"Wild Bill" Hickman and the Mormon Frontier

Table of Contents

1. The Call of Mormonism
2. To Follow the Prophet
3. The Rocky Road to Zion
4. Zion at Last
5. The Green River Ferries and Fort Bridger
6. Return to Green River
7. Fort Bridger and Margaret
8. Brigham's Mailman
9. The Utah War
10. The Dust Settles
11. The "Hickman Hounds" and the Shootout

Brigham's Mailman

Two events marked 1857 as a major turning point both in the history of the Utah territory and the life of Bill Hickman: the BYX Company and the Mormon War. Also, the "Mormon Reformation" was in full swing by 1857. This period of religious fervor began two years earlier during the "grasshopper year," when clouds of insects had swarmed from the Wasatch Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley, washing up four feet high around the Great Salt Lake. Then came months of drought and a severe winter, during which the church's herd of 2,000 cattle was reduced to 420. One-half of all cattle in the territory died from starvation or froze to death. People ate weeds to survive. "Fast Day" was instituted on the first Thursday of every month to help ration the food supply and to turn the Saints in their hardships towards God.

In the midst of these troubles, Brigham Young called Bill Hickman to be a mailman for his new Brigham Young Express Freight and Mail Company. Back in December 1845, Young had written from Nauvoo to William L. Marcy, United States secretary of war, requesting funds to build stockades and block houses between Illinois and the Rocky Mountains and to establish a mail route between the two areas.

Mail service was the only regular contact western settlements had with the outside world before the telegraph reached the intermountain area in 1861, and there was fierce competition for the mail contract awarded from Washington. The 1,200-mile mail route from Independence, Missouri, to Salt Lake City was known as the Central Route. This link was threatened during the 1850s by a succession of failures, as contractors with the government went bankrupt or tried to operate on a shoe-string and were forced to sell.

Mormons had their own mail-carriers from 1851 to 1853: Ephraim Hanks, Feramorz Little (a nephew of Brigham Young), and Charles F. Decker. One contemporary recalled, "They frequently swam rivers with mail bags on their heads, or formed floats of Indian-Rubber bed sacks . . . They sometimes carried 24 heavy bags of mail for the Great Salt Lake." The men met at Fort Laramie on the 15th of each month. From there they traveled 400 miles to Fort Bridger without a way-station until the Devil's Gate station was established.

Samuel H. Woodson held the first contract with the federal government between 1850 and 1854, for which he received $19,500 a year. Beginning 1 July 1854, a new contract for a monthly service was let to William M. F. Magraw and John E. Reeside for $36,000. Magraw was on good terms with U.S. president Zachary Taylor, which may explain why he was offered the contract in the first place. On 3 October 1856 he wrote to the president complaining about the Mormons. His observations helped produce the military orders for a "Utah Expedition." Garland Hart, a federal Indian agent stationed in Utah, had also written letters to President Taylor, and his letters probably contributed to President James Buchanan's decisions about Utah after he took office on 3 March 1857.

Before writing his inflammatory letter, Magraw had managed to establish six of the twelve proposed relay stations on the mail route: Big Blue River (Marysville, Kansas); Fort Kearney, Nebraska; Ash Hollow, below Fort Laramie (where the trail crossed to the North Platte); Fort Laramie, in what would later be eastern Wyoming territory; Independence Rock (on the lower Sweetwater); and Fort Bridger in the Utah territory. The same crew was to travel the full 1,200 miles with one light mule wagon for passengers and another for the mail bags.

Heavy snow and Indian problems in Wyoming blocked passenger and mail service to Salt Lake City in the winter of 1854-55. Still service on the Magraw-Hockaday line recommenced in August 1855. (Reeside had withdrawn from the mail contract in late 1854, and John Hockaday, a Salt Lake City lawyer interested in overland transportation systems, had stepped in to fill Reeside's absence.) Revenues were up, but by year's end Magraw decided he wanted out. When this news reached Young, he was quick to put in a bid for the new contract for 1855-56. Plans were made for new way stations and a regular service using Mormon riders.

On 19 October 1856, U.S. postmaster general James Campbell awarded the mail contract to Hiram Kimball, representing Brigham Young's newly formed BYX Company, for $23,000. The company name had been reduced to initials to conceal Young's involvement. Kimball and Young did not learn of their good fortune for some time because of a delay in the mail. This delay postponed the first BYX mail departure from the valley until 8 February 1857.

As the first departure date approached, Young asked Hickman and Orrin Porter Rockwell to be his chief mailmen. Rockwell was to carry the mail from Salt Lake City to Fort Bridger, and Hickman from Fort Bridger to Independence, Missouri. On 6 February, Young's office journal reported: "Instructed Hickman on how to carry the Mail."

