Ogden’s native history: The winter of 1854

‘When the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah on July 24, 1847, they entered a land already occupied by as many as 20,000 people.  Native peoples – Utes, Shoshones, Paiutes, Goshutes, and Navajos – had called this place their home for generations.  The area around Ogden was no different.  Although this region was frequented by many different bands, the most regular residents were a loosely associated group that came to be popularly known as the Weber Utes.   They numbered between two to eight hundred people, and were made up of intermarried families of Utes, Shoshones, and Goshutes.  As the name implies, they had a preference for camping along the Weber River.

The Weber Utes were nomadic hunters and gatherers: they followed the seasonal variations of wild game and plant food.  Summers were spent in the mountain valleys, particularly Morgan Valley, while some of their favored winter camps were at the confluence of the Ogden and Weber Rivers, and in Uintah.  Their primary leader in historic times was a man named Little Soldier.  Other notable individuals included Big Ute, Indian Jack, Weber Tom, Aunt Mary, and Maggie.

Like for other Natives here, the Mormon encroachment was devastating to the Weber Utes.   A never-ending flood of emigrants guaranteed that they were soon outnumbered, and the Mormons were quickly able to secure a virtual monopoly on the natural resources.  Settlers fenced in the land, plowed up native roots and tubers, and grazed their cattle on wild grasses whose seeds the Indians depended upon for food.  They also pushed the game animals out of the valleys, and over-fished the streams and rivers.  As a result, the people around Ogden were facing starvation within only a few short years of the pioneers’ arrival.

Survival in these circumstances often meant begging or stealing.  Many Ogden settlers strove for accommodation, giving out what food they could.  Yet they also typically downplayed their own role in the Natives’ situation, attributing it instead to the belief that Indians were the cursed Lamanites from LDS theology.  In 1852, when Brigham Young was confronted with reports of Indians being driven off their lands and into destitution by Mormon settlers, he reacted with sheer denial:

“Are not the Indians better fed, better clothed, and more peaceably disposed towards the whites than before their settlement among them? An affirmative reply must be made, by any person who is at all acquainted with the circumstances, and disposed to speak the truth.”  (BY to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, May 28, 1852)

But by 1854, conditions for Ogden’s Native people had reached such a crisis level that even Young could no longer ignore it.

In early September, Brigham Young would meet with several groups of Shoshone just north of Ogden, including the band led by Kattatto.  He encouraged them to set up farms and settle down like the white man.  Naturally, however, there was little eagerness among them to give up their way of life and tradition of generations.  Young contacted Kattatto again on November 21st by letter.  He insinuated that their hunger was their own failure for not having “raised any grain.”  He suggested that they migrate to buffalo country for the winter, and then reiterated his recommendation that they establish a farm once spring came so that they would no longer be “obliged to go away to hunt.”

The lack of game in this area meant that the Natives were growing increasingly desperate.  Just a few days after Young wrote to Kattatto, a troubling report came to Salt Lake City from Major David Moore of Ogden. It regarded the activities of another band of people – the Weber Utes under Little Soldier.  They were killing calves, cutting down fence poles for firewood, and generally disturbing Ogden settlers.  When confronted, they exclaimed that “the grass that cows eat and the wood from which the fences are built belongs to the Indians.”

This time Brigham Young would respond not with counsel, but with coercion.

A company of men including Bill Hickman, Elisha Ryan, and D.B. Huntington departed from Salt Lake City on November 30th.  They arrived in Ogden that evening.  Their mission was to disarm the Weber Ute men, compel the band to enter the Ogden settlement, and then forcibly distribute individual families among the settlers.  During the rest of the winter, the Natives would be made to work for the Mormons; their payment would be clothing and food.  They would not be allowed to leave of their own free will.

On the cold morning of December 1st, Mormon men descended upon the Indian camp located three miles away from Ogden, on the south side of the Weber River.  There they found the people on high alert: sentinels were posted all around the area to watch the Mormons’ every movement.  When the party explained their orders, the Indians became extremely resistant and refused to accompany them anywhere.  “It is a day of gathering, and not of scattering,” declared Little Soldier.

