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Posey’s War in Bears Ears: Telling the Truth a Century Later

Posey, shown in 1921, became a rebel and renegade as settlers’ cattle and sheep continued to encroach on traditional Ute and Paiute lands and hunting grounds. Posey died two years later from either a gunshot wound or flour purposely poisoned with strychnine. He is buried somewhere in Bears Ears National Monument. (Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society)

By the 1920s, most of the American West had been settled. There were Ford automobiles, telephones, mercantile stores and small town newspapers. But there was also injustice, racism and well-armed white posses. One of the last Native American confrontations occurred a century ago this month at Blanding, Utah.

It then spilled over into what is now Bears Ears National Monument. Called the Posey War, it left two Paiutes dead and Ute families imprisoned in a World War I-style, barbed wire stockade.

By spring 1923, 55-year-old William Posey had become an established renegade behind much livestock theft, but also a leader.

“His growing reputation, whether warranted or not, placed him in the spotlight, suggesting that he was behind a growing resistance,” historian Robert McPherson said.

Two young men stole and ate a calf. Dutchie’s Boy and Joe Bishop’s Boy admitted their theft to the older Ute named Polk, once a firebrand himself. Imprisoned in the Monticello (Utah) jail, they dug themselves out and went into hiding though their parents assured authorities the boys would follow the law.

Not quite 18, they were juveniles. At trial, the boys were acquitted within three hours, but then months later more thefts continued. Joe Bishop’s Boy and another youth, Sanap’s Boy, raided a sheep camp and took what they wanted.

“The new year, 1923, began without incident,” McPherson said. “But as with previous outbreaks of violence, small acts mushroomed into larger events. While history does not repeat itself, patterns of history do.”

The two men, now old enough to be adults, surrendered to stand trial in Blanding. Armed guards hovering around the young men disturbed the boys’ fathers. This time, the jury found the two young men guilty, but in the interval between the verdict and sentencing, their acquiescence turned to resistance.

Joe Bishop’s Little Boy hit Sheriff William Oliver with a stick. The sheriff tried to shoot the defendant only to have his pistol misfire twice. Moving fast, the assailant grabbed the sheriff’s gun, jumped on a horse, shot at the sheriff with his own pistol and wounded the sheriff’s horse, and fled town. In the melee, the other defendant, Sanap’s Boy, rode hard to the Ute community of Westwater south of Blanding with Posey.

In response and against legal precedents, locals armed themselves and started rounding up all Ute Indians, regardless of any or no role in the theft, trial, or escape. The father of one of the convicted young men, Joe Bishop, made clear that he would find his son and have him return for justice.

As Bishop rode away, local white resident Joe Black caught up with him and said, “You old son-of-a-(expletive). You turn around and go back or I’ll let your guts out right here.”

“The news soon spread through Blanding and every man dropped what he was doing and ran for his horse and his gun and rushed to volunteer,” John D. Rogers said.

Ute Indians were forced into a stockade in Blanding, Utah, during the so-called Posey War of 1923. Children who had to live behind the high barbed wire fence remembered the experience for the rest of their lives. The Indian agent is at the far left in shadow. (Verda Washburn Collection, courtesy of the San Juan County Historical Commission)

Vengeful whites forced 40 Utes into the schoolhouse basement until the locals constructed between the sandstone bank and the Redd Mercantile store a military stockade of 100-square-feet with barbed wire fences 10 feet high. Innocent Ute Indians became prisoners of war with no rights in a confrontation that local Native Americans had sought to avoid. Forced to stay there a month, young children had bitter memories of the stockade for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile Posey and others headed toward Bears Ears and safety along Comb Ridge. Utes fled in several directions and a large posse assembled by the sheriff was told by him, “Every man here is deputized to shoot. I want you to shoot everything that looks like an Indian.” Posey fired back in self-defense as he fled into country he knew well.

Bill Young saw Joe Bishop’s Boy and Sanap’s Boy riding fast toward him. He hid in a low tree because, “They were riding about 15 or 20 feet apart, coming at full speed, standing up in their stirrups and looking for me down slope thinking I was still running.” Young drew a bead on Joe Bishop’s Boy, who was closest. “When he was where I could see the buttons on his shirt, I took a bead on the third button and pressed the trigger … he was still in the saddle in a slumped position the last I saw of him.” Joe Bishop’s Boy died of his wounds.

Within a day, a Blanding posse merged with a Bluff posse and more Utes were rounded up with guards given orders to shoot to kill as unarmed Natives waited for transport after being marched down Comb Wash. The day before, the Bluff posse’s leader R.L. Newman, former sheriff of Navajo County, Arizona, had given orders to his posse while searching a mesa top.

“Now men, let’s mark this top,” he said. “Comb it out carefully and don’t shoot at anything but an Indian, then shoot to kill him.”

