Fort Pearce day; a ‘wind break’ and outpost defense against Indian raids that never happened

Composite image shows photos of Fort Pearce, courtesy of Washington County Historical Society and Lin Floyd, St. George News

FEATURE – Two well-known, well-restored and well-preserved relics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ efforts to fend off Indian raids in the late 1860s and early 1870s survive and thrive thanks to the auspices of large organizations with the means to keep their memories alive.

Once stopovers for weary 19th century travelers and their livestock, Pipe Spring and Cove Fort are now stopovers for modern-day tourists usually on their way to somewhere else.

They were once more remote than they feel now and can thank that remoteness for their preservation. Not close to major population centers, they weren’t dismantled to build something else after they became obsolete.

However, these two former LDS forts have an oft-forgotten cousin, which is not on the beaten path, not as well preserved and not as grandiose by a long shot.

It is Fort Pearce, located 12 miles southeast of St. George along the Warner Valley Road, less than 3,000 feet from the Arizona border. But even that moniker denotes it was something much larger than it really was.

It was really a guard post more than an actual fort. Even its original construction orders call it that.

Despite this, its construction was seen as imperative with the threat of Indian hostilities. Sadly, some of the particulars of its heyday are lost to history – but two meticulous investigators have pieced together a relatively complete story.

Necessity and construction

One of the best sources to find out about the history of Fort Pearce is an unpublished Historic Structure Condition Assessment prepared by Susan Kardas and Edward Larrabee for the Cedar District of the Bureau of Land Management in 2001. The two researchers have done the most of anyone to help understand its true story.

Fort Pearce ruins, Fort Pearce, Utah, March 2017 | Photo courtesy of Lin Floyd, St. George News

Fort Pearce was established in December 1866 to control a major trail along which Ute and Navajo raiders could gain access to the recently established settlements of the Cotton Mission in Washington County.

The outpost emerged during a period known as the Black Hawk War, which began in April 1865. It was not a war in the traditional sense but a time period of regular raids on Utah settlers’ livestock by Native Americans, partly due to anger over the starvation and disease the LDS settlers brought to the local tribes. Some of hostilities resulted in the killings of settlers themselves. Over the course of the “war” there were more than 100 Native Americans killed and at least 70 white settlers.

“Typically, raiders stole cattle, horses and other livestock from Mormon settlement herds, killing settlers incidentally if they were guarding the herd or interfering with the raid,” Kardas and Larrabee wrote. “The livestock were driven east and south into the interior of the present state of Utah and eventually sold or traded in the Four Corners area, or further south into New Mexico, where Mexican-American settlements along the Rio Grande Valley provided the primary market.”

The two authors surmise that the killings of James Whitmore, the original proprietor of Pipe Spring, and his friend, Robert McIntyre, in January 1866, as well as the murders of Joseph and Robert Berry and Robert’s wife, Isabella, as they returned to Long Valley from Grafton in April 1866, were fresh on Southern Utah settlers’ minds and led to the establishment of Fort Pearce as well as other forts throughout the Utah territory that year.

Erastus Snow, an LDS apostle who was integral in settling the southwest corner of the state, issued the official order to build the fort in a letter to Daniel D. McArthur and Anson P. Winsor, colonels in the Nauvoo Legion, on Nov. 29, 1866.

The order stipulated that four to six men “with good horses and thoroughly armed” would be at the guard post at all times and “relieved from time to time as may deemed best.”

“Stone quarters will be built for men and horses, with port holes … in a manner that it cannot be fired from the outside,” Snow’s letter reads, “so that one or two men, well armed, may defend themselves against any number of Indians.”

The south face of Fort Pearce, Utah, April 2008 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

Furthermore, Snow said the guards of the post should be “discreet, efficient men, selected with care, and together from their horses and supplies should be drawn from the different settlements.”

In the case of an Indian attack, the plan was for one man to ride to the nearest settlement with warning of a raid while the rest tried to fend Indians off or at least delay them.

There is reference in this correspondence to a ‘house’ with fire-proof roofing, which “implies that the stone outpost walls were expected to enclose an open area as a stable for horses, and a separate roofed house for men,” Kardas and Larrabee wrote.

