Summarized by Mike Nielsen
Legendary Mormon Sheriff Carved Early Utah Saga
Salt Lake Tribune 8May00 N6
By Will Bagley: Special to the Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- On Utah's observance of law week, and when the Salt
Lake County Sheriff's Department celebrates its sesquicentennial, documents
found by a California collector offer newinsights on Utah's first sheriff.
Sheriff James Ferguson was renowned for hunting Jim Bridger, and for nearly
starting a war between the frontier and the federal government. Several
unpublished letters written by Ferguson describe how close the Utah War was
to erupting to a fierce conflict. Ferguson served as militia general in
Echo Canyon near Coalville, Utah.
Ferguson was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1828. He joined the church in
1842, and accompanied Wilford Woodruff's family in 1846 to join the
migration to Utah. He joined the Mormon Battalion and was appointed the
campaign's historian. He also was the highest-ranking enlisted man on the
trek to Southern California.
After arriving in Utah, he became sheriff of Great Salt Lake County. His
first recorded case, in April 1850, involved the capture and execution of a
Ute named Patsovett for murder.
In August of 1853, he directed a posse of 150 men to find Jim Bridger, who
allegedly armed native Americans and encouraged them to fight Mormons.
Although Bridger escaped, the posse destroyed his rum and seized his
Apostle Orson Whitney names Ferguson among the Life Guards, a group of men
specially selected to protect Brigham Young "especially through the Indian
He served a mission to Britain in 1854, and when he returned from his
mission he organized a group of handcart pioneers in 1856.
Ferguson helped foment a conflict with the federal government by dumping
the federal judge's law library into an outhouse, then burning it. The Utah
War that followed involved one-quarter of the U.S. Army.
Unfortunately, none of his account of the Mormon Battalion's trek survives.
California collector Tom Schleve purchased a set of 46 papers that had been
owned by Ferguson's second wife. The papers include letters and accounts
from Nauvoo to Utah, and reveal Ferguson as a person devoted to God and to
his wives. The letters also reveal Ferguson's hostility toward the federal
government. "The Government seem determined to use
us up, but God won't let them. We intend none of them shall enter the City,
though to prevent it, we have to slay them," Ferguson wrote.
Following the Utah War, Ferguson went back to practicing law and to his
ongoing acting career. In a trial focusing on his actions against Federal
Judge Stiles, Brigham Young testified. Historian Norman Furniss writes that
seven apostles accompanied Young, "clustered around him,
their pistols and knives ready for service." A jury composed of Mormons
found Ferguson not guilty.
Drinking led to his early death. In 1859 Wilford Woodruff wrote that
Ferguson "came near dying drinking poisioned [sic] whiskey." And in 1863
the apostle wrote that Ferguson was "near his End with hard
drinking." After his funeral, at age 35, members of the territorial bar
association described their sorrow that his "devotion to the
inebriating cup brought him to a premature grave."
The article is a special to the Salt Lake Tribune written by Will Bagley, a
Utah Historian who has written A Bright, Rising Star, a Life Sketch of