The Surveyor General, the Prophet, and a War that Almost Happened

David H. Burr had a fine reputation in Washington, D.C. and was considered competent, reliable, and skillful in map-making and surveying. In 1839, while employed by the Postal Service, he compiled a very fine map of the post office locations in the Territory of Florida. A decade later he was gainfully employed surveying Spanish Land Grants in the new state of Florida, mostly in the area around Jacksonville and Fernandina. Here he had the difficult task of surveying in some of Florida's most difficult marshlands and along the myriad tidal streams that intertwine in the area. Burr also served as a clerk in the office of the Surveyor General of Florida and was familiar with the routine operations of the office. With this experience and his contacts in the nation's capital he seemed the perfect fit to run the office of Surveyor General in the new Territory of Utah.

Utah was a new adventure and a place to start anew for the persecuted Mormons who had escaped the problems of Nauvoo. The story of the Mormon trek across the Great Plains and to land around the Great Salt Lake is too well-known to bear repeating except to note that many of the church elders who had led this perilous journey were to be rewarded by the Prophet, Brigham Young. After building the first capital in Fillmore, Utah Territory, the first two legislative sessions granted many lands up and down some of the more fertile valleys to these elders. Many of them charged their fellow worshipers for the privilege of cutting much needed wood for the construction of homes. Some also charged for the use of the range lands. Most of the elders were the men who remained with Young in the desert around the Great Salt Lake while the others had either returned east or went on to California, especially the area called San Bernardino. Many of these elders had also served in the earlier government of the territory of Deseret, as the Mormon settlements were called and which had been established in July 1849. Compared to other settlers of the west, this group of co-religionists was very well-disciplined and willing to make nature work for them even in the rugged conditions they found in early Utah.

Mormom/Gentile Tensions

In the period between 1850 and 1857, the Mormons tried five times to achieve statehood but failed in each attempt. In 1856, they even called a constitutional convention and created a constitution for the proposed State of Deseret only to be once more rejected on grounds of insufficient population. Although no one could agree on the exact number of inhabitants, it is today acknowledged that there were too few people in the proposed state at the time of the applications. Many attempts were made to attract population and many countries sent immigrants westward in the hope of increasing the Mormon presence. It was Brigham Young's strat-egy to populate the land with Mor-mons before the "Gentiles" could get wind of the fine lands and provide rival claimants. Attempts to expand the territory through annexation and population failed despite the best efforts of David H. Wells, head of the legion, who led a number of important explorations into the surrounding mountains.

One serious problem for the Mormons and others were the large number of Native Americans living in the area, most notably the Utes and Shoshones. Negotiations with the Native Americans were often left to the appointed agent of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Major Jacob Holman and Dr. Garland Hurt represented the Commissioner in "Utah" and both questioned the tactics of Brigham Young's government (he had been named governor during the 1849 convention and tacitly approved by President Millard Fillmore) toward the Indians. What most bothered Holman and Hurt was the constant insistence that there was a difference between the Mormons and the "Americans" implying that the former were their friends and the latter could not be trusted. When Captain John Gunnison's party of Topographical Engineers was attacked in late October of 1853, suspicion was cast upon the Mormons for stirring up trouble with the Pahvantes, the group accused of the attack on Gunnison which killed the Captain and seven other members of his crew. That one of those killed was a Mormon, one William Potter, seems to have escaped the attention of the agent but not of Governor Young. Still there was a great deal of tension between the governor and the agent(s) and it was similar to the tensions growing between the Mormons and the Gentile government appointees, including David Burr.

Burr's annual report for 1856 provides some clues to the events that were to follow and the charges made against him by Governor Young and others. Arriving in Salt Lake City on July 27, 1855, Burr set about making the usual cursory examination of the territory to be surveyed. He established the initial point "at the corner of Temple block, in Salt Lake City," and began running the base line from the western base of the Wahsatch mountains to about thirty-six miles west of Salt Lake. The meridian was run eighty-four miles north of the initial point and seventy-two miles south-ward. He made out his contracts to embrace a total of one hundred and thirty townships and by the time of the report in September of 1856, most of the work had been performed and returned. Burr then took the unusual step of using the latitude of Salt Lake City given by Captain Howard Stansbury because he lacked "the proper instruments for ascertaining with certainty a parallel of latitude."

Burr also noted that because of the problem of "local attraction" he could not use the standard compass and the solar compass provided by the Department was out of adjustment and beyond their ability to repair. He therefore ordered that a transit and theodolite should be used. Burr also informed his superiors that water was difficult and sometimes expensive to procure. It frequently had to be hauled over long distances in barrels by pack animals to the site of the survey. As most surveyors camped near water for their men and animals' convenience, the travel to and from the work sites was very time consuming and added to the expenses. Most survey parties he declared were about twenty men in size and often used up to a dozen mules to transport the equipment and supplies. His descriptions of the landscape are very interesting and point out the difficulty of surveying in a mountainous and sometimes arid country.

On page 546 of the report for 1856, Burr began noting critically the actions of the territorial legislature. In describing the Cuche Valley, Burr noted its many streams, abounding in fish, its abundance of wild currents, and its particular suitability to cattle grazing. However, he stated: "The exclusive right to herd cattle in this valley has been given by the legislature to Andrew Morfit and others, agents of the Mormon church." He went on to note that the local Shoshonee Indians complained that the Mormons had so used the valley that the once abundant game no longer appeared. After writ-ing that the once thriving village of Palmyra had been abandoned with no apparent reason on orders from Brigham Young, Burr remarked that, "like its namesake in the desert, [it] is becoming a mass of ruins."

