Circleville Massacre, A Tragic Incident in the Black Hawk War

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, September 1995

Dissatisfied with the treatment his people had received at the hands of government officials as well as from the ever-encroaching Mormon settlers, a minor Ute leader named Black Hawk gathered with members of other bands in 1863 to retaliate against their white enemies. The period of intensified raids that followed became known as the Black Hawk War (1865-68) and formed perhaps the worst Indian uprising in Utah history. Across central and southern Utah where the Utes concentrated their attacks, Mormon settlers responded by abandoning several towns and moving together in forts. They also formed local militia to defend against the raids. Throughout the war Indians and settlers alike committed atrocities. The worst incident of the war, however, occurred in 1866 at the Mormon meetinghouse in the small Piute County town of Circleville where white settlers annihilated a band of captive Paiute Indians, including helpless women and children.

From the outset of the war Indian raids often centered on stealing cattle, but settlers who interfered were sometimes slain in the process. On May 26, 1865, John Given, his wife, and son were all shot by attacking Utes, and the three Given girls, ages nine, five, and three, were also killed, each by tomahawk blows to the head. In October of that same year Black Hawk himself led a raid near Ephraim that left five settlers dead, including two women.

The settlers’ response to these attacks was equally brutal at times. For example, in July 1865 the Sanpete militia, under command of Maj. Warren S. Snow, surrounded an Indian camp near modern Burrville and in the ensuing battle killed over a dozen Indians, including women and children. In Ephraim one captive Indian woman reportedly tried to escape after striking a guard with a stick. The guard shot her and in the excitement that followed the rest of the women were also killed.

When trouble with the Indians began the infant town of Circleville on the west bank of the Sevier River had been settled less than a year. The colonizers were ill prepared to defend themselves, and when they came under direct attack on November 26, 1865, their loss was high. On that day a Ute war party rode into Circleville shouting and shooting and rounding up all the cattle. The frightened townspeople ran for the meetinghouse but only managed to organize a “little force” that proved no match for the expert Indians. In addition to the loss of cattle, several lives were also taken. James Froid attempted to save some cattle by driving them away, but the Indians caught and stripped him and then shot him full of bullets and arrows. Hans Christian Hansen was shot in the back, and two thirteen-year-old boys, Orson Barney and Ole Heilersen, also lay dead.

The following spring the Indian difficulties continued and surprisingly even grew to include some bands of Paiute Indians, traditional enemies of the Utes and much less hostile to whites. In late April 1866 two members of a Piede band of Paiutes shot and wounded a soldier stationed at Fort Sanford, 17 miles from Circleville. Another incident near the fort involving Piede Indians caused increased alarm. In response, the people at Circleville decided to arrest the local band of Piedes camped near their town in the hope of preventing a confrontation. Prior to this time Circleville residents had traded baked goods and other items with the Piedes and generally shared a friendly relationship with them. But news of the difficulties at Fort Sanford and rumors that strangers had been seen coming and going from the Piede camp created fear in Circleville that the local Indians might be spying for or aiding the hostile Utes.

Mormon Bishop William J. Allred of Circleville reacted to the increased anxiety in his town by requesting a meeting with the Piedes. Some came voluntarily and were interviewed by the bishop, who explained the situation and asked the Indians to surrender their guns. The Piedes reluctantly complied and were then placed under guard. Maj. James Allred, commander of the Circleville militia, then led his men to the Piede camp and quietly surrounded the remaining Indians. One Indian tried to escape and was shot, but the rest gave up their guns and were herded into the meetinghouse at Circleville where the men were tied up and placed under guard and the women and children were put in the cellar.

Major Allred then sent a message to his regimental commander requesting advice on what to do with the captives. Meanwhile, the Indians were questioned concerning their activities and gave conflicting reports, some of which included accounts–most likely lies or exaggerations–of aiding the hostile Indians. The Piedes were kept under continual guard while the Circleville militia awaited instructions from its leaders. The message instructing the Circleville soldiers to “see that those prisoners were treated kindly” was received too late. Undetected by the soldiers, the Piede men had managed to unloose the ropes that bound them; they waited until the evening when the guards changed and then sprang on their captors. In the struggle that followed all of the Piede Indians were shot and killed. Panicked by the bloody incident, the soldiers felt it necessary, as one resident put it, to “dispose of the squaws and papooses” to prevent them from telling of the massacre and inciting further violence. The women and children were brought from the cellar one at a time and killed. A. C. Anderson recalled seeing the throat slit of the first Indian brought up; in all, at least 16 Piedes were massacred that day. Three or four small children too young to talk were spared and adopted by local families.

Despite efforts to squash the story, news of the massacre soon spread throughout the territory. Remarkably, federal and territorial officials as well as militia leaders all failed to take action, and no one was prosecuted for the murders. As with most incidents during the Black Hawk War, the Circleville Massacre was viewed at the time with regret but was largely dismissed as yet another tragic example of frontier justice.

Sources: Albert Winkler, “The Circleville Massacre: A Brutal Incident in Utah’s Black Hawk War,” Utah Historical Quarterly  55 (1987); Carlton Culmsee, Utah’s Black Hawk War (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1973), 90-91.