While Posey hid, his relatives and friends knew his whereabouts and brought him food.

“The first night we camped at the Comb and sent the Indians out with a pack mule and food and blankets to scout around and try to find Posey. Some of us were a little suspicious because they came back without any food,” Rogers said. “Several times they went out and each time they came back without food.”

Because of the use of signal fires from cedar bark torches, the Utes knew Posey’s location.

Deputies interrogated captive Utes, demanding to know Posey’s whereabouts. Posey’s relatives never revealed where he was holed up. He never surrendered even though the aging Paiute had been wounded in the hip. Fleeing up Comb Ridge and down the other side to the west, Posey died alone near Mule Canyon while 80 Ute friends and kinsmen remained behind barbed wire in Blanding. He died only a few miles from Bears Ears, in the canyons where his ancestors had lived for centuries. He died resisting white encroachment on traditional Ute homelands.

Blanding residents took the law into their own hands. After all, Native Americans were not yet citizens, though that long overdue status would come, finally, in 1924.

“We built a barbed wire stockade, a ‘bullpen,’ and put them in it as a bedraggled bunch of pinon busted steers,” said Blanding founder Albert Lyman, referring to Ute families as if they were range cattle.

Compassionate Utes, freed from their stockade, recovered and then reburied Posey in an unknown location near Bears Ears. He had been shot and died of blood poisoning and infection, or at least that is the standard end to this sordid story. Utes felt otherwise. They believed that Posey had been killed by poisoned flour that had been provided as food rations.

That March 1923, Utes huddled around small fires and in two Navajo hogans built within their stockade. On occasion prisoners were allowed to leave to herd their livestock scattered on traditional Native lands. Posey never gave up.

“The settlers could not find him and so laced a sack of flour with poison so that people released from the stockade to tend Ute animals would give it to him,” said McPherson, describing Posey’s death based on Ute oral histories. Myers Cantsee, Posey’s sons Anson and Jess, Marshall Ward, Jim Mike and Jack Fly found Posey dead. His dog was dead. He had been cooking over an open campfire and his thigh wound appeared to be healing.

“Posey had made biscuits with the flour, fed some of them to his faithful dog and then ate them himself,” Francis Posey said.

“They say that later, after the settlers found his body, they shot it so that they could claim that was how he died, but the white flour and bread in his hands showed what had really happened,” McPherson said.

Perhaps that is just folklore, a Native tale to maintain Posey’s reputation as a leader who would not be vanquished by whites. But in my research, I found a decade earlier a local forest ranger had written about poisoned bread left with deadly intent in an Elk Ridge cabin – to injure or kill Natives if they stole food from a rancher’s cache. Somewhere between a bullet in a hip and bread in a dead man’s hands lies the truth.

I’ve hiked the Posey Trail off U.S. Highway 95 that bisects San Juan County and runs under Bears Ears. The trail zigzags uphill across slickrock and leads to pinon pines as it rises ever higher to the height of Comb Ridge. On top there is a small saddle or flat area where a dozen people could camp with open views far to the west. What was it like to be pursued by angry men with orders to shoot to kill?

Watching small cedar torches at night, the posse knew where Posey and his followers sought refuge. Early the next morning, the posse rode up the trail only to have Posey’s group dive off the steep side of Comb Ridge urging their horses to jump down off sandstone ledges. The Utes and their fearless ponies escaped. Posey hid. He lies somewhere in Bears Ears in a sacred Native landscape. A century later, his backtrail off Comb Ridge is impossible to discern, but his memory remains, as do his bones.

Note: This column is excerpted from Andrew Gulliford’s new book Bears Ears: Landscape of Refuge and Resistance (University of Utah Press, 2022).

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.

The remoteness of San Juan County, Utah, in the first decades of the 20th century is typified in this map archaeologist Byron Cummings published in 1910 in “The Ancient Inhabitants of the San Juan Valley.” Note the label “unexplored” for the rocky San Juan Triangle or the area between the San Juan and Colorado Rivers. Bears Ears appears in Spanish labeled Orejas del Oso. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Posey hid out in the Bears Ears region possibly in upper Mule Canyon. A U.S. marshal claimed Posey died from a gunshot wound in the hip. Ute family members believe Posey was given poisoned flour. He baked biscuits for himself and his dog and both were found dead. (Photo by Andrew Gulliford)
Though there is no interpretive sign in Blanding, Utah showing where Ute tribal members were forcibly rounded up and jailed, San Juan County does promote the Posey Trail which can be accessed off Highway 95 with easy parking and a recently installed walk gate to get through a barbed wire fence. This photo is from the top of the Posey Trail looking down into Comb Wash with Bears Ears and Elk Ridge to the west. (Photo by Andrew Gulliford)