Slavery Caused an Indian War in Utah

By Carlton Culmsee of  University

Originally published in Improvement Era, July 1938

brought on a war in Utah eight years before the Civil War. This early struggle is interesting for other reasons. It was Utah’s first sustained conflict between the Pioneers and the Indians. And, differing from most frontier fighting, it apparently grew out of the white men’s kindness to the redmen.

At the beginning of 1853 the good treatment that the Mormons gave the Indians seemed productive only of good. Many redmen, after one or two minor outbreaks, were laboring diligently and even happily to help the whites become established in the Basin of the Great Salt Lake. As late as the spring of ’53 Brigham Young received such morsels of news as this from various nooks of the new Territory:

The Walkers (Indians) work first rate; you can see them all over Nephi carrying water, chopping wood, assisting to haul wood, and doing other duties. They had helped much in harvesting crops the previous autumn.

The natives . . . look upon us as men that are sent by the Great Spirit to ameliorate their present though wretched condition . . . They herd our flocks and faithfully labor. . . .

This report came from John D. Lee at Fort Harmony. He also declared the Piutes cut pickets as well as white men could.

What destroyed this happy partnership in many areas was, to a significant extent, the disapproval with which the Latter-day Saints viewed the slave traffic between the Indians and the Mexicans, In the footsteps of Fathers Dominguez and Escalante had come less unselfish Spaniards. These later comers bought squaws and children which the Utes captured from weaker tribes.

This traffic brought the two most powerful and picturesque figures of earliest Utah history into conflict. As governor and Indian superintendent of the Territory of Utah, Brigham Young forbade the slave trade because it violated the laws of the territory and often placed guns and ammunition in the hands of unruly tribes. As a far-roving and successful war chief who often took captives. Chief Walker approved the trade for what it brought him and his under-chiefs. He wanted no interference.

Walker looms head and shoulders above the rest of Utah’s Indian leaders. He was called “king of the Indians in these mountains” by Brigham Young. His name brought shivers to Indians and even whites from New Mexico to California, so boldly and swiftly did he strike. He ranged as far south as Sonora and Chihuahua. He rode north to fight the Snakes and Shoshones. Once, for example, he raided ranches in Southern California and came trotting home with a thousand captured horses thundering before him as proof of his triumph.

Despite occasional protestations of friendship, Walker had wanted to fight the Mormons from the beginning. But Sowiette, the chief, had twice thwarted him by withholding needed support and by warning the whites.

Also Walker had held sporadic hopes of making the Mormons his allies against rival tribes. But when he proposed such an alliance to Brigham Young, he met a firm refusal that infuriated him.

Then Brigham Young interfered in the slave trade. A score of Spaniards, led by a certain Pedro Leon, had appeared in Sanpete valley late in 1851 and had begun trading horses and other valuables for Indian children and firearms. Their intention was to sell the youngsters into slavery in Mexico and to trade the weapons to the truculent Navajos. They sometimes sold guns to Utah Indians, if they could drive good bargains. It was a many-sided traffic, according to Dr. Wm. J. Snow, authority on Western History.

These traders held a license to trade with the Utah Indians. It was apparently signed by James S. Calhoun, governor and Indian superintendent of New Mexico. Two other such bands of traders carrying similar permits were reported to be operating in Utah.

Brigham Young would not recognize such licenses in his territory, and he would not issue Utah licenses contenancing the slave trade. He ordered the Spaniards to stop their traffic. They laughed at him. They had carried on the trade when Utah belonged to Mexico, and they preferred to continue.

The affair reached a head later that winter. Pedro Leon’s band was arrested and brought to trial, first before a justice of the peace in Manti, Utah, and then before Judge Zerubbabel Snow of the first district court. The Spaniards were found guilty. The nine slaves they had when arrested—a squaw and eight children—were freed and the Spaniards were commanded to leave.

They did not all leave the Territory. Some skulked about, inciting the Indians against the Pioneers. They no doubt ascribed the action of the Mormons to selfish motives. They probably pointed out that the Mormons themselves had purchased Indian children.

This was true. Several times Indians had attempted to barter captive children to the settlers for guns and other articles. And they usually succeeded in driving a bargain when they made it clear that rejection often meant torture or slow starvation for the children. On at least two occasions, young captives were tortured at the very doors of the settlers who had declined to buy them. And the whites, at last unable to endure the shrieks of the victims, paid what the captors asked.

Nevertheless, the cunning words and the sneers of the Spaniards seemed to be having effect, at least on the chiefs who profited from the traffic. A hint of trouble came early in the spring of 1853. An express arrived in Salt Lake City from Iron county with news that Chief Walker had met white men pursuing Indian thieves. The chief had placed himself in the path of the posse and with a menacing manner had told them to go home.

Himick B. Huntington, interpreter, sought a peace talk with Walker in Parowan. But the chief had hurried off to “Sampitch” over the Spanish Trail and could not be overtaken. On the way north from Parowan, Huntington found that Chief Peteetneet and his band had gone up Provo canyon to wait and “see how the battle went.” What battle? Something was in the air.

Another ominous hint came late in April, 1853. Visiting Provo on the twentieth, Brigham Young was brusquely accosted by a stranger who demanded a private interview. Suspicious, the governor refused. Later he learned that the man was a former New Yorker who had lived in Mexico for several years and had come here to buy Indian children to trade to the Mexicans.

