Scout Jim Bridger advised invading U.S. soldiers to take the long way to Salt Lake City, which—for better or worse—kept the Utah Expedition from reaching the Mormon capital in 1857.
There was always the chance that too many horses would throw shoes, too many wagons would bog down or too many balky mules would run off—or perhaps an early Rocky Mountain blizzard would blast in without warning and delay the column. There was also Brigham Young’s Nauvoo Legion to contend with en route, though the U.S. Army didn’t know about it yet. The plan called for the Utah Expedition to reach Salt Lake City by late October 1857.
It was September 21, and the expedition—strung out along the old Mormon Trail in a nine-mile line and averaging 12 miles a day—had just passed Devil’s Gate (in what would become Wyoming). Jim Bridger, one of the most accomplished and best-known frontiersmen in North America, led the way. At this rate they should arrive no later than October 25 in Salt Lake, some 425 miles to the southwest, where they could settle in comfortably for the winter and start building an Army post, as specified in the May 18 general orders from Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.
Riding alongside Bridger was the column’s senior officer, Colonel Edmund B. Alexander of the 10th U.S. Infantry Regiment, who had hired the scout a couple of weeks earlier at Fort Laramie. The expedition had left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in mid-July 1857, eight weeks late, and critics from the press, the political world and the Army itself had suggested the column might not be able to reach Salt Lake that season. But Alexander was confident Bridger could get them through before winter set in. The legendary mountain man had been roaming the West for 35 years since joining William Ashley’s Upper Missouri Expedition at age 18 in 1822. He knew the road between Fort Laramie and the Mormon capital like the back of his hand.
Bridger wasn’t sure why the Army was bound for Salt Lake, and he really didn’t care too much. He was just mighty glad he could lead a U.S. military force into the city. He’d had a falling out with the Mormons three or four years back, and this scouting job provided opportunity for some payback. That the Mormon people might consider the Utah Expedition an invasion force coming to annihilate them did not cross the mind of its planners, though Bridger certainly knew that Territorial Governor Brigham Young was capable of mounting a stiff resistance.
Nobody in the federal government or the Army was aware the Mormons intended to fight this unannounced invasion into Utah Territory. But Young was prepared to protect his people, telling them: “Twice in Missouri and once in Illinois they drove us from our homes at the point of a bayonet, and that, too, by aid of state authority. They murdered my dear friends Joseph and Hyrum Smith and many others. Mobs robbed and murdered us while the entire nation looked on without lifting one hand to help us. And now the U.S. Army is coming to our homes, a body of troops well armed and equipped, evidently ordered to Utah by the president of the United States. They’re coming without warning. Forgive me Father, if I’m wrong. But this time we will not turn the other cheek! This is our home, our Zion. This time we fight back!”
The U.S. War Department dispatched Captain Stewart Van Vliet and a small escort to Salt Lake City to meet with Young and feel him out about his intentions should the Army enter Utah Territory. On August 8 Van Vliet caught up with the Utah Expedition 275 miles west of Fort Leavenworth and told Alexander what he was doing. Once in Salt Lake, Van Vliet met with a friendly reception, but Young refused the captain’s request to permit the Army to enter Utah. Young assigned Nauvoo legionnaires Orrin Porter Rockwell, Nathaniel Jones and Stephen Taylor to escort Van Vliet to Ham’s Fork (in present-day Wyoming). From there Van Vliet continued east, and on September 21, some 12 miles west of Devil’s Gate, he met Alexander and the expedition. He advised Alexander that the Mormons planned to defend the territory—that they had fortifications in Echo Canyon and 6,000 legionnaires on call waiting for a fight—and it would therefore be unwise to push into Salt Lake. Some of the younger U.S. officers remained undaunted, bragging they could “whip all Utah.” More experienced officers weren’t so sure, but Alexander thanked Van Vliet and continued the march west.
Scott had ordered 2,500 U.S. troops dispatched to Utah Territory, but at Fort Leavenworth only 1,200 men of the 5th and 10th infantries and 4th Artillery were assigned to the expedition, leaving Alexander without any cavalry support. The other 1,300 men, members of the 2nd U.S. Dragoons, didn’t even leave Fort Leavenworth until September 18 (some two months after Alexander’s departure). The dragoons were commanded by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, who assumed Alexander would reach Salt Lake in October and establish an Army post amid the Mormons.
