Skip to main content

The Gunnison Massacre

By 10/25/1853November 20th, 2021Utah History, Utah Native American History19 min read
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 1
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 2
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 3
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 4
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 5
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 6
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 7
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 8
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 9
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 10
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 11
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 12
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 13
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 14
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 15
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 16
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 17
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 18
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 19
[1853] The Gunnison Massacre Part 20

THE GUNNISON MASSACRE. 

Copied from (Lights and Shadows of Mormonism) by J. F. Gibbs. 

‘ ‘ The attention of the traveler on the road from Deseret, Millard County, Utah to Nevada, will very likely be drawn toward a cedar post that occupies an unusual position a few rods north of the Sevier River, and a hundred feet from the east side of a shallow lake. The place, which covers about ten acres is about six miles west of Deseret, Millard County, Utah, with no habitation within several miles. The rough bark has been removed from the post, otherwise there is nothing in its appearance to attract at- tention except its isolated position. Yet, the spot over which that solitary post stands sentinel is his- toric and tragic it is the burial place of a small party of employees of the United States, where, over forty years ago, Captain Gunnison and a portion of his military escort fell easy victims to a band of revengeful Indians. 

“The memorable spot is situated nearly midway in the Pahvant valley, about thirty miles west of the Canyon range, and twenty-five miles east of the House mountains. 

“Except where narrowed in by encroaching mountains, the valley stretches out in an almost un- broken plain to the great Salt Lake, one hundred and fifty miles distant to the north. 

“About two miles to the south, the monotony of the desert-like plain is relieved by a basaltic mesa, a dark volcanic mass which rises abruptly from the level country to a height of perhaps two hundred feet, the surface of which was swept by the waves of ancient Lake Bonneville, until it is nearly as smooth as the surrounding plain. 

“Dotting the valley in the vicinity are numerous shallow lakes, formed by the overflow of the Sevier River whose sinuous trails across the valley is indicated by patches of scrub willows. 

“The small lake first mentioned, is separated from the river by a small strip of ground occupied by grass and willows which abound in the immediate vicinity, both sides of the river ( which is only four to six rods wide) being fringed with them. Rising gradually from the lake towards the north and east, the ground is three to five feet higher than the surface of the water, and is covered with a stunted growth of grease wood and shadscale, (the local name given to a low-growing thorny shrub). Patches of saline land glisten in the sunlight, and under the transformations wrought by the western mirage are often mistaken for bodies of water. 

“At the time of the massacre the present lake was marshy ground covered with flags, rushes and a rank growth of grass which extended well out to- wards the higher ground, thus forming an inviting, but dangerous nook. At the present time nothing re- mains of the willows on the east and west sides of the dead swamps. 

In other respects the place and its surroundings have nearly the same appearance as on that fateful afternoon when Captain Gunnison went into camp for the last time. 

“The scene of the tragedy has been thus minutely described to enable the reader to more clearly understand why the Captain whose reputation for courage has never been questioned and his little band of brave companions failed to make even a semblance of resistance, and because no description of the place has heretofore appeared in print. Captain Gunnison ‘s brother, when the locality was described to him several years ago in Salt Lake City, said he had always imagined the place to be in, or near, the mouth of the canyon from which the river debouched upon the plain. 

“In the year of the massacre, 1853, Fillmore, was the capital of Utah, and the nearest settlement to the scene of the tragedy, being distant thirty-five miles southeasterly. A few of the old settlers yet re- main who remember the occurrence. Among the oldtimers is Byron Warner, now residing at Oasis, and who is not only familiar with the incidents of the tragedy, and well acquainted with the Indians who participated therein, but with the circumstances of which the Gunnison massacre was the unhappy result. 

” And it is to Mr. Warner that the writer is most deeply indebted for that part of the account of the unfortunate occurrence. 

