“Old stories are like old friends; you have to visit them from time to time”
George R.R. Martin
The main character we have to thank for the Pony Express Trail taking the central route across the desert through Tooele County is Captain James H. Simpson of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers who was the chief engineer for Col. Sidney Albert Johnston’s Army of Utah.
Johnston’s Army, as it is often referred to, was sent west by President James Buchanan to confront the Mormons and keep an eye on them mainly for political reasons. Almost immediately upon arrival, Johnston issued orders for Simpson to conduct a reconnaissance of the desert west of Camp Floyd to determine if a suitable wagon road could be built from Camp Floyd to Genoa across the Great Basin near the foot of the Sierra Nevada.
The Mormon’s didn’t make it easy on Johnston’s Army as it approached Utah. Capt. Simpson was right in the thick of it.
Simpson was in charge of some of the Army’s supply trains. One evening out on the high Wyoming plains along the Oregon Trail, a party of Mormon guerrilla fighters led by Capt. Lot Smith of the Nauvoo Legion, descended on Simpson’s supply wagons. There were 76 wagons in Simpson’s Army supply train that were loaded with tons of supplies that were crucial for the Army to be able to survive the winter. The teamsters driving the wagons were terrified of the approaching Mormon Danites. Danites were Mormon avengers or “destroying angels” that were sent out to set things aright by Brigham Young when someone became obnoxious or difficult for the Church.
The teamsters had heard stories around campfires on the prairies while heading west from Kansas of the horrific fate that awaited someone marked to be dealt with by the Danites. So when confronted by Smith and his raiders, the teamsters surrendered wholesale, begging Smith for mercy.
Capt. Simpson learned that Lot Smith intended to burn the train, thereby leaving the Army without supplies with winter coming to the Wyoming plains. He cried out to Smith, “For God’s sake don’t burn the trains!”
To which Lot replied, “It is for God’s sake that I will burn them.”
It was a very cold winter for the US Army at Fort Bridger that year.
To say that it was rough going for Simpson and the rest of Johnston’s Army on the way to Salt Lake City and then establishing Camp Floyd 40 miles south of that place is an understatement. Simpson is remembered mainly for his in-depth reconnaissance of what would soon become the Pony Express and Overland Stage Trail.
Even though men like Howard Egan were intimately familiar with Simpson’s route, Simpson produced a detailed map and got his report of his findings along the trail published as the “Report of Explorations across the Great Basin Territory of Utah for a direct Wagon-Route from Camp Floyd to Genoa in Carson Valley” in 1859.
As is the case throughout history, those who publish their works are remembered and those who do not fade into obscurity.
Now, a bit more about Simpson.
Simpson graduated from West Point in 1832. He shortly thereafter served in the bloody 2nd Seminole War in Florida.
Simpson went on to become a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. He distinguished himself by overseeing dozens of complex and fascinating projects that helped pave the way for settlement and commerce all across the growing nation. He supervised harbor construction at Lake Erie, conducted surveys of the Great Lakes in Ohio and Michigan, oversaw construction of roads in Minnesota, and completed a coastal survey of Florida.
In 1849, Simpson mapped a wagon route from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico and then participated in the Navajo expedition where he is credited with discovering and mapping Chaco Canyon and Canyon De Chelly.
We should use the term “discovered” carefully because the Native Americans who lived in the four corners area for millennia certainly knew those ruins existed.
In the fall of 1858, Simpson was ordered by Johnston to explore the West Desert and try to find a new wagon route to Carson Valley.
Several interesting things to note on Simpson’s 1858 expedition are the fact that he and his group camped at Clover Spring at the foot of modern day Johnston’s Pass. The group then crossed the mountains at a place he named “Reynold’s Pass,” after Maj. John Fulton Reynolds who first explored the pass in 1854 while in Utah as part of Col. Steptoe’s command.
Several years later, Reynolds was shot off his horse on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg while reenforcing his old Camp Floyd buddy John Buford’s Corps. The name however did not last as this pass is known as “Johnson’s Pass” today and it is the principal route to a modern day Army installation called Dugway Proving Ground.
After leaving Reynold’s Pass —Johnson’s Pass — and entering Skull Valley, Simpson stated that the group followed an old wagon track across the sand and sage. He stated that this track was made in 1855 when Deputy Marshall Wall and a posse chased the notorious bandit Carlos Murry out onto the desert. Simpson’s guide on this expedition was a Mormon scout named George Washington Bean.
Bean kept a detailed journal of this endeavor. In it he stated that Simpson had a great disdain for the church and Brigham Young in particular. Bean stated that Simpson often spoke “hard words” against Brigham and one day out in Skull Valley Bean became fed up. He told Simpson that if he didn’t stop insulting the prophet, he would leave him and his whole crew out on the desert to fend for themselves. After some consideration, Simpson agreed to be civil and Bean continued as their escort.
It was on this trip that Simpson discovered the springs in Tooele County that now bear his name.
It is important to note however, that these springs were already well known by Howard Egan. Because of the lateness of the season, Simpson explored only as far as Shortcut Pass — known now as Dugway Pass in the Dugway Range.
Simpson and the members of his expedition stood in Dugway Pass in late October of 1858 as a light snow was blowing in the wind and determined it would be best to wait until spring to complete the expedition. Greatly disappointed, Simpson returned to Camp Floyd and began working on preparations for the completion of the reconnaissance, which was authorized for the next year.
In next week’s article, we will take a look at Simpson’s Expedition of 1859. In the meantime, for those of you who are intrigued by Simpson, a local historian, Mr. Jesse G. Peterson wrote a masterful book on Simpson and his explorations in our desert entitled “A route for the Overland Stage – James H. Simpson’s 1859 Trail across the Great Basin.” It is an incredibly detailed and well written book. I highly recommend it.