By mid-September 1857 Nauvoo Legion Colonel Robert T. Burton’s express riders, mounted on the fastest horses in the territory, were carrying daily dispatches to commanding Lt. Gen. Daniel H. Wells’ headquarters at Cache Cave in Summit County. On September 29 an express rider galloped into headquarters with a September 24 dispatch from Burton stating that the first elements of the Utah Expedition had just passed Devil’s Gate. “The evening of September 22 we camped within a half-mile of the enemy position, unseen by Army scouts,” Burton noted. Mormon leaders had activated the Nauvoo Legion (aka the Utah Territorial Militia) in August 1857, but in September its surveillance mission changed to a scorched-earth policy. Mounted units were instructed to harass and burn the Army supply wagons, scatter its herds, burn the grass ahead of the column and annoy the invaders, short of shooting them. No U.S. soldier was to be harmed.
Wells and Burton had fought Indians, rustlers, land-grabbers and outlaws, but facing the U.S. Army presented a new challenge. What would happen when American soldiers entered Salt Lake City (probably in late October) was anybody’s guess, but it no doubt wouldn’t be good. The Mormon military men, like everyone else in the territory, could not say exactly why President James Buchanan had sent the Utah Expedition. After all, the Mormons had come to the uninhabited Salt Lake Valley nearly 10 years earlier and were living peacefully—farming, ranching and establishing new communities throughout the intermountain West. No doubt anti-Mormon prejudice had something to do with Buchanan’s decision, as did political problems then dividing the nation. The Republican Party wanted to do away with “the twin relics of barbarism,” namely slavery and polygamy. The economic interests of War Department contractors also played a part, as did biased information provided to the president and his cabinet members by federal bureaucrats in Utah. No matter Buchanan’s thinking, the Nauvoo Legion was determined to slow the Army’s advance and provide Young enough time to gather information and formulate a political solution that might prevent disaster for the Mormon people.
General Wells was amazed the Army had entered the territory’s vast desert wilderness with no cavalry, only mules and oxen. But the Mormon commander wasn’t about to complain. The Army’s error would enable the Nauvoo riders on their fast, sturdy mountain horses to employ hit-and-run tactics with no fear of a strong pursuit.
On September 24, 1857, Colonel Alexander and his 53-year-old scout, Jim Bridger, led the first contingent of the Utah Expedition through South Pass and another 2-and-a-half miles down the trail to Pacific Springs, where scout Bridger advised Alexander to camp for the night. At 7,175 feet, Pacific Springs was nearly 300 feet lower than South Pass and had plenty of good water, grass for the animals and sagebrush for fuel. It was a favorite campsite for Mormons headed for Salt Lake and other pioneers passing through to California and Oregon. Nearby Pacific Creek flows 37 miles from just west of South Pass to Little Sandy Creek, which then flows into the Green River.
On the evening of September 24, Nauvoo Legion Captain Porter Rockwell and five well-concealed legionnaires watched the soldiers make camp at the springs. Shortly before 2 a.m. they took position to initiate the first ever Mormon attack on the U.S. Army. Perhaps they would wake Bridger out of a sound sleep.
Rockwell, known to friends as “Old Port,” was a legendary gunfighter who, according to prophesy, would remain impervious to enemy bullets or blades as long as he didn’t cut his hair. He was also Utah Territory’s first lawman. He was aware that Bridger, called “Old Gabe,” was guiding Alexander’s command to Salt Lake City. Old Port and Old Gabe had known each other for 10 years and were much alike— frontier veterans with a love for the wilderness, good with guns, knives and fists, afraid of nothing and no one.
They first met on June 28, 1847, on Little Sandy Creek (in future Wyoming). Bridger and a couple of trapper friends were heading north to Fort Laramie when they met Brigham Young’s advance party of Mormons headed west to find a new home. Bridger was just the fellow Young wanted to see, for few whites knew the area so well. The wily mountain man had a conversational knowledge of French, Spanish and several native dialects and was said to have been the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake and taste its saline waters.
Bridger was surprised at how well organized the Mormons were, noting there were 143 men, three women, two children, 73 wagons, one cannon, 93 horses, 62 mules, 66 oxen, 19 cows and 17 dogs. That night the entire Mormon company gathered in close around a blazing campfire, not wanting to miss a single word as Bridger described the Salt Lake Valley. One member of that intense audience was Porter Rockwell, seated beside Young. William Clayton, the company historian, took notes as Bridger talked: Better grass lay ahead; it was 100 miles from Bridger’s fort to the Great Salt Lake; whether the salty soil there would grow corn was unknown, but some bad Indians 30 miles to the south were able to raise good corn, wheat and pumpkins. Bridger stayed the night with the Mormons and then parted company. Since then Rockwell had encountered Old Gabe many times—on the trail, at Fort Bridger, in Salt Lake City when Bridger visited. Bridger told Rockwell he would have made a hell of a mountain man.
