the time, what has been referred to as “Buchanan’s Blunder” almost certainly would not have occurred.
Sensitive to Republican charges that Democrats favored the “twin relics of barbarism–polygamy and slavery,” President James Buchanan moved quickly after his inauguration to find a non-Mormon governor for Utah. Then, apparently influenced by reports from Judge W.W. Drummond and other former territorial officials, he and his cabinet decided that the Mormons would resist the replacement of Governor Brigham Young. So, without investigation, the contract for mail service to Utah was canceled and 2,500-man military force was ordered to accompany Alfred Cumming to Great Salt lake City.
In the absence of formal notification of administration intentions, Young and other Mormon leaders interpreted the army’s coming as religious persecution and adopted a defensive posture. Under his authority as governor, Young declared martial law and deployed the local militia, the Nauvoo Legion, to delay the troops. Harassing actions included burning three supply trains and driving hundreds of government cattle to the Great Salt Lake Valley. The “scorched earth” tactics forced Albert Sidney Johnston’s Utah Expedition and the accompanying civil officials to improvise winter quarters (at Camp Scott and Eckelsville), near Burned-out Fort Bridger, while the nation feared the worst.
During the winter both sides strengthened their forces. Congress, over almost unanimous Republican opposition, authorized two new volunteer regiments, and Buchanan, Secretary of War John B. Floyd, and Army Chief of Staff Winfield Scott assigned 3,000 additional regular troops to reinforce the Utah Expedition. Meanwhile, the Mormon communities were called upon to equip a thousand men for duty in the one hundred miles of mountains that separated Camp Scott and Great Salt Lake City.
Despite his belligerent public posture, Brigham Young never intended to force a showdown with the U.S. Army. He and other leaders frequently spoke of putting homes to the torch and fleeing into the mountains rather than permitting their enemies to take over their property. Memories of earlier persecutions were invoked to build morale and prepare the people for possible further sacrifices. Early in 1858 exploring parties were sent to locate a place of refuge that Young believed to exist in the central Great Basin. By the time they returned with negative reports, the Utah War was over.
That Young hoped for a diplomatic solution is clear from his early appeal to Thomas L. Kane, the influential Pennsylvanian who had for ten years been a friend of the Mormons. Communications and personal problems delayed Kane’s approach to Buchanan, and not until after Christmas did he receive permission to go to Utah as an unofficial emissary. He reached Salt Lake City late in February, via Panama and California, and found the Mormon leadership ready for peace but doubtful about its feasibility. When the first reports of Kane’s Camp Scott contacts with general Johnston were discouraging, Young’s pessimism was confirmed.
The “Move South” resulted. On 23 March Young announced that the time had come to implement the “Sebastopol” policy, a plan named after a strategic Russian retreat during the Crimean War. All the Mormon settlements in northern Utah must be abandoned and prepared for burning. Initially conceived as permanent, the evacuation began to be seen by the Mormon leadership as tactical and temporary as soon as word came that Kane was bringing Cumming to Salt lake City without the army. Still, it was a relocation that dwarfed the earlier flights from Missouri and Illinois; approximately 30,000 people moved fifty miles or more to Provo and the other towns in central and southern Utah. There they remained in shared and improvised housing while the outcome of the Utah War was being determined.
Kane and Cumming came to the Mormon capital in early April. Young immediately surrendered the gubernatorial title and soon established a comfortable working relationship with his successor. However, neither of the non-Mormons would encourage Young’s hope that the army might be persuaded to go away, nor could they give him convincing assurance that Johnston’s troops would come in peacefully. So the Move South continued.
Meanwhile President Buchanan responded to rising criticism by publicly appointing two commissioners, Lazarus Powell and Ben McCulloch, to carry an amnesty proclamation to the Mormons. Upon reaching Utah in early June, they found Young and his colleagues willing to accept forgiveness for past offenses in exchange for accepting Cumming and the establishment of an army garrison in the territory. When Johnston’s army marched through a deserted Salt Lake City on 26 June 1858 and then went on to build Camp Floyd forty miles to the southwest, the Utah War was over.
