In April 1851, Mormon settlers in Circleville, a small hamlet in central Utah Territory, slit the throats of as many as 30 men, women, and children belonging to the Paiute Koosharem band. The massacre happened during the Black Hawk War because of unfounded fears by the settlers that the band posed a threat.
Despite being the worst atrocity committed against Native Americans in Utah, the massacre is not well known. Circleville residents—none original descendants of the perpetrators—do not much discuss it. The massacre is hardly mentioned in general histories of the state, and even the Paiute people know little of what happened to their ancestors.
That will begin to change, however, when the victims will be memorialized with a new memorial in Circleville. The memorial will provide a solemn place of contemplation and commemoration to honor the victims of one of Utah history’s saddest episodes.
A dedication ceremony for the new memorial is scheduled for April 22 at 11 a.m. The brief ceremony will be held at Memorial Park (Main Street and 100 East) in Circleville. Speakers include representatives of the Paiute Koosharem band, town of Circleville, LDS Church history department, and Utah Division of State History.
The memorial has become a reality because of the efforts of the Paiute Tribal Council, Utah Division of State History, town of Circleville officials, LDS Church Historical Department, Utah Westerners, and a number of independent historians who felt compelled to band together and give proper recognition to the slain.
Additional Background Information on the Circleville Massacre
The massacre occurred in an atmosphere of fear and conflict as the “Black Hawk War” led to violence among settlers and native peoples in many areas of Utah. Late in 1865, some Utes raided the town of Circleville, killing four citizens. In early 1866, Parowan militia officers decided to “take in all straggling Indians in the vicinity”—Paiutes included—eventually requesting several to come into Fort Sanford, where they were questioned. The militia targeted Paiute Indians due to paranoia and distrust, believing that they had allied with the Utes.
On April 21, an express sent from Fort Sanford to Circleville stated that two formerly friendly Paiutes had shot and wounded a member of the Utah militia. What the dispatch did not report was that one of the Paiutes had been injured, while the other had been shot and killed by a soldier’s long-range rifle. The military commander at Fort Sanford sent an express to Circleville and Panguitch advising that Paiutes encamped near the settlements ought to be disarmed. Later, another express rider from Fort Sanford erroneously reported that “friendly Paiutes had shot and killed a white man who belonged to the militia”—though in fact no militiamen had been killed.
Settlers and local LDS church leaders in Circleville met to decide what course to pursue. They decided to take the local Paiutes prisoner and sent a messenger to them to come into town and hear a letter read by the local LDS bishop. Those who complied were directed into the log church meetinghouse. When the settlers told the Indians to disarm and the Paiutes indicated reluctance, the settlers forcefully disarmed them. Men were sent to bring in the Indians who had refused to come in the first time. One Paiute who attempted to escape was shot. The prisoners, including women and children, were taken to an unused cellar to be held under guard.
LDS Church Apostle Erastus Snow received a report from Circleville and instructed that prisoners should be treated kindly and let go unless “hostile or affording aid to the enemy.” But the dispatch arrived too late—except for two prisoners who escaped and four children thought too young to bear witness, Mormon settlers massacred as many as thirty men, women, and children of the Koosharem Band, mostly by slitting their throats. Reportedly, the bodies were taken to the cellar of an unbuilt mill and buried in a mass grave.
The event is little-known in Utah and barely receives mention in general histories of the state. Only a few scholarly sources, including a 1989 Utah Historical Quarterly article, document its history. In order to raise awareness and honor the memory of the innocents, several groups have worked together on creating a monument.
The monument is the result of cooperation among the Paiute Tribe of Utah, Utah Division of State History, town of Circleville, LDS Church History Department, Utah Westerners, and many contributors. The LDS Church Historical Department made an initial contribution that paid for the design of the monument. Utah Division of State History Director Brad Westwood and Utah Westerners President Steven A. Gallenson spearheaded a fundraising campaign, and a number of history-loving individuals and organizations have pledged their financial support of the project.
At the request of the Paiute Tribe, on the granite stone will be an image of an eagle in flight (conveying the deceased to their resting places). The text will include an oral account of the massacre and an inscription written by the next of kin of those slain.
The memorial has the promise of not only bringing recognition to the massacre but also of bringing healing for Paiutes and the people of Circleville. The inscription reads: “In remembrance of the innocent who were lost in this place so long ago. None of us could ever hope to describe the feelings of emotion that these people might have felt. All we can do is honor their existence as human beings.”
Weeks, Sue Jensen. How Desolate Our Home Bereft of Thee: James Tillman Sanford Allred and the Circleville Massacre. Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan, 2014.
Winkler, Albert. “The Circleville Massacre: A Brutal Incident in Utah’s Black Hawk War,” Utah Historical Quarterly 55 (1987): 4–21.