“Mr. Warner’s statement has been corroborated by Daniel Thompson, now residing at Scipio, and who in company with Mr. Warner and others, helped to bury the dead. But three of the Indians that were present and took an active part in the bloody deed yet linger on this side of the “happy hunting grounds. ” One of them is old Mareer, who, with his squaw Mary, and old Sam, another of the surviving reds, is living in a wickiup on some otherwise vacant ground southwest of Deseret. By the aid of two rough maps placed before Mareer on two separate days, and with the assistance of some small coins and other presents of tobacco, etc, and after assuring the old fellow that the Mericats (Americans) wouldn’t be mad, the story of the attack was drawn from him. 

“That his story is perfectly truthful is proved by the fact that at the second interview a new map was spread before him and the relative positions of the white men and Indians were accurately indicated as compared with the first map, and no amount of cross-questioning could shake his clear and vivid description of the attack and its blood-curdling details. 

‘ ‘ Early in October, 1853, a company of Missouri emigrants, en route to California, passed through Fillmore and camped on Meadow Creek, eight miles to the southwest. 

“A small band of Pahvant Indians were also camped further up towards the mountains on the same creek as the emigrant train. 

“Anson Call was at that time bishop of Fill- more, and when the emigrants passed through, told them they would find a few of the reds camped on Meadow Creek, that they were friendly, and the com- pany need have no apprehension of danger, and asked that the Indians be not molested. 

“The train had hardly gone into camp when Moshoquop (the Pahvant war chief and his father, Mareer) and several others of the band, ar- rived at the camp of the strangers and offered to “swap” buckskins for tobacco and other articles. 

“The emigrants were unnecessarily suspicious of the bows and arrows carried by the Indians, for they surrounded the reds and attempted to disarm them. The Indians resisted what they regarded as an unwarranted intrusion of their rights. One of them “jabbed” an arrow into the breast of one of the emigrants, which so enraged them that, whipping out their revolvers, they opened fire on the Indians. In the melee, the father of Moshoquop was shot in the side and died the next day. Two of the other Indians were wounded, one in the shoulder and the other in the arm. Of the white men all escaped injury except the one who received the slight wound in the breast form the arrow thrust. 

“A few days after his father ‘s death, Moshoquop and a band of about twenty Indians moved northwesterly to the vicinty of the lakes near the present site of Desert for the purpose, as Mareer said, of hunting ducks, and crossing the Sevier River, camped a little to the northwest of the site of the present residence of David Crafts at Ingersol, and about twelve miles northeast of Sevier Lake, and six miles west of the place where Gunnison and his party were afterwards murdered. 

There were six wicki-ups, or tepees, and among the band were many Indians whose names are familiar to the old residents of Millard County. They are: Moshoquop, Pants (the brother of Moshoquop), Mareer and his brother Jim, Carboorits, Nunkiboolits, Tomwants and his son Koonants, Skipoke, “Doctor Jacob, ” Wahbits, Moab, Sam, (Toady), Hunkootoop, Boquobits, and an unusually tricky red, Jimmy Knights, well known to the early stockraisers by his thieving propensities and the boldness he exhibited in killing their stock. 

There were also in the band two Snake Valley Indians, a Ute buck from Nephi, one whose name can- not be learned, and the father of Mareer; in all, a band of twenty-three warriors. 

During the year 1853, Captain Gunnison, with a small military escort under command of Captain E. M. Morris, had been exploring for a railroad route through the Rocky Mountains ; in the latter part of October, Gunnison and his escort entered Pahvant valley from the north and camped on Pioneer creek, six mies north of Fillmore. Gunnison, with a few of his party, went into the small settlement of Fillmore for supplies. The captain lost no time in hunting up Mr. Call, with whom he was acquainted, a warm friendship having existed between them for several years, and from him learned of the killing of Moshoquop ‘s father by the emigrants a few days previous. Mr. Call also warned the captain of probable danger, as the Indians, with threats of revenge, had left their camp at Meadow Creek, Gunnison expressed sorrow [PHOTO PAGES] over the unfortunate affair, and said the Indians would very likely carry out their threats at the first opportunity. Being so near the Sevier Lake the dead sea of Millard County Gunnison resolved to explore it and then to go on to Salt Lake City and establish winter quarters. 