Young’s relationship with Bridger soured in 1853 when the governor became convinced the mountain man had helped trigger Indian uprisings against the Mormons. Knowing Bridger would never willingly leave the territory, Young issued a warrant for Old Gabe’s arrest. William Adams “Wild Bill” Hickman, a gunfighter, lawyer, troubleshooter and bodyguard to Young, led a 150-man posse to Fort Bridger. Old Gabe got wind of their advance and flew the coop before Hickman arrived. “No ammunition was found,” Hickman reported, “but the whisky and rum, of which he [Bridger] had a good stock, was destroyed by doses. The sheriff, most of his officers, the doctor and chaplain of the company all aided in carrying out the orders and worked so hard day and night that they were exhausted—not being able to stand up. But the privates, poor fellows, were rationed and did not do so much.”
Bridger remained secreted for several days and, with the assistance of his Indian friends, eluded Hickman’s posse. Old Gabe eventually made his way north to Fort Laramie. There he told his tale of woe and also threatened to one day pay back the Mormons. Ever since Bridger had held a bitter grudge against Young. To add insult to injury the Mormons bought Fort Bridger in 1855, though Bridger claimed they stole it right out from under him. (Records at the LDS Church Archives in Salt Lake show a payment for the fort made out to Louis Vasquez, Bridger’s partner; whether he gave the money to Bridger, no one knows.)
Bridger’s intimate knowledge of the roads, terrain, river crossings, grazing areas and fuel and water supplies was critical to the 1857 expedition. “Near the Rocky Mountains snowstorms began to overtake us,” Captain Fitz-John Porter recalled, “but Bridger, the faithful and experienced guide, ever on the alert, would point in time to the ‘snowboats’, which, like balloons sailing from the snowcapped mountains, warned us of storms; and would hasten to a good and early camp in time for shelter before the tempest broke upon us.” William Drown, Alexander’s chief bugler, wrote in his expedition journal: “I will try and give you a short description of this…Major Bridger, as he is now called. He is…about 55 years of age, about 6 feet in height; has been a quite stout, powerful man…[who] has been through considerable hardship….He is allowed by all mountaineers to be the best and most experienced guide in the country.”
At Pacific Springs the evening of September 24, Alexander, Bridger and the exhausted soldiers settled in for the night. Porter Rockwell and his men checked their guns and quietly unmuffled the clapper of a huge brass cowbell. They were ready to spring their surprise. At 2 a.m. Rockwell’s signal shot exploded right outside Army Captain Jesse Augustus Gove’s tent, and the captain tumbled out of bed. He later wrote to his wife: “Men guarding the mules commenced the halloo and cry, ‘Soldiers turn out! We are attacked!’”
Civilian teamster John Ginn, who was sleeping under one of the wagons, jolted awake in time to see six riders charging through the Army camp, firing revolvers, clanging a big cowbell and filling the night air with wild war whoops. The raiders maneuvered between tent rows so that any shots fired in their direction placed troops in the facing row in danger.
A single stroke of bad luck cost Rockwell and his men the victory in this mule raid. “The bell mule by the merest accident got caught in the picket rope in wild sagebrush, stopping him, and with him most of the herd stopped,” Gove wrote in the letter to his wife. He went on to explain that when the bugler sounded stable call, all the mules wheeled and headed full speed back to camp to an expected meal of oats. A mile away Old Port stood transfixed in the center of the trail, trying not to believe the worst had happened. Old Gabe would have the last laugh—at least on this day.
When Alexander and Bridger led the expedition into Ham’s Fork on September 29, advance units were there to greet them. One of the officers handed Alexander a written ultimatum from Young, stating that the Army column would be permitted to proceed unmolested 30 miles southwest to Fort Bridger, provided it surrender all arms to Major Louis Robinson, Utah’s quartermaster general. Alexander rejected the ultimatum, opting instead to await the dragoons under Colonel Johnston, newly appointed commanding officer of the expedition (replacing Brevet Brig. Gen. William S. Harney).
