Echo Canyon Breastworks

Write-up by Christopher Rich

Placed by: Boy Scouts of America Troop 681 and 738.  Funded by Summit County Restaurant Tax and Summit County Historical Society. The aging wood was replaced with steel in 2015 by the Summit County Historical Society.

GPS Coordinates: 41.008377, -111.380923

Photo Credit: Christopher Rich

Historical Marker Text:

The Echo Canyon Breastworks were constructed during the autumn of 1857 under the direction of Daniel H. Wells, commander of the Mormon militia.  They were set atop high cliffs where they would provide the greatest advantage against possible attack by Johnston’s Army during the Utah War (1857-58).  This 2,500 man force was sent by President James Buchanan to silence what was perceived to be a rebellion by the Mormons.

The dry masonry wall, constructed of uncut stones stacked on random courses without mortar were 1 to 2 feet above ground and 4 to 12 feet in length.  These fortifications stretched some 12 miles along the [sic] section of Echo Canyon.  These breastworks were part of a larger defensive network that included plans to dam the creek to force the troops against the canyon wall where the breastworks are located, and large trenches across the canyon to impede the passage of horses and men.

More than 1,200 men worked together completing the breastworks on the cliffs in a matter of a few weeks.  However, the peaceful resolution of the Utah War in the early summer of 1858 rendered the fortifications unnecessary.

Extended Research:

The Utah War of 1857-58 was grounded in a dispute between Latter-day Saints and the federal government concerning the extent of local sovereignty.  Utah was organized as a territory as part of the Compromise of 1850.  While this permitted the citizens of Utah to elect a legislature, all executive and judicial officers were appointed by the President.  Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as governor and split the remaining offices between Mormons and Gentiles (a nineteenth century term used in Utah to designate non-Mormons).  Nevertheless, there was continual friction between the Saints and federal appointees. Points of contention included theocratic governance in Utah, alternative judicial structures, Indian affairs, and of course, the practice of polygamy.  In 1851, and again in 1857, a number of federal officers left their posts in Utah claiming that they could not adequately fulfill their duties, and that a military force would be necessary to enforce federal sovereignty in the Territory.[1]

Brigham Young

In March 1857, President James Buchanan was inaugurated as President.  From the beginning, his administration was plagued by growing sectional animosity over the extension of slavery, including the volatile situation in Kansas Territory.  Within weeks of taking office, his administration received a memorial from the Utah Legislature that indicated an unwillingness to submit to the authority of federal officials who did not conform with their expectations.  Soon afterward, Judge W.W. Drummond of the Utah Supreme Court published a letter of resignation that provided a highly inflammatory account of affairs in Utah and demanded military intervention.  The President did not take the trouble to independently investigate these allegations.  Instead, in May he decided to replace Brigham Young as governor and deploy a military expedition to Utah consisting of 2,500 soldiers.

James Buchanan

On July 24, 1857, Brigham Young was informed that a federal army was on its way to Utah.  However, he had received no word of explanation from the Buchanan Administration.  Young feared that the Utah Expedition presaged the reenactment of the Saints’ previous experiences in Missouri and Illinois where they had been dispossessed by a combination of mobs and state militia units.  He also had a bitter taste left in his mouth from a much smaller contingent of troops who had wintered in the Salt Lake Valley from 1854-55.[2]  As a result, Young and his associates prepared a strategy to slow the oncoming army and keep it outside population centers until snow blocked the mountain passes. At the same time, they prepared to defend the Territory from attack.

The breastworks at Echo Canyon were part of this larger strategy.  Echo Canyon was a narrow choke point through which the Utah Expedition had to pass in order to reach the populated areas of the Territory.  Other routes required the army to take a long march around natural barriers that would significantly slow its progress. Fortifying the canyon therefore served two major purposes.  The first was as a strong line of defense in case the army attempted a direct assault through the mountains.  But perhaps more important was the canyon’s value as a deterrent.

