John Williams Gunnison (1812-1853) was an American explorer.
Gunnison was born in Goshen, New Hampshire in 1812.
He graduated from West Point in 1837, second in his class of fifty cadets.
His military career began in Florida, where he spent a year in the campaign against the Seminoles.
Due to his poor health he was reassigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers .
Initially he explored unknown areas of Florida, searching for provision routes. However, his health soon forced him out of Florida entirely.
From 1841-1849 Gunnison explored the area around the Great Lakes. He surveyed the border between Wisconsin and Michigan, the Western coast of Lake Michigan, and the coast of Lake Erie. On May 9, 1846 he was promoted to First Lieutenant.
In the Spring of 1849 Gunnison was assigned as second in command of the Howard Stansbury Expedition to explore and survey the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. That winter was particularly heavy and the expedition was unable to leave the valley. Gunnison took the opportunity to befriend some Mormons and study the Mormon Church.
When he finally returned to Washington, DC, he wrote a book titled The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition.
In 1851, when the officials that President Fillmore appointed to run the Utah Territory fled after disagreements with Brigham Young, Gunnison called for the Mormons to be allowed to govern themselves.
Gunnison returned to the Great Lakes from 1852-1853, mapping the Green Bay area.
He was promoted to Captain on March 3, 1853.
On May 3, 1853 he received orders to take charge of an expedition to survey a route for a Pacific railroad between the 38th and 39th parallels. His journey took him through the Tomichi Valley in Colorado, where the town of Gunnison is named in his honor. After crossing the Tomichi Valley, the survey team encountered the Black Canyon, carved by the Gunnison River which was also named in his honor. The team was forced to turn South to get around the canyon.
In Utah, Gunnison was warned that local bands of Pahvantes were looking for vengeance for the slaying of one of their chiefs. At Lake Sevier, Gunnison divided his party into two detachments. On October 26, 1853, Gunnison and the eleven men in his party were attacked by a band of Pahvantes. Gunnison and seven of his men were killed and their bodies mutilated.
The Gunnison Massacre resulted in controversy and added additional strain to the relationship between the Mormon government of Brigham Young and the Federal Government.
Places named after him:
References and Further Reading