Militiaman William Stowell and the Utah War

This article originally appeared in Vol.65, No.3 (2018) of Pioneer Magazine.

by R. Devan Jensen and Kenneth L. Alford

The of 1857-58 grew out of rising tensions between Utah’s leadership and federal authorities. This armed conflict, formally identified by the US Government as the Utah Expedition, foreshadowed one of the struggles that would play out a few short years later during the American Civil War, the struggle between states’ rights and federal authority This article outlines events of the Utah War as experienced by Nauvoo Legion member William R. R Stowell and his family.1

Federal and Utah territorial authorities often dashed regarding polygamy, American Indian policy. Mormon control of territorial courts and mail service, and the moral character of territorial appointees. On January 6, 1857, Utah’s legislators approved provocative measures rejecting federal officials who did not reflect local values. Shortly thereafter. President James Buchanan received reports of rebellion and murder in Utah.

These originated with William W. Drummond, former associate justice of the Utah Territory Supreme Court and a married man who flaunted his mistress in public While still in office, Drummond had tried to diminish Mormon influence by reducing the power of Utah’s county probate courts. When local officials rebuffed him, he wrote a formal complaint to Buchanan, then fled to California and later to New Orleans. From there he formally resigned his position via a maligning letter that was published in the New York Herald alleging that Church leaders had murdered a government-appointed official and destroyed territorial court papers and that local leaders engaged in chronic harassment of federal appointees. Drummond called for a federally appointed territorial governor to be sent to Utah with a full military escort.

In May 1857, while Congress was adjourned, President Buchanan ordered US troops to escort and Delano R. Eckels to Salt Lake City and there to install them, respectively, as territorial governor and territorial supreme court justice. The army left Fort Leavenworth (Kansas Territory) on July 18. On July 24,1857, a large group of Saints gathered in Big Cottonwood Canyon heard alarming news that the US Army was marching on Utah.

Delay Tactics and Capture

Recalling mob action that led to forced exoduses from first Missouri and later Illinois, Governor Young mustered Utah’s territorial militia, the Nauvoo Legion, on August 1. Young declared martial law on September 15 and restricted admittance to the territory. Led by Colonel Edmund B. Alexander, US military forces had already entered Utah Territory in today’s southwestern Wyoming. In late September, Alexander set up temporary Camp Winfield on Hams Fork of the Green River and reconnoitered two possible routes of march to Salt Lake City- northwest through Soda Springs or southwest through Echo Canyon.

In the foil of 1857, Cynthia Jane Stowell bade farewell to her husband, William, a lieutenant in the Utah territorial militia. Cynthia, who was pregnant, was raising nine children—six of whom were orphans she and William had adopted. William’s plural wife, Sophronia Kelley, had three additional children. By early October, Lieutenant Stowell had been assigned as an adjutant in Major ’s infantry battalion to hinder the federal army’s advance.

With other divisions of the Utah militia, Taylor’s battalion burned Fort Bridger and nearby Fort Supply on October 3 and 4. During the night of October 3, Stowell dreamed that he would be captured by federal troops and made a prisoner of war, but that he would subsequently escape “without any material injury,” that he would ride unharmed through Echo Canyon and return safely to his family.”

That same week, Taylor, Stowell, and three other men were dispatched to watch the movement of the approaching US troops in the Green River area.3 Stowell carried personal orders from Lt Gen. Daniel H. Wells, the Nauvoo Legions commander and Brigham Young’s second counselor in the First Presidency,4 instructing Taylor’s battalion to watch and report on the army’s whereabouts, to “annoy them in every possible way,” to “stampede their animals,… and take no life, but destroy their trains and stampede or drive away their animals at every opportunity?5 Major ’s contingent patrolled with similar orders. In early October, Smith’s company burned three army supply trains hauling tons of food and supplies. The following week, the contingent ran off seven hundred head of federally owned cattle. Over the next weeks, the number of cattle driven off by Mormon volunteers increased to a thousand head and then to two thousand. These actions escalated Utah-federal tensions to the point that both Colonel Johnston and Brigham Young authorized the use of deadly force.6

On October 16, Taylor and Stowell traveled toward campfires they thought belonged to Lot Smith but were surprised and then captured by Captain Randolph B. Marty’s advance patrol. Immediately following his capture, Stowell made plans to destroy Wells’ orders—which he carried inside a small pocket journal he kept under his shirt But a spiritual impression counseled him to “keep them, for they will do more good than harm?7