As governor, Cumming soon became more popular with the Mormons than with the military forces that had remained until the outbreak of the Civil War. With the nearby civilian town of Fairfield, Camp Floyd represented the first sizable non-Mormon resident population in Utah, and it ended forever the Mormon dream of a Zion geographically separate from the world of unbelievers. As for the Mormon community in Utah, the exertions and expenditures associated with the Nauvoo Legion efforts and the Move South taxed both capital and morale. The war terminated the Mormon outpost settlements in present day California, Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho, interrupted and weakened the missionary effort in Europe, and dissipated much of the enthusiasm and discipline that had earlier been generated by the Reformation of 1856. As a demonstration of sacrificial zeal, the Move South won some sympathy, but it did not improve the prospects for Utah statehood or increase toleration of Mormon differences from mainstream American ideas and institutions.
– Richard D. Poll
Mountain Meadow Massacre (1857)
In April 1857 a California-bound wagon train estimated at 40 wagons, 120 to 150 men, women, and children, and as many as 900 head of beef cattle, in addition to draft and riding animals, assembled near the Crooked Creek, approximately four miles south of present-day Harrison, Arkansas. Most of these emigrants were from northwestern Arkansas and were families, relatives, friends, and neighbors. Also included in the group may have been some from Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, and northeastern Texas.
When they began their journey, their wagon train was identified by some as the Baker train. En route it was known as the Perkins train; in Utah it became known as the Fancher train. However, there were probably individuals and perhaps elements of other wagon trains that joined the Fancher train along the way. The emigrants arrived in Salt Lake City on or about 10 August–a most crucial stop. There they had to refurbish their equipment, refresh themselves and their stock, and replenish their supplies. They also had to decide whether to take the shorter, cooler northern route or the longer, warmer southern route to California. The lateness of the season was the determining factor. They started on the northern route and then retraced their steps to take the southern route.
Their arrival in Utah could not have been at a more critical time. The once friendly Mormons, usually eager to trade agricultural commodities for manufactured goods, were now hostile and reluctant to trade. War hysteria permeated the area. President Buchanan had secretly dispatched an expedition to Utah to suppress what he believed was a rebellion. Governor Brigham Young subsequently issued a proclamation of martial law on 5 August (reissued on 15 September) which, among other things, forbade people from traveling through the territory without a pass. The citizens of Utah were discouraged from selling food to immigrants, especially for animal use.
The territorial militia (affectionately, the Nauvoo Legion), which included every able-bodied man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, was on full alert. Staff officers, who were also church and civic officials, were dispatched to every settlement under their command to explain and enforce militia decisions. George A. Smith, who commanded all of the southern militia units, arrived in Parowan on 8 August and began the task of preparing the people psychologically, militarily, and materially for war. The units of the Tenth Regiment of the territorial militia were mustered and drilled, and the impending battle plan was explained. Smith, an effective orator and founder of Iron and Washington counties, made several impassioned speeches and apparently accomplished his purpose. The people were convinced that they were in a state of war and were ready to take action.
As the Fancher train moved south without a pass from the Mormons, contact with the local settlers became more abrasive. Stories of both fact and fancy were embellished with each telling. By the time the wagon train reached Cedar City, reports of gross misconduct were believed. The old troubles in Missouri and Illinois were rehashed. The murder of beloved apostle Parley P. Pratt in May of that year in northwest Arkansas was also remembered.
Several meetings were held in Cedar City and Parowan to determine how the “War Orders” should be implemented. The militia decided that the Fancher train should be eliminated. Cooler heads prevailed temporarily and an express rider was sent to Salt Lake City to solicit Brigham Young’s advice. The round trip–more than 500 miles–took six days. In the meantime, things got completely out of hand. Orders and counterorders were misinterpreted, deliberately or otherwise.
The Fancher train moved westward from Cedar City with hungry bellies, injured feelings, and jaded stock to Mountain Meadows, a well-known and much-needed campsite on the old Spanish Trail/California Road used by travelers to and from California until well into the present century. It was on the edge of the much-feared desert area between Utah and California. It is located in the southwest corner of Utah, about thirty-five miles southwest of Cedar City via the old pioneer road (fifty-four miles via the current paved highway), and thirty-two miles northwest of St. George. The shape of the meadows area resembles an elongated diamond, approximately six miles long and one and one-half miles wide; it is divided into northern and southern halves by a low bald ridge, which John C. Fémont identified as the south rim of the Great Basin and measured at 5,280 feet above sea level. This ridge is almost imperceptible and divides the drainage area–the south half of which eventually reaches the Pacific Ocean via the Colorado River. Mountains surround the meadows.