At the end of his report the Surveyor General observed: "All surveys thus far made have terminated at the base of the mountains, it being impossible to run lines up the sides. Instead of meandering, the surveys have been closed by drawing direct lines from the termination of one section line to another. No lines have been extended up the canyons, but as I before mentioned, I think it should be done." Burr, however, did note one major problem with running the lines up the canyons. "The exclusive right to every considerable canyon has been granted by the legislature to the favorites of the Mormon church, who compel the settlers to pay high prices for the privilege of getting their wood from them. They have erected saw mills in many of them and the timber is fast disappearing." These sentences were to get the Surveyor General into severe trouble in the very near future.

According to historian Norman Furniss, Burr's accusations that the leaders had misappropriated parts of the public domain for their own personal profit set off a maelstrom of trouble. As the Mormons' title to the land was questionable in the absence of any treaty with the local Native Americans or any special enactment of Congress, Burr's suggestion to run lines into the canyons were a threat to their power and prosperity. The presumed owners of the land now faced the real possibility of being forcibly evicted from the property and a possible fine. Burr also included in a later correspondence a copy of the deeds proposed by the leaders that gave them exclusive control of any settler's property who was willing to sign them over to the church. As Furniss noted: "In alarm, the Saints sought to impede the surveyor general's labors in every possible way, using intimidation, violence, and their influence over the Indians." Indian agent Hurt actually wrote to Young accusing a bishop of the church of spreading the falsehood that Burr's men were really a posse out to capture and punish the murderers of Captain Gunnison's party. Hurt added in his report that the house where Burr and his men had stopped for the night in Fillmore had actually been stoned by unknown persons. The agent also noted the removal of many of the corner posts put out by the surveyors.

Diabolical Threats

Burr and his men felt themselves in extreme danger. When Deputy Troskolawski was assaulted by one Hickman, an alleged member of the "Danite Band," and nearly killed, Burr was quick to notify the authorities in Washington. According to Burr, "The authorities refused or declined to institute criminal proceedings against the offenders." For several days after the incident Deputy Troskolawski's life hung in the balance and it was feared that he would never fully recover from the beating. Deputy C. L. Craig had a writ served on him for damages incurred by running a line across some farmer's fields but the Deputy ignored the writ and went on working.

Charles Mogo, another of Burr's deputies, had his oxen stolen from him just prior to leaving on a survey. Witnesses saw some men, unnamed but said to be "a noted character who stands high in the councils of the church," drive off the beasts but no one would say exactly who that person(s) was. On February 5, 1857, Burr wrote to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, Thomas Hendricks, that his mail had been opened and read by leaders of the church who approached him with their findings. They did not deny opening the mail or the truth of the charges made against them. However, the Surveyor General declared: "They . . . asserted the right of doing what they did, stating that the country was theirs, that they would not permit this interference with their rights, and this writing of letters about them would be put a stop to..." By March 1857, Burr was writing that other "diabolical threats" had been made against him and that his friends feared for his life. In his final official letter on the trouble, written from the safety of Washington, Burr noted that his clerk, William W. Wilson, had been taken forcibly from the office and had a noose place around his neck and gun pointed at his head to make him answer questions. The other clerk, Mr. C. G. Landon, allegedly jumped from the second story window and escaped southward where he was presumed killed by the Indians (he was not and made it to Placerville, California). Charles Mogo made his escape to Laramie and had just barely eluded the Mormon mob.

The Mormons, for their part, charged Burr with filing false vouchers and falsifying maps to obtain more money from the government. They estimated that the scam attempted by Burr and Mogo was meant to defraud the government of about $30,000. This figure represents about three-fifths of the entire budget for the Utah surveys under Burr in each of the two years he was there, 1856-57. Burr was investigated some time later and some fraudulent surveys were detected and some inaccuracies were found in the actual field work. From what Burr described in his early tenure of office this should not be a surprise as the methodology is a bit unorthodox, even for surveying in mountainous terrain. The real importance of the controversy is its role in the "Mormon War."

When almost every federal official in the Territory felt obliged to leave under the alleged threats on their lives it is little wonder that the U.S. Army was called out. Placed under the command of General William Harney, a tough Indian fighter with years of experience, the troops began surrounding the Territory of Utah in 1857. Luckily for all concerned, James Buchanan had been elected President of the United States and was not anxious to have a war on his hands. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston soon took charge of the military forces in Utah and was patient and firm at the same time. Young was removed as governor of the territory and replaced by Alfred Cumming whose wisdom and patience paid dividends even when he was not obeyed. Through the auspices of peace-maker Colonel Thomas Kane, a friend of the Mormons of high standing, war was averted. The role Burr and the other officials played in bringing on the possibility of war cannot be denied but thanks to prudent decisions in Washington and the willingness to compromise, the situation was defused..

About the Author

  • Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe holds a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University and, since 1987, has been the historian for the Division of State Lands, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (working in the Bureau of Survey Mapping). He has authored more than 35 articles on the history of surveying and teaches the course on the history of surveys and surveying in Florida for recertification purposes in the state of Florida. He is also a contributing writer for the magazine.

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