When reminded that such traffic was contrary to law, the stranger had impudently retorted that “Catching comes before hanging.”

“He made some threats and boasted that he had four hundred Mexicans on the Sevier awaiting his order,” reported Governor Young.

Could this be true? Brigham Young did not think so. But knowing was better than guessing. In a proclamation issued at Provo on April 23, 1853, he struck at the slave trade and ordered Captain W. M. Wall with a detachment of thirty men to ride southward “through the entire extent of the settlements, re-connoitering the country and directing the inhabitants to be on their guard against . . . surprises.” They were also “authorized and directed to arrest. . . every strolling Mexican party, and those associating with them, and other suspicious persons . , .”

Other measures which he took at this time to ‘‘preserve peace, quell the Indians, and secure the lives and property of the citizens of the Territory” were these:

The militia of the Territory are hereby instructed to be in readiness to march to any point … at a moment’s notice.

All Mexicans now in the Territory are required to remain quiet in the settlements . . . and the officers . . . are hereby directed to keep them in safe custody, treating them with kindness and supplying their necessary wants.

More disquieting news came to Brigham Young and his party as they continued southward into Sanpete valley. They learned at Manti on April 27, 1853, that the Chief Arrapene, brother of Walker, had left the day before, very angry. All the other Indians had also gone away in a great hurry that morning. With hostile actions the Indians had kept the people of Allred’s settlement in alarm all night.

Three Indians crept into Manti fort one midnight. When challenged they asserted they brought news from Walker and Arrapene, who “wanted peace.” Brigham Young sent gifts of clothing, tobacco, and food by these messengers, and told the chiefs to behave themselves. But he warned the settlers to be prepared for any emergency.

He learned that one hundred fifty Yampa Utes had gone over to “Walker’s camp.” These Yampas, it seemed, and Walker’s warriors were the “four hundred Mexicans” on the Sevier. Reported Governor Young:

On our return we learned at Nephi that Batteez, Indian chief, had ordered all his Indians to flee to the mountains. Offense was taken by the Indians at my Proclamation which forbade the traffic in Indian children. The Utahs were in the habit of stealing children from the Piedes and other weak tribes and trading them to the Mexicans; when the parents of the stolen children resisted, the Utes would kill them rather than relinquish the children. Batteez had been accustomed to this traffic.

Brigham Young was not daunted by the threats of war. Speaking in the Salt Lake tabernacle on his return, he frankly admitted that Walker held a strong position among the Utah Indians. But he said: “If he becomes hostile and wishes to commit depredations upon the persons or property of this people, he shall be wiped out of existence and every man that will follow him.”

Captain Wall with his militiamen returned from his scouting tour of the south on May 11, 1853. He had learned at Parowan that Walker and his bands apparently were congregating on the east branch of the Sevier River. All Piede and Pahvant chiefs with whom Wall had parleyed, told him the same story: They were glad to have the Mormons among them but they feared Walker. He stole their children, and when he could not steal them he killed their parents and sold the children to the Mexicans.

“From the best information. . .” Wall concluded, “Walker is willing to live in peace, if he can have his own way in stealing other Indians’ children to sell them to the Mexicans for guns and ammunition, or if we will buy those children of him and give him guns and ammunition, to enable him to continue his robberies.”

With customary audacity and perfidy. Walker strode into Governor Young’s office on July 2, 1853. He feigned friendliness.

But President Young was not deceived. Neither were some of the other white leaders. They fretted about the poor defenses of many of the tiny southern settlements, for they sensed danger. The tinder was being gathered for the spark.

Indian flint and Pioneer steel clashed on July 17, 1853. Plenty of sparks flew. Oddly, this fulminating incident, like the underlying cause of the coming war, grew from a white man’s attempted kindness to an Indian. This is the way it came about:

7V group of Indians approached James Ivie’s home near Spring-ville on July 17, 1853. A squaw entered the cabin and bartered some trout to Mrs. Ivie for flour. The squaw’s mate arrived as the terms of the exchange were agreed on. He railed at his spouse for driving too easy a bargain. At last he hurled her to the floor, leaped at her, stamped, and kicked her.

James Ivie came running. He relished a fight, some old-timers say. But in this instance he was actuated by humane motives. According to Ivie’s story, he jerked the buck away from the moaning squaw.

The Indian attempted to shoot Ivie. The white man seized the barrel of the gun and wrenched it so violently that he broke the weapon. He staggered back clutching the gun barrel. Swinging it like a club, he dealt the threatening Ute a blow on the head. The Indian crumpled to the floor as if dead.

Another Indian shot an arrow that passed through the shoulder of Ivie’s hunting shirt. Ivie brought his iron war club down on this brave’s head also, and laid him senseless on the floor.

Then the squaw did what most women would do to an intruder in a domestic quarrel—she upheld her husband. Snatching up a stick of firewood, she struck her rescuer across the mouth. She, too, received a blow from the gun barrel, and she joined her unconscious tribesmen on the floor. The upshot was that her husband died a few hours later.

Another incident occurred at about this time which helped stir the wrath of the reds. An Indian shot a fellow tribesman at Provo, probably accidentally. But the man responsible fled and his act was laid to the whites.

Wild for vengeance, the Indians rejected peace offerings of beef and clothing. Chief Walker was camped near Payson with a large band. One night Indians crept into Payson and shot Alexander Kiel, a guard. Then the band hurried southward to lodge their families in a place of security for the impending struggle.

The had begun.

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