Under questioning by Colonel Alexander, Stowell warned of strong fortifications in Echo Canyon, exaggerating the number of Utah troops as twenty-five to thirty thousand.* He claimed that US troops would suffer severe casualties if they attempted to enter the Salt Lake Valley by force. When soldiers found the orders Stowell was carrying, he was interrogated again. Stowell again bluffed, asserting that the route through Soda Springs to the Valley was guarded as well.9

Army regulars mocked Stowell, boasting that they would winter in Salt Lake City and that “Jesus Christ cannot keep us out!”10 Believing Stowell s first report, Colonel Alexander decided against the Echo Canyon route, announcing to his men that they would enter the Salt Lake Valley by way of Soda Springs, traveling northwesterly down Hams Fork.11 Partway down the Fork, however, Alexander’s forces halted. Stowell’s and Taylor’s reports on Mormon defensive operations had caused division within the army’s leadership regarding the best route to follow. Consequently, the army retraced its route southeasterly up Hams Fork to wait for Colonel Johnstons arrival.12 While the federal troops were frustrated and nicknamed Alexander “Old Granny” because of his indecision, Taylor and Stowell secretly rejoiced. They recognized that the delay— along with the more significant impact of “severe weather, deep snow, and a massive loss of animals”13—would likely forestall any armed conflict.

Taylor and Stowell were kept in irons and suffered from cold, hunger, and growing uncertainty. Stowell daimed that a sergeant fed them vegetable soup that had been poisoned. They vomited after sampling it and administered priesthood blessings to each other. Both men remained weak for several days.14

Colonel Johnston, a Class of 1826 West Point graduate, arrived in camp on November 3 with a contingent escorting Governor Gumming and Justice Eckels. About that time, Taylor and Stowell devised an escape plan. The cold march had aggravated Stowell s rheumatism, and he was warming himself near a campfire. Craftily, Stowell began telling a tall tale to distract the guards. When a herd of cattle passed nearby, Taylor slipped from the shadows surrounding the fire and into the herd, going unmissed for about fifteen minutes.15 A party with bloodhounds searched but could not find him. Half frozen after walking for miles, Taylor eventually joined up with a Mormon supply train four miles from Fort Bridger. He shared intelligence regarding Johnstons position and plans and reported StowelFs capture directly to Brigham Young.16

On November 16, US troops established temporary winter quarters at Camp Scott, about two miles southwest of Fort Bridger. They spread a Sibley tent over Stowell and staked it tightly down to prevent his escape. Many animals died of the cold that night.17

Near Camp Scott, Governor Cumming, Justice Eckels, and their associates set up a temporary seat of territorial government in quarters called Eckelsville, a “ramshackle warren of dugouts, log cabins, tents, buggies, and wagon boxes” near burned-out Fort Bridger.1* Here, Stowell complained of being confined in the guard tent “with filthy lousy soldiers and being covered with body lice.”19 In a letter to Colonel Johnston dated November 26 Brigham Young declared, “Tf you imagine that keeping, mistreating or killing Mr. Stowell will redound to your credit or advantage, future experience may add to the stock of your better judgment”10

Trial for Treason

It was in Eckelsville on December 30 that Justice Delano Eckels convened a grand jury that indicted twenty Latter-day Saints for high treason, among them . The New-York Tribune reported:

Stowell is a thick, heavy-set man, not more than five feet six inches in height, with a rough and obstinate, but not malignant countenance, short and shaggy black hair, and an illiterate expression. He was dothed warmly, and with tolerable neatness, Judge Eckels having personally inspected and provided for his physical cleanliness before the arrival of the Marshal at camp. He listened to the reading of the indictment with composure, and was evidently gratified, surprised to find his name in such noble company.11

The list of those indicted included the Church’s First Presidency—Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Daniel H. Wells—together with John Taylor, Lot Smith, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Joseph Taylor, Robert Burton, and William Stowell.22 Stowell hired an attorney, pled not guilty, and asked for an adjournment to secure witnesses.23 Eckels agreed to a delay enabling both sides to call witnesses, noting that there were still numerous “other persons who had not yet been arrested.”24 Meanwhile, Stowell remained a prisoner.

