. Utah Black Hawk War: Who Was Peter Gottfredson?

My Great-grandfather Peter Gottfredson

by Phillip B Gottfredson


Peter Gottfredson, my great-grandfather, was a convert to the Mormon church and immigrated from Denmark. At the age of ten, while in route from Denmark onboard the John Boyd, he witnessed a brutal murder of a sailor.

When they reached Illinois his mother died. His father, Jens, took the family to Ohio and left Peter alone to take care of his siblings. The children lived in a dug-out shelter for more than a year, while his father found work at a foundry making coal stoves.

When his father remarried his new wife gave premature birth to a baby girl after over-exerting herself trying to cross the Platt River. The baby died shortly thereafter.

Peter then fell into the company of Johnston's Army while in route with his parents and family to Utah in 1858. A more detailed account of his experience is found in his Aitobiography

Peter describes listening to the soldiers talk about the Mormons. Peter gives his reason for being with Johnston's army, "I was 12years old, the biggest boy in the company. The soldiers let me ride a mule and help drive loose stock. When we reached Sweetwater the troops pushed on to Fort Bridger faster than the ox teams could travel. Father permitted me to go with them. They offered to board and take care of me ‘till our company got there. While there, I heard some of their stories about the Mormons—how they kept them at Fort Bridger the winter before and how Lot Smith, with a small company of Mormons, had burned a number of Government wagons and supplies back on the Big Sandy. One soldier said he would take me back to the States if I wished, and give me a home with him."

By the age of 14 he was spending much of his time in the Indian camps. He became further acquainted with the Timpanogos while a herd boy in the Thistle Valley area of southern Utah, an area he describes as being a place most frequented by the Timpanogos. Many times while tending sheep and cattle as a herdsman, Indians would come into his camp, hungry asking for food. Peter would share his meals with them and talk about their concerns.

Peter lived much of his life away from his family, although he had a close relationship with his brother, Hans. Hans also had close ties with the Timpanogos throughout his life, and both learned to speak their language.

Because of Peter’s association with the Timpanogos he witnessed the whites’ exploitation, which undoubtedly gave him cause to feel caught between the two cultures. And it follows that he would have witnessed the Timpanogos’ agony as they struggled to keep their land and freedom, as they perished from hunger, disease and hopelessness. He continued to maintain a close alliance with the Timpanogos well into his adulthood. In time he became acquainted with several leaders, including Black Hawk. Peter would have been 13 years younger than Black Hawk. Having spent several years living among them he had an intimate understanding of the Timpanogos’ culture. He  learned of their sacred ways, and the everyday skills required to live in the natural environment.

Peter became a journalist for the Richfield Advocate chronicling the Sanpete War, which later became known as the Black Hawk War. In his later years he served as a bishop for 20 years in Glenwood, Utah, until resigning.

Family recollection and records of Peter give strong indication that he was religious, but not fanatical or dogmatic in his beliefs. His friends spoke highly of him as an honorable man, one who was always found among the most common of people. He had strong work ethics, and always helped others. He was described as open-minded and open-hearted.

His true legacy, of course, is his book Indian Depredations in Utah. He was deeply troubled by the maltreatment of his Native friends but, being a journalist and considering the political environment he was in, being friends with the 'enemy' was not an envious position to be in. Peter's book is "bitterly racist," as historian Will Bagley describes it, "being a product of the time." The book is a collection of firsthand accounts that Peter gathered and compiled.

But it is obvious he was not racist. Little of the book is in Peter's own words, for it was his intent to accurately portray the mindset of the Mormon people and the conditions that prompted the decisions they made, and what better way than to get them to write their stories in their own words?  This is why the book is racist in content. He was troubled by his growing awareness that no one was keeping records of the war days. He stated, "I have often queried; why should those conditions be forgotten, and why has so little interest been taken in keeping memorandas and records of events and conditions of those early and trying times?"

The book was published primarily for the Indian War Veterans, an organization that had been formed July 4, 1893 by the veterans of the Black Hawk War. His concern that the accounts should be obtained "now or never" is a clear indication that he had a keen awareness that the war was being ignored by historians, and already being covered up.

This had importance to him because he had respect for the Timpanogos. His motivation was noted by his lifelong friend, Taylor Thurber, who commented in his eulogy at Peter's funeral in 1936, "And so I speak of Peter Gottfredson with what he has done. He has spent 20 years of his life, the best years of his life, in compiling an authentic history of the Indian Depredations in the State of Utah. It is a book that will go down through the ages because of the close contacts he has made. Just think of man without an education to undertake and write a book! It must have been a tremendous impulse behind this man. He had no wealth, he was one of the last of the pioneers. It was a gigantic task, and there must have been a will to do a thing of that sort. And there is no more pleasant record—it is one that his sons and daughters would be pleased to read and dwell upon."

Peter's close ties with the Native people, whom he spoke fondly of, afforded him a unique perspective from both sides. My father, who lived with Peter and knew him well said he agonized painfully as he witnessed the lives of his Native friends being destroyed. But Peter is careful, even fearful, of clearly stating his own opposition to the injustices. Church members were warned that they should never question their leaders, even if they are wrong. Because of this, I believe that Peter took a neutral position as much as he could. The stories he collected are not, in total, reflective of his personal views, but of those he observes. It can be said he selected the accounts of those whom he felt best reflected the dominant mindset of the time. But he said, "It has not been my purpose to single out any one particular hero ahead of all others."

Peter lived in a mercurial environment wrought with paradoxes and ambiguities; a volatile atmosphere charged with lust, greed, fanaticism, nefarious beliefs and dire circumstances. For Peter, “the innocence of youth” was a luxury he could ill afford, caught up, as he was, in the currents of colonization and Euro-expansionism, he writes; "We can look back and see where we could have done better, but would we? Environments have much to do with shaping our natures character and destiny. Had we, at a certain stage in life, taken a different course, it is impossible to know where it would ultimately have led. So I say, it is no use to harbor regrets, but necessary to make the best of the future."

To the honor of Peter Gottfredson, authors, historians, researchers, journalists, scholars and academics have cited his work in countless publications for decades, underscoring the importance of his time-honored account. Most recent is John Alton Peterson's book,  Utah's Black Hawk War wherein Gottfredson's account is cited numerous times. The Salt Lake Tribune noted in 2002, "...the book [Indian Depredations in Utah] reports any number of white depredations that would otherwise be unknown, and, like the Iliad, the losers are often more courageous and noble than the victors."

University of Utah has reprinted Peter's book under the title "History of Indian Depredations in Utah" and I would say the book is more accurately a history of Mormon depredations.

Certainly Peter's motivation was not money, as he had only 100 copies of his work printed. Had he sold all of them, and existing sales receipts prove that he didn't, he would not have made even a year’s income at $4.00 a copy. He gave most of the books away as gifts.

Among some Mormons today Peter's book is not that well-received, because it reveals the moral ambiguities and hypocrisy of Brigham Young and members of the church toward the Timpanogos. But among historians, Peter's account is referred to as a "classic history." Certainly Peter lived out most of his life in a violent world, he lived to the ripe old age of 87. 

For more information on Peter Gottfredson read his autobiography.