Rare Stevenson Journal Paints An Enchanting City of Saints

James Stevenson, a recruit in Company A of the 1st Dragoons, served as a member of an army expedition that traveled to Salt Lake City in 1854. Twenty-five years later, he wrote of his observations.

We descended the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains into the valley of the Green River, while the snowy peaks of the Wind River Mountains, including Fremont Peak, towering in the clouds on our right like the famous Alps of Europe.

As we dismount on the western slope of the Wasatch Mountains overlooking Salt Lake City on the last day of August, 1854, the valley of the Jordan in all its beauty lay spread beneath us like a beautiful picture. The “city of the Saints,” with its lead colored houses, street lined with green cotton wood trees and streams of water, like silver threads, coursing along either side of the streets, looked like a fairy scene, while the great summer sun was descending into the waters of the majestic lake, twenty miles distant, lighting it up like a sheet of burnished gold.

It was enchanting. For weeks before arriving we had been regaled with stories about Mormons, about their peculiar institutions, and of the Great Salt Lake, which was represented as receiving rivers of fresh water constantly and yet remaining very salty, having no outlet except by a great whirlpool in the centre which drew everything towards it that approached within the circle of its powerful influence.

And, as “distance lends enchantment to the view,” we looked a way off to the waters of the lake with wondering eyes and longed to stand upon upon its mystic shores.


The Mormons had been advised of our approach, and the Great Prophet Brigham Young, with his presiding Elders or twelve apostles came out to meet us, and remonstrated against taking a “licencentious soldiery” into the “City of the Saints.” It was no use, however, for in we went, and were quartered in the very heart of the city, about the two squares from the “Temple,” on the one hand, and about the same distance from the “White House of the Prophet” with its golden bee-hive for a dome, on the other. The Temple was in course of erection; the mighty foundations were laid, and the walls were beginning to rise.  The square on which it stood, called “Temple Square.” Was surrounded with a high stone wall, of excellent construction, with heavy granite capping. In one corner of the square stood the “Tabernacle,” in which the saits worshipped while the Temple was being erected. The Tabernacle was a rectangular building, constructed of “abdobes” pr sun-dried bricks. The pulpit was on the ground floor, in the centre of one of the long sides, and the seats rose in a semicircle around it, from floor to eaves, like a giant amphitheatre. Here we sat, on several occasions, to hear the “Prophet” or some of the leading Elders scold and threaten the women for their reported intimacy with the “gentiles.” And especially with the soldiers, and the language used was not very choice.

It was of no avail, however, as the fair but fickle creatures seemed very partial to the “blue jacket,” and several of the soldiers took to themselves wives and carried them willing captives to Oregon and California. Wherever U.S. soldiers are stationed, it is the custom to have a flag-staff on which the national colors are hoisted at “Reveille” every morning and taken down at “Retreat” every night.  When we entered Salt Lake City, we sent out to the mountains and had a suitable pole prepared and had it brought in to be erected.  The Mormon authorities objected to this, but we put it up in spite of them.    This caused much ill feeling, which finally culminated in a riot, of which I shall speak presently.

In October, 1854, we set out on an expedition through the Wah-satch Mountains after the Utah Indians who had massacred Capt. Gunnison and his party the previous year, as I have before stated.  The weather looked favorable when we started out, but it soon began to snow. Then it turned to sleet, which froze as fast as it fell, and we had a rough time of it. The men had their ears, hands, and feet frozen, and some poor fellows lost their toes.  I never suffered so much from cold before in my life, and not often since. At last, having eaten everything they had, the Indians signified their willingness to make a treaty and give up the men of the tribe who had been the most prominent actors in the massacre. Accordingly, we met the tribe to a number of several thousand at the town of Parowan in the central part of Utah territory, had a big “pow-wow,” a grand feast and a war dance, and some half  dozen of the murderers were turned over to our tender mercies.

“Walker,” the head chief of the Utahs, had died a short time before, and there was a dispute as to who should be his successor. There were six or seven aspiring, all brothers or sons of the deceased chief, some of whom were for peace and some for war.  The latter were favorites with the young bucks of the tribe, while their “elders” favored the “peace policy.”

The mediation of the military was invoked, and there was a lively time at that pow-wow.  “Arrowpin” was for war, and I never heard such a harangue as he delivered on that occasion.  He was a splendid specimen of physical manhood and a great orator.  His gestures and attitude, together with the sonorous sound of his voice and the flashing of his eyes, were something grand to hear and see.  His claims were ignored, however, in favor of a less warlike chieftain, upon which the “young bucks” and warriors threatened insubordination and left the assembly.

We then returned to Salt Lake City with our prisoners, and in the course of time they were convicted and two of them sentenced to be hung, while the others were sentenced to imprisonment for different periods. [i]

The names of those that were hung, were, Long-Hair and White-Tree.  They showed no signs of fear on the gallows and died game.  We learned afterwards that those who were sent to prison escaped, and I have no doubt the Mormons connived at it in order to ingratiate themselves with the Indians.

During our absence on the expedition, one of the Lieutenants who remained to take charge of the barracks was insulted by Brigham Young, Jr., a son of the Prophet.  The Lieutenant was out riding with some ladies when Brigham came dashing up behind them and lassoed one of the ladies, and afterwards played the same game on the Lieutenant.  The latter was unarmed and could not defend himself.  He challenged the rascal to mortal combat, however; but Col. Steptoe and the city authorities interfered to prevent the hostile meeting.

