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John Williams Gunnison
Born November 11, 1812(1812-11-11)
Goshen New Hampshire
Died October 26, 1853
Millard County near Delta, Utah
Cause of death Murder by Pahvant Indians
Resting place
39°16′51″N 112°46′41″W / 39.2807889°N 112.7780084°W / 39.2807889; -112.7780084[1]
Citizenship United States
Alma mater United States Military Academy at West Point, New York
Occupation Captain in the Corps of Topographical Engineers - Surveyor
Employer United States Army
Known for Exploration and surveying of Florida, the Great Lakes and the Western United States
Spouse(s) Martha A. Delony (m. 1841–1853) «start: (1841)–end+1: (1854)»"Marriage: Martha A. Delony to John Williams Gunnison" Location: (linkback:

John Williams Gunnison (November 11, 1812 – October 26, 1853) was an American military officer and explorer.



Gunnison was born in Goshen, New Hampshire in 1812. He graduated from West Point in 1837, second in his class of fifty cadets. His military career began in Florida, where he spent a year in the campaign against the Seminoles. Due to his poor health he was reassigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Initially he explored unknown areas of Florida, searching for provision routes. However, his health soon forced him out of Florida entirely.[2]

From 1841-1849 Gunnison explored the area around the Great Lakes. He surveyed the border between Wisconsin and Michigan, the Western coast of Lake Michigan, and the coast of Lake Erie. On May 9, 1846 he was promoted to First Lieutenant.[2]

In the Spring of 1849 Gunnison was assigned as second in command of the Howard Stansbury Expedition to explore and survey the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. That winter was particularly heavy and the expedition was unable to leave the valley. Gunnison took the opportunity to befriend some Mormons and study The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church). When he finally returned to Washington, DC, he wrote a book titled The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition.[2]

Gunnison returned to the Great Lakes from 1852-1853, mapping the Green Bay area, and was promoted to Captain on March 3, 1853.

Gunnison - Beckwith Expedition

On May 3, 1853 he received orders to take charge of an expedition to survey a route for a Pacific railroad between the 38th and 39th parallels. The surveying party left St. Louis, Missouri in June 1853 and arrived by mid October in Manti, Utah Territory. In Utah Territory, with Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith as assistant commander, Gunnison began the survey of a possible route, surveying areas across the Rocky Mountains via the Herfano River, through Cochetopa Pass, and by way of the present Gunnison and Green rivers to the Sevier River. His journey took him through the Tomichi Valley in Colorado, where the town of Gunnison is named in his honor. After crossing the Tomichi Valley, the survey team encountered the Black Canyon, carved by the Gunnison River which was also named in his honor. The team was forced to turn South to get around the canyon.[2][3]

Attack and Massacre

Site of Gunnison Massacre BHoU-p469.png
2 small markers at the site, 2008

The weather was beginning to turn "cold and raw" with snow flurries and Captain Gunnison sought to speed up mapping before returning to winter quarters. At Lake Sevier, the team was divided into two detachments. On the morning of October 26, 1853, Gunnison and the eleven men in his party were attacked by a band of Pahvants (Ute.) In the resulting massacre, Gunnison and seven of his men were killed. Several survivors of the attack alerted the other detachment of the survey team who rode to aid Gunnison and his party. An additional survivor of the attack and the bodies of the victims were retrieved later that day.[4] The remains of the eight dead were found in a mutilated state. Killed with Gunnison were Richard H. Kern (topographer and artist), F. Creuzfeldt (botanist), William Potter (guide), Private Caulfield, Private Liptoote, Private Mehreens, and John Bellows (camp roustabout.)[2][5][6]

Investigations and allegations

Allegedly, Gunnison was warned by Mormons that local bands of Pahvant Utes might not be very sympathetic to his presence due to an ongoing conflict, known as the Walker War, with Utah Chief Walkara. At the time of the killings, rumors circulated that the Pahvants involved in the massacre were acting under the direction of Brigham Young and the secret militia known as Danites. Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were initially concerned that the railway would increase the influx of non-Mormon settlers and non-Mormon economic concerns into the territory. Subsequently, however, Mormon leaders organized cadres of Mormon workers to build the railway, welcoming the income for the economically depressed settlers.

Martha Gunnison, widow of Captain Gunnison, maintained that the attack was planned and orchestrated by militant Mormons, under the direction of Brigham Young. Gunnison’s letters to his wife throughout the expedition left her with the impression that “the Mormons were the directors of my husband’s murder.” She wrote to Associate Justice W.W. Drummond, the 1855 federal appointee to the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah. She received confirmation of this belief in his response to her letter.[7] Drummond drew this conclusion from informant and witness testimonies in several trials after the murders. He cited numerous reports by whites and natives of white attackers dressed up as Indians during the massacre.[8]

Young, Chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the Utah Territory, later arrested Indians who he claimed had allegedly perpetrated the Gunnison massacre, but eventually let all of them off without any real punishment. It is claimed that Young allegedly cut a deal with the Indians by compensating them in exchange for shifting the blame of the attack to them.

Historian Brigham D. Madsen, wrote, in the Utah History Encyclopedia, “Despite cries of outrage by some easterners that the Mormons had instigated the attack, Lieutenant Beckwith [Gunnison’s assistant commander] concluded, as a result of his investigation, that the Mormons were not involved and that the Pahvant Indians had acted in revenge for an earlier attack upon their people by a party of white emigrants." [9]

The Gunnison Massacre resulted in much controversy and added additional strain to the relationship between Governor Brigham Young of the Utah Territory and the Federal Government. These events eventually culminated in the Utah War wherein President Buchanan sent the U.S. Army to the Utah Territory in order to stop a reported Mormon insurrection.


Gunnison's activities were honored when the city of Gunnison, Utah was later named for him.




External links



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