It was about the time of Williams arraignment that Cynthia and Sophronia learned the facts of his imprisonment “Circumstances did not admit” Cynthia wryly observed,

“to our keeping up a correspondence with him!25 For his part, William was able to write his family only one short note during his captivity. During a midwinter visit to the Stowell home, Elder Orson Hyde assured Cynthia and Sophronia that “all things would work around right for Mr. StowelFs deliverance and restoration to his family?26

As the cold winter weeks dragged by at Camp Scott, Stowell and a fellow prisoner stockpiled food and plotted an escape. In late February or early March 1858 the pair bribed a guard and made their escape. After four days of wandering near Fort Supply, however, they concluded they would almost certainly die of exposure, so they returned to Camp Scott William later wrote that it required great endurance— and a lot of humility—to return to the camp. Their feet hands, and face were “frozen and our strength almost exhausted.” Eckels sarcastically observed to Stowell that “he would rather have frozen to death on the mountains than come back.” Stowell curtly responded, “I was not ready to die yet.”27 To thwart future escape attempts, soldiers manaded Stowell and each of his fellow prisoners with a heavy ball and chain,18

The Move South

On March 18, Brigham Young convened a War Council consisting of the First Presidency, eight members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and thirty senior Nauvoo Legion officers. Still believing that the approaching US forces were hostile and they would conceivably repeat mob actions like those occurring in Missouri and Illinois, the Council decided to follow Young—“their American Moses”— “into the desert and not [into] war.”19

Three days later, Brigham Young convened a special conference in the old adobe Tabernacle on Temple Square to present to the assembled Saints the plans for what is now called the Move South. Young said it would be better to bum their cities than allow the army to live in them—rendering hollow any military victory. He instructed residents north of the Point of the Mountain to move south for safety. He divided Utah Saints into three groups: (1) people living in northern Utah who would move south; (2) a few northern men who would remain behind to guard their homes, irrigate the crops, and, if necessary, to bum their homes and fields so that the invading army would be left with nothing; and (3) those living south of the Point of the Mountain who would not move but who would assist and help care for those Saints who would temporarily live near them.

Young sent scouting expeditions into the western desert, hoping to find suitable areas—with water sources and pasture lands—for temporary settlement Instead, returning scouts reported finding only empty desert. Thus, many of the roughly 30,000 people displaced during the Move South temporarily crowded into Utah County. Amazingly, the displaced Saints comprised roughly seventy- five percent of Utah settlers, given that Utah’s 1860 census just two years later numbered the population at only 40,273.

By early April, Elder Wilford Woodruff noted in his journal:

“North to the South the road is lined for 50 to 100 miles from Box Elder to Provo with horse Mule & ox teams and loose cattle sheep & hogs and also men women & Children, All are leaving their homes.”30 

Many suffered and some came near perishing. Horses died by the wayside. Men unloaded their goods in the mud. Others took their teams off and left their wagons sticking in the mud. Some teams gave out and whole families lay in the mud under their wagons overnight Women carried their children in their arms and waded in water mud and snow knee deep.31

Naturally, Cynthia and Sophronia Stowell and their children were among the displaced families. When the announcement came, both women were only short weeks away from giving birth. “In our situation the difficulties … seemed insurmountable,” Cynthia wrote.

“The 14th of April 1858 my child [Rufus] was bom. The move was then far advanced. On the 21st of April we left our home with one wagon and two yoke of steers.”32

Sophronia gave birth to a daughter on May 4. The two women and then- twelve children shared a single wagon. In early May, Cynthia Stowell met with Governor Alfred Cumming in Salt Lake City to plead for her husband William’s release. Cumming listened to her pleas and promised to take a letter to William when he returned to Camp Scott.33 Cynthia wrote the following account of her meeting with the incoming governor:

He received me very kindly. He Inquired about the family and as his queries led to it I gave him an account of the JamBy, its numbers, the orphan children, etc. He said it was a bad shape to be in. His sympathetic attitude cheered me…. He assured me he would do aB he could for Mr. Stowell. At the dose of our short interview he gave me ten dollars. I had expected he would feel ugly towards us and of course was the more surprised at his kindness and sympathy.34

With the money she received from the governor, Cynthia bought shoes for Sophronia and some yards of fabric to make clothing for the children.35

Traveling to Camp Scott, Governor Cumming tearfully interviewed William Stowell and assured him of “a fair, and impartial trial and not by a jury of that camp.”36 An informal peace commissioner. Colonel Thomas L. Kane, was simultaneously working to resolve tensions and misunderstandings between the federal government and the Latter-day Saints. At the end of May, peace commissioners Benjamin McCulloch and Lazarus W. Powell37 arrived with a proclamation from President Buchanan granting general pardon to all accused or indicted Mormons. Stowell swore allegiance to the United States on June 1 and was freed.38 As he rode down Echo Canyon on June 4 with Governor Cumming’s advance party, he recalled his dream from the previous autumn.39