Eventually, the Mormons did manage to convince the Natives to follow them into Ogden, although they still refused to give up their weapons.  With their belongings carried along by horse and wagon, the Weber Utes were allowed to establish a night camp across the Ogden River near Mound Fort.

This uneasy compliance did not last long. By the next morning, they were so opposed to being divided up that it took an open display of firearms to make them yield.  An armed posse marched the men, women, and children up Main Street (today’s Washington Boulevard) to where the old tithing building stood.  Once there, the Mormons circulated themselves throughout the group so that they each stood beside an Indian man; they were to simultaneously disarm their partner as soon as the command was uttered.  Peculiarly, however, no one actually obeyed the order, and interpreter James Brown had to single-handedly take each Indian man’s gun or bow.  The weapons were then placed under guard at the tithing house.

In a last shot at resistance, a boy tore away from the group as soon as they were disarmed.  He charged his horse northward as fast as he could in a solitary effort to gain the assistance of an encampment of Indians staying at Bingham’s Fort.  James Brown chased after him with orders to “beat the boy into camp, or run [Brown’s horse] to death.”

He tied the boy in their race to Bingham’s Fort, and gave a rallying cry for all the Mormon men to capture and disarm the Natives there.  He then became involved in a tussle with a large Ute man who had been dashing out of the fort.  As they fought over possession of the Ute’s rifle, Brown “found him to be one of the strongest men [he] had ever grappled with anywhere.”  Brown eventually gained control of the gun.

Once all of that fort’s Natives were disarmed as well, he rode back to Ogden.  There in the streets, he saw that the Weber Utes were still very grim and sullen.  The men particularly expressed dismay; they said that without their guns, “We cannot hunt or defend our families. We are not anybody now.”  Most soon resigned themselves to being distributed throughout the settlement and they began putting up their tents in the settlers’ backyards.  Yet not all gave in.  When Wilford Woodruff preached at Ogden and Bingham’s Fort on the 2nd and 3rd, he saw that many had gone down to the Weber River again.  It took a letter from Brigham Young on the evening of the 3rd to reconcile them enough to return.

Little Soldier was especially heartened by this letter and spoke for a long time with his people about their situation.  After this, the settlers and the Natives got along reasonably well.

As James Brown worded it:

To us it did seem hard to have them feel so bad, but they had no means of support for the winter, the citizens could not afford to have their stock killed off and their fences burned, and it was the better policy to feed the Indians and have them under control.  They could husk corn, chop wood, help do chores, and be more comfortable than if left to roam; but for all that, they were deprived of that broad liberty to do which they and their fathers before them had been accustomed, therefore they felt it most keenly.  (Life of a Pioneer, pg 349)

In August 1857, Little Soldier would reveal to Dimick B. Huntington another reason for all the anxiety during their capture and imprisonment: they had been convinced that the Mormons were marching them to their deaths.  Sadly, this was not a wholly unreasonable expectation.  Almost five years prior to the Weber Utes’ winter of captivity, a Mormon militia had executed Ute prisoners of war on the banks of the frozen Utah Lake, after they had refused to give up their arms.  Some survivors of this Fort Utah War had later found their way to the Weber Utes and told them of their experiences.

After that first letter, Brigham Young would write to the Weber Utes once more on December 27, 1854.  Yet it was not for some weeks that they would have their freedom again.  In his quarterly report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in March 1855, Young testified that, “Upon their promising good behavior, Little Soldier’s band have had their arms delivered up to them and have been permitted to go out and come in at their pleasure; and happily have thus far complied with their compact, and are behaving commendably.”  Some traditions claim that Ogden’s settlers returned the Natives’ weapons to them at a surprise feast, during which the guns and bows were laid out on blankets before them.  This reportedly caused them a great deal of happiness and relief.



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