Corpses Strewn: The Aiken Party Massacre

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

“Six ‘gentlemen of good address,’ known as the Aiken party, rode into Salt Lake Valley from California in October 1857 and were never seen or heard from again by family members or friends.” So begins the late David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.” It’s an affair with little purchase on the American recollection, buried in the omerta passed over the violent birth of Mormonism, once that faith attained its political accommodation come the late 19th century.

Early Mormonism traded stripe for stripe with neighbors who hated the movement to the extent of an extermination order and the lynching of founding prophet Joseph Smith.

Under the leadership of Smith’s successor Brigham Young, the community relocated en masse to the arid westward frontier between the Rocky Mountains and California — the Utah Territory, spanning the eventual states of both Utah and Nevada.*

But the heretical and polygamous frontier theocracy at first stood in the same fraught relationship with the expanding Republic that it had once had with Protestant neighbors in Missouri and Illinois. Mormons answered to Governor Young as both the civil and ecclesiastical power, ignoring or overruling federal authorities to the extent that enemies slated the sect with rebellion.

“He has been so much in the habit of exercising his will which is supreme here, that no one will dare oppose anything he may say or do,” an Indian Affairs agent reported to Washington of Gov. Young. “His orders are obeyed without regard to their consequences and whatever is in the interest of the Mormons is done whether it is according to the interest of the government or not.”

In 1857 the new U.S. President James Buchanan appointed a new man to replace Brigham Young as Utah’s governor — and sent an armed expedition to enforce the federal writ. Young raged against this move, charging that “their entrance is designed by our Government to be the prelude to the introduction of abominations and death … if they can send a force against this people, we have every constitutional and legal right to send them to hell, and we calculate to send them there.”

Young declared martial law, closed trails through the territory, and braced to “repel any and all such invasion.”** This standoff commenced the 1857-1858 Utah War, which never quite came to open shooting between Mormon militias and the U.S. Army. But among Mormons who could remember civil strife with Americans all too well — “fear turned in their minds” as an interviewee has said on this very site, speaking on that occasion of the most notorious hecatomb of those years, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Although downplayed in church-supported histories, Mormon guns did ample violence to other civilians of unreliable loyalties in those months.

It is thus that we come to our six gentlemen of good address, the Aiken or Aikin Party — victims of an atrocity not so well-known as those of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but no less appalling.

Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard/Achard, Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones, and John Chapman had set out from California to cross those closed trails aiming to meet the approaching federal forces, carrying several thousand dollars in gold and letters endorsing them to the federal commanders; they were joined en route by Horace “Buck” Bucklin. Nobody quite knows the party’s intent for this rendezvous; several were merchants who had done a brisk trade with miners during the gold rush and they might have hoped to set up a profitable gambling or whoring operation that would soak up the soldiers’ wages.† To their captors, they explained their presence by saying only that they “wanted to see the country.” Whatever they were truly, Mormons saw them for enemy agents.

What befell them is quite borderline in terms of this here site‘s executions portfolio, but utterly blood-chilling. Though effected as brute assassinations in the field, those killed were overt prisoners of the territorial government whose fates had been deliberated and decreed by their captors. Bigler’s journal article summation of the evidence is our chief source in this; he draws heavily from unsuccessful 1877-1878 legal measures against the men’s surviving murderers.

Falling in with a Mormon wagon train for safety against Indian attacks, the Aiken party instead found itself disarmed and given to the custody of the Mormon militia at Box Elder (present-day Brigham City), then brought under guard to the territorial capital of Salt Lake City. Governor Young was fully aware of these potential spies in his custody.

Horace Bucklin made a successful — for now — appeal to Gov. Young for mercy as an innocent bystander. The five Californians were escorted 25 miles onward to Lehi, where John Chapman was suffered to winter. One of his four companions allegedly took his leave of Chapman with the words, “Goodbye, John. If you come this way and see our bones bleaching on the plains, bury them.” It was a prescient fear: the deaths of all these four men, and apparently Bucklin and Chapman too, were even at this moment being orchestrated by orders from the top.

