Pioneers and Indians in Utah Valley

August 11, 2008 | 9 comments
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Just last week I heard a familiar comment at church: Brigham Young’s policy was to feed the Indians rather than fight them. The actual record of relations between Pioneers and Indians was a bit more complicated, especially in Utah Valley, the watery jewel of early Utah.

My rethinking of this episode from Utah history was due in part to my recent reading of Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard Univ. Press, 2008), a scholarly examination of how the valley where Indians fished the Lake ended up as the valley where Mormons admire the Mountain. It’s a great read, especially for anyone who went to BYU and never quite figured out the local geographical lore. I would comment more generally on the book but the busy bloggers at Juvenile Instructor beat me to the punch and even got the author to do a guest post with selections from the book. So I’ll settle for a discussion of the interesting tale of how Mormon settlers quickly displaced the local Native Americans who resided at or near Utah Lake.

Farmer’s Account

As Farmer tells the story (in Chapter Two of the book) a group of Mormons acting as a militia first came to Utah Valley in March 1849, looking for cattle taken by raiding Indians from Utah Valley. Following a tip from a local chief, they found and killed four Indians near Battle Creek. They got their cattle back, and shortly after returning north a group of settlers headed south for the desirable Utah Valley (although LDS leaders did not encourage settlement this early — they were acting on their own). They established Fort Utah (by building cabins, then connecting them with fencing to create a compound) near Utah Lake in order to fish and trade with the local Indians, who were not a single, settled tribe but were a changing group in several settlements from several different tribal groups that would come to the valley to exploit the fish resources of the rivers and the lake.

The policy as given to the settlers by reluctant leaders in Salt Lake City was that the settlers were supposed to teach the Indians how to farm, raise cattle, and be good citizens (by teaching them the Gospel). But there was friction almost from the beginning. In August 1849 three Mormons ran across an Indian who had stolen a shirt from the fort and killed him. His kin were very unhappy about this event, but the settlers at Fort Utah refused to either turn over the perpetrator or provide material goods as compensation. So local Indians began shooting at settlers, plunking arrows into cattle, and stealing corn. That winter, Indians looted cattle liberally. Brigham Young, based on misrepresentations by the settlers at Fort Utah (who didn’t tell him about the murdered Indian!) and with the support of the only government official in the area, Captain Stansbury of the US Topographical Engineers, approved the settlers’ request to eliminate the troublesome Indians.

About fifty militia troops were raised under the banner of the Nauvoo Legion. On February 7 and 8, 1850, there was fighting near Fort Utah in which ten Utes died. Over the following week, the militia hunted down and killed about twenty more Indians around the valley. A treaty was signed in April ending this “first Indian war,” by which time about a hundred Indians had died (some from disease or lack of food) and one of the Mormon militia had died. In succeeding years, Mormon policy vacillated between befriending the Indians and fighting them. Mormon opposition to the slave trade between Spanish traders out of New Mexico and the local Indians exacerbated tensions, resulting in a “second Indian war” (aka the Walker War) in 1853-54.

Locusts hit the valley in 1855, leading to scarce food supplies during the winter of 1855-56 and increased tension as settlers had little to share with starving Indians (whose access to traditional food sources was now restricted), who then helped themselves to cattle here and there. More skirmishes and Indian deaths (sometimes called the “Tintic War”). Chief Washear ended up in jail, where his throat was slit (it was conveniently ruled a suicide).

Tensions simmered until 1857, when they were submerged by the larger conflict of the Utah War (1857-58) between Mormons and the US Government. In March 1858, Brigham Young implemented an evacuation plan that sent 30,000 Mormons from Salt Lake south to Utah Valley. At that point, Indians had been effectively displaced from their traditional fishing grounds and village sites in Utah Valley. Government officials took over Indian relations, and government policy quickly coalesced around removal. “[I]n 1864, the wartime Congress dissolved the Indian farms [established by an earlier US Government Indian Agent] and provided for the extinguishment of Indian title in Utah Territory by treaty” (p. 101). Indians were alloted reservation land in the Uinta Basin.

