The Circleville Massacre: A Tragic Event in Utah History

by THEADORA DAVIDSON

In history classes, as we go through school, we are told that history repeats itself. It’s for this reason that we take careful account of the past. It’s why media have covered many of our historical events, such as the sinking of the Titanic, World War II, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The media cover events like these so that they may become public knowledge, because if history repeats itself, as we’ve been warned, we would at least know what’s to come.

Occasionally, however, there are events throughout history that have escaped the media’s attention. That may be because an event happened in a remote location and the media just never heard of it, or the event may have been horrible, and the people involved made an effort to disguise what had happened. One such event is the Circleville Massacre. On April 22, 1866, the settlers of Circleville, Utah, slaughtered sixteen men, women, and children while the three youngest children were left alive and later adopted by the townspeople. (Gottfredson)

The Black Hawk War was being fought all around Circleville and its neighboring towns. When the settlers of Circleville heard of Indian uprisings not far from their home, they received instructions to be cautious of the nearby encampment of Paiute Indians. Bishop William Allred of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a message to the Indian encampment asking them to come to town and read the notice they had received. A handful of Indians went into town and it was decided that the encampment would give up their weapons, and live peacefully with the settlers for the duration of the war. When the militia went to escort the remaining Indians to town, one man tried to escape and was shot and killed.

This act spurred the militia to arrest the entire encampment and hold them as prisoners in town. The men were held in the town’s meetinghouse, and the women and children were placed in an empty cellar. The townspeople, needing advice on how to proceed, sent a message to Colonel W.H. Dame. A passage from the message reads, “As we did not like to take the responsibility of deciding the course to be taken with the Indians.” (Winkler 16-17) Colonel Dame received the letter, and General Snow, who was with him at the time, left strict instructions for the townspeople of Circleville “to see that those prisoners were treated kindly and such only retained in custody as were found hostile or affording aid to the enemy. (Winkler 17) Sadly, Circleville’s militia did not receive the message soon enough. The Indians had attempted to escape, causing the settlers to act in haste and kill the imprisoned Indians one by one.

Martha C. Knack, in the book, Boundaries Between: The Southern Paiutes, 1775-1995, writes that the Indian men were gunned down, while the women and children had their throats cut. (Knack 85) The few newspaper articles that were written on, or around, the time of this massacre give very little information on what truly happened. The given date of the incident also ranges from April 21 to April 23, 1866. There is a dispute over how many Indians were killed. While the Winkler article says that it is unknown for sure how many Indians were killed, the Gottfredson article says that sixteen men and women were killed while three children were allowed to live.

Because a lot of information is missing from the actual event, historians have had to piece together what happened through accounts given by family members of those children who lived, and from the few references found in journals and letters of those involved. The newspapers of the time didn’t publish all that had happened at Circleville. Many articles glossed over the incident even 100 years later. In the April 23, 1960, issue of The Deseret News, there was an article with the headline, “Paiute County Colonies Abandoned.” According to the article, “The Circleville settlers retaliated for this raid by wiping out an encampment of Paiutes near the town.”

An article in the Richfield Reaper gives a slightly better description. “A few days before the ‘minute men’ arrived, there were a number of Indians camped nearby who pretended to be friends of the settlers, but who were spies. They had killed one man [and] wounded another who had managed to escape. The people were so enraged at this that they made short work of the 9 renegades who committed the treacherous act.” (“The Relief of Circleville”)

The only accounts we have with information of this event comes from the letters written by the militia leaders, and the accounts given by those few children who survived because they were thought to be too young to remember what occurred. Newspaper articles at the time generally glossed over the event as if it wasn’t a tragic event. Although the townspeople of Circleville tried to cover up the incident initially, what had happened was leaked and became known by the surrounding areas and the press. Even though the incident was mentioned in the press, it did not get much attention. An example of this is in the May 10, 1866, edition of The Deseret News: “In a skirmish with the savages, near Circleville, in that region, several of them got killed, but no whites.”

“The next consideration,” a guard recalled, “was how to dispose of the squaws and papooses. Considering the exposed position we occupied and what had already been done it was considered necessary to dispatch everyone that could tell that tale. Three [of four] small children were saved and adopted by good families.” (Winkler 18) This quote recalls how the settlers felt about what they had done. When the church leaders had heard of this crime, they were disgusted; however, there was never any mention of charges being pressed against any of the settlers involved.

Theadora Davidson is a junior at The University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication.

Sources

“A Brief Resume of the History of Circleville,” Piute County News, June 20, 1947.

Phillip B. Gottfredson, “The Circleville Utah Massacre.” Blackhawk Productions.

Martha C. Knack. Boundaries Between: The Southern Paiutes, 1775-1995. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

LaVan Martineau. The Southern Paiutes: Legends, Lore, Language, and Lineage. Las Vegas: KC Publications, 1992.

“More About the Indians,” The Deseret News, May 10, 1866.

John Alton Peterson. Utah’s Black Hawk War. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 1998.

“Paiute County Colonies Abandoned in Fear of Marauders,” The Deseret News, April 23, 1960.

“The Relief of Circleville,” Richfield Reaper, July 10, 1909.

“The Sevier Region,” The Deseret News, June 9, 1891.

Albert Winkler. “The Circleville Massacre: a Brutal Incident in Utah’s Black Hawk War.” Utah Historical Quarterly (1987): 4-21.

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