History has not preserved for us the command in the governor’s own hand. But as Bigler puts it on circumstantial evidence, “an authority at Great Salt Lake made a considered decision to allow two of the men to remain at large over the winter and kill the other four. Such an authority could only have been Brigham Young.”

Recommended background: episode 116 of the Year Of Polygamy podcast. The Aiken Party is briefly touched on from about 38:20 but the entire episode is worth a go.

* All this land and more the Mormon settlers once aspired to incorporate as a mighty sovereignty destined to become a state called Deseret. That name lives on today in a Salt Lake City newspaper.

** Young’s proclamation gives a sense of his own power within Utah and the umbrage it would inspire of the federal government. (It’s quoted here by a legislator who grouses, “Caesar, when he crossed the Rubicon, made no higher assumption than Brigham Young when he declared war.”)

Therefore, I, Brigham Young, Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah, in the name of the people of the United States in the Territory of Utah, forbid —

First. All armed forces of every description from coming into this Territory, under any pretense whatever.

Second. That all the forces in said Territory hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s notice to repel any and all such invasion.

Third. Martial law is hereby declared to exist in this Territory from and after the publication of this proclamation; and no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, or through, or from, this Territory, without a permit from the proper officer.

† The Aiken party did not have wagons full of merchandise, so any intended commercial operation they would have needed to realize on the spot.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Corpses Strewn

Tags: , , , ,

1857: Two members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

The first “executions” meted out by Mormon captors to the Aiken or Aikin Party men who were attempting to cross the war-footing territory eastward from California took place on November 25, 1857, and were as clumsy as they were brutal.

Under the pretext of escorting them out of the state, Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard, and Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones reached the small settlement of Salt Creek, Utah, on November 24. They had their least peaceful sleep there that night while their guides, acting on orders from the top of the state’s hierarchy, planned their murders.

Four toughs dispatched by Bishop Jacob Bigler slipped out of Nephi before dawn the next day. They’d ride on ahead, and later that evening “accidentally” meet the southbound Aiken men and their escorts, presenting themselves as a chance encounter on the trails to share a camp that night. These toughs plus the escorts gave the Mormons an 8-to-4 advantage on their prisoners, which was still only good enough to kill 2-of-4 when the time came:

David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.”

After supper, the newcomers sat around the fire singing. “Each assassin had selected his man. At a signal from [Porter] Rockwell, [the] four men drew a bar of iron each from his sleeve and struck his victim on the head. Collett did not stun his man and was getting worsted. Rockwell fired across the camp fire and wounded the man in the back. Two escaped and got back to Salt Creek.”

We don’t actually know which two died at the camp and which two made it back to Salt Creek. Bigler suspects Thomas Aiken and John Eichard were the victims to die on the 25th; the editors of Mormon assassin Bill Hickman‘s confessional autobiography make it Thomas Aiken and Honesty Jones.

The doomed men were stopping at T. B. Foote’s, and some persons in the family afterwards testified to having heard the council that condemned them. The selected murderers, at 11 p.m., started from the Tithing House and got ahead of the Aikins, who did not start till dayhght. The latter reached the Sevier River, when Rockwell informed them they could find no other camp that day; they halted, when the other party approached and asked to camp with them, for which permission was granted. The weary men removed their arms and heavy clothing, and were soon lost in sleep — that sleep which for two of them was to have no waking on earth. All seemed fit for their damnable purpose, and yet the murderers hesitated. As near as can be determined, they still feared that all could not be done with perfect secrecy, and determined to use no firearms. With this view the escort and the party from Nephi attacked the sleeping men with clubs and the kingbolts of the wagons. Two died without a struggle.

As for the two survivors … that’s a tale for another day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Businessmen,Espionage,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,USA,Utah,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , ,


Calendar

March 2019
M T W T F S S
« Feb    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!