Snow charged Captain John D.L. Pearce with executing the order and “with the general disposition of the brigade for the defense of the frontier during my absence.” Pearce became the namesake of the post, the nearby spring and the adjacent wash. However, by the late 19th century, the spelling of the wash and spring appearing on maps had changed to “Pierce.”

Some of the most reliable information about the fort comes from the diary of Charles L. Walker, of nearby Washington City, who on Dec. 4, 1866 stated: “To day the Boys start across the Virgen (sic) to build a guard post some 16 miles from here south.”

Not much is known about who built the outpost and how long it took. The two authors note that Albert Miller, in his history of the area titled “The Immortal Pioneers: Founders of the City of St. George, Utah” published in 1946 states that Frederick Foremaster had a hand in building the fort.

During the same time period the fort was being built, Walker’s diary notes that a Native American raid took place in the area of Pine Valley or Diamond Valley and that a group of men pursued them to the vicinity of Pipe Spring and recovered all the livestock except for two animals. In January 1867, Walker wrote of an exploring and scouting mission undertaken by Captain Pearce and Captain James Andrus, who reportedly thwarted a raid on a stock herd seven miles south of St. George near Fort Pearce.

The outpost’s location was on the major trail running from St. George and Washington City to Pipe Spring and farther down to the Colorado River crossings.

The location proved an advantageous one, as the siting from the guard post’s gun ports to the opposite bank of the wash is approximately 300 feet, providing a field of fire with effective control of the wash and the trail that ran it for a distance of several hundred yards, Kardas and Larrabee wrote.

“The small outpost was built of dry-laid and mud-mortar local sandstone from the nearby east slope of Warner Ridge,” the two authors noted.

A diagram of Fort Pearce’s floor plan on an interpretive sign near it, Fort Pearce, Utah, March 2017 | Photo courtesy of Lin Floyd, St. George News

The fort measured approximately 42 feet long north to south and 22 feet wide east to west with walls typically 16-18 inches thick. According to Kardas and Larrabee’s research, the original height of the outpost’s walls were approximately seven or eight feet in order to give protection to horses. Small protruding rectangular abutments were added on the northwest and southeast corners as flanking walls.

True to its perceived role of defending from Indian attacks, 10-14 gun ports were constructed into its walls.

“Typically, the gun ports were from two to four inches wide on the exterior wall, and flared to 16 or 18 inches on the interior of the 16 to 18 inch thick walls, allowing a defender to swing his weapon in an arc of 40 to 50 degrees.”

The fort was rudimentary compared to its more famous contemporaries.

Kardas and Larrabee and other authors who have written about the fort write that evidence suggests the fort did not have a roof, unlike Cove Fort and Pipe Spring, which included living quarters surrounded by an open courtyard.

“Since there was no roof on the structure, about the most charitable thing one might say of the fort is that it served well as a wind break,” Andrew Karl Larson wrote in his book about the history of Washington City, “The Red Hills of November.”

In late 1869, even as Ute Chief Black Hawk was making the rounds on a “peace mission” throughout the Utah territory, Southern Utah settlers were busy at Fort Pearce building a corral for protection against feared Navajo raids.

The next time Walker’s diary mentions anything about the outpost is in December 1869 when he and a detachment of 20 men worked at “quarrying and lifting rocks.” They worked for approximately three and a half days to construct a stock corral of rock walls approximately 5 feet high and 2 ½ feet wide at their base.

Walker noted that they were “as busy as a lot of beavers building the wall” but that the weather conditions were not favorable, with constant wind.

“I think I have not felt so cold since I came down to this country,” he wrote of the experience. “At night we made a fire in the Fort guard House and were tolerably comfortable considering it still blew pearcing (sic) cold.”

Approximate dimensions of the corral are not listed, but apparently it was too small, because on Jan. 12, 1870, Walker wrote that he was “called by the Bishop to go out to Fort Pearce with about 40 men to enlarge the corral.”

Larson wrote that the corral was just south of the fort and that from the remains still visible at the time he wrote his volume in the late 1950s, “the enclosure seems to have crossed the creek floor and to have included ground on both sides of the wash.”

