In the 1820s Wakara was one of the Ute leader who established trade relations with intruding Euro-American fur traders--relations which proved profitable on all sides. After the 1829 opening of the Old Spanish Trail, Ute leaders regularly stopped the caravans and demanded tribute for crossing Ute lands. Wakara formed an alliance with mountain men Thomas "Pegleg" Smith and James Beckworth and began regularly raiding for horses from settlements at both ends of the trail, in New Mexico and California. By 1837 Wakara and his followers were getting wealthy through tribute and trade, and Wakara was becoming legendary, often reported in several places at the same time.
Wakara was also involved in the slave trade. Spaniards had made expeditions into Utah since the 1740s, trading cloth and metal objects for furs and people. Raiding more sedentary Great Basin Indian groups such as the Paiute, Wakara traded to Spaniards young men and women to work in the mines of northern Mexico and in the homes of Spanish colonists.
One observer described Wakara in 1843 as the "principal ruling chief...ow [ing] his position to great wealth. He is a good trader, trafficking with the whites and reselling goods to such as his nation are less skillful in striking a bargain." Wakara was becoming the leader of larger numbers of people as several bands coalesced with the invasion of the Europeans. This larger band came to be known as the Tumpanawach.
In 1847 Mormon entered Ute lands. At first Wakara accepted their arrival, even inviting them to settle. He was in hopes they would prove useful trading partners as had the fur traders, most of whom had abandoned the area. Wakara even agreed to be baptized in the Mormon Church (13 March 1850) and several times allayed fears and misunderstandings on both sides.
However, the Mormon population grew and the Indian population declined through disease and destruction of food resources. Mormon leaders moved to disrupt the Mexican trade in horses and people (a law against the Mexican slave trade was passed by the territorial legislature in 1853), thereby undermining Wakara's wealth and power. Wakara grew to distrust the white settlers as they encroached on Ute hunting lands and began resisting that encroachment.
In July 1853, while Wakara and his followers were camped on Spring Creek near Springville, a altercation over trade took place in which a Mormon settler killed a Ute and wounded two others. Wakara demanded the killer be brought before him. His request was refused. This incident precipitated the Walker (Wakara) War.
The war was mainly a series of raids led by Wakara on the Mormon settlements. Utes attacked Fort Payson; the Mormon Nauvoo Legion responded. During the next ten months fewer than twenty whites were killed; many more Utes died, including nine "shot down without one minute's notice," after they came into a Mormon camp looking for protection and bread.
The war, however, was futile. Brigham Young sent out word to "fort up," and to curtail the trading of arms and ammunition to the Utes. And not all Utes were united in the controversy. In March 1854 Young sent major E.A. Bedell, the federal Indian agent, to meet with Wakara and other Ute leaders. Bedell was to inquire if they would treat with Young for the sale of their land. During the meeting with Bedell, Wakara stated that "he would prefer not to sell if he could live peacefully with the white people which he was anxious to do."
In May, Young and several other Mormon Church leaders and their families went on a tour of southern Mormon settlements. Presents were sent to Wakara and arrangements made for him and other Ute leaders to meet Young and his party at Chicken Creek. The issue of Mormon occupation of Ute lands was not settled; however, Wakara agreed to peace. The treaty was never formalized by federal government action, but Wakara kept his word. He died of pneumonia on 28 January 1855. The story of his body being buried with his goods, including horses and young Indian slaves, has become the stuff of legend.