In the mid-nineteenth century members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led by the prophet Brigham Young, settled in the Rocky Mountains. The saints shaped the history of the American West by building missionary outposts and forming proselytizing communities among Native Americans.
Thomas Sasson Smith led the Salmon River Mission to construct Fort Limhi, a settlement in eastern Idaho on the bank of the east fork of the Salmon River. It’s now called the Lemhi River after a misspelling of “Limhi,” a king in the Book of Mormon. Church members had a strong desire to teach the American Indians the gospel of Jesus Christ because they believed natives had ancestral ties with the Book of Mormon peoples.
Brigham Young called nearly 30 men to the Salmon River Mission in April, 1855, who left their homes and families in Utah Territory to journey north. When they arrived that summer, members of the Bannock, Shoshone, and other tribes greeted them, and some were baptized in the coming months.
In the spring of 1857, Brigham Young visited the fort on his farthest journey since arriving in Utah. Pleased by what he saw, he encouraged the missionaries to have their families join them at this outpost. During the summer, tensions between church members and the U.S. government grew, and President Buchanan sent 2,500 troops to install his new appointees for territorial leadership. When Brigham Young heard of the impending conflict, he declared martial law in Utah Territory and urged his followers to prepare for war. Winter weather halted the troops’ advance, giving the church time to plan. In the event of a need for the church community to relocate again, Young planned on taking his people north through modern-day Lemhi Pass, and on as far as Canada if necessary.
Meanwhile, the settlers at Fort Limhi faced difficulties of their own. News of the impending conflict spread rapidly among the native tribes, who became much less friendly and supportive, not knowing which force would triumph. Not understanding the complex relationships between tribes, the colonists got caught in the middle of tribal disputes over stolen horses. The arrival of more colonists meant taking more native land, building more forts and fences. What had started out as a harmonious relationship became increasingly less cooperative as more colonists arrived and competition for resources increased.
On February 25, 1858, Fort Limhi fell victim to a surprise attack by 250 Bannock and Shoshone warriors, led by Bannock Chief Le Grand Coquin and mountaineer John W. Powell, the alleged instigator. The saints’ former friends and converts killed two and wounded five before the remaining 69 colonists, including 30 women and children, retreated to the log fort for safety. The warriors proceeded to steal nearly all of the mission’s livestock: over 200 cattle and 30 horses and other animals, perhaps as a reimbursement for resources the colonists used.
Baldwin Watts and Ezra Barnard snuck out at night a few days later and began a desperate ride south for help. Local militia in the Lehi area heard the call to arms on March 9 and organized a rescue force. In spite of adverse conditions, the rescue company arrived at Fort Limhi early on March 21 to find everyone still alive. The missionaries packed up and abandoned one of the first white settlements in modern-day Idaho. With his plans for a safe route north frustrated, Brigham Young sought a truce with the U.S. Government, preventing what could have escalated into a larger conflict.