At that time, the Meadows were covered with a variety of grasses fed by numerous springs of clear water, and the area was considered by Parley P. Pratt to be one of the most delightful places on the entire route. The Fancher train, and other travelers who may have joined or followed them, arrived there the first week in September, anticipating a few days of recuperation. Some of the emigrants probably continued another four and one-half miles south to Cane Springs, the site of present-day Central. At dawn the following Monday, 7 September, the Fancher train was brought under siege by Indians and militiamen disguised as Indians. Those camped at Cane Springs were also attacked and evidently retreated to the Mountain Meadows. The wagons were drawn into a circle with their wheels chained together, and then were lowered to the ground; firing pits were dug and the dirt thrown under and into the wagons, making a strong defensive barrier. Seven were killed and sixteen wounded in the first assault; however, the party resisted the siege for five days although they were pinned down and isolated from firewood, water, game food, and outside help. By Friday, 11 September, low on water and ammunition, they were in a helpless condition.
Under a flag of truce and led to believe the militiamen had arrived to save them, the emigrants were made an offer to leave all of their possessions to the Indians and be conducted safely back to Cedar City. They accepted the conditions and began their trek. Seventeen children too small to walk to Cedar City, some mothers, and the wounded were placed in the wagons. These wagons were followed by the women and older children walking in a group; they were followed by the men, walking alongside their armed militia protectors.
After traveling approximately 1.5 miles, strung out and separated by a small rise in the ground and shrubbery, isolating each group from the others, the emigrants were massacred by Indians and militiamen. The only known survivors were the seventeen small children, who were taken into Mormon homes. The remains of the victims were hurriedly thrown into shallow depressions and ravines and covered with whatever was available. These remains were subsequently scattered over the immediate area by storms and wild animals.
The messenger so urgently sent to Salt Lake City for Young’s advice returned on Sunday, two days after the massacre, with Young’s advice to let the wagon train pass and not molest them. The estimated number of victims ranged from 100 to 150; the exact number may never be known. Appalled by what had been done, and in fear of possible repercussions, an effective cover-up plan was put into force. It blamed the entire episode on the Indians, and continued to be maintained for the next few years in the face of outside outrage and investigation.
Eighteen months after the massacre, prompted by relatives in Arkansas demanding an investigation, an army payroll escort passed through the area and reinterred the remains of the victims that could be found and erected stone cairns over the mass graves–at least two at the massacre site and one at the siege site. The U.S. Army forces at Camp Floyd helped return the seventeen small children to relatives in Arkansas; the children arrived in Carroll County on 15 September 1859, two years after the massacre. The federal government prosecuted only one man, John D. Lee, major of the Fourth Battalion of the militia at Harmony. He was convicted, some say unjustly, and executed at the siege site on 23 March 1877 for his role in the affair. The Mormon Church earlier excommunicated Lee and a few others believed to have been responsible.
Unsuccessful attempts were made by various groups and individuals to erect a more suitable monument at Mountain Meadows but no one assumed maintenance responsibility. The most enduring was a wall which still stands at the siege site. It was erected in 1932 and surrounds the 1859 cairn. On 23 July 1988 a bipartisan meeting was held at the siege site to discuss the possibility of erecting a more adequate memorial to those who lost their lives. Two independent and parallel efforts resulted–one by people in southern Utah and one by Francher party and John D. Lee descendants. Eventually these two groups merged and cooperatively completed a new granite memorial. It was financed by the state of Utah and by contributions from private sources. It is situated near the highway (U-19) and overlooks the siege and massacre sites; and it was dedicated 15 September 1990. The Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation is now responsible for its maintenance.
– Morris A. Shirts
Bear River Massacre (1863)
On 29 January 1863 Colonel Patrick Edward Connor and about 200 California Volunteers attacked a Northwestern Shoshoni winter village located at the confluence of Beaver Creek and Bear River, twelve miles west and north of the village of Franklin in Cache Valley and just a short distance north of the present Utah-Idaho boundary line. This band of 450 Shoshoni under war chief Bear Hunter had watched uneasily as Mormon farmers had moved into the Indian home of Cache Valley in the spring of 1860 and now, three years later, had appropriated all the land and water of the verdant mountain valley. The young men of the tribe had struck back at the white settlers; this prompted Utah territorial officials to call on Connor’s troops to punish the Northwestern band. Before the colonel led his men from Camp Douglas at Salt Lake City north to Bear River, he had announced that he intended to take no prisoners.