Other Accounts

Since the account by Farmer didn’t quite mesh with my recollection of earlier accounts, I consulted some other books. Here’s from Allen and Leonard’s Story of the Latter-day Saints (my 1986 printing of the 1976 edition, not the revised 1992 edition that is linked to).

The slave law [passed by the territorial legislature in 1852 to allow settlers to buy Indian women and children out of slavery and assign them to Mormon homes] angered the Indians, who saw it as interference with a profitable business. Slave traders encouraged them to resist the law and supplied them with arms. This became an important factor in the outbreak of the Walker War in July 1853, when the Utes attacked various Mormon settlements beginning at Springville. The intermittent fighting lasted until May 1854, when Brigham Young and Chief Walker arranged a peace settlement. (p. 271.)

Arrington and Bitton, in The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (U. of Illinois Press, 2d ed., 1992), give more coverage in their fine chapter on the relations between Mormons and Native Americans, which paints a kinder and gentler Mormon policy toward the Indians. They quote Brigham Young’s “cheaper to feed them than to fight them” statement and conclude, “Above all, he opposed the customary frontier theory that ‘the only good Indian was a dead Indian,’ and the resulting practice of indiscriminately killing Indians” (p. 148). Here is their description of the “first Indian war”: “In 1849 Timpanogos Utes from Utah Valley … raided the range in Tooele Valley, west of Salt Lake City. Forty Mormon militiamen rode off in pursuit, surrounding the band, and killed several of the Indians at a location known thereafter as Battle Creek (now Pleasant Grove).”

They have two pages covering the Walker War of 1853-54, which they explain as having started when Chief Wakara (or Walker)

found himself unable to control young hotbloods thirsting for retaliation against the white invaders. … During the ensuing Walker War, the Mormons were counseled not to kill but to be patient and firm. Protected by walls and vigilant guards, the Mormons lost no women or children and only twelve men. None of the latter died in military action …” (p. 151-52).

David L. Bigler’s Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Utah State Univ. Press, 1998) also has a full chapter related to Mormon-Indian relations, entitled “Early Indian Wars.” First, he disputes the idea that Brigham Young’s “cheaper to feed them than to fight them” statement was an accurate description of Mormon policy. “[E]arly Mormon religious beliefs, pertaining to the natives of the New World, made relations between the older inhabitants of Utah and the white newcomers more complex and, at times, contradictory than this seemingly sensible dictum would suggest” (p. 64). More generally, “Mormon treatment of the natives in Utah vacillated unpredicatably between generosity … and extermination campaigns that sometimes failed to discriminate between hostile and friendly” (p. 65).

Bigler details the 1850 fight at Battle Creek and has five pages on the Walker War, which he describes as “less a war in the customary sense than a series of atrocities by both sides, ambushes and mutilations by one and outright executions, sometimes billed as ‘skirmishes,’ by the other” (p. 74). Bigler notes the tension created when Young acted to terminate the Spanish slave trading, but peace held for several months until a fight between an Indian and a Mormon over a fish-for-flour trade (the Indian later died) touched off active hostilities.

In conclusion, the chapter in Farmer’s book really puts the dispute between the Indians of the Utah Valley and the Mormon settlers into the context of settlement and declining Indian access to food resources, and gives the fullest and most objective description available of the decade of active conflict between them. The Arrington & Bitton and Bigler books provide some of the details (with different biases showing in each) and, of course, cover events not directly tied to the settlement of Utah Valley. You should really read the whole Farmer book, of course — this post just comments on one chapter. Then make plans to hike to the top of Timp if you haven’t already.

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9 Responses to Pioneers and Indians in Utah Valley

  1. Nat Whilk on August 11, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    I haven’t started reading my copy of Farmer’s book, so I can’t give a meaningful comparison, but John Alton Peterson’s Utah’s Black Hawk War has about 10 pages on the Fort Utah conflict, gives an extensive general account of Mormon-Indian relations in the first couple of decades after the pioneers arrival, and (IMO) is a great read.

