Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Indian Attack: Lessons for Today From 150 Years Ago

When the Mormon pioneers first came to Utah, they established relationships with the Ute Indians.  Since the Indians were hunter/gatherers, they often suffered deprivation during especially harsh seasons.  Often, the Indians would make attacks on neighbors as resources for their tribe became more scarce.  In light of this, the pioneers established a policy of offering food and clothing to the natives to help meet some of their needs.  As a consequence, the Indians tended not to raid Mormon outposts or emigrants even during harsh times.     

Nevertheless, in the Autumn of 1862, during the Civil War, Utah experienced a marked increase in Indian attacks along the Overland Trail and other emigration routes across the territory.  U.S. Troops from California were previously stationed at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City to help protect the emigration routes and new telegraph lines that had been erected.  They also were there to keep an eye on the "peculiar" people of Utah. 

Colonel Conner, who oversaw the troops, decided to retaliate against the Indians that winter and to demonstrate to the tribes that the U.S. would not stand idly by while these attacks occurred.  He ordered his troops to Cache Valley where they attacked the Indians at their winter camp along the Bear River.  Almost 300 warriors were killed in the assault. Although they prevailed, Colonel Conner's men suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Indians and many more men suffered amputations due to frozen feet.   

In commenting on the presence of U.S. troops, Brigham Young had this to say:

"I will, comparatively speaking, take one plug of tobacco, a shirt and three cents' worth of paint, and save more lives and hinder more Indian depredations than they can by expending millions of dollars vested in an army to fight and kill the Indians.  Feed and clothe them a little and you will save life; fight them, and you pave the way for the destruction of the innocent." - Journal of Discourses Vol. X

This quote got me thinking about the context of their situation and what lessons we can draw from them for today.


It is clear from history that the pioneers knew better how to handle the Indian situation than the Feds did at that time.  Even today, 150 years later, we find ourselves as a state fighting a large, cumbersome, and ineffective government who is unaware or ambivalent to local solutions to Utah's current problems.  Not much has changed. 


The pioneers and the Indians came from very different cultures and backgrounds.  They competed for scarce resources initially.  However, rather than using their technological advantage to destroy the Indians, the pioneers were able to share some of their resources and help the Indians survive during harsh seasons.  We might imagine it would have been ideal for the pioneers to purge the land of the Indian nuisance.  Nevertheless, the cost-benefit ratio of charity outweighed that of idealism.

In many ways, today's immigration debate is being framed in this same context. The result is that the hard edges of idealism are giving way to the cost-benefit advantages of charity...which is probably just how Utah's pioneer forefathers would have done it.  

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