In 1877, General Albert Sidney Johnston led US military forces into areas of the Utah territory in order to reassert federal control over the Utah territory. One of the occupied areas was Tooele County, an area already settled by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The new, looming military presence made the Mormon settlers uneasy.
New disputes over land rights accompanied the army to Tooele. Mormon settlers had lived in, and maintained a system of land ownership there for decades. With the arrival of Johnston’s army, this system was threatened by federal powers that designated the same land used by Mormons as government-owned land to be used by Johnston and his men. These conflicting claims to the same land set the scene for conflict.
On March 22, 1859, Mormon rancher Howard O. Spencer was approached by First Sergeant Ralph Pike, while working on a range owned by Mormon stock company, Spencer, Little & Company. Pike ordered Spencer off the “government’s range.” Spencer refused. Accounts diverge on whether or not Spencer then instigated violence by coming at Pike with a pitchfork, in anger over what he believed to be unjust treatment and seizure of land. Regardless of the instigator, the event culminated in Sergeant Pike smashing his musket down on Spencer’s head, fracturing his skull.
Spencer survived his wounds, and Pike was indicted for his assault on the Mormon rancher in August of 1859. Pike exited the courtroom on Main Street in Salt Lake City with members of his company on August 11th, and came face to face by a man believed to be Spencer. In short time, Pike was shot in the side by the man, reportedly exclaiming, “My God, I’m shot!”
Ralph Pike died a few days later, positive that Howard Spencer shot him. General Johnston reported the death to his soldiers, saying, “It is with much regret the commanding officer announces to the regiment the death of that excellent soldier, First Sergeant Ralph Pike, late last night, the victim of Mormon assassination, through revenge of the proper discharge of his duty.” Spencer was indicted for the murder, but faced no legal action or consequences beyond that. He later moved to Southern Utah, where he joined a volunteer battalion.
In 1888, agents of the federal government arrested Spencer for practicing polygamy. In addition to the charge of polygamy, he faced his murder charge from nearly 30 years prior.
Witnesses in his murder trial claimed they did not see Spencer at the scene of the murder. He was acquitted, to the chagrin of the federal judge overseeing the trial.
Spencer never had to face any legal retribution for his crime of revenge.