Mar 5, 2024 - News

175 years ago today: Utah pioneers' first Ute massacre

A page from an old, handwritten diary.

A passage from the diary of Oliver Huntington. Image via the Huntington Library.

Just above Pleasant Grove, a plaque marks the site of the "armed engagement" 175 years ago that gave Battle Creek its name — though "slaughter" would be more apt.

The big picture: The Mar. 5, 1849 massacre is the first known deadly encounter between the Mormon pioneers and the Indigenous residents they found along the Wasatch.

Friction point: The early settlers suspected their Ute neighbors of rustling their cattle.

  • A Ute leader known as "Little Chief" blamed the theft on one ne'er-do-well family in his group, wrote pioneer and diarist Oliver Huntington, who made several excursions to meet the Utes.

When Little Chief met a Latter-day Saint group from Salt Lake City, he asked them to kill the thieves, wrote Huntington, who was among them.

  • The chief claimed the other Utes had ignored his orders not to steal from the Mormons, whose retaliation he feared.
  • "They will soon get more men to steal cattle, and then you will come up and kill me, my men, women and children," Huntington quoted Little Chief as saying.

The other side: Brigham Young had ordered a posse of about 30 armed men to find the thieves, and Little Chief pointed them to where the suspects were hiding. During the night, the posse quietly surrounded the camp where they slept with their families.

  • An interpreter called on the Utes to surrender, but they refused.
  • As "the arrows began to fly," Huntington wrote, the settlers opened fire.

By the numbers: "We knew nothing [about] how many there was, but from their crying, howling, mourning and loud talk supposed there was 15 or 20," Huntington wrote. "I believe none got away."

Grim note: The settlers "fired in such haste" they frequently missed, he wrote, but one man was found riddled with 18 "ball holes."

Hmm: The plaque at the site calls the attack the first "skirmish" between the Mormon pioneers and the Native Americans in Utah Valley and "serves as a reminder of the extreme sacrifice given by both people"

  • It's unclear what sacrifices the pioneers incurred in the confrontation.

The intrigue: Little Chief apparently was unprepared for the scale of bloodshed.

  • "The old man howled, cried, moaned, hollowed, screamed and smote his breast in the greatest way when he came to us," Huntington wrote. "He blamed himself and cursed the whites."
  • "His heart was full of pity, although but a few hours previous he had signed their death warrant by sending his men to guide us to them, without which we could never have got them."

Reality check: There are few primary sources about the massacre, and none from the Utes' side.

Erin's thought bubble: In a later account, Huntington recalls Little Chief was especially distressed by the sound and volume of gunfire.

  • He may have expected a discreet assassination targeting a few ringleaders — not hours of gunfire aimed at a whole camp of families.

Previously in Old News


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