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POSEY WAR

By Robert S. McPherson
The roots of the Posey War ran deeply through the history of San Juan County. In the 1880s cattle companies, Mormon and Gentile settlers, and Navajo herders and hunters all began to place increasing demands on the natural resources traditionally claimed by the Weeminuche Utes and San Juan Band Paiutes. By the early 1900s, the hunting and gathering lifestyle of the Utes and Paiutes was totally impractical; therefore, as the natural food supply and grass diminished, the Indians went to the next best source to obtain sustenance--the settlers. Friction, threats, counterthreats, and depredations ensued, with violence breaking out in 1915 and 1921, at which times settlers killed or wounded small numbers of Utes and Paiutes.

By 1923, Posey, a Paiute who had married into the Ute band in Allen Canyon, had become the symbol of this mutual antagonism. Approximately sixty years old, Posey had been involved in the previous conflicts, acquiring a reputation for arrogance and thievery. He naturally came center focus when in March 1923 Sheriff William Oliver arrested two Utes, Joe Bishop's Little Boy and Sanup's Boy, for robbing a sheep camp, killing a calf, and burning a bridge.

The two men stood trial, but during the noon recess, they made a dramatic escape from Blanding with the sheriff in hot pursuit. Oliver failed to apprehend his charges, and so he returned to town and deputized a large body of men anxious to find a solution to the "Indian problem." The posse went to the Ute community of Westwater next to Blanding and rounded up forty men, women, and children, first placing them in the basement of the school and later in a one-hundred-foot-square barbed-wire stockade in the center of town. Others from the Ute community fled toward Navajo Mountain, a traditional sanctuary during times of trouble. Within a few days, however, the posse apprehended them, loaded them on cattle trucks, and placed them in the compound.

During this time, Posey and some of the Indian men fought a delaying action, exchanging shots with their pursuers. The Indians killed a horse, barely missed three passengers in a Model T, and created a media sensation that played in newspapers as far away as Chicago. Posey received wounds that eventually proved fatal, while Joe Bishop's Little Boy was killed instantly in another fracas. The settlers did not realize that they had mortally wounded their nemesis, and so for about a month they kept the Utes incarcerated until U.S. Marshal J. Ray Ward found Posey's body. Although he diagnosed the cause of death as blood poisoning from a gunshot wound, the Utes believed Posey died from poisoned Mormon flour. Before the settlers released the Indians from the stockade, government officials gave them individual allotments in Allen Canyon and sent many of the children to attend school at Towaoc, the Ute Mountain Ute Agency in Colorado. Thus ended the Posey War.

However, for the Indians it was not a war and never was intended to be such. A desperate flight through the canyons, a few shots fired as a delaying action, and a very rapid surrender do not justify elevating an exodus to a war. For the whites, however, it was an opportunity to release pent-up fear and frustration that had accumulated for over forty years. They mobilized quickly and combined frontier know-how with World War I warfare techniques. Talk of electrified fences and aircraft armed with machine guns and bombs, the use of a prisoner stockade, and the dissemination of volatile propaganda in the yellow press, combined with using automobiles to track Indians, horse-mounted posses, and old-fashioned gunfights made this event dramatic if not unique. Even today, Posey looms large as a symbol of an attitude and a time when vestiges of the old West were manifest in rural Utah.