John Williams Gunnison (1812–53) was a nineteenth-century US Army officer and explorer. In 1853 he was charged with finding a railroad route across the Rocky Mountains, and while carrying out his mission he explored the Western Slope of Colorado. His expedition moved on to Utah, where members of the Paiute nation killed him in an attack. As one of the preeminent Anglo-American figures on the Western Slope, Gunnison’s legacy lives on in a number of Western Slope place-names, including the Gunnison River, the town of Gunnison, and Gunnison County, and even in the name of a local bird, the Gunnison sage grouse.
A graduate of West Point and a career army officer in the Topographical Engineers, John Gunnison had surveyed Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and the US-Canada border in Michigan during the 1840s. In 1849 he joined Captain Howard Stansbury’s expedition to survey the route of the Mormon Trail and the Great Salt Lake basin, for which he superintended the mapping of Utah Lake and its surroundings. While wintering in Salt Lake City, Gunnison researched and wrote The Mormons, Or, Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, a study of Mormon history, doctrine, and practices that received widespread acclaim following its 1852 publication.
Gunnison’s work with Stansbury proved not only his skill as a topographer and observer of Mormon society, but also his ability as a leader and diplomat. On the basis of his performance in Utah, he was promoted to the rank of captain and given leadership of his own expedition: the federally funded survey of a railroad route between the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth parallels, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Gunnison’s appointment was not without controversy, however. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri pressured the war department to have his son-in-law, seasoned explorer John C. Frémont, appointed as leader of the expedition. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and others prevented Frémont’s appointment on the basis of Frémont’s earlier court-martial and outspoken support of abolition. The War Department declared that Gunnison’s scholarship, organizational skill, and workmanlike record on earlier postings promised a more politically neutral report. Benton was also a forceful advocate of a central rail line through the Rocky Mountains, and some claimed that Davis had appointed Gunnison—who saw genuine difficulties in planning for such a route—in order to prove Benton wrong. In any case, Gunnison got the job, and Frémont embarked on a privately funded expedition of his own.
The Gunnison expedition left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, on June 23, 1853. Among the party were veteran explorers who had survived Frémont’s disastrous wintertime transit of the Rocky Mountains, including topographer and artist Richard H. Kern and the German botanist Frederick Creutzfeldt. The expedition traveled up the Arkansas and Cucharas Rivers, crossing the Sangre de Cristo Range to Fort Massachusetts in the San Luis Valley. After a brief rest, the party continued northwest across the valley to the Continental Divide, crossing at the previously unmapped Cochetopa Pass. From there, the expedition descended the Grand River (now the Gunnison River) to the imposing Black Canyon. In the first written description of the canyon, Gunnison wrote that the land around it was “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up” he had ever seen. Realizing that the canyon was impassable, the party navigated around its southern rim, reaching the site of present-day Montrose. From there it crossed the Green River and the Wasatch Mountains, entering the Sevier River Valley sixty miles south of Utah Lake.
From Cochetopa Pass to the Wasatch crest, Gunnison’s expedition had been sporadically threatened by parties of Ute Indians. Gunnison’s diplomacy, as well as the knowledge and skill of the expedition’s guide, Antoine Leroux, averted open conflict several times. As the group descended the Sevier, Gunnison and his men believed that any real or perceived danger was behind them. But when they reached the Mormon settlement at Manti, in what is now central Utah, they found the residents barricaded in their homes, armed to the teeth against an imminent attack.
On the morning of October 26, 1853, a party of Paiute warriors surrounded and attacked Gunnison and a small detachment of the expedition in their camp. Gunnison and several others were killed, and only four of the party escaped. Alerted to the disaster, the expedition’s main party reached the site two days later to find the camp ransacked and the dead scattered by animals. The conflict was the worst such disaster suffered by an army expedition in forty years of sustained exploration in the West. It created sensational headlines in the national press and dealt a death blow to the proposed central railroad route, which was supplanted by a more northerly route across southern Wyoming.
One peculiar outcome of the Gunnison disaster was that some blamed the Mormons for the murders, reflecting increased tension between the United States and Mormon territories at the time. Many years later, however, an elderly Paiute gave an eyewitness account of the attack and acknowledged that no Mormons took part.
Despite the expedition’s tragic end, Captain Gunnison’s Pacific Railroad Survey between the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth parallels provided valuable observations of the Colorado Rockies and the Western Slope that proved useful during the subsequent Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59.
Adapted from Eric Paddock, “Looking Across the Divide: The Visual Legacy of Captain John W. Gunnison,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 26, no. 2.