Steptoe and the Mormons

“Another aggravating development of the period was the arrival of Lt. Col. Edward Jenner Steptoe with a party of 300 soldiers and civilians in 1854. This was no military expedition to occupy a recalcitrant people, for Steptoe had orders to to examine the possibility of constructing a road from Salt Lake City to California. . . .

[Steptoe’s] orders included instructions to investigate a particularly unpleasant murder in Utah the year before. Lt. John W. Gunnison’s second visit to the Basin had been more unfortunate than his first in 1849 . . .Ordered to survey a route between the 38th and 39th parallels for the proposed Central Pacific Railroad, Gunnison had reached Utah with about a dozen men on October 26, 1853. Like the ill-fated Fancher party, victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre four years later, he had arrived at a bad time, when the Indians had become infuriated by unnecessary acts of cruelty on the part of recent travelers. . . . At the Sevier River on October 28 . . . Indians ambushed the detachment, killing Gunnison and seven of his command.

To defend the prestige of the Government and the security of other troops in the West, the War Department demanded the punishment of this crime. . . . It was Steptoe’s task to investigate the incident.

Through his inquiry into the massacre Steptoe became involved in the thorny issue of the Mormon’s relations with the Indians. Like [Indian Agent] Holeman, he concluded that the Church was tampering with the local tribes in a most reprehensible fashion. . . .

To the Mormons in 1854 and 1855 Edward Jenner Steptoe was more than an army officer whose orders had interjected him into their Indian affairs. before his arrival, Bernhisel had written Willard Richards that President Pierce had resolved to appoint Steptoe governor upon expiration of Young’s first four-year term . . . Steptoe was not objectionable to the Mormons, Young himself having said publicly that if the officer had been given the appointment he would accept this ‘gallant gentleman,’ but the selection of any Gentile for this position of authority was cause for alarm among the Saints, who wished to be ruled only by members of their Church. . . . [T]he Mormons feared that Steptoe, or even [Chief Justice Kinney], would get Pierce’s appointment. 

Yet when the agitation had quieted and all the letters and petitions had been filed, Steptoe was on his way to California, Kinney was still only a federal judge in Utah, and Young still occupied the executive seat.”