Breaking camp on pioneer creek, the party proceeded a few miles north to the present site of Holden where they left the territorial road and bore northwesterly. Passing the southern termination of the Canyon range, the party continued on over the desert to the Sevier River and camped on a large bottom surrounded by high, precipitous banks, known at the present time as Gunnison ‘s Bend, and situated about five miles northeast of Deseret. 

On the morning of October 25th Captain Gunnison started on his last and fatal mission of exploration. Accompanying him were B. A. Kern, artist and topographer; F. Creutzfeldts, botanist; Wm. Potter, a Mormon guide and interpreter from Manti, Sanpete County, Utah; a man who served as cook; a corporal and six men. 

The provisions and camp outfit were packed on an improvised cart, the tongue and front wheels of a wagon which was well adapted to the purpose. Captain Morris and a part of the escort were to continue in camp until the return of the Gunnison party. Meanwhile some of Morris’s men were to examine the northwestern part of the valley as to the feasibility of a wagon road through to the Great Salt Lake. 

Following down the north side of the river in a southwesterly direction, the Gunnison party arrived in the vicinity of the upper lakes, where some of the men began shooting at wild fowl which fairly swarined in that vicinity. The firing was most unfortunate, as the reports of firearms reached the ears of Sam and Toady, two of Moshoquop’s dusky band, who were hunting ducks along the river and sloughs. The Indians watched the little party until they went into camp on the ground now marked by the cedar post, when they hastened to the Indian camp and reported the presence of strangers. 

Wm. Potter, the guide advised the Captain to make camp further to the north on open and higher ground. His familiarity with the traits of the Indians led him to be suspicious of the surroundings, but his prudent advise was overruled. There is something in the nature of men that impels them, when camping near a spring or stream of water, to get as near to it as practicable. 

The horses were “picketed” along the margin of the swamp to the north and northwest, and after the usual camp duties were over, and the last of the stories of exciting “Western life had been told, the little party spread their blankets on the ground and retired for the night with no apprehension of the terrible fate that awaited them. On receiving the news of the white men, Moshoquop determined to avenge the death of his father. Calling his band of warriors together, he told them his purpose and ex- plained in detail the plan of attack which was to begin at the firing of a signal gun. Each warrior was instructed as to the position he would occupy in the deadly cordon that was to be drawn around the slumbering explorers. It was about midnight when the line of march began. In single file they moved silently and swiftly forward, and as the dusky line glided in a sinuous course to avoid clumps of stunted grease-wood and willows it resembled the lithe movements of a huge serpent. 

The reds followed up the north bank of the river until they reached the western margin of the swamp which separated them from their victims, where the band divided. Moshoquop, Pants, Mareer, Nunkiboolits and several others continued on up the river bank. Stealthily creeping through the willows and tall grass, the Indians took their pre-arranged stations to the south and east of the Gunnison party and not over one hundred feet distant. 

The white men had beaten quite a distinct trail from their camp to the river. Carboorits skulked in the grass a few yards west of the trail on the bank of the river, while Pants crept to a position on the margin of the swamp, and not over thirty yards distant from the smouldering camp-fire; each sav- age being concealed in the rank grass and willows. 

The other portion of the band skirted the west side of the swamp, and bending easterly, cautiously crept to the north of the low lying ridge which is not more than five feet higher than the marsh. Each Indian took the position previously assigned him, and before the faintest streak of dawn appeared, the doomed explorers were nearly sur- rounded by the wily savages who occupied the east, north and south sides of the camp, while the marsh cut off escape on the west. The first sign of activity on the part of the white men occurred just before sunrise. The cook was the first to arise, and in a few minutes the cheery gleam of the camp-fire shot upward, warning the men that no time was to be wasted in preparing for the morning meal. The iron tripod had been placed over the fire, the camp kettle hung in its position, the cook had begun mixing bread. Prof Creutzfeldt was standing near the camp-fire warming himself, Captain Gunnison had walked out to the river, about seventy-five feet south from the camp-fire, and while in a sitting position, was bathing his hands and face. The sun had just risen from behind the distant canyon range when Pants stealthily rose from his place of concealment near the edge of the swamp, a sharp report rang out on the crisp air and the cook fell dead beside his camp-fire. 

