The Gunnison Massacre Site is significant in its ties to the history of exploration, railroad construction, Indian-white relations and the Mormon
experience in the West, The massacre occurred on October 26, 1853, Captain John W. Gunnison, in charge of the 38th Parallel Survey, and seven others were killed by Indians of the Pah Vent tribe. Four members of the party managed to escape.
John W. Gunnison was born November 11, 1812, in Goshen, New Hampshire, He graduated from West Point in 1837 second in his class of fifty. In 1838 he was assigned to the corps of Topographical Engineers, Gunnison was a member of the Stansbury expedition in 1849 and 1850, After the expedition divided into two parties at Fort Bridger, Lieutenant Gunnison commanded the group which went directly to Salt Lake City. He was in charge of the survey from the Great Salt Lake to Fort Hall in the fall of 1849.,and t&e exploration of Utah Lake. The Stansbury expedition wintered in Salt Lake City during which time Gunnison studied the religious doctrines and practices of the Mormon Church. His study, The Mormons or Latter-day Saints in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, published in 1852 is a remarkably insightful and balanced work. In the spring of 1850 Captain Gunnison conducted a survey of the eastern shore of Great Salt lake and several of the Lake’s islands, one of which is named for Gunnison. Following the summer’s work, the expedition returned to the East.
The controversy over practical transcontinental railroad routes led Congress to authorize surveys of the four principal routes. Captain Gunnison was given command of the survey along the 38th parallel, Gunnison’s appointment was opposed by Senator Thomas Burton of Missouri who sought to receive the command for his son-in-law, John C f Fremont. In 1848 Fremont had surveyed a route along the 38th parallel into the Rocky Mountains, At Fremont’s insistence, the expedition tried to cross the Rocky Mountains in December and ten members of the party died from starvation and exposure after they were caught in a snowstorm. Fremont and the other survivors were forced to take refuge in Taos. Despite this tragedy Fremont claimed to have found a satisfactory transcontinental railroad route. Gunnison’s route followed that of the earlier Fremont expedition up the Missouri River from St, Louis to Independence, here the expedition was divided with Gunnison following up the Kansas River
to Fort Riley, then up the Smokey Hill River, then south to the Arkansas River near the mouth of Walnut Creek. Here Gunnison met the second group which, under the command of Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith, had followed the Santa Fe Trail from Independence. The route then followed up the Arkansas River to its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. The party guided by Antoine Leroux then crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into the San Luis Valley and across the San Juan Mountains by Cochetopa Pass to the Gunnison River which they followed to its junction with the Colorado River at present-day Grand Junction, Following the Colorado River across the present Colorado-Utah border,, leaving that river as it turned southwest. Continuing westward, Gunnison crossed the Green River near the site of Greenriver, Utah, and followed the old Spanish Trail through Castle Valley and across the Wasatch plateau to the Sevier River and west toward Sevier Lake. Captain Gunnison in an effort to finish the survey work around Sevier Lake before winter halted their efforts, divided his command and took a select group with him. It was this group that was attacked by Indians on
October 26, 1853. Gunnison was aware of Indian difficulties; in the last letter to his wife, dated October 18, 1853, he wrote, “There is a war between the Mormons and the Indians and parties of less than a dozen do not dare to travel The Walker War had begun on July 17, 1853, when one of Chief Walker’s Ute braves was killed in Springville in a trading altercation. During August, September and October, ten Mormons were killed. The deaths of Gunnison and his men, however, ware not connected with the Walker War, but were In revenge for the death of a Pavant and wounding of two others in an altercation with a California emigrant party on Meadow Creek, five miles south of Fillmore.
It was rumored that the Mormons might have been in league with the Indians, or had actually committed the crime themselves. This generated demands that a military force be sent to Utah and that the Territory of Utah be abolished and partitioned among Nebraska, New Mexico and California. In 1854 a detachment of federal troops was ordered to Utah under the command of Colonel Edward J. Steptoe to investigate the massacre. The Steptoe command was composed of 175 soldiers and 130 “teamsters, ostlers and herders,” After lengthy negotiations with Chief Kanosh, Steptoe finally secured the surrender of six Indians, none of whom were the ring leaders.
Three Indians were actually brought to trial in Nephi on March 21, 1855,
Despite the judge’s charge to find the Indians guilty of murder in the first
degree or innocent, the Mormon jury delivered a unanimous verdict of guilty of manslaughter. The verdict was accepted and the Indians sentenced to three years of hard labor in the partially completed territorial penitentiary, The sentence was the most severe permitted for manslaughter by the territorial statutes.
Colonel Steptoe charged that the trial had been staged by Mormon leaders
to outwardly satisfy Gentile opinion and that the trial was used, not only
to protect the Indians, but to show contempt for federal authority, The charges were repeated in eastern newspapers, and set the stage for the “Federal Invasion” by troops sent west in 1857.