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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended May 14, 2000
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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 Several unpublished letters written by Ferguson describe how close the Utah War was to erupting to a fierce conflict.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 property.

Apostle Orson Whitney names Ferguson among the Life Guards, a group of men specially selected to protect Brigham Young "especially through the Indian country."

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 James Ferguson.


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