In the mid nineteenth century, making a detailed survey of the western part of the United States was a major priority for the government. Waterways, routes, and resources needed to be mapped by competent surveyors to best facilitate the great expansion westward. It wasn't an easy job, and many of these early explorers lost their lives as a result of environmental and natural hazards like floods, falls and landslides, while others were killed by natural predators and in some instances by hostile natives.
In 1853, the wild wild west was yet to be tamed when experienced surveyor, Captain John Williams Gunnison was dispatched with an expedition to survey a route for a railroad between the 38th and 39th Parallels inside the mostly unexplored Utah Territory. The natives in the area were restless and viewed the white man as foreign invaders of their lands. In late October, 1853, the survey party was attacked by a band of Ute Indians, leaving Gunnison and seven of his men dead and mutilated. Gunnison's widow, and others, claimed that the massacre had been masterminded by Mormon Prophet, and Utah Territory Governor, Brigham Young. She asserted that a mob of Mormons had dressed up as Indians, painted their faces, and attacked the survey party.
Hyped up rumors of a Mormon rebellion were common, and the government feared the possibility of Mormons uniting with the natives to battle the United States Army. The Mormons, who had arrived in the territory less than a decade earlier, had a history of governmental misrepresentation. They had endured numerous bigoted persecutions in the Midwest, and were effectively driven out of the land of the free to face more hardships migrating thousands of people across the vast expanse of North America. They carved out a place in the Rocky Mountains where they had hopes of exercising their religion without fear of mob brutality, and governmental intervention.
The Mormons had been in the Salt Lake Valley for only six years, and were already being viewed with suspicion by outsiders, when news of Gunnison and his party's demise reached Washington. As a result of what has become known as the Gunnison Massacre, and other rumors and tales of woe concerning the activities of Mormons behind the Zion Curtain, in 1854, US President Franklin Pierce deployed battle-tried Colonel Edward Jenner Steptoe, along with 175 hardened troops consisting of two companies of artillery and one infantry division to the Utah Territory to investigate the massacre of Gunnison's party, assess the Mormon rebellion and hostile Indian situation. Col. Steptoe had also been instructed by President Pierce to replace Brigham Young as governor... by force if necessary.
A West Point Graduate, Colonel Steptoe had proven himself to be a dependable officer who knew how to deal with the enemy. On August 31, 1854, Steptoe and his troops arrived in the arid, hot and mostly undeveloped Salt Lake Valley. The colonel was aware that the Indians could not be defeated without cooperation from the Mormons, and when the situation had been assessed, he determined that the Latter-day Saints were reluctantly necessary allies of the US in subduing the Native Americans, and making the country safe for settlers and travelers. Colonel Steptoe therefore refused his gubernatorial appointment, and recommended to the President that Brigham Young remain in office as Utah's governor.
On September 2, 1854, Steptoe relocated his battalion near the east shore of Lake Shambip, (later renamed Rush Lake), a few miles south of Tooele, where they constructed stables and barracks to house the hundreds of men and animals of the deployment force. Steptoe designated the area as a US Military Reserve, and erected survey monuments marking the extensive boundary. The following spring, the deployment force of over two-hundred men left for Benicia, California to resupply the arsenal there.
Eventually, the military had little to nothing to do with the Rush Lake Military Reserve, but the approximately 48,000 acres of land still belonged to the army, therefore, anyone who attempted to homestead within the boundary was denied property rights. It took many years for the squatters to obtain legal deeds to their properties, many of which had been described and located from the original survey markers that had been established by Steptoe in 1854.
Don Rosenberg first became aware of the Military Reserve when he was a practicing registered surveyor, and discovered the old deeds that had been described and based on the Military Reserve boundary monuments. He was later elected Tooele County Surveyor, and made it a priority to preserve the location of the old original monuments, and in 1991, successfully retraced Col. Steptoe's original survey and relocated most of the original monuments of the Military Reserve. At the base of each corner monument, we set a 2" steel pipe with an official Tooele County Surveyor brass cap marked, "USRB CORNER." Rosenberg recorded a tie sheet showing the location of each corner and the boundary line on the maps of the dependent re-survey that is on file at Tooele County.
Other than the survey markers that were relocated in the 1991 re-survey, today little evidence remains from the time of Steptoe's short-lived military occupation on the shore of Rush Lake. A lonely historical marker established by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers on August 20, 1941, stands alongside Highway 36, about 1.7 miles south of Stockton, Utah. The twelve foot tall monolith has a large bronze plaque with the following information inscribed:
"A detachment of the U.S. Army, the first to enter the Rocky Mountain region, consisting of two companies of artillery, 85 dragoons, 130 teamsters, herders, and hostlers from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, under the command of Col. E. J. Steptoe reached this point 2 Sep., 1854. They erected quarters, stables, and corrals, cut 200 cords of wood and stored 200 tons of hay for their 450 mules and 300 horses. The camp was located on the east shore of Lake Shambip (Rush Lake). The detachment left for Benicia, California in early April 1855."
The abandoned Military Reserve at Rush Lake represents the first time troops would be deployed in Utah, but it certainly wasn't the last time the military would occupy land in the region.
* Published References:
History of Clover 1856-1956 pg. 1,
History of Tooele County (1961) pg.287, 340
History of Tooele County Vol. 2, (1990) pg. 42-44
A History of Tooele County - Compiled by Ouida Nuhn Blanthorn for the Utah Centennial County History Series (1998) pg. 58-59, 289-291