As the troopers approached the Indian camp in the early morning darkness at 6:00 a.m., they found the Shoshoni warriors entrenched behind the ten-foot eastern embankment of Beaver Creek (afterwards called Battle Creek). The Volunteers suffered most of their twenty-three casualties in their first charge across the open plain in front of the Shoshoni village. Colonel Connor soon changed tactics, which resulted in a complete envelopment of the Shoshoni camp by the soldiers who began firing on the Indian men, women, and children indiscriminately. By 8:00 a.m., the Indian men were out of ammunition, and the last two hours of the battle became a massacre as the soldiers used their revolvers to shoot down all the Indians they could find in the dense willows of the camp.
Approximately 250 Shoshoni were slain, including 90 women and children. After the slaughter ended, some of the undisciplined soldiers went through the Indian village raping women and using axes to bash in the heads of women and children who were already dying of wounds. Chief Bear Hunter was killed along with sub-chief, Lehi. The troops burned the seventy-five Indian lodges, recovered 1,000 bushels of wheat and flour, and appropriated 175 Shoshoni horses. While the troops cared for their wounded and took their dead back to Camp Douglas for burial, the Indians’ bodies were left on the field for the wolves and crows.
Although the Mormon settlers in Cache Valley expressed their gratitude for “the movement of Col. Connor as an intervention of the Almighty” in their behalf, the Bear River Massacre has been overlooked in the history of the American West chiefly because it occurred during the Civil War when a more important struggle was taking place in the East. Of the six major Indian massacres in the Far West, from Bear River in 1863 to Wounded Knee in 1890, the Bear River affair resulted in the most victims, an event which today deserves greater attention than the mere sign presently at the site.
– Brigham D. Madsen
Black Hawk War (1865-1867)
The Black Hawk Indian War was the longest and most destructive conflict between pioneer immigrants and Native Americans in Utah History. The traditional date of the war’s commencement is 9 April 1865 but tensions had been mounting for years. On that date bad feelings were transformed into violence when a handful of Utes and Mormon frontiersmen met in Manti, Sanpete County, to settle a dispute over some cattle killed and consumed by starving Indians. An irritated (and apparently inebriated) Mormon lost his temper and violently jerked a young chieftain from his horse. The insulted Indian delegation, which included a dynamic young Ute named Black Hawk, abruptly left, promising retaliation. The threats were not idle – for over the course of the next few days Black Hawk and other Utes killed five Mormons and escaped to the mountains with hundreds of stolen cattle. Naturally, scores of hungry warriors and their families flocked to eat “Mormon beef” and to support Black Hawk, who was suddenly hailed as a war chief.
Encouraged by his success and increasing power, Black Hawk continued his forays, stealing more than two thousand head of stock and killing approximately twenty-five more whites that year. The young Ute by no means had the support of all of the Indians of Utah, but he succeeded in uniting factions of the Ute, Paiute, and Navajo tribes into a very loose confederacy bent on plundering Mormons throughout the territory. Cattle were the main objectives of Black Hawk’s offensives but travelers, herdsmen, and settlers were massacred when it was convenient. Contemporary estimates indicate that as many as seventy whites were killed during the conflict.
The years 1865 to 1867 were by far the most intense of the conflict. Latter-day Saints considered themselves in a state of open warfare. They built scores of forts and deserted dozens of settlements while hundreds of Mormon militiamen chased their illusive adversaries through the wilderness with little success. Requests for federal troops went unheeded for eight years. Unable to distinguish “guilty” from “friendly” tribesmen, frustrated Mormons at times indiscriminately killed Indians, including women and children.
In the fall of 1867 Black Hawk made peace with the Mormons. Without his leadership the Indian forces, which never operated as a combined front, fragmented even further. The war’s intensity decreased and a treaty of peace was signed in 1868. Intermittent raiding and killing, however, continued until 1872 when 200 federal troops were finally ordered to step in.