Echo Canyon Breastworks. Photo Credit: Kenneth Mays

It is unclear how effective the Mormon defenses might have been in the face of a determined attack.  One Latter-day Saint observer wrote to his wife in the fall of 1857 that the “position [at Echo Canyon] is such with its defenses as to defy any army that may ever seek to break through it.”[3]  Upon seeing the breastworks nine months later, Captain Albert Tracy of the Utah Expedition was less impressed.  Although he noted certain earthworks and walls that would be “difficult to carry,” he concluded that with the proper application of artillery, “the ‘corrals’ of rocks which they had erected by the shelves and gulches and along the ridges of the cliffs, would have been knocked about their ears, and rendered untenable in but a brief time and the way opened for our own light troops from the hills at rear.”[4] 

As a deterrent, however, Echo Canyon proved formidable.  Captain Stewart Van Vliet of the Quartermaster Corps preceded the main body of the Utah Expedition and met with Brigham Young in early September 1857.  Young outlined his defense strategy to Van Vliet who took the message back to the army, and eventually on to Washington.  Van Vliet passed through Echo Canyon both on his way to Great Salt Lake City, and on his way back.  At this time, the Mormons had not prepared significant defenses in the canyon.  Nevertheless, Van Vliet reported that there “is but one road running into the valley on the side which our troops are approaching, and for over fifty miles it passes through narrow canons [sic] and over rugged mountains, which a small force could hold against great odds.”[5]  This report unnerved the senior officer commanding the lead elements of the expedition, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Alexander, who turned away from the direct course into Utah, only to countermarch.  However, the delay was enough to permit a heavy snow fall that effectively cut-off the road to Great Salt Lake City for the winter.  With the Utah Expedition stuck at the burned-out remains of Fort Bridger, diplomacy was able to resolve the crisis.

For Further Reference:

Primary Sources

Tracy, Albert.  “The Utah War Journal of Capt. Albert Tracy, 1858-1860.”  In Utah Historical Quarterly 13, no. 1,2,3, 4 (January, April, July, October, 1945): 1-119.

Van Vliet, Stewart. “Van Vliet’s Report.” In Mormon Resistance: A Documentary Account of the Utah Expedition, 1857-1858, edited by Leroy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, 50-55. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005, 1958.

Watt, George D.  “Pvt. George D. Watt to Alice Watt, 14 October 1857.”  In At Sword’s Point, Part I: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858, edited by William P. MacKinnon, 361-63.  Norman, Oklahoma: The Arthur C. Clark Company, 2008.

Secondary Sources

Furniss, Norman.  The Mormon Conflict, 1850-1859.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

MacKinnon, William P., ed. At Sword’s Point, Part I: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858.  Norman, Oklahoma: The Arthur C. Clark Company, 2008.

McKinnon, William P. “Sex, Subalterns, and Steptoe: Army Behavior, Mormon Rage, and Utah War Anxieties,” Utah Historical Quarterly 76, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 227-246.

Rogers, Brent M. Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.


[1] Brent M. Rogers, Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

[2] William P. McKinnon, “Sex, Subalterns, and Steptoe: Army Behavior, Mormon Rage, and Utah War Anxieties,” Utah Historical Quarterly 76, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 227-246.

[3] George D. Watt, “Pvt. George D. Watt to Alice Watt, 14 October 1857,” in At Sword’s Point, Part I: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858, edited by William P. MacKinnon, 361-63 (Norman, Oklahoma: The Arthur C. Clark Company, 2008), 362.

[4] Tracy, Albert.  “The Utah War Journal of Capt. Albert Tracy, 1858-1860.”  In Utah Historical Quarterly 13, no. 1,2,3, 4 (January, April, July, October, 1945): 1-119, 20.

[5] Stewart Van Vliet, “Van Vliet’s Report,” in Mormon Resistance: A Documentary Account of the Utah Expedition, 1857-1858, edited by Leroy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, 50-55 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005, 1958), 53.

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