Capturing Paiutes and Goshutes was profitable business.

Ute Chief Walkara,better known as Chief Walker, may have been the Old West’s greatest horse rustler. During one raiding campaign against the California horse ranches in 1840 he and his specially trained light cavalry of Ute warriors stole hundreds of horses (perhaps as many as 3,000), reportedly without losing a man. The Utes then drove the animals back to their homeland in what is now Utah, trading most of the stock to mountain men Thomas “Pegleg” Smith and James Beckwourth for whiskey, weapons and other goods. Walker’s skill at horse raiding in Mexican controlled territory earned him two nicknames: “Hawk of the Mountains” and “Napoléon of the Desert.”

But it wasn’t only horses that interested Chief Walker. He and his warriors were also accomplished slave traders. Their captives were generally men, women and children of the neighboring Paiutes and Goshutes, often referred to disparagingly by early white explorers as “digger Indians,” as they dug for roots, seeds and nuts to survive in their harsh environs.

Walkara (whose name means “yellow” in the Ute language) wore yellow war paint and dressed in yellow buckskin leather. His father was a chief of the Timpanogo band of Utes. Born about 1808 along the Spanish Fork River some 55 miles south of present-day Salt Lake City, Walkara showed skills as a horseman and warrior early on. He learned to speak Spanish, English and several Indian dialects, helping secure his reputation as a diplomat. But it was as a military leader and trader he became best known. As his name was difficult for white settlers to pronounce, they simply called him Walker.

Pilfering horses from settlements on both ends (New Mexico and California) of the Old Spanish Trail was profitable work. But so was capturing other Indians—occasionally Western Shoshones in northwest Utah Territory but usually their distant cousins the Goshutes, from the Great Basin desert west and south of the Great Salt Lake, and the Paiutes, from around present-day St. George. U.S. Army Captain J.H. Simpson noted in 1859, “The fear of capture causes these people [Goshute] to live generally some distance from water, which they bring to their kaut [camp] in a sort of jug made of willow tightly plaited together and smeared with fir gum.”

Captured women and girls from these tribes usually ended up as domestic servants in the households of wealthy Mexican families. The captured men and boys were put to work on farms and ranches or in the mines. Walker and his warriors preferred to whisk off children, who were more tractable and easily trainable as menials by their Hispanic owners. In Santa Fe, Mexican slave traders could sell a teenage girl for $200 and a teenage boy for $150. Walker kept some slaves for menial labor around his camp. Terrified of the Ute raiders and often hungry, Goshutes and Paiutes would sell their own children for old horses, which they would eat.

From all accounts, Walker was able to roam freely, snaring his four-legged and two-legged captives and spreading fear at least through 1847. But things were about to change dramatically for the chief and his raiders, for on July 24 of that year the vanguard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—143 Mormon men, three women and two children—rolled into the Salt Lake Valley. One day that winter Mormons learned firsthand about Indian slavery when Ute warriors brought several captured children to Fort Salt Lake. The warriors shoved two of the youngsters toward the Mormon guards at the fort’s gate and said they were for sale. The Mormons, not believing in human slavery of any kind, refused to buy. The warriors were not easily put off. They said the children would be killed unless the Mormons bought them by sunset. Although the Mormons assumed the warriors were bluffing, they bought one child. The other child remained in Ute hands. True to their word, the warriors killed that child in plain sight of the settlers.

Mormon pioneer Solomon F. Kimball’s journal tells of a captive Indian girl for sale at Hot Springs, just north of the fort. The Utes offered to exchange the girl for a rifle, but the Mormons, needing their rifles for protection and to hunt, refused. The Utes then began to torture the girl. “In the face of this cruelty and threat, one of the men parted with his only gun,” Kimball reported. The Utes then released the girl to the Mormons.

At first Chief Walker and other Indian slavers approached the Mormons confident they could make human sales. All they had to do was make threats—to either kill their captives or sell them to Mexican slavers or Navajo Indians in the market for domestics and herders. Thus, even though Mormons regarded the slave trade as morally reprehensible and politically untenable (fearing the Eastern press would accuse them of encouraging slavery), they continued to ransom captives and place them in their homes.

Brigham Young, the Mormon leader and first governor of Utah Territory, did not like what he saw. He tried befriending Walker, hoping to convince the chief to curtail his raiding and slave trading. Walker was friendly enough, inviting Young to send settlers to the San Pitch Valley, near the present-day town of Manti, about 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. Late in 1849Young did so. That November, Isaac Morley arrived with 224 other settlers and established a winter camp by excavating dugouts in a remote hillside. And in 1850 the Mormons baptized Walker. The Indian slave problem continued, however. Despite warnings from Young, New Mexico Territory slavers from Taos and Santa Fe kept venturing north to meet with Walker near Manti and buy or trade for his captives.

In September 1851, 28 New Mexicans came up to Utah Territory to trade with both the Utes and the Navajos. The leader of the traders, Don Pedro León Luján, carried a trading license issued in Santa Fe on August 14 by New Mexico Territorial Governor James S. Calhoun. When Luján and eight of his men showed up in Manti, the local Mormons arrested them. That winter the case came up before Judge Zerubbabel Snow of the First District Court in Salt Lake. The court found Luján guilty of trading for slaves. Snow released the Indian captives and ordered Luján and the others to leave Utah Territory and never return.

On January 31, 1852, the Utah Territorial Legislature passed a law prohibiting the whole slavery business. Its preamble reads: “From time immemorial the practice of purchasing women and children of the Utah tribes of Indians by Mexican traders has been indulged and carried on by those respective people, until the Indians consider it an allowable traffic and frequently offer their prisoners or children for sale.” In part because of the Luján case,Young gave orders on April 23, 1853, for 30 Utah militiamen “to go south through the settlements, warn the people and apprehend all such strolling Mexicans and keep them in custody until further advised.” The Mormon leader was no longer going to tolerate slave trading in his territory.

Walker was not a happy chief. Not only did he hate to see the end of slave trading, but he also hated to see thousands of Mormons flooding onto the lands where he and his warriors had long roamed without interference. He restrained his rage until mid-July 1853, when a Mormon in Springville, Utah, got into a dispute with a Ute warrior and killed him with a blow from his rifle butt.WhenWalker got word, that was the final straw. His Utes began raiding Mormon villages, stealing livestock. In response, Young instituted his “open hand, mailed fist” Indian policy. The Mormons built centralized forts, guarded their herds and kept ever vigilant, even as Young continually offered the Indians food, cattle, horses, schooling for their children and peaceful relations. The Utes leaned on their hitand-run guerrilla expertise but clashed with the Utah Territorial Militia several times. The Walker War lasted 10 months, taking the lives of about 20 whites and untold dozens of Utes.

In May 1854, Young and other Mormon leaders took gifts to Chief Walker and other Ute tribal leaders at Chicken Creek, a few miles south of Levan. During that parley, the issue of Mormon occupation of Ute lands remained unresolved, but Walker agreed to keep the peace. No one signed a formalized federal treaty. It wasn’t necessary. The Ute chief kept his word right up to his death from pneumonia on January 29, 1855.

The next day, settlers discovered the bodies of two Indian slave women and three children—the victims of a ritual slaying. Also killed were 20 of the late horse thief’s finest horses. He would not be alone in the spirit world.What’s more, it was reported that an Indian slave boy was sealed alive in Walker’s tomb, made of boulders and aspen logs, to keep watch over the Indian chief.


Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here