Ill-fated Gunnison – Beckwith Expedition Leaves its Mark on the American West

Aug 11, 2015 by     No Comments    Posted under: History

800px-John_Williams_GunnisonIt was 1853, not long after the United States won western Colorado in war and the eastern media were whipping the nation into a frenzy about its ‘Manifest Destiny’ to expand across the continent.  John William Gunnison was an American army captain, an engineer and cartographer, and explorer in the westward expanding nation.  Today Gunnison’s name is familiar, of course, from features around western Colorado and Utah, place names left from his western trips.

Some of the men that served with him also left their names on local features, including Lt. Beckwith—Gunnison’s deputy—and Antoine Leroux, a French-Canadian trapper and their guide.

Gunnison had distinguished himself enough as the second in command on the earlier Stansbury Expedition, into the Salt Lake Valley, that he was promoted to Captain, and appointed lead of an expedition of his own.  He was to survey one of several central routes for a transcontinental railroad.   The Gunnison – Beckwith Expedition, officially the 38th Parallel Railroad Survey, would be Gunnison’s last assignment.  From Wikipedia:

Black Canyon country, as sketched by the Gunnison – Beckwith Expedition 1853

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.

It was on that ill-fated journey in which he followed the headwaters of the river that now bears his name, and skirted the Black Canyon on the south.  In the Uncompahgre Valley, where the expedition rejoined the Gunnison River, the expedition met their first Ute Indians, according to The Unsolicited Chronicler: An Account of the Gunnison Massacre Its Causes and Consequences Utah Territory, 1847-1859/a Narrative History by Richard Fielding. gunnisoncrossing

The Utes were not hostile and provided the party with useful information. After they parted the expedition followed the river north, along a branch of the Old Spanish Trail and the route of many unnamed explorers and Indians before them, to its ‘junction’ with the Grand (Colorado) River, and then across desert westward, to a ford at “Gunnison Crossing.”

Captain Gunnison left his name as well on the prominent feature nearby, familiar to those that have paddled the Green’s Desolation/Grey Canyons and sketched by John Wesley Powell twenty years later when he made his historic trip down the Green and Grand (Colorado) rivers.

On landing, we see evidences that a party of Indians have crossed within a very few days. This is the place where the lamented Gunnison crossed, in the year 1853, when making an exploration for a railroad route to the Pacific coast.


“Gunnison Butte. Gray Canyon. (2,700 feet high).” from Canyons of the Colorado, by John Wesley Powell

An hour later we run a long rapid and stop at its foot to examine some interesting rocks, deposited by mineral springs that at one time must have existed here, but which are no longer flowing.

July 14.– This morning we pass some curious black bluffs on the right, then two or three short canyons, and then we discover the mouth of the San Rafael, a stream which comes down from the distant mountains in the west.  …We camp at night on the left bank.

Maybe Gunnison camped on Swasey’s Beach, or stood there in a moment of reflection, where a few decades later Powell would sketch the butte that still bears his name.  But like the water in the river that is always moving toward its destination in s distant sea, Gunnison’s fate was also calling him to his end.

Days later, in October of that year, Gunnison was killed at Lake Sevier near Delta, Utah, leaving his name at one more place in the Great Basin: the ‘Gunnison Massacre’ site.  Most historians now agree it was the Pahvant band of Utes that battled the Gunnison Expedition in Utah’s ‘West Desert.’  At the time, however, dark rumors circulated that Captain Gunnison was done in on the orders of Brigham Young himself.

In any case, it was not just random encounter without cause and context that led to Gunnison’s demise.  It was part of a larger conflict involving that band known in the white settlers’ history as the ‘Walker Wars.’

Instead of following a conciliatory policy as Young had directed, Mormon settlers responded in brutal kind. A militia unit in Utah County assaulted a Ute camp near Goshen, killing four or five people. At Nephi, on October 2, 1853, after eight or nine Utes came to the fort seeking protection, a group of townspeople slaughtered them “like so many dogs” and then reported the murders as deaths during a skirmish.

Undoubtedly, the murders with the greatest long-range consequence occurred on the early morning of October 26, 1853, when Capt. John W. Gunnison of the Corps of Topographical Engineers and a party of seven had camped on the lower Sevier River in Pahvant territory. The murder of Gunnison and his party by the Pahvants may have come in retaliation for the death of a Pahvant killed by members of a passing wagon train. Alternatively,the deaths–like those of settlers working outside in small parties– may have resulted from their distance because of fortified settlements. More seriously for the Utah settlers, however, anti-Mormons attributed the death to Mormons acting under Brigham Young’s instructions.

And although it proved to be ultimately unsuccessful for Captain Gunnison (Lt. Beckwith did lead  survivors on to California and the transcontinental eventually mostly followed another route that he surveyed), his trip across Colorado and Utah not only left its mark in the landscape names that roll off our tongue today – Mount Gunnison, Gunnison Butte, the Gunnison River – but is also woven more deeply into the history of this place, the people and forces that have shaped this nation and our place in it even today.


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