A visitor hikes the short trail up to the ruins of Fort Pearce, Utah, March 2017 | Photo courtesy of Lin Floyd, St. George News

The corral measured approximately 220 by 150 feet, equal to about three-fourths of an acre. Floods over the years washed away most of the stones of those corral walls.

A stopping place and holding pen for travelers with livestock was the fort’s primary purpose over its short life span. The Black Hawk War essentially ended in 1872, and the threat of cattle raids in Southern Utah ended, meaning that the guard post was no longer needed. The guard post was intermittently manned from 1866 until 1873 but never used for its perceived primary purpose of defending settlers from Indian raids.

Although the direct purpose in building the fort was to keep Navajos from raiding settlements, its corral proved to be its most useful asset, in keeping livestock from destroying valuable crops,” the the National Historic Register Form concluded.

“Also during this period the farmers fields were not fenced and the fort, with its large corral, was used to hold cattle to keep them from destroying the crops in the fields,” the form states. “This holding of cattle at Fort Pearce was a common practice and continued long after the Indian unrest ceased.”

The fort was also later used as a stopover along the “Honeymoon Trail,” the route along which couples traveled from the Arizona LDS settlements to be married in the St. George Temple after it was finished in 1877.

The fort since its heyday

Some of Fort Pearce’s walls have crumbled since its use as a guard post approximately a century and a half ago. A 1957 photo of the fort, for instance, shows most of the east wall as a pile of rubble, with a stub of about 5-8 feet long at the northeast corner.

This historic photo shows cars parked near Fort Pearce, Utah, circa 1957 | Photo courtesy Southern Utah University Special Collections, Arthur Hafen Collection, St. George News

Even though it had a short lifespan, the fort’s ruins were deemed historically significant enough to be put on the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 20, 1975.

In 1976, the BLM contracted with a company out of Mancos, Colorado, to stabilize the fort and “to arrest further deterioration and insure long-lasting protection,” the contract stated, as quoted by Kardas and Larrabee.

Just like the lack of documentation on the history of the fort itself, documentation of this stabilization effort is lost to history. But apparently, that 1976 effort was not the first restoration effort at the old post, according to the two authors’ research. Between 1967-1970, the east wall had been rebuilt.

However, the two authors noted at the reconstruction was done with “random rubble” and is not historically accurate and that the walls that have been rebuilt are the most vulnerable.

“The remaining original fabric of the historic period is still fairly secure,” they wrote.

They concluded that between 20-30 percent of Fort Pearce has been reconstructed, but a casualty of that reconstruction is that all but five of the gun ports have been lost.

A complete restoration is, of course, unlikely, but the two investigators said that as long as there is no vandalism or a catastrophic earthquake, the structure should stand for decades, endure gradual loss and collapse of weakened walls.

Unfortunately, there has been vandalism at the fort in the past.

“We constructed the parking area in 2003 and did have interpretive panels on the empty metal bases next to the walkway to the fort,” said Dawna Ferris-Rowley, National Conservation Area Manager for the St. George BLM Field Office. “The panels were recently stolen, but we will replace them again and hope that they do not get ripped off again, at least for a while.”

Visiting Fort Pearce

A boulder full of petroglyphs near Fort Pearce, Utah, March 2017 | Photo courtesy of Lin Floyd, St. George News

There are two access points to Fort Pearce. The easiest is by taking the Warner Valley Road exit on the Southern Parkway and head east along the dirt road until signs marking the historic site are visible. The other access point is from Hurricane, following 1100 West past the airport and the Sky Ranch development to a dirt road that leads to both the Warner Valley Dinosaur Tracks and Fort Pearce, with excellent signage along the way as a guide. Each of the dirt roads are graded and passable in any type of car when the weather is dry.

While at the fort, visitors can walk along a short trail that leads down into the wash and past the old corral. Farther down the trail are petroglyphs on a large boulder slab as well as a few pioneer names written in axle grease up on the canyon walls.

For more information about Fort Pearce, visit the BLM web page about it.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah, inviting readers to explore these aspects of the region on a day trip.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

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