  2. danithew on August 12, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Indians on occasion were no doubt a convenient scapegoat for crimes committed by Mormon settlers. If something was stolen or someone was murdered, a person could always say that it was done by the Indians.

    I referred to this recently in a comment on this same blog – but I think this is one story that shows how the relationships between Mormons and Indians could get ‘complicated.’

    I have an ancestor named Joseph Bartholomew who initially helped to settle Springville, Utah. Joseph Bartholomew came to know about what are referred to as the Potter-Parish murders. Specifically, he knew who was involved because he was asked to participate somehow – but he refused. The local bishop, Aaron Johnson, arranged to have him killed. From what I remember reading about it, my ancestor was told to be at a certain site, close to campfire. He had an idea of what was going on and he put a log in his sleeping roll and watched from a distance while some people “killed” the log. I have to double-check the history, but as I remember the story being told, they shot into the sleeping roll and then went away, thinking he was dead. They went back to town and told the people that Joseph Bartholomew had been killed by Indians. Then, no doubt to their consternation and surprise, he showed up alive. According to our family history, since bishop Aaron Johnson couldn’t kill Joseph Bartholomew, he had him disfellowshipped.

    Joseph Bartholomew ended up leaving Springville and helped to settle Fayette instead. At some point his membership was quietly reinstated by Orson Hyde and he and his descendants continued to serve in the church.

    I bring up this story in the context of this post because of the last part – that some Mormon settlers thought they could kill another Mormon settler, blame the Indians, and wash their hands of the whole thing. It’s a unique circumstance being described – but I draw the conclusion that there were many unique circumstances and that the “feed rather than fight” policy doesn’t nearly begin to explain it all.

  3. Howard on August 12, 2008 at 11:46 am

    My ancestors helped settle Manti. The Indians made life difficult for them in those early years.

    My gg grandfather was killed by Indians in 1853 and the Indians brought his belongs to the house to show them to his survivors. My then pregnant gg grandmother went after them with a butcher knife, fortunately she was stopped before anyone else was killed.

    In a later incident while alone she laid her infant down to pick up a piece of wood and beat the shoulders of a young Indian who entered her house asking for bread. I guess she believed fighting them was better than feeding them!

  4. Nat Whilk on August 12, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    @#3: “My gg grandfather was killed by Indians in 1853 and the Indians brought his belongs to the house to show them to his survivors.

    That was actually Aaron Johnson dressed up like a bunch of Indians.

  5. clark on August 12, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Don’t forget about Paul Reeve’s Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners and the Souther Paiute. I’m reading that right now and am thoroughly enjoying it. He does a fantastic job of orienting each community in terms of conceptions of the land.

  6. Christopher on August 13, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Great write-up, Dave. I think the biggest contribution of Farmer’s book is, as you hint at, his bringing the environment into the disputes between Mormons and Indians.

    Howard, regarding your comment that “The Indians made life difficult for [your ancestors] in those early years,” … it’s tough to have sympathy for your ancestors considering they came to Utah, proclaimed the land theirs, and treated the Indians whose land it was like crap.

  7. J. Stapley on August 13, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for the write-up, Dave. I haven’t read the volume yet, but it is on my list.

  8. Chad Too on August 13, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    My gggg-grandfather was killed in 1853, one of the early victims of the Walker War. It seems there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides for those skirmishes.

    FWIW, he was on his way up to SLC from Manti to meet three of his sons who had just finished their trek from Manchester, England. They arrived to the news their father had been killed. My parents are in the UK as we speak at a reunion where the descendants of the part of the family that converted and emigrated are meeting the descendants of the ones who didn’t emigrate and remained in the UK. I so wish I could be there.

    Ardis: this is my Luke line, one of the ones that ends up in Piute County…

  9. Howard on August 13, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Christopher,
    Sure, that’s exactly the point the Indians were making when they killed the saints and their live stock.

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