In American history books that mention American Indians there is often an observation that the “Indian Wars” ended in the late nineteenth century. However, armed conflicts against American Indians by local ad hoc militias and the U.S. Army continued through most of the twentieth century. These conflicts, when mentioned in history books at all, are characterized as “uprisings,” “demonstrations,” “riots,” and, sometimes, as “wars.” One of these occurred a hundred years ago in Utah and became known as Posey’s War.
Let’s start with some background. The policy of the American government regarding American Indians has been to confine them to reservations so that their traditional homelands could be given to non-Indians for farms, ranches, mines, towns, railroad rights-of-way, and so on. However, some Indians did not remove themselves from their homelands but continued to live off the reservation where they farmed, raised sheep and cattle, worked as laborers in nearby towns, and sold handicrafts to tourists. In southeastern Utah in 1923 there were many Utes and Paiutes (two distinct but culturally related groups) who were considered landless Indians because they were not on the reservation and could not obtain an official title to their homelands. It should be noted that at this time, most Indians were not American citizens and were, therefore, denied many of the rights of citizenship. Non-Indians, living on lands which had been stolen from Indians, often viewed Indians as thieves, beggars, and less than human.
In Utah in 1923, an incident known as “Posey’s War” began when two Ute boys robbed a sheep camp. The boys—Joe Bishop’s Little Boy and Sanop’s Boy—turned themselves in to the sheriff at Blanding. The boys were held under loose guard and had several opportunities to escape. Following a meal that included scalloped potatoes, Joe Bishop’s Little Boy became violently ill. The boys were then sent home with the promise that they would return for the trial. The next day, Joe Bishop’s Big Boy came into protest that his brother had been poisoned.
The boys appeared as promised for the trial. They were quickly found guilty and were to return in the afternoon for sentencing. As they were going out of the school where the trial was held, Joe Bishop’s Little Boy hit the sheriff with a stick. The sheriff pulled his pistol, but it failed to fire. Joe Bishop’s Little Boy then took the sheriff’s pistol, mounted a horse, and, as he was riding out of town, turned and fired the pistol, wounding the sheriff’s horse. Sanop’s Boy, in the meantime, rode off with Posey.
It was alleged that Ute leader Posey was behind the escape so local residents began a roundup of both Utes and Paiutes. Posey, a Paiute who was married to a Ute, had been outspoken against the abuse of Indians by the non-Indian settlers. He was also critical of the destruction of the grass and animals by the ranchers. In an article in the Utah Historical Quarterly, Robert McPherson reports:
“If anything was stolen, killed, or molested, Posey was seen as the culprit, whether he was or not.”
Fearing a general Indian uprising, the San Juan County sheriff deputized volunteers, authorizing them to “shoot everything that looks like an Indian.” In his book Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History, Thomas Alexander reports:
“The uprising did not last for long. Short of food and clothing and shivering in the harsh weather, Ute and Paiute women and children quickly surrendered to the posse.”
They were held in a make-shift concentration camp called a “bullpen.”
A running gun battle was held between the posse and Posey whose high-powered 30.06 rifle put the posse at a disadvantage. The posse was determined to kill Posey, not take him alive. As one person said:
“We all knew that Old Posey wasn’t going to be taken alive, and there was not one dissenting vote about what we must do.”
Joe Bishop’s Little Boy and Sanop’s Boy were spotted by the posse and Joe Bishop’s Little Boy was shot and killed. The Utes left strips of white cloth tied to the trees and branches and in their moccasin tracks indicating that they did not want to fight. The posse was unaware that Posey had been badly wounded. He escaped but died of his wounds a month later. Although his corpse was buried in a concealed, unmarked grave, the Americans found the grave, dug up Posey’s remains and had their photographs taken with the corpse. Robert McPherson writes:
“Even in death, Posey was disturbed by the white man.”
The Indians who were rounded up lost all their livestock and other property. They were held until Posey’s death was confirmed. In his book The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century, historian Richard Young (1997: 63) writes:
“Described by the Consolidated Ute superintendent as an ‘uprising,’ what actually occurred was a mass roundup by local Mormons of Utes living in the Blanding area, seventy-nine of whom were placed in a barbed-wired enclosure in Blanding.”
Robert McPherson summarizes Posey’s War this way:
“Talk of electrified fences and aircraft armed with machine guns and bombs, the use of prisoner stockades, and the dissemination of volatile propaganda in the yellow press, combined with tracking Indians in Model-T Fords, horse-mounted posses, and old-fashioned gunfights, made this outbreak dramatic if not unique.”
Following Posey’s War, the U.S. Government determined that the landless Ute should be allowed to have allotments from the public domain. Thus, the remnants of Posey’s band settled in Allen Canyon and Polk’s band in Montezuma Creek. Each family was given a 160-acre allotment.
More twentieth century American Indian histories
American Indians are generally relegated to the ghetto of the past—in most history books, both textbooks and popular literature, Indians have disappears from American history by the end of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, American Indians have continued to exist, Indian religions have continued to be repressed, and armed battles have continued to be fought. Here are a few of the twentieth century American Indian history stories:
Indians 101: Suppressing Indian religions in Montana, 1900-1934
Indians 101: The Grand Coulee Dam and the Colville Indians
Indians 101: Hopi Indians as tourist attractions in the early 20th century
Indians 101: California Indians Lose Their Home
Indians 101: American Indians and the Korean War
Indians 101: Boulder Dam and the Navajo Reservation
Indians 101: South Dakota versus Indians, 1961-1963
Indians 101: The Hoover Commission