Hickman did not want the job. In winter the trip would be horrendous—only two weeks earlier a rider had frozen to death in East Canyon. But Young persuaded Hickman it was his duty to go, and he reluctantly agreed to make the trip. He knew he would be gone almost four months at a time. In his book he laments that he arrived back in the valley in late June $1,000 poorer than when he departed. He was never paid for his part in the project.

On 5 February Young wrote to his nephew Feramorz Little expressing his confidence in Hickman and advising Little that Hickman was to determine the value of Magraw's animals, since the church was considering purchasing them. Young wrote to Apostle Orson Pratt in Europe: "The mail to the East will be carried out this time by Wm. A. Hickman and others, and . . . [we will later] add an express and carrying company, for freight, passengers, etc."

That Hickman completed this assignment is evident in a 1 March letter from Brigham Young to Orson Pratt: "On the 8th of last month we sent out the first mail eastward, in charge of 8 men, W. A. Hickman, conductor." John Bennion also noted: "February 8, 1857: Very cold day. Hickman started east with B.Y.X. mail."

Several things happened to make the trip memorable. First was the well publicized departure on 8 February from the south gate of Temple Square. Just minutes before his departure, hands were laid on Hickman's head and he was given a blessing by church patriarch, John Young:

You shall have wives and children and your posterity shall be exceedingly numerous upon the earth and your words shall be a law unto your family. You shall have power to govern and control yourself and all whom you are set to control and to govern . . . You shall have power over all your enemies, even to set your feet upon their necks, and no weapon that is formed against you shall prosper, in as much as your heart is set to keep the commandments . . . Thou shall be blest in flocks and herds, and in all that thou puttest thy hands to do. I bless you with health, strength, and life and say thy body shall be blest with health . . . to perform the duties, the arduous duties you shall have to perform.

You shall have wisdom, discretion, and understanding and knowledge to foresee evil, when danger approaches you the Angel of Life shall be with you to forewarn you of those things. If you are faithful you shall assist in avenging the blood of the prophets of God, and assist in accomplishing the great work of the last days . . . You shall be blest in all things and not a hair of your head shall fall to the ground by the enemy . . . [God] shall give you favor in the eyes of the people where you are going and you shall fill your mission with honor and return safe to the valleys of the mountains, to your family and friends. The Angel of mercy and life shall be upon your right hand in all times of trouble, danger and difficulty, and trial, and everything shall fall before you that might be used to prevent you from accomplishing the duties of life.

Young watched as Hickman and Rockwell departed on that cold day with their companions: Joshua Terry, John Black, Charles Woodard, Heber Woodard, George Boyd, and William Henefer. They were also accompanied by "Monty" Jack, a California gambler heading east who wanted to make it over the mountains.

Hickman's fears about the journey were not unfounded. He was forty-two years old, the father of thirteen children, one to be born a week after he left, and husband to nine wives. In August 1856 he had married Mary Lucretia Horr, age twenty-one, a sister to Hannah Diantha Horr, and in November 1856 Martha Diana Case, age thirty-three, a recently widowed school teacher with four children.

During this first mail trip, Hickman's horse plowed through snowdrifts up to its belly as he crossed the mountains between Utah and Wyoming. Hickman and his group took a month to reach Devil's Gate, one of the BYX Company way stations. Inside they found twenty men at the end of their rations, the snow so deep the men could not go east or west for supplies. The man in charge was a fellow Missourian, Dan Jones. He and his men had eaten scraps from their worn-out moccasins, spiced with a chunk of buffalo hide that previously had served as doormat. All that was left for a last stew was a pack saddle when Hickman arrived at the door with buffalo meat. He stayed a day then left two mules with the men. Although there was a food storage hut nearby, with supplies for the mail carriers, the men had been afraid to break in and eat. Hickman called them "foolish," opened the storage cabin, and all ate heartily.

Ten days later Hickman was at Fort Laramie, the half-way point to his destination. There the land was flat and dry and still covered with buffalo herds. One of his men tried to lasso a buffalo and was nearly killed, as they tumbled head over heels behind the buffalo until the rope broke. After a few days' rest, Hickman and the others started for Independence, reaching their destination two months and three days after having left Salt Lake City.

On 25 February 1857 the Deseret News had reported: "Eastern Mail: Nothing has been heard of the mail from the East since Mr. Gerrish left it a long time ago at the Platte Bridge. True to uniform, imbecile and reckless course the late contractor Magraw does not appear to care a farthing about completing his contract . . . As noticed at the time, Mr. Hickman started early in February with the first mail under the new contract. Mr. Groesbeck will start on March 2 and soon the route will be amply supplied with energetic men and plenty of animals."