Carboorits had been watching the captain and waiting for the deadly signal. Startled by the report, Gunnison sprang to his feet and the bullet from Carboorits ‘ gun sped past him. Quickly pulling his sixshooter, the captain opened fire on his coppercolored assailant, who ducked and dodged to escape injury. The signal gun was followed by the rapid firing of nearly a dozen guns intermingled by the piercing war-whoop of the savages. 

The surprise was complete, and the dazed officers and men thought only of escape. Amid the shower of whizzing arrows which followed the emptying of the guns, the men ran toward the open ground to the north and northeast, and in the desperate race for life, threw aside their arms and divested themselves of coats and everything that might impede their flight. 

A few of the men fled in the direction of the horses. One of the soldiers, as he was about to mount, caught sight of an Indian as he was adjusting an arrow to his bow. With exceptional coolness the man quickly lowered his gun on the savage and fired. The Indian dropped, and the soldier rode away believing he had killed Mm. (Old Mareer says the wily redskin fell as the gun fired, and escaped without injury, and that not an Indian was wounded), Two others of the escort succeeded in mounting, one of them escaped on horesback, the other was thrown fro.m his horse a short distance east of the camp, but had the good sense to remain quiet for several hours while the reds were passing to and fro, sheltered only by the stunted greasewood. The fourth man that escaped ran southeasterly, evaded his pursuers, and plunged into the river, swam to the south bank, where, within the friendly shadow of the willows, he continued his flight to the camp of Captain Morris. 

The Indians who had taken positions to the north made no sign until the fleeing men were nearly onto them, when they sprang to their feet and with fierce yells poured a volley of arrows into the panic-strick- en men, who, no doubt, were congratulating themselves on their escape. 

Captain Gunnison, after emptying his revolver at Carboorits, turned in the direction of the horses and had reached a point about seventy-five yards distant from the camp when he fell, stricken down by nearly a score of arrows. Temporarily screened by grass and willows, he lay helpless while the cries of his comrades and the discordant war-cries of the savages resounded in his ears. Some two or three hours later he was discovered by a party of the reds, among whom was Mareer, and who described in pantomime the last act of the terrible tragedy. Gunni- son was lying on his side, and when the Indians appeared, slowly and painfully raised himself to a sit- ting posture. He made no sound, but reached out his arms in an appealing manner towards his assailants. 

Gunnison, in his several years of exploring in the west, had endeavored to impress upon the red men that he was their friend. In his conduct to- wards them he was uniformly kind and upright, and it was this fact that probably prompted the captain to extend his arms, possibly, with the hope of mercy. 

Mareer said he did not know, until he saw the captain partly rise from the ground, that he was with the party. Moshoquop was not present or he might, possibly, have given Gunnison a chance to recover from his wounds. As it was, the Indians hesitated, the captain’s mute appeal seemed to stir some latent feeling, or strike a stranger cord in their savage natures. But while standing there undecided “Jirri-my Knights, ” the renegade Indian, came up, discharged his gun into Captain Gunnison ‘s body which settled slowly back upon the sward, and one of the bravest and best spirits joined his comrades in the mysterious beyond. 

During the afternoon of the day of the tragedy, one of the fugitives staggered into the camp of Captain Morris and told the story of the attack, and stated that all but himself were slain. In a few minutes the two who had escaped on horses arrived and corroborated the story of the massacre. 

Hurriedly mounting, the Morris party rode down the river. Darkness coming on, they dismounted in the vicinty of their lifeless comrades, and holding their horses by the bridles, kept vigil throughout the long night which was rendered more dismal by the howling of the wolves which had begun the work of mutilating the bodies of the slain. In the dim light of the early morning, one of the survivors guided Captain Morris to the camp ground, the bodies were identified and their positions mentally recorded. 

