We Utahns love our past and occasionally celebrate the colorful history in pageants. Unfortunately, we often are long on pageantry and short on history. Consider the Benson Gristmill Pageant, recently held in Tooele Valley at one of Utah's most historic buildings on its 150th birthday. Given Utah's wealth of talented performers, the singing, dancing and music were sure to be first rate. But the claim that the Brothers Lee, "four strapping carpenters," built the mill glosses over some interesting Western history.
There was a shortage of skilled labor in August 1850. So after Mormon Apostle Ezra Taft Benson advertised for men to build a milldam, he hired Lorenzo Custer, a non-Mormon bound for California, to do the job for $1,000. Benson later agreed to pay Custer and his partner, John Huntsman, an additional $200 each to raise the dam three feet higher. When Custer completed his work in the spring, Benson refused to pay him the final $500. Another emigrant named Treat charged that Benson had cheated him out of $400 in wages for his work on the mill.
The matter was unresolved in April 1851 when Indians ran off a few cattle in Tooele. The authorities raised a volunteer company of sixteen men (including Custer and five other "gentiles") to "go against the Indians." Under the command of the redoubtable Porter Rockwell, the posse tracked down ten Utes and immediately charged.
The Indians grabbed their arms "and assumed a defensive attitude." Rockwell parleyed with them and said he only wanted help tracking down the band that stole the cattle. The Indians "desisted from warlike operations." Rockwell took them prisoner and started back for the settlements. Oddly, he failed to disarm them. "No, damn them," he said, "we will make them pack their own guns."
Rockwell divided the prisoners into two groups and left Custer and three Mormons to guard five Utes, while Rockwell rode ahead. What happened next is confusing, but Rockwell said, "One of the Indians fired upon Mr. Custer, who fell from his horse, instantly dead."
"I shot the [Indian] that shot Custer [and] we then laid Custer on his horse," wrote W. R. Dickinson. "Brought him to town the [next] day buried Him and quit."
In June, emigrant J. J. Galvin swore out an affidavit at Fort Hall that the "brethren" owed the dead man $1,000. He charged that "Custer was murdered for his money and property." Rockwell and Lot Smith took the four remaining Ute prisoners to Skull Valley to track down the cattle thieves, who led the Mormons on a wild goose chase. Disgusted, Rockwell decided it was unwise to turn the four men loose "to commit more depredations and perhaps shed the blood of some useful citizen," so the prisoners were "sacrificed to the natural instincts of self-defense." Rockwell's posse murdered the Utes and buried them in the desert.
This violent tale had an odd literary twist. Nelson Slater, another emigrant who had spent an unhappy winter in Utah, collected the complaints of dozens of his outraged companions and 115 signatures calling on Congress to replace Utah's new territorial government with military rule. Slater's opus, Fruits of Mormonism, was the first book ever copyrighted in California.
Slater cataloged a long list of charges and advised emigrants "to avoid all business transactions hereafter" with Ezra Taft Benson. Benson was "almost as certain to cheat, swindle and rob the California emigrants," he claimed, "as the sun is to rise." Utah's real history may lack pageantry, but it is full of surprises.
The late historian Harold Schindler told Custer's story in Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder.