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  Steptoe Expedition

Brigham Young and Utah

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Brigham Young

Brigham Young studied the work of Army Topographer John Fremont when he was looking for a 'Mormon homeland'.  He found that place at the Great Salt Lake, then part of Mexico.

Fremont was also involved with the Bear Flag Revolt in California and was a key figure in the Mexican war in California.  There was a disagreement between Steven Watts Kearny  and Fremont about who was the military Governor of California.

The Steptoe Expedition is Re-Ordered to Salt Lake City

Spring 1854 The Steptoe Expedition was chartered to take dragoons (mounted infantry soldiers) and horses across the continent to the Pacific coast.  The Expedition consists of 175 soldiers, 150 civilians and 1,000 horses. 

Rufus Ingalls was in Washington, D.C. at the time and ordered by General Jesup to accompany the expedition because he had "served with the dragoons and had much experience in frontier service."  The order was signed by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. 

The expedition left Fort Leavenworth (Kansas) and was 'diverted' to Salt Lake City to investigate the Gunnison Massacre.  The new orders leave it to Steptoe's judgement how to proceed; it suggests "taking a sufficient number of their chiefs or head men" as hostages until the murderers are given up for trial.

The expedition arrives in Salt Lake City on August 31, 1854.  They will spend the winter there.

November 24, 1854 Rufus Ingalls pens a report and draws a map on the Rush Lake Valley where a grazing camp had been created.  He built two large adobe buildings for quarters and storage of forage and supplies.  He recommended that the government maintain a facility at this location 40 miles south of Salt Lake City because of its suitability as a 'reserve'.   

Brigham Young had recommended the valley as the most suitable for their purposes.   Rufus reports that no one has a claim on the property, large quantities of native hay are available, and 1000 head of stock could graze the hillsides for a good part of the winter.  He also said that the site was well suited to other military purposes and that the citizens would be well served by having an army presence in the area. 

It appears that some of the expedition members were a bad influence on the Saints during their stay at the Great Salt Lake.  Gambling, drinking, and prostitution were among the evils reported.   It is rumored that the visitors activities so disturbed Brigham Young that he vowed to destroy the city before he would allow the Army there again.  That opportunity would come just a couple of years later in 1857.  Originally lead by the hard-nosed commander W.S. Harney, a large force would be sent against the Mormon city of Salt Lake.

 There was a trial of the Indians at Nephi, several received manslaughter sentences.   It was viewed as a travesty of justice outside the territory and by the Judge that conducted the trial.

Franklin Pierce appointed  Colonel Edward J.Steptoe  as governor of the Utah Territory.   Steptoe was reluctant to give up his Army commission and had some concerns about governing the Mormon populace that were content with the leadership of Young.

The members of the expedition, including Captain Ingalls signed a letter to President Franklin Pierce advocating the retention of Brigham Young as governor.  They departed in the Spring of 1855   with Young remaining as governor of the Territory.  They also had about 100 'escaping' Mormon women with them when they left Utah.

In 1866 while on an inspection tour of the western US, General Ingalls would say that he met with the "principle business men" that he had become aquatinted with during the winter of 1854-55.  Rufus shows his diplomatic skills, as he had more than 10 years earlier when Brigham Young advised him on the Rush Lake Valley.

WB01512_.gif (115 bytes) On to the Pig War
The Gunnison Massacre and the Steptoe Expedition by Robert Kent Fielding The undisputed expert of these important events in American history. 

Another version of the Gunnison Massacre


Gunnison's The Mormons  Full text of the book at the University of Surrey.  Also available at the Isle of Man site

Gunnison's Book at University of Michigan's Making of America project

Utah Exploration and Explorers University of Utah.

The Railroad Surveys at Central Pacific Railroad Museum.  Has the instructions from Jefferson Davis to Gunnison and Geo. McClellan.

 The Gunnison Massacre: A Little Known Event That Changed US History

An Army Topographical Engineer named John W. Gunnison of Goshen, New Hampshire had written a book, The Mormons, shortly after his stay in Utah in 1849-50.

In this 1852 book Gunnison describes the situation of this large and growing religious community that was unique in the world. Among his observations were some that Brigham Young and the church hierarchy did not want advertised.  The background of Joseph Smith, the founder and first Prophet, and the existence of polygamy are both true and inflammatory.  Gunnison was suprised that the Mormons were "down upon him" for his unsolicited chronicle when he returned the next year.

Gunnison was the leader of a survey party conducting the central US section of the important 1853-54 Pacific railway surveys.    The future path of the railroad was very important, especially considering the huge commercial and political implications of the ambitions undertaking.  These railroad surveys were under the supervision of Jefferson Davis, who was the Secretary of War.

During his survey work some Pahvant Indians attacked and killed Gunnison and several others of the survey crew.  A chief of the band had recently been killed by immigrants passing through the area on their way to California and their motives seemed to be revenge.

The federal government expected that some action  be taken by the officials of the Utah Territory to punish the guilty parties.  Brigham Young as Governor of the Utah Territory, is the chief executive.  When nothing happened the Army sent orders to Steptoe to investigate.

  Description of expedition from a map.

Expeditions made under the command of Lt. Colonel E.J. Steptoe in search of a more direct route from Salt Lake City to San Francisco Bay. Steptoe’s proposed route directly across the Great Basin, shown by a dashed line, was thwarted by impassable conditions, forcing the expedition to the north and west along the Humboldt River. The party continued south and west from Lake Humboldt to the Mormon settlement of Reese, then crossed the Sierra Nevada Mtns into California, skirting Placerville and Sacremento and on to Benicia. Two sub-detachments of Steptoe’s command departed Salt Lake City on the same date, one under the command of Captain Rufus Ingalls to the north and the other under Lieutenant Sylvester Mowry to the south. Where Steptoe’s party turned south, Ingalls went northwest, crossing the Sierra’s to Goose Lake and on to Fort Lane in southern Oregon. The third route shown is that of Mowry, travelling south and passing through the infant Mormon settlement of Las Vegas and continuing on to Los Angles, then north through Tejon Pass to Fort Tejon.

WB01511_.gif (914 bytes) Rufus Ingalls Home Page

Updated May 17, 2001 L.R. Davis