The explorers and surveyors of the American West are an august company that includes the great Lewis and Clark as well as a host of other renowned pathfinders. Men like Fremont, Long, Stansbury, Pike, Abert, and Beale opened up the west as surely as the mountain men who preceded them and the sutlers and traders who followed them. One of the most promising of these early explorers and surveyors was an Army engineer and West Point graduate named John W. Gunnison.
The idea of an intercontinental railroad stretching from coast to coast was not new in 1853. Fremont’s expeditions during the 1840’s were focused on finding the best route through the mountains for a railroad. In 1853, when an expedition was mounted to survey the west-central portion of Utah, John Gunnison was a natural choice to lead the party. His credentials were impeccable. He had cut his teeth as a surveyor for the Stansbury Expedition in 1849 and he knew the central Utah area well. Gunnison assumed command of the party, which included two survivors from Fremont’s disastrous fourth expedition of 1848, Richard Kern and Frederick Creutzfeldt. Kern was the expedition’s artist and topographer while Creutzfeldt served as botanist. The Gunnison expedition entered Utah Territory in the fall of 1853, passing through the town of Manti on its way to Fillmore. From Fillmore, the party traveled west, reaching the Gunnison Bend of the Sevier River, southwest of present-day Delta. To the west, Gunnison could see the wrinkled peaks of the House Range rising up from the Sevier Valley. To the southwest, he could see the meandering course of the Sevier River as it disappeared toward Sevier Lake. This was a good place. They made camp.
The following morning, the Gunnison Expedition awoke to the sounds of war cries and rifle shots. The end had come. A band of 30 or so Pahvant Indians descended upon the hapless explorers, killing all but four of the party. The dead included the leader, John Gunnison, and the two veterans from Fremont’s expedition, Kern and Creutzfeldt.
As he gazed westward the evening before the massacre, Gunnison may have been contemplating a route through the House Range into the Tule Valley beyond. The House Range stretches some 60 miles in a north-south direction and forms the western boundary of Sevier Valley. It extends from Sand Pass southward to the Wah-Wah Valley. Along its entire length the range is no more than 10 miles wide. House Range is transected by three major passes. Dome Canyon Pass is the northernmost pass, Marjum Canyon lies eight miles to the south, and Skull Rock Pass, south of Sawtooth Mountain, forms the southernmost and main portal through the range.
The House Range still holds many secrets. Prospectors have roamed these mountains for over two centuries. Evidence of early Spanish mining activity still occasionally surfaces. Caches of old Spanish tools and mining equipment have been discovered in the central part of the range, near the only major gold-producing area in the entire county.
Millard County has never been a major producer of gold. Only 500 ounces are officially recorded for the county. Most of this production hails from the small placer deposits of the House Range. Located in North Canyon and Miller Canyon, the gold placers were worked extensively during the 1930’s. Surely more than 500 ounces of gold were taken from the two canyons during the depression years, not to mention the efforts of the early Spaniards in the area. One story in particular has come down to us regarding an incredibly rich placer deposit somewhere in the House Range. In a single transaction, the discoverer of this placer sold more than 300 ounces of gold – 60% of the total recorded production for the entire county! The discovery occurred sometime during the late 1930’s. A Mexican sheepherder working in the House Range stumbled upon a glory hole of placer gold somewhere on the slopes of the mountains. The deposit must have been rich for the Mexican turned up in the nearby town of Delta with several sacks of fine gold dust. On one of his visits, the sheepherder sold more than 20 pounds of gold to a local doctor. Of course, the Mexican never revealed the location of his find and soon dropped out of sight. He was never seen again. Prospectors have searched the House Range for many years but the Mexican’s lost placer remains hidden to this day.