Harrison Pearce

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Harrison Pearce, his personal and family background, and his involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre

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Harrison Pearce


Biographical Sketch

Early Life in the American South

A native of rural Georgia, Harrison Pearce moved in succession to Alabama, Mississippi, the Iowa territory and then to frontier Utah. Like all the others, Pearce was an American frontiersman and pioneer in southern Utah.

Harrison Pearce was born in December 1818 in Jackson, Butts County in central Georgia. His earliest American forebears were from Virginia and South Carolina. In the early 1820s, his family moved to Perry County in west-central Alabama where his father died leaving his mother with six children. In 1836, at the age of 17, Pearce married 19-year-old Henrietta Cromeans (1815-1864) from Scott County, Tennessee. They crossed western Alabama and settled in Itawanda County in northeast Mississippi.

Late in 1845, Mormon missionaries proselytizing in Mississippi converted Pearce and his wife to the new faith. Early the following year they disposed of the holdings, pulled up stakes and set out for the main place of Mormon gathering in western Illinois. They arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois in late March to find that the Mormons were evacuating western Illinois because of escalating conflicts with old-time settlers in the surrounding area. After remaining in Nauvoo only briefly, the Pearces crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa Territory. From 1846 to 1849 the Pearces lived in several small settlements along the Des Moines and Fox rivers. By late 1849 they had moved to Mt. Pisgah in west central Iowa. They passed three years there where, among other things, Pearce taught school.

Immigration to Utah

By summer 1852, the Pearces had accumulated enough means to purchase and equip an outfit for the trek west. They joined the James C. Snow wagon train of 250 souls in 55 wagons, which departed in early July from Kanesville (present Council Bluffs), Iowa Territory. Their family consisted of Harrison, 34, Henrietta, 37, John David Lafayette, 15, James, 13, Amelia, 11, Nancy, 9, Thomas Jefferson, 7, Harrison, Jr., 3, and Henrietta, less than one month. Young Nancy succumbed after less than three weeks and they buried her along the trail. In early October they arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah Territory.

Soon they had moved south to settle in Payson at the southern end of Utah Valley. After their arrival the security of Payson and other Mormon settlements in Utah Valley was shattered in mid-1853 with the outbreak of the so-called Walker War. Chief Walkara led the Utes in raids against Mormon settlements in central Utah, especially in Utah Valley where Mormons had occupied traditional Ute lands around Utah Lake. This was a time of "forting up," militia musters, and skirmishes throughout Utah Valley. The fort at Payson was enlarged and its picket fence enclosure was replaced with a tall, thick adobe wall. Harrison Pearce's oldest son, John David Lafayette (J. D. L.) Pearce, was in the militia and involved in some skirmishes. Harrison probably played a role in some of these war preparations in Payson.

The Walker War concluded in 1854 with a peace treaty, resulting in some return to normalcy in Utah Valley. However, in 1855 widespread drought and insect infestations decimated crops making foodstuffs very scarce throughout the Territory. Yet there was occasional time for entertainment; Harrison Pearce was among the early performers in local theater productions in Payson.

To Washington and the Cotton Mission

The Cotton Mill in Washington County.

In spring 1857, many southerners throughout the territory were recruited to devote their energies to founding the Cotton Mission in southern Utah. The leaders of the new mission were Samuel J. Adair and Robert D. Covington. In March 1857, Adair led a group to settle near Adair Spring in what is now Washington City. A month later the Pearces were in the group led by Robert Covington which arrived at Adair Springs in early May 1857. They set about founding a colony and establishing cotton culture in Utah's "Dixie." Initially, they lived in their wagon boxes, dugouts, or other crude structures.

Washington appeared to have many advantages over other nearby locales. It was located near several fine springs and the Washington fields seemed to provide a lush expanse of farmland. However, appearances proved to be deceiving and soon "Dixie" was considered one of the most difficult areas to colonize. The broad fields were actually floodplains so if their dams washed out, as they did with discouraging frequency, their crops were jeopardized. Meanwhile the springs, so inviting in an arid, hot country, created marshes, the perfect habitat for mosquitos. Many of them suffered from bouts of malaria (the "fever and ague" or "chills") for many years.

Although it eventually proved commercially unsuccessful, the Cotton Mission did succeed in producing cotton goods for local use and export at an important stage in Utah Territory's economic development.

Pearce was one of the original founders of Washington. The previous year, Pearce married a second wife, Ann Meredith Mathews (1818-1889) of Glamorgan, Wales. She bore him three children but this marriage ended in divorce. Ann later married Samuel Pollock, the Irish emigrant who was also at the massacre and later testified in the first trial of John D. Lee in 1875.

In the Iron Military District, Captain Harrison Pearce, Company I, John D. Lee's 4th Battalion

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In 1857, the Iron Military District consisted of four battalions led by regimental commander Col. William H. Dame. This militia unit was reorganized that summer and many new officers were elected or appointed. This effort also created a militia unit in the new settlement of Washington. The platoons and companies in the first battalion drew on men in and around Parowan. (It had no involvement at Mountain Meadows.) Major Isaac Haight commanded the 2nd Battalion whose personnel in its many platoons and two companies came from Cedar City and outer-lying communities to the north such as Fort Johnson. Major John Higbee headed the 3rd Battalion whose many platoons and two companies were drawn from Cedar City and outer-lying communities to the southwest such as Fort Hamilton. Major John D. Lee of Fort Harmony headed the 4th Battalion whose platoons and companies drew on its militia personnel from Fort Harmony, the Southerners at the newly-founded settlement in Washington, the Indian interpreters at Fort Clara, and the new settlers at Pinto.

