The Gunnison Massacre

The Gunnison Massacre

By Madoline C. Dixon

“They felt they were justified in the killings because of the treatment  some of them had received from emigrants going through Utah Territory.”

The series  of altercations between Ute Indians and whites that took place in the Utah of 1853 has become as the Walker War. Led by the cunning Walkara, or “Walker,” the Utes raided raided a number of Mormon settlements that year, mostly without success. The Gunnison Massacre in central Utah was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Walker War. The attack took place some six miles west of Deseret in Millard County and 35 miles northwest of Fillmore. It was the direct result of an affray between an emigrant party from Missouri and a handful of Indians from the area. Chief Walker had spread word that he would not rest until every white man had been exterminated. But he was not directly involved in the killings.

In the autumn of 1853 the party of Missourians enroute to California stopped in Fillmore. Bishop Anson Call told them when they camped on Meadow Creek they would find a few Indians camped there also. They were friendly and the Missourians should have no fear of them; however, he also warned the whites not to molest the Utes. The wagon train had hardly moved into camp when the Pavante war chief, Moshoquap, and several other Indians arrived with bundles of buckskins they offered to swap for tobacco and other articles. Seeing that the Indians carried bows and arrows, the emigrants surrounded and tried to disarm them. The Utes regarded this as an intrusion on their rights, and one of them jabbed an arrow into an emigrant’s breast. Enraged, the Missourians whipped out their revolvers and opened fire. The war chief’s father was shot in the side and died the next day. Two other Indians were wounded, one in the shoulder and the other in the arm. None of the white men injured except the one who was slightly wounded by the thrust of the arrow into his breast.

John W. Gunnison

Captain John W. Gunnison, who was conducting a United States Government surveying party through Utah Territory in the autumn of 1853, when he was killed by Indians in an attack later called the Gunnison Massacre.

A few days later, Captain John William Gunnison, who in 1853 was making a survey for a railroad through the area, entered the Pahvant Valley from the north and camped on Pioneer Creek, six miles north of Fillmore. He went into Fillmore for supplies, looked up Bishop Call, with whom he had long had a friendly relationship, and from him learned of the incident on Meadow Creek. Call warned Gunnison about the Indians. He and Gunnison agreed the Indians would carry out their threats of revenge at the first opportunity; however, because of his friendship with the Utes, Gunnison evidently doubted that he and his group would be attacked. The Gunnison party made camp beside the Sevier River. Being so close to the Sevier Lake – Little Salt Lake or the Dead Sea of Millard County – they decided to explore it before going on to Salt Lake City for the winter. Captain R.M. Morris and a part of the small military escort traveling with Gunnison were to remain in the camp while the Gunnison party made its exploration. In Gunnison’s absence, the men under Captain Morris, were to explore the north-western part of the valley to decide on the possibility of building a wagon road through to the Great Salt Lake. Leaving the Morris party, Gunnison and his men followed the river. After reaching the upper lakes they began shooting at some ducks. The shots were heard by two of Moshoquap’s men, who rode to the Indian camp of some six wick-i-ups and reported the strangers’ presence. Later that evening the Gunnison party made camp beside the Sevier Lake. They picketed their horses along the swamp to the northeast, told their stories at bedtime and retired for the night. Sleeping on the grass under the stars along with Captain Gunnison were R.A. Kearn; a Professor Creutzfeldt; a Mormon guide and interpreter from Manti, Sanpete, Utah, William Potter; a man who served as cook; a corporal; and six enlisted men. I

