- Historic Sites
Death Stalked The Grand Reconnaissance
Our half-known new western empire was mapped, in a great mass exploration, by the Army’s Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
Meanwhile, as Gunnison’s expedition was nearing its objective, FYemont’s rival party, backed by eastern capitalists, was four months behind the Army topographers and following the same route. Because of his late start, however, Frémont found the Cochetopa Pass route considerably more difficult than had Gunnison. He followed the topographer’s wagon ruts for a time, but deep snow soon obliterated the tracks, leaving the fate of the party up to the navigational skill of Frémont and his Delaware Indian guides. First the snow, then temperatures below 30 degrees, then starvation overtook them. It was 1848 all over again, and one night, somewhere near the Green River, Frémont made his men solemnly promise, no matter what the emergency, never to resort to cannibalism as had his previous company. Saved from despair and death only by Frémont’s indomitable will, the party pushed on over the Wasatch Mountains to eventual safety at Parowan in southern Utah. One day short of safety, however, Oliver Fuller, the assistant topographer, quietly died of exposure and the effects of having frozen his legs and feet from the knees down. Solomon Carvalho, the photographer, a city man at heart, and F. W. von EglofFstein, the topographical artist, a portly gentleman who wasn’t much used to starvation, had had enough, and on March i, 1854, they arrived in Salt Lake City clad in rags, still hungry, and eager for civilized companionship. The Pathfinder’s luck was down. Once again a Frémont expedition had ended ingloriously, if not tragically.
Gunnison, on the other hand, four months ahead on the trail and oblivious to Frémont’s difficulties, was nearing the end of his labors, and he spent a week passing over the Wasatch Mountains in a painstaking approach to the valley of the Sevier River. Once across the mountains the party was in Mormon country and what could practically be considered civilization. However, when they visited Manti, near the great bend of the Sevier River, and found the entire population barricaded in their houses, fearful of an Indian attack, Gunnison learned of potential dangers from savages in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. From Manti he wrote to his wife: There is a war between the Mormons and the Indians and parties of less than a dozen do not dare to travel. Wc did not know what a risk we have lately been running until coming here for I have been riding carelessly in the mountains hunting roads ahead and other curious capers. …
It was to be his last letter.
Upon his return to camp near Fillmore, Utah, Gunnison had reason to congratulate himself. He had located a new military road from Taos most of the way to the Great Salt Lake. He had laid out a new route for westbound emigrants that would enable them to start later in the season. He had plotted a military trail that led right into the heart of the Mormon stronghold. And finally, he had convincingly shown that the Cochetopa Pass route, while passable, was clearly inferior to the Stansbury route via the Medicine Bow River and the Laramie Plains farther to the north in present-day Wyoming —Senator Benton, John C. Frémont, and Edward Fitzgerald Bealc notwithstanding. But tasks remained, among them the exploration of the lower Sevier River for a suitable railroad crossing. Somehow he secured the services of two Mormon brothers, G. G. and William Potter, who consented to act as guides in an effort to find the best railroad pass over the mountains and down into the Great Basin.
Now on October 25, Gunnison, Kern, Creuzfeldt, Bellows, the Mormon William Potter, and a corporal’s guard of seven men from the escort left the main party encamped on the upper river and headed downstream toward Sevier Lake. Lieutenant Beckwith was left in charge of the main camp. At eleven the following morning a scouting party he had just sent out of camp returned with a tattered and bloody dragoon from Gunnison’s party who was so weak and exhausted that he was barely able to talk. He was the corporal in charge of the escort, and between gasps for breath he sobbed out his story. Less than five hours ago, just at dawn, Captain Gunnison and all his men had been massacred by an overwhelming force of Indians hidden along the Sevier River. As far as he knew, he alone had survived.
As it turned out, four men had survived. But the other accounts added little to the corporal’s. After leaving the main camp Captain Gunnison’s command had spent most of the twenty-fifth of October moving slowly down the valley. They had marched about eleven miles before making camp on the edge of the river near a willow grove. The arduous marches of the previous months were behind them, and officers and men alike refused to take the daily Indian signal fires seriously. Some of the party went out hunting along the river just before nightfall. And then they all retired after a good campfire meal. The next morning, just as they had begun to stir themselves, all hell broke loose. Shrieks and yells, showers of arrows, reports of guns, men screaming in terror, horses neighing wildly and breaking their picket ropes in a dash for freedom -- it was an Indian attack, or was it the Mormons? In any case it was doubtless every man for himself, with the losers left on the battlefield.