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In Washington, Harrison Pearce, 38, was appointed captain of Company I, one of two companies in John D. Lee’s 4th Battalion. This made Pearce the highest ranking militia officer in Washington or nearby Fort Clara. In early September 1857 when the passing Arkansas wagon train clashed with some Mormon officials in Cedar City, those in the new settlement of Washington were still living in primitive conditions and the men in the militia had no prior experience together. Probably on Sunday, September 6, Harrison Pearce was ordered to form an ad hoc detachment of Washington militiamen and muster to Mountain Meadows. See A Basic Account for a full description of the massacre.

On Monday, the 7th, Lee met Pearce, his son James Pearce, and others from the southern settlements of Washington and Fort Clara some miles south of the Meadows. On Tuesday, the 8th, they encamped at Mountain Meadows and awaited further orders. William Young implied that Pearce was among those at the massacre on Friday, the 11th. On the day of the massacre, Pearce's son James remained in the militia encampment due to illness, from where he heard the volley of guns during the massacre.

There is folklore that Harrison Pearce became angry at his son James, evidently for lacking fighting spirit, and fired at him, grazing his face. This cannot be corroborated. In the years following the massacre militiaman John Hawley recalled Harrison Pearce making inflammatory speeches against non-Mormons.

In the 1859 arrest warrant issued by Judge John Cradlebaugh, Pearce was listed as Harrison "Pierce." He is not known to have made any written statements about the massacre. However, his son James Pearce testified in John D. Lee's first trial in 1875.

Map of Washington County, Utah.

Later LIfe

Pearce remained in Washington County and in 1858 he helped found the settlement of Heberville. In 1859, he was appointed as postmaster and a county commissioner. He was also elected sheriff of Washington County. In the same year, he was among the early settlers at Tonoquint, southwest of present-day St. George, at the confluence of the Virgin River and Santa Clara Creek. However, Tonaquint was among the early settlements on the Virgin River plagued by frequent flooding and its settlers were forced to abandon it after especially heavy flooding in early 1862. Thereafter, Pearce settled in the new settlement of St. George.

In 1863, he married Swiss emigrant Magdalena Schneider (1838-1896), from the new Swiss colony in nearby Santa Clara. His first wife died the following year and Magdalena because stepmother to his children. She also bore him five additional children. In the mid-1860s, Pearce moved briefly to the northwestern corner of what is now known as the Arizona Strip to found a settlement at Beaver Dams, near the Virgin River and present-day Mesquite, Nevada. Then he returned to St. George.

In the Militia During the Black Hawk War, 1865-1868

Beginning in 1865, the Black Hawk War erupted throughout Utah and Harrison and his son James were among those involved in policing and punitive actions against marauding Indians in Washington County. His oldest son, J. D. L. Pearce, was a colonel in the militia and a noted Indian fighter during that conflict. The war extended to 1868 in most parts of Utah, except in southern Utah where Navajo raiders continued making incursions across the Colorado River to loot Mormon livestock. Finally, a series of peace treaties in the early 1870s brought the Navajo-Mormon War to a close.

In 1870, Pearce and others began farming operations south of St. George in Bloomington. Besides working as farmer and peace officer in St. George, Pearce also worked as a mechanic on the Temple and Tabernacle, taught school, directed the choir, and played clarinet in the local brass band.

Building and Operating a Ferryboat at Pearce's Ferry on the Colorado

Detail of the Colorado River System

Since the late 1850s, Mormons had been exploring the Colorado River for practical access points to cross over to the south of the river. Because of the labyrinthine canyon system that extended above and below the Grand Canyon there were only several places at which to cross the Colorado over a distance of several hundred miles. These were upstream of the Grand Canyon. However, In 1862 Mormon explorer and Indian interpreter Jacob Hamblin pioneered a new crossing at Grand Wash, south of St. George and downstream from the Grand Canyon.

In the 1870s, as Mormons sought to establish a wagon road into Arizona, there was renewed interest in the Grand Wash crossing. In 1876-77, Harrison Pearce, assisted by his son James, built a ferry boat and landing at Grand Wash. Pearce appears to have operated the ferry until the early 1880s. This is still known as Pearce's Ferry.

The ruins (foreground) at Pearce's Ferry on the Colorado River; photo taken 1923.

Final Years

Pearce remained in St. George where he died and was buried in 1889 at the age of 71. He was survived by five children, including James Pearce, who was an important colonizer in the Mormon settlements in eastern Arizona.


Alder and Brooks, A History of Washington County, 29, 50 fn. 11, App. A, 383; Bagley, Blood of the Prophets, 119-20, 128, 148, 150; Bagley and Bigler, eds., Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives, 110; Bradshaw, ed., Under Dixie Sun, 40, 235, 326; Cahoon, Washington City, Monument Plaza, May 7, 2004, 52-54 (biographical sketch); Compton, A Pioneer Life, 435-36, 449, 582 fn. 64; Dixon, Peteetneet Town, 7, 11, 98, ???????? 182; Hafen, Devoted Empire Builders: Pioneers of St. George, 101, 102; Larson, Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, Vol. I, 266; Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, 228, 380; Lee Trial transcripts; McClintock, Mormon Settlement in Arizona, 96, 132 (photo); FamilySearch.org; Novak, House of Mourning, 168; Palmer, History of Taylor and Shumway [Arizona], 36, 47, 66, 67; Rosenvall, "Defunct Mormon Settlements: 1830-1930," 62, in Jackson, ed., Mormon Role in Settlement of the West; Smith, "Mormon Exploration in the Lower Colorado River Area," 30 (map), in Jackson, ed., Mormon Role in Settlement of the West; Walker, et al, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Appendix C, 261.

For full bibliographic information see Bibliography.

External Links

For additional information on Harrison Pearce and family see:

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