Stowell met with Brigham Young to report his experiences and to learn the status of his wives and children. Cynthia and her children were in Pondtown (now Salem), and Sophronia and her children were living in Payson.40 Cynthia later wrote:

As patiently as possible we awaited the arrival of Mr. Stowell. We understood that the general pardon of the President of the U.S. would release him. He arrived in Payson the 10th of June, 1858. When Mr. Stowell returned my dream before related in which I saw him play with the baby on my lap was fulfilled.”41

After a joyful reunion, Stowell and his large family made the hot, dry journey home to Ogden. Barely four months later, Cynthia’s baby son Rufus died on October 14, and Sophronias baby daughter Mary died three days later. They were buried in the same grave.

“Surely it was a time of great destitution and affliction to us,” Cynthia wrote. “Many others suffered with us. There was the satisfaction that we had done the best we could as a people under the difficulties that were forced upon us by our enemies.”42 


R Devan Jensen is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center, Brigjiam Young University, and a third-great-grandson of William and Cynthia Stowell

Kenneth L Alford is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and a US Army Colonel (retired).

Portions of this article are adapted from R. Devan Jensen and Kenneth L. Alford.”I Was Not Ready to Die Yet'” William Stowell’s Utah War Ordeal. BYU Studies 56.4 (2017):29-52.

  1. William wrote three accounts of his Utah War experiences:”William R. Stowell Journal, circa 1857,” MS 4602, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; “The Echo Canyon War,” Papers, Utah Vtfer, MSS 2379, L.Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; and a biographical sketch published as James Uttle, ed, A Biographical Sketch of William Rufus Rogers Stowell (Colonia Juarez; Mex.: By the author, 1893), Weber County Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum, Ogden, Utah.
  2. Wllllam R. Stowell Journal”(hereafter WRSJ) 1.
  3. WRSJ 2.
  4. For more about Wells’s defensive campaign, see Quentin Thomas Wells, Defender: The Life of Daniel H. Wells (2016), ch. 11.
  5. “Indictment of the Mormon Leaders,” New York Tribune, March 1, 1858, 6.
  6. David L Bigler and Will Bagley, The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-1858 (2008), 218,222.
  7. Little 25.
  8. WRSJ 3.
  9. Uttle 25.
  10. Little 25.
  11. Brandon J. Metcalf, “The Nauvoo Leg ton and the Prevention of the Utah War) Utah Historical Quarterly 72.4 (Fall 2004); 310.
  12. Stowell, “Echo Canyon War” 6.
  13. William P. MacKinnon, ed, At Sword’s Point, Part 2: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 1858-1859 (2016), 618.
  14. Stowell, “Echo Canon War” 5.
  15. WRSJ 3.
  16. Joseph Taylor, Journal 1857, Church History Library.
  17. Stowell, “Echo Canon War” 7-8.
  18. MacKinnon 284.
  19. Stowell, “Echo Canon War” 8.
  20. Brigham Young to Col. A. S. Johnston, November 26,1857, In Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints, January 4, 1857, 3-4.
  21. “A Mormon Prisoner—His Trial” New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, March 2, 1858, transcript obtained from L. Tom Perry Special Collections, HBLJL, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
  22. Third District Court (Territorial), Case Files, People v. Young.
  23. Stowell, “Echo Canon War” 8.
  24. “A Mormon Prisoner—His Trial” March 2,1858.
  25. Cynthia Jane Park Stowell “Autobiography” privately printed, 4.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Stowell, “Echo Canon War” 9.
  28. Little 30.
  29. Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898 Typescript, ed. Scott G. Kinney, 9 vols. (1983-84), 5:178.
  30. Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 5:177-8, 186, spelling standardized.
  31. Ibid, 5:178.
  32. Cynthia Jane Park Stowell 5.
  33. MacKinnon 463.
  34. Cynthia Jane Park Stowell 5.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Little 31.
  37. McCulloch, from Texas, had earlier turned down the President’s Invitation to be Utah’s territorial governor; Powell was Kentucky senator-elect.
  38. MacKinnon 510 n. 10.
  39. WRSJ 7.
  40. Little 33.
  41. Cynthia Jane Park Stowell 5.
  42. Ibid.

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