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Friday, March 25, 2011

The Utah War

Johnston's Army Bugle Corps
ca. 1859 at Camp Floyd, Utah
(from Signature Books, Salt Lake City)

On July 24, 1857, the ten-year anniversary of their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young and two thousand guests and their families were celebrating Pioneer Day at Silver Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon, southeast of Salt Lake City.  About noon that day, five horsemen, led by Salt Lake City Mayor Abraham O. Smoot, interrupted the celebration with news that 2,500 federal troops had been dispatched to Utah to put down the so-called “Mormon rebellion”, and that Utah’s federal mail contract had been cancelled.(1)  The shocking news of an invading army conjured up painful memories of the Mormon persecutions in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri.  A wave of war hysteria spread throughout Utah, and Brigham Young instructed the Saints to prepare to defend themselves.

Even as hysteria spread across Utah, a wave of anti-Mormon hysteria was perpetuated in the East.  The federal government opposed the Mormon Church’s practice of plural marriage and it’s control of the Utah territorial government.  Letters sent to Washington by federal appointees in Utah, especially one written by Judge William Drummond, whom Brigham had privately described as “vicious and brutal, whining and snappish, vain as a peacock and ignorant as a jackass,”(2) had convinced President James Buchanan that things were out of control in the Utah Territory.  Without any further investigation or any prior notice to Governor Brigham Young, Buchanan named Alfred Cumming of Georgia as the territorial governor, and ordered federal troops to accompany him to Utah to depose Brigham Young.

In early August the leaders of the Church issued a proclamation to the citizens of Utah.  Still having no communication from Washington, they could only expect the worst: “Our [duty] to ourselves and families requires us not to tamely submit to be driven and slain, without an attempt to preserve ourselves.  Our duty to our country, our holy religion, our God, to freedom and liberty, requires that we shall not quietly stand still.”(3)  As part of the preparation for the expected invasion, Brigham Young mustered the territorial militia, under the command of General Daniel H. Wells, and declared martial law in Utah.  He also instructed the Saints to store up their grain and not sell it to passing immigrants, and to keep their firearms in working order.

Less than two months after his return from Texas, James Gammell joined with more than one thousand other Utah militiamen to prepare fortifications against the invading United States army.  From October through December 1857, between 1,200 and 2,000 men were stationed in Echo Canyon and Weber Canyon.  These two narrow passes lead into the Salt Lake Valley, and were determined to be the army’s likely access to the populated areas of northern Utah.  Dealing with a heavy snowfall and intense cold, the Mormon men built fortifications, dug rifle pits and dammed streams and rivers in preparation for a possible battle either that fall or the following spring.

Gammell’s friend John H. Standifird had joined Major Lott Smith’s company, and headed on to Fort Bridger to meet the advance party of government supply wagons.  Instructions from Brigham Young were to scatter the government livestock, to burn the supply wagons, and to inflict as much damage to the supply train as possible without taking any lives.  At that time the Mormons owned Fort Bridger, so Lott Smith and his men, obeying the “scorched earth” policy, burned the fort as well as the surrounding grassland, hoping to deter the advancing army.(4)

Echo Canyon, Utah
(Wikimedia Commons)

James Gammell served as part of the contingent in Echo Canyon.(5)  One chilly October evening, while gathered around the campfire with his fellow militiamen, James recounted a conversation that took place while he was in Harris, Texas, the previous February.  James recalled that Clinton Harris,(6) proprietor of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad in Texas, and a native of Seneca County, New York, was acquainted with Joseph Smith.  Harris related the following experience in the presence of James Gammell, his brother William Gammell, Eleanor McLean, and a Dr. Blank of Texas:

…Joseph Smith in the year 1830 called upon (Clinton Harris) and invited him to (a baptism), saying, “Come, Clint, go down and see us baptize.”  Clinton answered, “I cannot walk for I have had a fever sore on my leg for many years.”  Joseph replied, “Come go down, are you going to be lame all your days?  Come start and go down, and you’ll do well enough.”  Clinton started, straightened his leg and could walk and has been able to walk ever since.  This Clinton is one of the wealthiest men in Texas.  Dr. Blank said, “O, that is nothing, it is all owing to “Mesmerism”.  Clinton replied, “Not so, Sir.  He (Joseph Smith) never touched me, and I verily believe I should have been a cripple unto this day had I not been healed at that time.  I believe in Mormonism, tho’ I am not a Mormon.”(7) 

Another journal entry of November 16, 1857, recorded that at 11:00 AM, “James Gemmell and William Skeens started with 2 head beef cattle for Bear River [further east near Wyoming border].”(8)  Newton Tuttle’s journal reported that James came back down the canyon twelve days later:

Nov, 1857 Sat 28 In camp Robert Yure J. C. Perkins started for Bear river with theyer team with Provisions…J. M Jones,  James Samol [Garnol?] 4 others & John Frank the Soldiers teamster with a waggon went Down the Kanyon, a man came up from the other camp on a horse & leading an other & went on to Bear river, Albert Kamol [?] came in from City with Grain & a 4 Horse team…Almerin Grow & H. S. Southworth fetched in the Uncle Sams Governer's Procklimation, to our boys Camp from Fort Bridger where they had been kept Prisnors by Uncle Sams troops…” J Stodard & the other 4 boys came in just at Dark we sent in an express with the Governers Message. In evening Wm A. Hickman & Peter Conover came in from Bear river with a pack mule & Grant Randol fetched the Procklimation up to our camp or Gen D. H. Wells.(9)

The Mormon militia tactics succeeded.  As winter set in, General Albert Sidney Johnston had no choice but to delay his march to Utah until the following spring.  The company wintered at a temporary location south of burned-out Fort Bridger, named Camp Scott.  The newly appointed Governor Cumming, his wife, Elizabeth, and their entourage, along with the military officers and enlisted men, had to endure a long, cold, miserable winter, living in tents with a shortage of supplies.(10)
  1. Ronald W. Walker, et al., Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, pp. 33-37. Abraham Smoot, Porter Rockwell, and another courier, made a run for Salt Lake from Fort Laramie (513 miles) in just five days. Eleanor McLean Pratt, who was still fleeing from Hector McLean, returned with them to Salt Lake City.
  2. Walker, Turley, and Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Oxford, 2008, p. 41.
  3. Church History in the Fulness of Times, p. 370.
  4. Church History in the Fulness of Times, p. 373.
  5. Echo Canyon is located about 50 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, near the junction of I-80 and I-84.
  6. See bio of DeWitt Clinton Harris at
  7. This account was received by Geo. A. Smith from the mouth of James Gamall [sic] at the Head of Echo Kanyon on Oct. 18, 1857. LDS Church Archives, Historical Record Book, 1843-1874. MS 3434.
  8. Brigham Young’s Office Journal, (Echo Canyon Journal), November 16, 1857.
  10. Church History in the Fulness of Times, p. 374.

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