Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Claiming the Water: Violence in the Desert


Dublin Core


Claiming the Water: Violence in the Desert


Who owns common sources of water? As Mormons began to spread south throughout Utah Territory in the 1850s, conflict over watering holes in the desert turned deadly.

In the arid Utah desert, one resource takes priority over all others: water. When a resource is so precious and scarce, efforts to control it can often lead to violence. As Mormon colonization moved south in the 1850s, sources of water were not guarded with fences or legal titles. But all of them were being used. Indigenous peoples managed watering holes, negotiating access among their various clans and nations. Water sources were so vital that destroying them – filling them with dirt or contaminating them – was literally an act of war. The United States Army, in its war with the Diné people during the 1860s, used this tactic to try to force them onto a reservation.

Mormon settlers had their own cultural practices for managing access to water, namely, to turn the resource into legal property. For example, in 1863 Mormon settler James Whitmore secured title to Pipe Spring, a perennial water source just south of Kanab on the Arizona Strip. Whitmore used the spring as the basis for a sheep ranch. This was traditional Paiute land that the Diné also used for water and hunting. But Whitmore’s title to the land around the spring meant that he alone determined who could access the water.

Through the 1860s, circumstances for the Diné grew increasingly dire. Those who escaped capture by the US Army laid low, while Mormon settlement encroached on the resources they needed to stay alive. It was in this context that a party of Diné raided the Pipe Spring ranch and stole sheep, killing Whitmore and another man in the process. The Mormons retaliated. A militia called the Nauvoo Legion found a group of Paiutes nearby with a fresh sheep carcass, likely a gift from the Diné raiding party. The Nauvoo Legion brought these innocent men back to the ranch, interrogated them, and executed them. 

After Whitmore’s death, the LDS Church assumed ownership of the property. By 1870, to deter future raids and secure their sole access to Pipe Spring, Mormons built a stone fort above the water source, called Winsor Castle. The fort still stands as a reminder of the desperate circumstances wrought by forcibly claiming ownership of a common resource.


By Nate Housley for Utah Humanities © 2022


Image: Winsor Castle, Pipe Spring, photographed in 1905. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began building this stone fort directly over Pipe Spring in 1870, permanently blocking access for the local Diné and Paiute people. Courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

See Gregory Smoak, “Dibé Ch’é’nil – ‘Where the Sheep Were Let Out’: An Oral Historical and Ethnohistorical Study of the Pipe Spring Raid and Navajo-Mormon Relations in the 1860s and 1870s”, National Park Service: 2019; National Park Service, “Conflict and Compromise on the Arizona Strip”, accessed August 4, 2022; New Mexico Historic Sites, “Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner Historic Site”; Robert W. Olsen, Jr., “Winsor Castle: Mormon Frontier Fort at Pipe Spring,” Utah Historical Quarterly 34 no 3 (1966).


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.