As the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department quietly celebrates its 150th year, and the state begins its observance of law week today, a recent discovery by a California document collector has shed new light on the life of Utah's first sheriff.
Sheriff James Ferguson's exploits have always been short on documentation but long on notoriety, from hunting for mountain man Jim Bridger to almost igniting a war between frontier Utah and the federal government. Yet the brilliant career of this colorful soldier, actor, missionary, newspaperman and attorney was cut short before he reached middle age.
A cache of unpublished letters written in Ferguson's own hand reveals how close Territorial Utah came to war in 1857. Federal troops were poised to put down a perceived rebellion, and Mormon scouts had "orders to fire upon them if they come this side of Bridger," Ferguson wrote while serving as a militia general in Echo Canyon near Coalville. "In that case war has commenced."
Born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1828, Ferguson was always fiercely proud of his Irish heritage. At age 12 he began working as a clerk in Liverpool. Here one of the charismatic missionaries known as the "Young Lions of Mormonism" baptized him in 1842. He escorted Apostle Wilford Woodruff's family to Illinois in 1846 and joined the Mormon emigration to the West.
With the outbreak of war with Mexico, the young emigrant enlisted in the Mormon Battalion. Apostle Willard Richards appointed Ferguson "the Historian of this Campaign." The 18-year-old served as sergeant major, the outfit's highest-ranking enlisted man, through most of the battalion's 2,000-mile march to Southern California.
After his discharge, Ferguson hit pay dirt in the first days of the California gold rush. On reaching Salt Lake in October 1848, he deposited $640.06 in the Brigham Young gold accounts, probably as tithing. Early records are murky, but the legislature of the State of Deseret officially created Utah's first six counties in January 1850, when Brigham Young himself probably appointed Ferguson as the first sheriff of Great Salt Lake County.
In his first recorded case, Sheriff Ferguson seized a Ute named Patsovett in April 1850 and executed him the same day for murdering a man named Baker.
As commander of the Fort Bridger & Greenriver Expedition, in August 1853 Ferguson led a 150-man posse to hunt down Jim Bridger, who stood accused of arming Indians and encouraging them to attack Mormon settlements. Bridger escaped, but the Saints seized "Old Gabe's" property and fort. Ferguson's posse destroyed Bridger's stock of rum "by doses." Wild Bill Hickman, who called himself "Brigham's Destroying Angel," recalled that the men "worked so hard day and night that they were exhausted--not being able to stand up."
The young Army veteran was commissioned as Lt. Ferguson at the creation of Utah's territorial militia, the Nauvoo Legion. With Lot Smith and other stalwarts, he rode in the decisive cavalry charge at the Legion's first major Indian battle at Fort Utah (present-day Provo). According to Mormon historian and apostle Orson Whitney, Ferguson commanded the Life Guards, hand-picked men who served as Brigham Young's personal bodyguard, "especially through the Indian country."
While sheriff, Ferguson read the law, later serving as territorial attorney general. He also became one of Great Salt Lake City's foremost actors, appearing in 1853 as Hamlet, and remained Utah's favorite leading man almost until his death.
On his mission to Britain in 1854 for the Mormon Church, Ferguson served as pastor of Ireland and on his return helped organize the handcart emigration of 1856. On reaching home, he was named adjutant general of the Nauvoo Legion. Perhaps craving action, he led a mob that dumped the law library of federal judge George P. Stiles into an outhouse and burned it, helping to ignite the Utah War that brought one-quarter of the U.S. Army to enforce federal authority in the "State of Deseret."
Although a prolific writer, practically none of Ferguson's literary work survives, including his graphic account of the Mormon Battalion. Late last year, however, Western Americana collector Tom Schleve of Camarillo, Calif., purchased a cache of papers once owned by Ferguson's second wife, Jane Robinson.
Schleve initially intended to buy only one letter, but when he arrived to make the purchase, the owner had arrayed a sizeable pile of old documents on a table.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Shelve says. "I got excited and bought the whole lot."
The collection of 46 letters and early Utah documents was reportedly discovered hidden in a dresser once owned by Ferguson's granddaughter, a minor Hollywood starlet.
The Ferguson papers include letters written from Nauvoo, Ft. Leavenworth and Echo Canyon during Utah's confrontation with the American army. They reveal a man totally devoted to his several wives and what he saw as his "duty as a man of God."
The letters also show that hostility toward federal authority in Utah is not a new phenomenon. "The Government seem determined to use us up, but God won't let them," Ferguson wrote in 1857. "We intend none of them shall enter the City, though to prevent it, we have to slay them." Early in 1858 Gen. Ferguson outlined an aggressive plan for a spring campaign in a report to Gov. Brigham Young.
After the Utah War, Ferguson returned to his law practice and acting career. He first had to fend off charges he had intimidated Judge Stiles after burning the judge's papers in 1856. The court compelled Brigham Young to testify, and historian Norman Furniss noted that he appeared with seven apostles "clustered around him, their pistols and knives ready for service" and the additional support of 300 well-armed spectators. Ultimately, a Mormon jury found Ferguson not guilty.
In 1859 James Ferguson and his law partners launched The Mountaineer, a newspaper created to counter the blasts of Utah's first non-Mormon periodical, The Valley Tan. (Decorum prevented the Deseret News, the LDS Church's official newspaper, from joining the fray.) The venture failed after two years due to a shortage of newsprint.
An increasingly debilitating drinking problem haunted this rising star. Wilford Woodruff wrote in 1859 that the general "came near dying drinking poisioned [sic] whiskey." By August 1863 the apostle found the brilliant and talented Ferguson "near his End with hard drinking." Following his funeral, fellow members of the Utah Territorial Bar expressed their sorrow that his "devotion to the inebriating cup brought him to a premature grave."
At his death, General James Ferguson was 35 years old.
Utah historian Will Bagley recently completed editing Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives with David L. Bigler and A Bright, Rising Star, a Life Sketch of James Ferguson.