The Black Hawk War erupted as a result of the pressures white expansion brought to Native American populations. White settlement of Utah altered crucial ecosystems and helped destroy Indian subsistence patterns which caused starvation. Those who did not starve often succumbed to European diseases. Contemporary sources indicate that Indian populations in Utah in the 1860s were plummeting at frightening rates. White efforts to establish reservations contributed additional pressures.
These conditions were almost universal among western Indians during the period, and in this sense the war can be viewed as an expression of the general Indian unrest and warfare that dominated the trans-Mississippi West during the 1860s. Similar conflicts also occurred during the decade between Indians and non-Mormon settlers in each of Utah’s neighboring territories. These confrontations, however, were quickly (and brutally) put down by federal troops; however, the mounting crusade against polygamy and lingering “Utah War” mentalities made the situation different in Utah. The Black Hawk War was unique among the era’s western Indian wars in that the antipathy that existed between the United States government and the LDS Church provided Utah’s natives with the opportunity to pursue their hostile activities for an extended period of time without incurring the swift and destructive military reprisals suffered by other groups. Not surprisingly, the war ended almost without incident when federal troops were finally ordered to engage the Indians in 1872.
– John A. Peterson
Posey War (1923)
The roots of the Posey War ran deeply through the history of San Juan County. In the 1880s cattle companies, Mormon and Gentile settlers, and Navajo herders and hunters all began to place increasing demands on the natural resources traditionally claimed by the Weeminuche Utes and San Juan Band Paiutes. By the early 1900s, the hunting and gathering lifestyle of the Utes and Paiutes was totally impractical; therefore, as the natural food supply and grass diminished, the Indians went to the next best source to obtain sustenance–the settlers. Friction, threats, counterthreats, and depredations ensued, with violence breaking out in 1915 and 1921, at which times settlers killed or wounded small numbers of Utes and Paiutes.
By 1923, Posey, a Paiute who had married into the Ute band in Allen Canyon, had become the symbol of this mutual antagonism. Approximately sixty years old, Posey had been involved in the previous conflicts, acquiring a reputation for arrogance and thievery. He naturally came center focus when in March 1923 Sheriff William Oliver arrested two Utes, Joe Bishop’s Little Boy and Sanup’s Boy, for robbing a sheep camp, killing a calf, and burning a bridge.
The two men stood trial, but during the noon recess, they made a dramatic escape from Blanding with the sheriff in hot pursuit. Oliver failed to apprehend his charges, and so he returned to town and deputized a large body of men anxious to find a solution to the “Indian problem.” The posse went to the Ute community of Westwater next to Blanding and rounded up forty men, women, and children, first placing them in the basement of the school and later in a one-hundred-foot-square barbed-wire stockade in the center of town. Others from the Ute community fled toward Navajo Mountain, a traditional sanctuary during times of trouble. Within a few days, however, the posse apprehended them, loaded them on cattle trucks, and placed them in the compound.
During this time, Posey and some of the Indian men fought a delaying action, exchanging shots with their pursuers. The Indians killed a horse, barely missed three passengers in a Model T, and created a media sensation that played in newspapers as far away as Chicago. Posey received wounds that eventually proved fatal, while Joe Bishop’s Little Boy was killed instantly in another fracas. The settlers did not realize that they had mortally wounded their nemesis, and so for about a month they kept the Utes incarcerated until U.S. Marshal J. Ray Ward found Posey’s body. Although he diagnosed the cause of death as blood poisoning from a gunshot wound, the Utes believed Posey died from poisoned Mormon flour. Before the settlers released the Indians from the stockade, government officials gave them individual allotments in Allen Canyon and sent many of the children to attend school at Towaoc, the Ute Mountain Ute Agency in Colorado. Thus ended the Posey War.
However, for the Indians it was not a war and never was intended to be such. A desperate flight through the canyons, a few shots fired as a delaying action, and a very rapid surrender do not justify elevating an exodus to a war. For the whites, however, it was an opportunity to release pent-up fear and frustration that had accumulated for over forty years. They mobilized quickly and combined frontier know-how with World War I warfare techniques. Talk of electrified fences and aircraft armed with machine guns and bombs, the use of a prisoner stockade, and the dissemination of volatile propaganda in the yellow press, combined with using automobiles to track Indians, horse-mounted posses, and old-fashioned gunfights made this event dramatic if not unique. Even today, Posey looms large as a symbol of an attitude and a time when vestiges of the old West were manifest in rural Utah.
– Robert S. McPherson