The dreary night had been a severe strain on the men, and the spectacle of the mutilated bodies of their friends was so terrible and suggestive as to completely unnerve them. The stampede that ensued was more like that of men pursued by the bullets and yells of those who had made the previous morning memorable by their savagery than a com- pany of armed men leaving behind them the forms of their stricken comrades. Overcoats, knapsacks, carbines, revolvers and ammunition marked the trail of their frenzied flight and added to the booty previously secured by the Indians. 

The news of the massacre reached Fillmore, and Bishop Anson Call sent Daniel Thompson, William and Culbert King, to Salt Lake City with a dispatch announcing the deplorable event. 

Meanwhile, Captain Morris and remnant of his command had reached Salt Lake City, and sent the corporal who, twenty-four hours after the massacre, went over the ground and helped to identify the re- mains, down to Fillmore. On his arrival, some ten days after the tragedy, Bishop Call selected George Black, Daniel Thompson, John King, Lewis Bartholomew, Byron Warner, and as Mr. Warner believes Nelson Crandall, now of Springville, Chief Kanosh and Narrient of the Pahvant tribe to go with them to the scene of the massacre. 

Messrs Warner and Thompson describe the sight as the most pitiable they ever saw. About twelve days had elapsed between the morning of the massacre and the arrival of the burial party. The coyotes had so mutilated the dead that nothing ze- mained of the small party of explorers but glistening skeletons. In some instances a leg, arm or foot could not be found. The remains of Potter were nearly intact. Those of Captain Gunnison were more readily recognized by the iron gray hair which clung to his temples. The remains of Prof. Creutzfeldt were found near those of the cook, who was the first to perish. A steel-pointed arrow had pierced the body of Creutzfeldt and the barb was found imbedded in his backbone. Some of the men had reached a distance of about one third of a mile to the north east before being killed. 

Immediately after the arrival of the Fillmore party, Kanosh sent Narrient down the river in search of Moshoquop and his band, and gave orders to come in if they could be found. 

In those days not a member of the Pahvant tribe dared to disobey the intrepid chief, and as Mr. Call and his party were rounding up the top of the com- mon grave, Moshoquop and his band came in sight across the swamp on their ponies. Circling the marsh they came on whipping, kicking and leaning from side to side and yelling like demons. The reds were in their war paint, and with their long black hair streaming behind, presented a wild appearance. 

The corporal, who was not acquainted with the absolute power wielded by the Indian chiefs, thought another massacre would be perpetrated, and trembled like an aspen. Mr. Warner, who is a very ner- vy man, and accustomed to the ways of the Indians, says his sensations were anything but agreeable. However, when within a few rods of the scene of their murderous work, a motion from Kanosh caused them to be quiet, when he upbraided them for their devilish work. 

Moshoquop then told the partial story of the massacre, and endeavored to exonerate himself by relating the circumstances of his father’s death at the hands of the white men. Mr. Warner asserts that during the recital, tears streamed from Moshoquop’s eyes and that his appearance was a mixture of fiend incarnate and savage affection. 

The remains of Captain Gunnison and Wm. Potter were wrapped in blankets and taken to Fillmore where the captain was buried; those of Potter were sent to Manti for interment. 

Of the three surviving Indians, Carboorits, who shot at the Captain, has lost his eyesight, and is ending his days in darkness on the Indian farm near the town of Kanosh. Mareer and Sam, as previously stated, are living near Deseret. Mareer is fast hastening to the grave, and Sam is a muttering imbecile. 

Moshoquop died two years ago in Deseret. He was of medium stature, compactly built, and as lithe and wiry as a pather. His forehead was high and retreating, his bearing reserved and dignified, his face, while indicating strength and a fearless nature, was frank and not unkind. In spite of the terrible deed he planned and carried out so relentlessly, he was better than the average Indian. While his part in the Gunnison tragedy cannot be justified by revenge for the death of his father, it is somewhat palli ated by reflecting that his nature like that of all other Indians was the result of generations of trasmission of ideas and customs incident to the environment of the red men.