Sep 27, 2011

The Grim Tale of the Battle of Fort Utah

*Another disclaimer. In my research and in the writing of Lightning Tree, my novel which is due to be released April 2012 by Bonneville Books/Cedar Fort, I attempted to read accounts from every side of every historical event that I could find, especially when approaching anything controversial. I don’t want to be an apologist—that is, someone who tries to gloss over wrongdoing on the Mormon settlers’ parts. I also don’t want to be “anti,” someone who seems to be devoted to painting the Mormon settlers in as bad a light as possible. I have attempted to find the most corroborated facts, and I will attempt to lay them out here without apologizing at all. These blurbs are not apologies; they are meant to be honest, interesting accounts for people to read and think about, and perhaps do further research on if they want to. *

When the settlers first headed down to Utah Valley, Salt Lake City was a neutral zone between the Soshone tribes to the north, and the Utes to the south. The Soshones claimed Salt Lake Valley as their own, but didn’t find it a good place to live or hunt, and so the Mormon pioneers were allowed by the tribes to settle there and claim a relatively peaceful existence.

There had already been some scuffles in Utah Valley as men from the settlement went south to explore and survey the area. The Battle of Battle Creek, which that area of American Fork is named for, happened just before Brigham Young called the thirty families to go south and form a new settlement. His instruction to the settlers was to “Be careful, not make [the Utes] any presents, teach them to raise grain, and order them to quit stealing.”

When the families first arrived in Utah Valley to set up their fort and settlements, there were two chiefs in the area who wanted to kill them off outright. A Chief named Old Elk declared that he would kill any white man to enter the valley, and Chief Walker (or Wakara, as he was called by the Utes) sided with him.

Above is a wooden statue of Cheif Sowiette, below a portrait of Chief Wakara


According to legend, it was Chief Soweitte who stood up and said that he would fight on the side of the settlers if it came down to a battle, and that the settlers ought to be left to exist in peace, that peace should be attempted. Old Elk and Wakara backed down at that point.

There were accounts of cattle being killed and corn stolen, but some histories also mention a treaty with the Indians wherein the settlers agreed to keep their hunting and grazing to certain areas, thus allowing the tribes to retain vital hunting and grazing of their own. It is possible that animals were killed when they crossed these boundaries. But it’s also possible that Indians killed the animals without regard for boundaries crossed.

Things came to a head when three of the men from the settlement ventured out to hunt deer. They were met by a chief named, by the settlers, “Old Bishop,” because his mannerisms and turn of phrase were quite a bit like one of the ecclesiastical leaders in the settlement, and also because he worked hard to keep peace between his own tribe and the settlers.

Old Bishop confronted the three men and stated that they had ventured outside of the area agreed upon by the tribes and settlement. In response, one of the men pointed at the shirt that the Indian chief was wearing, and claimed it had been stolen from his clothesline a little while before, that it was his shirt. Old Bishop denied it, and the three men attempted to overpower him and take the shirt off his back. Old Bishop raised his bow and arrow to defend himself and one of the men shot him through the head with their rifle.

Afraid of the consequences, the men opened up the dead Chief’s abdominal cavity, filled it with stones, and put it in the river, hoping it would sink so that none of the tribes would find it, and incident could be avoided for a while
** brief tangent**

The Old Bishop Ghost story.

Ute legend has it that on the yearly anniversary of his death, the spirit of Old Bishop rises from the Provo River and removes the stones from his body, one by one. He then sinks back into the river once more. Some people today claim to have seen this spirit as “whispy white mist” that rises from the surface in a certain area of the river.

Unfortunately (or fortunately? depending on how you look at it), the three men went back to the fort bragging, and the story soon spread. The tribes heard of it and searched the river, and found Old Bishop’s body tangled in the roots of a cottonwood tree.

The Utes threatened to attack the Mormon colony. Alexander Williams went to Great Salt Lake City and told Brigham Young of the threat, but not of the incident that provoked it. Still Brigham Young was against fighting, for peace if at all possible, but he allowed himself to be outvoted by the settlers, who wanted to clear the area of the Indians. Young allowed the settlers to engage in a conflict to “take” the land in earnest and to clear the Utes out and away from Utah Valley. And thus began one of the most (if not the most) terrible incidents in the history of the Mormon settlements.


A company of militia, led by George D. Grant and Major Andrew Lyte, met up and engaged the Indians along the Provo River, near fort Utah, using a “crude breast-works constructed by the settlers of logs” as a sort of barricade. The Indians were lead by Old Elk.
(portrait of Old Elk, and his squaw, who is the squaw that “squaw peak” legend stems from—that she fell, or threw herself, off the cliff to escape from the Mormon settlers. Not corroborated by many sources. I find this portrait a little strange as Old Elk appears to have been drawn as a Frenchman)

At the start of the fight, the numbers were about even. Issak Higbee’s son, John S. Higbee, was the only white man killed. When the Indian’s stronghold was overtaken in a cavalry charge, eight were killed. The rest fled. The settlers followed them up into the canyon. Several of the Indians were found dead along the way of exhaustion, wounds, and measles, which the settlers had brought into the valley with them, including Chief Old Elk.


The militia, under Daniel H Wells at this point (pictured above), went south down through Spanish Fork area and cornered the rest of the Indians who had engaged in battle with the settlers, at Promontory Point or “table rock,” south of Utah lake.

The men, women and children tried to flee, crossing the ice of the lake. Nearly all the men were killed. The women and children were spared. And, in a move that still baffles those who look back and study the incident, the heads of the dead were severed, boxed up, and taken to Great Salt Lake City for “scientific study.” The women and children traveled, by some accounts, in the same compartments where the moldering heads of their husbands, brothers, and fathers were placed.
Picture of Ute Woman and Child

The women and children were given to Mormon families to “wean from their ways of savagery.” Most of the women ran away at the first possible opportunity. The horses of the defeated Indians were given to the more friendly Soshone tribes near the salt lake valley, as gifts.


The colorful account of the Battle of Fort Utah, by William “Wild Bill Hickman,” who was, by some accounts a terrible but righteous man and by others, a mass murderer, is an interesting read. I'd take it with a few pinches of sodium chloride, as this history was written after his excommunication, and therefore, is likely to err on the side of bitter/slanderous, perhaps.

William Hickman

Very scary. Perhaps he had a poisonous dandelion in his breakfast salad the morning this was taken. More on him later, but for now I’ll just leave you with this juicy tidbit: According to local and written legend when Old Elk’s body was found in the canyon, Bill Hickman offered a cash reward to anyone who would go and retrieve the head and bring it back to him. He wrapped the head of the old chief in a blanket and tried to pass it off as the head of Young Elk, another chief in the area who’d had a reward placed on his head. Hickman was unsuccessful in his scheme.

1 comment:

Putz said...

there is a legend down here in sanpete that chief walker who lived mostly in sanpete according to my sources knew exactly where brigham's gold was and would not tell anyone because [he called him uncle brigham}HE asked him not too, but ia am told that he broke that promise to bigham, AND TOLD SEVERAL, BUT THAT IT IS SO HARD TO ACTUALLY LOCATE THAT even with that information neither the lost mine or his gold located in another area entirely could be found even with explicit instructions<><><>also chief walker shot and killed or severally wounded {can't remember} my wife's great great great grandfther lars larsen and one of the braithwaite boys from manti<><><>anyway i do want brigham's gold and have been up in the mountains several time just to check out caves and holes etc<><><>i am willing to share when i find it also<<>><maybe give it to the usa for their use