John W. Gunnison Expedition

Illustration from Gunnison-Beckwith Exploration Report, 1855
Illustration from Gunnison-Beckwith Exploration Report, 1855

Herds of buffalo, wide open spaces, and the amazingly massive landscape of the American West captivated John W. Gunnison and other members of the Stansbury Expedition in 1849. This expedition was Gunnison’s first adventure west of the Mississippi River, and one that would create in him a longing for the west for the remainder of his career.


Humble Beginnings
John Williams Gunnison was born on November 11, 1812 in Goshen, New Hampshire. At the age of 18 he traveled to Hopkinton Academy, where after one term, he went on to teach at the local school. During his years as a teacher, he prepared himself to enter West Point Military Academy. In June of 1837 he graduated second out of fifty.

Gunnison began military service later that year when he was ordered into active duty under General Zachary Taylor. Violent battles had been brewing in Florida between the Seminole Indians and white settlers. As peace talks were undertaken, Gunnison was ordered to explore unfamiliar lakes and rivers in search of provision routes south to Fort Besinger. Although the assignments were challenging and there were many opportunities for adventure, the heat and humidity of the South took a toll on Gunnison’s health. In 1838 he received a transfer to the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

Gunnison experienced many things in his new job and personal life. Among them was his marriage to Martha A. Delony on April 15, 1841 and the births of their children in the years to follow. In the summer of 1841 he received his first western assignment to do a standard survey of the unexplored, wild country of the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Through many challenges and hardships, one of which was long periods of time away from his family, Gunnison and the survey crew persisted and eventually mapped much of the border land and the shores of Lake Michigan.

Going West to the Utah Territory
Gunnison’s first sight of the western lands came as a member of the Captain Stansbury Utah Territory Expedition of 1849. Gunnison, having caught the exploration bug during his previous expeditions in Florida and Michigan, was thrilled to embark on this new adventure. Their task was to explore the route to the Mormon community in Utah.

After a long, yet beautiful journey through the Great Plains and southern Wyoming, they arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. They explored and mapped the Great Salt Lake region and gathered scientific information about their surroundings. That winter incredible amounts of snow fell bringing with it many dangers and hardships. Communication was cut off, leaving the crew with many idle hours. Gunnison began to study the Mormon Church and wrote a book titled The Mormons, or Latter Day Saints in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition.

That same winter there was an uprising between American Indians and the Mormons near Salt Lake City. Gunnison negotiated between the two parties, winning the admiration of his peers. The experience led him to believe he could be a mediator, a belief that would later prove fatal.

View of the Roan or Book Mountains from the Gunnison-Beckwith Exploration Report, 1855.
View of the Roan or Book Mountains from the Gunnison-Beckwith Exploration Report, 1855.

Exploring Black Canyon
Although relatively inexperienced, Lieutenant Gunnison was promoted to Captain on March 3, 1853 largely due to his successes in Utah and the Great Lakes region. Although happy to be spending more time with his family in the east, Gunnison longed to begin a new adventure and to return to the Western United States that he had come to love. He was selected to lead the search for a Pacific railroad route along the Kansas-Nebraska border. He bid his family farewell, sure to return to them when the expedition was over. His expedition took him through the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the Grand River (Gunnison River) Valley, where the town of Gunnison is today.

On September 7th, the expedition first glimpsed the relatively tame section of the Black Canyon at Lake Fork. The report of the expedition described the area as "a stream imbedded in [a] narrow and sinuous canyon, resembling a huge snake in motion." The report continues, "To look down over...the canyon below, it seems easy to construct a railroad; but immense amounts of cutting, filling and masonry would be required." Even then, these experienced explorers understood the geologic processes that created such an obstacle – an uplift of the earth, volcanic activity, and the power of water.

The captain rode into the canyon several times during that first day. He esteemed the country, "the roughest, most hilly and most cut up," he had ever seen. Though the party never ventured further downstream, their report contains the first official description of the formidable Black Canyon. Future explorers were also impeded by the canyon. The railroad that eventually came through the area many years later made it no further into the canyon than the present town of Cimarron, only after many surveys and attempts.


The Final Adventure
Gunnison and his men decided to navigate around what is now known as the Black Canyon and follow an easier route west through the present day town of Montrose. When the expedition finally reached Utah, Gunnison witnessed the destruction left by Paiute Indian raids on Mormon settlements. Local residents reassured the expedition that the attacks were not a serious threat because peace talks had just taken place. After a trip for provisions to the town of Fillmore, Gunnison divided the troops to make up for lost time. He went ahead with a crew of soldiers and guides on October 25 and the party camped along the bank of the Sevier River. The attack came during the early hours of the next morning. Only four men of his party survived. John W. Gunnison never returned home to his family.

Reports of the incident stated that it was an act of retribution by the sons of a Paiute leader who had been killed by some emigrants heading west. Utah Governor Brigham Young noted that Captain Gunnison underestimated the tension between the tribes and settlers. Due to earlier successes in negotiations with native people, Gunnison tried to resolve the situation. A formal investigation by Colonel Edward Steptoe brought forth varying testimony about the massacre. One unique statement was heard from a Mormon living in Salt Lake City. She claimed to have heard her fellow Mormons say: "...Captain Gunnison and his party were murdered by the "Danites," [Mormon group] disguised as Indians, by, and with the knowledge, and "counsel" of the Prophet (Governor Brigham Young)." In the end, Paiute Indians were indicted for the act.

Coo-che-to-pa Pass from the Gunnison-Beckwith Exploration Report, 1855.
Coo-che-to-pa Pass from the Gunnison-Beckwith Exploration Report, 1855.

Although remembered largely because of the massacre and by the many places that bear his name, Gunnison’s spirit of adventure and longing for the landscapes of the West made him unique among explorers. His place in the history of exploration in the United States brought early Americans closer to an understanding of the wild country beyond the Mississippi River and the tradeoffs that often must be made in order to experience those places. Today it gives us an idea about why the landscapes of the west were so magnetic for John W. Gunnison and continue to be so for many explorers and adventurers, regardless of the personal costs.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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