Under the date of 13 April 1857, Young recorded the following in his journal:

Brother Mumford arrived from Ft. Supply—first news from beyond Green River since November to the end of February.

Mail with Hickman did not arrive at Ft. Supply until Mar. 6, [it required 26 days to go 90 miles, the snow was so deep]. Hickman left [Fort Supply], on the 8th of March. Orrin P. Rockwell past by Ft. Supply on March 27th. The delay of mail from Independence now solved. Bro. Hickman could hardly reach Independence in time to bring back April 1 mail, if he only left on March 8—so we can't expect mail until lst of June.

Hickman crossed the state of Missouri by floating down the Missouri River. From Boonesville he telegraphed Washington, D.C., that the mail was delivered, and then he headed northeast to Adair County to visit his parents, who had moved there in 1849. This was his first trip home in thirteen years. It would also be his last. Hickman's father lived until August 1888. His mother would pass away in December 1877. Both were buried on their farm. Hickman also found that his brother George W. had returned to Missouri from Utah. Bill persuaded him to come back to the Rockies. Later Bill would also visit his in-laws in Randolph County to the south and his brother Thomas in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Hickman's visits with his family were short because he was scheduled to start back soon with the territory mail. Apparently he arrived a few days late, and the largest load of mail was given to Ephraim Hanks, an old mail hand. Hanks arrived in the valley with eight sacks of mail on 23 June. On that day, Young's journal notes: "Eight sacks of mail arrived at 2:15 p.m. 23 days from Independence—with Ephraim K. Hanks, who left Independence on June 1."

Hickman would arrive in the valley the next day. He picked up the three days of accumulated mail and traveled to Laramie, where he and two of his men decided to race to the valley. They traveled the entire five hundred miles in six-and-a-half days, eighty-one miles per day on horseback. Young noted Hickman's arrival: "Elder William A. Hickman arrived from the frontiers."

On 10 June 1857 U.S. president James Buchanan had decided to cancel the BYX mail contract. Buchanan had read reports from federal officials mailed from the valley during the winter which, ironically, were probably carried east in Hickman's mail sacks on 8 February 1857. In addition, in the spring of 1857, several judges, including Drummond, arrived in Washington with further tales of mistreatment. Federal authorities became convinced Brigham Young's aim was to set up an independent state. The way to strike back was first to cancel the Mormons' mail contract. Young had spent $125,000 establishing the BYX Mail Co. but would never receive any payment from the government. For political reasons, Buchanan decided on a southern route for the the mail to California, and the Salt Lake contract was let to Stephan B. Miles of Delaware for $32,000.

In an editorial published on 7 October 1857, the Deseret News summed up these recent events: "Utah from its first settlement has been imposed upon by mail contractors. The Post Office took away the contract after the mail was carried speedily, regularly, and safely." Two months later, on 9 December, the following notice appeared in the paper:

All persons who furnished horses, mules, wagons, harnesses or other description of property to the B.Y.X. Co. are requested to appear, personally or by agent, at the Church cattle yard in Great Salt Lake City on Saturday the 19th when the animals and other private property in the possession of said Co. will be turned over to the several rightful claimants . . . that the late B.Y.X. Co. may be enabled to close the accounts.

The reason Hickman had hurried back to the valley was that he had heard government troops were preparing to come to Utah. According to Hickman, Young laughed at the warning. Young's own journal recorded simply, "Friday, June 26th, 1857: Spent the forenoon with Brother Hickman who arrived yesterday from the States." Hickman's warning came a month before July 24, the date traditionally assigned to the first report of approaching troops.

Hickman visited Young before he went home to see his family in Taylorsville. His visit home is confirmed by the births nine months later of Luke Johnson Hickman, born on 1 March 1858 to Sarah Elizabeth, and Margaret Rose Hickman, born on 13 March 1858 to Minerva.

By August, Young was taking the approaching army seriously. On 5 August, he proclaimed martial law in the territory, a first step toward war. Young asked Hickman to go to the Green River to check on developments there, and on August 23, Hickman wrote to Young, using the salutation "Scout":


Brother B. Young

I have this morning come to this place having been to the mail station on Sweetwater. On the knight of the 20th. I was at Sweetwater, seen Bro. Markham about midnight—Stewart's [identity not known] train was there, one Co. [of] Mormons and a handcart Co. close by as per report of some person who had been a short distance back on the road—McGraws Co. who had been in the mountains was there also.

All of the companies and Markham also going to leave the morning of the 21. Their stock, Jews and Gentiles all mixed up. I see them driving in every direction—Magraws men going to Baker's ferry on Green River where the balance of their men and animals were at which place they were going to remain till Magraw comes—they were to be there in 5 days from that time going round up Sweetwater to take in some waggon's etc. I will leave here day after tomorrow.

As ever Wm. A. Hickman

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