Two events took place in the mid-19th century in the United States that set the stage for a third which became an historic turning point in American history. The settlement of Mormons in Utah and their pursuit to establish their own government coupled with explorations to develop the transcontinental railroad laid the groundwork for the massacre of Captain John Gunnison and his explorers in 1853 which took eight lives.
As massacres go, the loss of eight people was not numerically remarkable. What made the Gunnison Massacre exceptional is that it catapulted into the American conscious. Both Mormons and American Indians entered the spotlight of American attention, and the resulting outrage forever changed American sentiment and government policies toward these two groups. This article examines the events, people and personalities that led to the Gunnison Massacre and its long term consequences.
Manifest Destiny and Continentalism
In 1811, the future U.S. President John Quincy Adams advocated the concept that the United States should include all of North America. Americans in the 1840s embraced the notion and named it “Manifest Destiny.” It was used to justify annexing Texas from Mexico in 1845, thus starting the Mexican-American War. The United States prevailed and, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo , Mexico ceded a vast amount of land. Ownership of the future states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and part of Colorado were conveyed to the U.S.
The acquisition of these additional lands brought with it the difficulty of overland travel for trade and national defense. An efficient means of cross country transportation became more imperative, particularly if the U.S. wanted to hold on to the lands it had recently acquired. Although America owned the land, the residents—Native Americans and other settlers—were not considered Americans yet, so loyalty and cooperation were not guaranteed.
To explore this new resource, the federal government called on the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. The U.S. government created the Corps in 1813 to perform a variety of duties, some of which included exploring and surveying land. The Corps described the topography, route, buildings and culture of an assigned survey area, made sketches of routes and distances, noted important observations, and kept a journal of daily movements when the army was on the march. To accomplish this, such an expedition team would typically include surveyors, a geologist, botanist, astronomer, meteorologist and an artist.
After the United States acquired so much more territory, the push for expansion accelerated and spurred development of an American transcontinental railroad line. The California Gold Rush of 1848 fanned the flames of westward exploration and settlement. One of the biggest challenges was finding the most suitable route.
Businessmen were eager to expand their horizons and capitalize on new western markets. In 1845,...