There was a theatre in the city at which some of the young ladies of the place were performers, and one night we had a riot there which added fuel to the flame of ill feeling between Mormons and soldiers; and on Christmas, or New Year’s, I forget which, there was a regular outbreak in which rifles and revolvers were freely used, and several on both sides wounded but fortunately no one was killed. [ii]

The Mormon “Minute Men” turned out on horseback in great force, and patrolled the city, night and day, and the soldiers were kept in their barracks until the spirit of the parties cooled down. One night during the existence of this prohibition, I went out with friends to an evening party, and we had a serious time getting back to our quarters. The “Minute Men” got after us. But as they were mounted and we were on foot, we could defy them by dodging up alleys and over back fences. There was only one way of getting into our quarter, however, without being seen by the guard, and that was by swinging around the end of a very high fence, which connected a short ways over a canal in the rear of our barracks. I was just in the act of performing this feat when the sentry heard me and challenged. I made no reply, only redoubled my efforts to “swing the corner,” and he called for the Sergeant of the guard. In my efforts to get around the fence, I fell into the canal, heels over head, with a loud splash. I heard the guard coming and scrambled up the bank as fast as I could, and made for the quarters.  On entering I jumped into the first bunk I came to, and its occupant, who was none other than our German friend, “Ter Tyvel,” jumped out on the floor, wet to the skin, swearing like a trooper. Just at that moment the guard rushed in and seized the poor Dutchman, and dragged him off to the guard house. I heard him remonstrating, but the guard were so sure of their man on account of his wet clothing, that they wouldn’t listen to him. The Sergeant of the guard was an Artilleryman named McNamara, a red headed Irishman, who hated the Dutch, and I could hear him cursing the poor prisoner, ordering him to shut up. Before “Revielle” in the morning I went to the guard house with a little flask and prevailed on the Sergeant to let the poor Dutchman out, as his name had not yet been entered on the guard report.


[i] Actually, the two men were convicted of manslaughter and see Rufus Ingalls’ report.

[ii] Columnist Will Bagley wrote:

Most early holiday celebrations were humble, but when U.S. troops visited old Salt Lake City in 1854, soldiers celebrated Christmas with a drunken brawl aimed at the Saints. Army Colonel Edward Steptoe had orders to stop in Great Salt Lake City to investigate the murder of Captain John Gunnison and his surveying party in 1853. One of Steptoe’s officers noted, “the principal object in our wintering here” is to avenge Gunnison. Relations with the Army started off well enough after Steptoe arrived in September, but by December feelings were as frosty as the weather. As John Gunnison had noted earlier, Mormons dreaded the contaminating influence of idle soldiers, especially the possible effects of “the gallantry of epaulettes upon their peculiar institution of polygamy.”

Several of Steptoe’s young lieutenants used their epaulettes quite effectively, wooing Mormon girls and plural wives who were fed up with polygamy. Lt. Sylvester Mowry courted the wife of one of Brigham Young’s sons and claimed the prophet’s feisty fifteen-year-old daughter, Alice, told him: “Salt Lake needs only to be roofed in to be the biggest whorehouse in the world.”

To keep the peace, local authorities tried to ban the sale of alcohol, but thirsty soldiers could always find a drink on “Whiskey Street.” Matters came to a head on December 23 during a play at the social hall. Mormon lawyer Hosea Stout reported a “considerable melee” broke out when the police tried to arrest a soldier in the audience.

Lt. LaRhett Livingston wrote home: “I got my face scratched & hand lamed in trying to quell the disturbance.” Lt. Mowry was knocked down early in the action but was not injured. Officers kept the fight from becoming a riot. The pot boiled over, however, on Christmas Day. Drunken soldiers, reportedly hunting for a fight, hit the streets early. Livingston blamed the trouble on the “desperate set of rascals infesting this City” and noted the soldiers “will not be run over if they can help it.” Within minutes, there was a general riot in the streets involving 300 “rowdies about town and drunken soldiers.”

Some shots were fired on both sides, but no one was hit, Livingston observed. “The stones and clubs did better execution.”

Apostle George A. Smith reported the “young growth” among the Mormons put up a stout fight: “Fists, sticks, clubs and stones were used freely.” Officers and the police finally quelled the riot and Colonel Steptoe confined his men to barracks for the rest of the holiday. He threatened to move them far away from town, and the prospect of spending the winter in tents at Tooele helped keep the men under control.

Officers and local officials patched up relations at an elaborate New Year’s Ball thrown by Territorial Governor Young. He had a large green silk banner painted with a saying that still conveys a useful message: “Peace to the Stranger.”

4 Replies to “Rare Stevenson Journal Paints An Enchanting City of Saints”

  1. I’d like to learn more about the Stevenson Journal. Was it ever published (1879?) or is this the first time it’s appeared in print?

    1. Bill

      It has never been published and I’m working with the University of New Mexico to annotate and publish it. Stevenson published a book of his Civil War experiences, Boots and Saddles, in 1878.

      Will

  2. Will,
    Sounds like a great find. I look forward to your publication. If you hit a snag on NM, you might want to speak with Bob Clark of The Arthur H. Clark Co. I suspect that one of your challenges might be sorting out the inaccuracies and hyperbole that crept into Stevenson’s reminiscences 25 years after the events. (I’ve already spotted a few.) For the part of the manuscript dealing with the Salt Lake City wintering-over, I suggest that you take a look at my article, “Sex, Subalterns, and Steptoe: Army Behavior, Mormon Rage, and Utah War Anxieties,” “Utah Historical Quarterly” 76 (Summer 2008): 227-46.

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