Why Alexander didn’t push on to Salt Lake is a mystery. Perhaps he had taken Captain Van Vliet’s earlier warning to heart and was wary of the Nauvoo Legion. Though he was the senior officer, Alexander refused to take overall command of the column, making decisions only for his 10th Infantry while telling the other officers to command their own units. The men had begun calling Alexander “Old Granny” behind his back due to his indecisiveness on every issue that arose at Ham’s Fork.
Even Brigham Young began to wonder why Alexander was staying put. In one message to the colonel, the governor wrote: “If God is for us, we will prosper; but if he is for you and against us, you will prosper, and we will say, ‘Amen.’” Young then challenged Alexander’s competency: “Inasmuch as you consider your force amply sufficient to enable you to come to this city, why have you so unwisely dallied so long on Ham’s Fork at this late season of the year?”
Indeed, at Ham’s Fork (elevation 8,000 feet) it was beginning to feel more like late fall than early fall. Cold winds blowing in from the west forewarned of a severe winter. Nauvoo legionnaires swarmed on every hill, in every ravine and across every creek near Ham’s Fork. Galloping just out of rifle range, they fired their rifles and pistols in the air, and shouted insults and taunts at the U.S. soldiers. Bridger assured Alexander the Mormons wouldn’t dare make a direct attack on his camp, but the colonel wasn’t convinced. Sitting in his tent on October 8 he wrote a dispatch addressed to “Officers of the U.S. Army Commanding Forces En Route to Utah,” which read in part: “Should I, in virtue of my seniority and the circumstances of the case move the troops on or wait the arrival of the commander? I received, about this time, reliable information that Colonel Johnston was placed in command and that he had not left Fort Leavenworth on the 10th of September.” Alexander knew his dispatch would take two or three weeks to reach its destination. In light of the daily Nauvoo harassment and Young’s written proclamation the Mormons would fight, it finally dawned on Alexander that he must make a decision.
The next day he called together his officers, along with Bridger, whose input he valued above all else. Alexander at last assumed command of the 5th Infantry and the two batteries of the 4th Artillery. Bridger advised that given the Mormon opposition awaiting them farther southwest in Echo Canyon, Alexander should turn the column northwest, pick up the Sublette Cutoff to Bear River, continue northwest along the main Oregon Trail to Soda Springs (in what would become Idaho) and approach Salt Lake City from the north. Even though it was a long, highly indirect route, Alexander and his officers agreed with Bridger’s assessment, which immediately improved morale. Now, at least, they were going to do something other than sit helplessly while Nauvoo legionnaires rode circles around their camp. That evening Alexander wrote a dispatch to Johnston, telling him of his plan.
When Johnston read and reread Alexander’s plan to turn his army northwest, he was astounded. In a report to superiors Johnston wrote, “It is much farther [to Salt Lake] than by the usual [Fort Bridger] route, and why he selects it I could not learn.” Bridger’s chosen route was in fact twice as long as the direct route to the Mormon capital. But it certainly seemed like a good idea to Captain Gove, who wrote his wife: “Tomorrow we strike the Oregon road, which I am told is very good. It takes the Mormons perfectly by surprise that we have avoided their strongholds in Echo Canyon, Emigration Canyon, Fort Bridger and Fort Supply. Our distance this way is nearly double….If the Lord gives us 25 days of good weather, we have them very tight.”
On October 11 Nauvoo legionnaires on nearby hillsides watched in bewilderment as Alexander’s massive army, stretched out for nine miles, slowly made its way northwest over the rough, muddy trail. The expedition made 35 miles before a fierce winter snowstorm stopped the column in its tracks. Alexander again seemed paralyzed in the face of the howling blizzard. After a conference with Bridger and subordinate officers he decided it was best to return to Ham’s Fork. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, he stayed put, keeping his command mired in the snow another 10 days. His officers were absolutely irate. “Such childlike conduct is a disgrace to the service, and he is eternally disgraced,” Gove fumed in another letter to his wife. The Mormons, of course, didn’t share the Army captain’s condemnation. They were absolutely elated, grateful that Alexander and Bridger had turned the column northwest. The flawed, failed detour was far more effective than the Nauvoo Legion in keeping the invasion/occupation force from reaching Salt Lake City.