In the meantime, Moshoquop, the war chief, and his men prepared to avenge the killing of his father. The warriors in the group totaled twenty-three. Along with Moshoquop and his brother, Pants, were a Ute from Nephi, two Snake River Indians, and Jimmy Knights, well known to pioneer stockraisers for his boldness in killing their stock. Following Moshoquop’s directions, the Indians moved under cover of the night in single file to positions he had ordered. The small group of sleeping whites was encircled except on the west side, where the swamp would cut off their escape. The night passed with the Indians keeping the silent vigil. With the first light of dawn, they saw the cook in the Gunnison camp start a fire, place his tripod and kettle over it, and begin stirring biscuits in a pan. Professor Creutzfeldt warmed himself by the fire. Captain Gunnison walked about 75 feet to the river, where he knelt to bathe his hands and face. The sun had just appeared above the distant canyon range when a shot ran out in the crisp air. The cook lay dead beside the campfire. A second shot whizzed past Captain Gunnison. He pulled his six-shooter from its holster and opened fire on his assailant, who ducked and escaped injury. More shot were fired by both sides. The Utes’ war whoops added to the white’s utter surprise. Officers and men alike ran for open ground, the arrows and bullets whizzing past them as they threw off clothing and arms that would slow their flight. Some of the men ran toward their horses. As one was about to mount, he caught sight of an Indian fitting an arrow in his bow. The soldier fired and the Indian dropped. The trooper rode away thinking he had killed him. It was later learned, however, that the Indian fell as the gun was fired and escaped injury. One member of the escort succeeded in mounting, and escaped during the affray. One had the presence of mind to remain motionless in the grass until the melee was over. Another escaped by plunging into the river, swimming to its south bank and hiding in the willows until he made his way to the camp of Captain Morris. The Indians who had been assigned to the north side of the camp had until now remained motionless. But when the feeing men were nearly upon them, they sprang to their feet. Amid screams and yelps they sent dozens of arrows into the whites.

Ute Indians

A group of Ute Indians face the camera of pioneer photographer G.E. Anderson of Springfield, Utah, circa 1880-90. Rell Francis of Heritage Prints, Provo, Utah, made the photograph using Anderson’s original glass plate negative, 1980.

Chief Kanosh

Chief Kanosh attired in white man’s clothing. He helped bring about a peace settlement after the Gunnison Massacre of 1853.

After emptying his gun at the Indians, Gunnison turned toward the horses and reached a point some seventy-five yards from the camp when he fell, struck by a number of arrows. Two or three hours later he was found by some of the Utes. When he saw them, he raised himself to a sitting position and reached out his arms in appeal. The Indians grouped about the white man, undecided whether to shoot him or save him. Then Jimmy Knights, the renegade, walked up, leveled his rifle at Gunnison and ended his life.

That afternoon one of the soldiers staggered into the Morris Camp, relating the events of the attack, saying that he was the only one who was not slain. In a few minutes two others appeared and told the same story. Later Lieutenant Colonel Edward Jenner Steptoe of the United States Army attempted to investigate the murders. Through Governor Brigham Young he obtained the help of George Bean, an interpreter of the Indian language, and Orrin Porter Rockwell, bodyguard of Brigham Young. They sought out Chief Kanosh, head of some 300 members of the Pavante tribe of the Ute Nation. Kanosh, who has been called the Great Peace Chief, did what he could to reconcile the Indians and the whites. “But,” Bean wrote in his journal, “it is laughable to think of our first trip to the Ute village, traveling as we were in a government ambulance with four good mules, expecting to take the criminal back to Salt Lake City with little effort…” The terms of an uncertain peace were eventually agreed upon. Bean wrote, “Just after New Years, 1855, we were accompanied to Fillmore by Major John J. Reynolds and 20 men. On hand to meet us were about 50 red men, half hostile, all blacked and painted. They felt they were justified in the killings because  of the treatment some of them had received from emigrants going through Utah Territory enroute to California. However, Kanosh had persuaded his braves to give up a number of their tribe comparable to the number of whites they had killed. “But such a turnout of criminals was never before seen. – one squaw for the Mormon killed, one old blind fellow, one foolish chap, one outsider without friends, one old sick fellow and three little boys, from ten to thirteen years. “Kanosh,” Ben concluded, “said this was the best he could do without a fight.”


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