Heritage Gateways

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Life On The Trail

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Indian Relations/Events

Description: Oil painting by John Hafen on display at Springville Art Museum.
Image courtesy of: Springville Art Museum, The Springville Museum of Arts in Springville, Utah, is Utah's oldest museum for the visual arts, housing over 1,500 works of art.

Along the MPNHT [Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail] and throughout their immigrating period, Mormons met with many different groups and tribes of Indians, such as the Potawatomi, Omaha, Oto, Pawnee, Sioux, Snake (or properly, Shoshoni), Ute, and Paiute, but seldom experienced difficulties. This was in part because of the Book of Mormon, which gave Mormons their unique and positive attitude towards Indians. In short, Mormons treated Indians better than other whites treated them. According to the Book of Mormon, many American Indians are descended from several groups of people in pre-Columbian America, who had somehow found their way from the Old World Holy Land to the New, and who had subsequently rejected God and fallen under a curse. This curse was to be removed eventually through the Indians' acceptance of true Christianity--Mormonism. Mormons felt it was their obligation to help the Indians, not only to "civilize" them, but also to convert them and to help them become a "fair and delightsome people." Indians tended to leave immigrating Mormons alone for other reasons as well: the size and preparedness of most Mormon companies, the fact that almost all Mormons merely passed through Indian lands and did not settle on them, were usually considerate in their consumption of game, grass, and wood, and gave Indians presents of salt, tobacco, and food.

Prior to their exodus west, the Mormons had had no sustained relations with Indians. (This was in part because between 1825 and 1846, the U.S. government practiced an Indian Removal program for the purpose of driving all eastern Indians west of the Mississippi. The Sauk and Fox, for example, had been driven from Illinois by the cruel Black Hawk "War" of 1832.) There had been chance encounters here and there. In the early 1830s, Mormon missionaries had tried unsuccessfully to proselytize some Wyandot in Ohio and some Shawnee and Delaware, west of the Missouri River, near Independence, Missouri. In 1841, Chief Keokuk accompanied by Kiskukosh, Appenoose, and about 100 other chiefs and braves of the Sauk and Fox, crossed the Mississippi from Iowa (whence they had been driven in 1832) and visited Nauvoo!

During the Nauvoo period of Mormon history (1839-1846), several extremely important precedents were established regarding the relations between Mormons and Indians. Some Indians were given the Mormon priesthood, there was some intermarriage, and a few Indians had been permitted to go through the Nauvoo temple and take part in those sacred and secret ordinances. In no other way could the potential equality of red men with white men have been so conclusively demonstrated to Mormons and to their Indian friends.

Because of their unique view of Indians, Mormons generally treated them more fairly than other whites and throughout their migrating period, Mormons had little trouble with Indians. There are only several authenticated cases of kidnappings and killings! (There were, however, a good many Indian attempts along the trail to buy or trade for Mormon wives. To the author's knowledge, no such arrangements were ever consummated, although up to twenty horses were sometimes offered, especially for redheads with ringlets! Indians did, however, steal Mormon livestock, especially horses, whenever possible.

Contemporary Mormon Trail accounts reveal none of the horror most white Americans held concerning the captivity of white women by red men. On the contrary, Mormon journals mention Indians as being stately, helpful, nice, clean, handsome, stylish, and living in primitive grandeur. Mormons recorded that Indians provided food, rides on horses, guide services, entertainment, such as horse races and bow and arrow demonstrations, and occasional succor to lost pioneers. Some handcarters recorded that mounted Indians sometimes threw a rope on a handcart and helped pull it through rough terrain." When the Mormons settled in the Great Basin, however, and thereby preempted Indian lands, they experienced the same type of Indian troubles as non-Mormon settlers. There were intermittent conflicts for about twenty years--from some horse stealing in 1849 through the Utah Black Hawk War of the 1860s.

Fear of Indian attacks influenced the behavior of every emigrant wagon train. They were seen as savages by most and as sub-human by many. Their language, habits, and culture were not understood and their needs were ignored. Seeing an Indian for the first time held the same fascination as seeing buffalo for the first time. Both were duly written about in journals. For protection, emigrants best traveled in groups. Sleep patterns had to be modified to include night guard duty. Fearful guards often shot at shadows and perceived Indians at night, upsetting the camp, and sometimes requiring the guard to be doubled.

Wagon trains were attacked. Men, women, and children were killed. Some were tortured. Some women and children were kid-napped and some women raped. It is estimated, however, that more Indians were killed by white persons than the other way around and there are numerous instances where Indians were responsible for the saving of lives through various means. Jesse Unruh in The Plains Across concluded that the extent of Indian attacks on overlanders has been greatly exaggerated and that Indian begging and thievery were the main nuisance. In addition, overlanders "were not above stealing from their colleagues." William Chandless, a teamster in 1857, decided that much of the Indian's hostility "has been caused by emigrants wantonly firing at natives, just for rifle practice, when they thought it safe; sometimes when it was not so." Although his freight train lost several mules to Indian theft near Laramie, Chandless recounted more thefts among the men themselves, including the theft of his blanket which he never got back and his gun which he did get back through the help of the probate court in Salt Lake City.