Colonel Johnston arrived at Ham’s Fork on November 3 and promptly took command. With him was Utah Territory’s federally appointed governor, Alfred Cumming, and several Washington bureaucrats who planned to assume governance of the territory. Johnston’s arrival tremendously boosted the morale of Alexander’s beleaguered troops. At last they had a real commanding officer. Following a few days of assessment by Johnston and Alexander, the combined column headed southwest, hoping to reach Salt Lake in 12 days, but Mother Nature again intervened, laying down blankets of snow. Bridger pointed the way and kept them moving toward Fort Bridger, but Johnston gave up the idea of marching to Salt Lake. It would be impossible to proceed through the Wasatch Mountains, with its 10-foot snow drifts. His army would be lucky to survive the march to Fort Bridger.
Johnston’s column created a snaking line 20 miles long, and blizzard conditions slowed it to a snail’s pace. On November 9 Gove wrote: “Today is our second day’s march. Made about 7 miles, animals lying along the road about every rod, almost, and daily and hourly dying as they are driven along the road. …Hundreds of animals die every 24 hours.” The head of the column reached Fort Bridger November 17. It had taken nine days to travel those 35 miles.
Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke of the 2nd Dragoons wrote of the horrors of that march: “[The route] contains scarcely a wolf to glut itself on the hundreds of dead and frozen animals, which for 30 miles nearly block the road; with abandoned and shattered property they mark, perhaps beyond example in history, the steps of an advancing army with the horrors of a disastrous retreat.” What’s more, the column arrived at Fort Bridger to the sight of blackened ruins. On October 1, 1857, the Mormons had burned it to the ground. The exhausted, demoralized U.S. soldiers had to build a new winter camp, which they named Camp Scott. They lived in Sibley tents, on rations, during the bitter Wyoming winter of 1857–58.
The Mormons certainly benefited from the blunders, indecision, Nauvoo Legion harassment and bad weather that kept the Utah Expedition out of Salt Lake City that season. And, it could be argued, the result was best for the U.S. Army as well. If, by some quirk of fate, Johnston’s column had made it to Salt Lake, the Mormons would have burned the city to the ground and fought the soldiers in the streets. Those legionnaires not killed in combat would have become guerrilla fighters until either the Utah Expedition was forced to make peace or until the guerrillas all lay dead. At the very least the Utah War would have turned bloody.
What happened instead was that while the expedition was “imprisoned” in snowbound Camp Scott, Governor Young used that precious time to work out a political settlement with the Buchanan administration in Washington. And so the parties avoided a bloody shootout in 1857, but the Utah War wasn’t quite over. Both sides built up their forces during the long winter while considering what to do next. The Mormons planned to desert Salt Lake and torch the city if Johnston’s army tried to take it. But in June 1858 representatives from President Buchanan arrived in Mormon country and met with Governor Young to sue for peace, bringing with them a blanket presidential pardon for the entire population of Utah Territory. Several Eastern newspaper editors praised the Mormons’ heroism in the face of an unprovoked invasion by the U.S. Army. The failed expedition proved particularly embarrassing to the Buchanan administration. The Eastern press labeled it “Buchanan’s Blunder.” There had been no need for the Army to invade Utah Territory. Had Buchanan simply contacted Young in May 1857 and told him he’d appointed a new governor, Alfred Cumming, who would be escorted to Salt Lake City by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, Young would have stepped down without a fight.
After peace was declared in June 1858, Johnston led his column to a remote spot in the desert 40 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, where the men constructed Camp Floyd. It housed the men until the onset of the Civil War three years later. The Army then dispatched the soldiers east to fight for the Union. Johnston, however, joined the Confederacy and served as its highest-ranking general until killed while leading Confederate troops at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
No accusations or stigma of any kind ever attached to Colonel Edmund Alexander or Jim Bridger for the blunder of turning the column northwest toward what would become Idaho, ultimately derailing its mission to reach Salt Lake City by late October 1857. Alexander served with the Union during the Civil War and rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general in 1865. He retired in 1869 at the rank of colonel. Jim Bridger, who guided Alexander and Johnston to Fort Bridger/Camp Scott, was given the honorary rank of major by Johnston and thanked for his service to the U.S. Army.
Bridger soon found other work and continued scouting. In 1865 he led Captain E.L. Berthoud and his survey party from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City. From 1865 to 1868 he guided several expeditions and survey parties over the Bozeman Trail. He also led a survey party for Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1868 Bridger retired to his farm near Kansas City, Mo., where he died at age 77 on July 17, 1881.
Robert L. Foster writes from Utah. For further reading: Mormon Resistance: A Documentary Account of the Utah Expedition, 1857–1858, by LeRoy R. Hafen; Jim Bridger, by J. Cecil Alter; and The Mormon Conflict, 1850–1859, by Norman F. Furniss.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.