Because Mormon emigrant trains were rather large in size and tightly organized, stolen cattle was about all they suffered at the hands of the Indians, and not much of that. Some Mormons were prejudiced against the Indians, but most were persuaded by the Book of Mormon to accept them as spiritual brothers and sisters of a common Old Testament ancestor and not sub-human. Trade was the most common interaction with the Indians and it usually benefitted both parties.

The Horse Creek Treaty. On a cold day in September, 1851, more than 10,000 Plains Indians gathered at Horse Creek for a council with the United States government. The council was organized by Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, a fur trader and Indian agent to the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. The aim of the council was the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty.

Horse Creek flows into the Platt River on the western border of Nebraska, 34 miles east of Ft. Laramie, Wyoming. This area was chosen because there was insufficient grass near the fort to graze the thousands of horses gathered. Tribes represented at the council included: Oglala and Brule Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara, Assiniboin, Mandan, Gros Ventre, and Shoshone.

Three years later on August 18th, 1854, a lame cow, belonging to a Danish Mormon emigrant, strayed into the camp of some Brule Sioux. High Forehead, a Miniconjou Sioux visiting his relatives shot and killed the cow. The incident was reported to the military at Ft. Laramie. The Army sent young Lieutenant John L. Grattan, fresh from West Point, and thirty soldiers to investigate the matter and arrest those responsible. Grattan had a low opinion of the Indians and through his drunken interpreter insulted the Sioux. Chief Conquering Bear tried to diffuse the situation and offered double reparations. Grattan preferred to arrest the guilty party rather than accept compensation. When Conquering Bear rejected Grattan's demands, one of the soldiers opened fire. Grattan's howitzer cannon then opened fire, killing Conquering Bear. The Brule Sioux, under the leadership of Spotted Tail, overran the soldiers' position, killing every soldier. Before dying that night, one soldier did make it back to Ft. Laramie. This began a fourteen-year period of uneasy relations and periodic raids along the trail in western Nebraska.

Believing it was cheaper to feed the Indians than fight them, the U.S. government, in 1868, signed another treaty with the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes of the Great Plains. The "Ft. Laramie Treaty" granted the land between the Black Hills (South Dakota) and the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming to be a permanent Indian reservation. The southwest corner of this large tract of land was the Red Buttes at Bessemer Bend on the North Platte River a few miles west of Casper, Wyoming. This was also the last possible crossing site of the Platte River for emigrants. The government promised to protect the Indians "against the commission of all depredations by people of the United States."

The Bozeman Trail, from Casper to Bozeman, Montana, was opened through the middle of this reservation. Three forts were built, then abandoned at the insistence of the Indians and burned by Crazy Horse and his followers. Conflict over violations of this treaty led the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in June, 1876, and the death of General George A. Custer and his men. The treaty of 1868, signed by Red Cloud and numerous other Sioux chiefs guaranteed the Indians food and supplies in exchange for most of their land. Crazy Horse and a few others refused to accept the treaty and skirmishes persisted until Crazy Horse rode into Ft. Robinson, Nebraska, and surrendered himself, May 6, 1877. He was murdered at the fort four months later.

In Utah, Indian groups were first seen as roadblocks to a landscape dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Utes and other tribes were not spared mistreatment under Mormon rule, according to Floyd O'Neil in a Salt Lake Tribune article, Feb. 11, 1997. By the time the Mormons settled in the Salt Lake Valley, more than 20,000 Indians were living in the region that would become Utah.

O'Niel, who has studied and written about the Ute tribe, found that in most Western states - with the exception of New Mexico - Indians first were accommodated and then swept aside.

The settlers and Indians coexisted peacefully until Mormons extended south into the Ute's major trade route. To avoid conflict, Brigham Young, Utah's first Indian agent, touted a policy of feeding the Indians rather than fighting them.

But as settlements expanded, more Indians were pushed from traditional hunting areas, increasing hunger and tensions. Utes began raiding Mormon settlements and the whites fought back.

Eventually, the Utes and other tribes either moved or were forced onto reservations. Utah tribes once faced virtual extinction, but since have slowly rebounded in population to just above their early 19th-century levels.

Source: Historic Resource Study - Mormon Pioneer National By Stanley B. Kimball, Ph.D., May 1991. (The study focuses on the history of the trail from its official beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois, to its terminus in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the period 1846-1869. During that time, thousands of Mormon emigrants used many trails and trail variants to reach Utah. This study emphasizes the 'Pioneer Route' or 'Brigham Young Route' of 1846-1847. The sections on Mormon beliefs and motivations for going west have been omitted. Interested persons can find ample sources for that information. The footnotes, bibliography, maps, pictures, pioneer companies by name and dates for the 22-year period, and historic sites - about 2/3 of the book - have also been left out for space considerations. Thanks to Dr. Kimball and the National Park Service for the availability of this information.)