Henry Nebeker

Lemhi Indian Mission


With the arrival of the Walker Indian Wars in Utah, Brigham Young asked Orson Hyde to take the leadership in organizing “Indian Missions”.  The main goals was to promote peaceful relations between the two cultures, but also to help bring “civilization” to them by teaching them farming and ranching techniques to help them provide for their own needs.  Additionally, it was hoped that they might also share with them the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Mistrust had arisen between the Mormons and the mountain trappers, with the Saints feeling that the mountain men were inciting the Indians to aggressive acts to dislodge the Saints from their new homes.  Brigham Young hoped that they could win the Indians over by showing that they were friendly and desired to help them.

In the October General Conference of 1853, President Young called a number of missionaries to serve in these Indian endeavors under the leadership of Elder Orson Hyde.  The first one organized, was led by John Nebeker, an older brother of Henry.  His task was to lead a group to the Green River (Wyoming) not far from Fort Bridger (the seat of the trapper’s rendezvous).  The men had only three weeks to prepare for their mission, and in November, they made their way to the east just as the snow was beginning to pile up.  Skirting the fort, the missionaries continued east to the Green River and then south toward Flaming Gorge where they worked diligently to build a fort before winter set in in earnest.  In this locality, they hoped to set themselves between the Ute Indians to the south, and Fort Bridger to the west in hopes that the Indians might reach this new fort first and conduct their trading business with the Mormons.

There had not been enough time to gather in supplies and many men left the fort to return home yet that winter.  By the following summer, this first Indian mission was released and the remaining men allowed to return to their families. 

The second of the Indian missions was sent to the south, near Cedar City under the direction of one of the apostles.  This one also struggled but in time it was relocated to Santa Clara with Jacob Hamblin as it new leader.  Of all the Indian missions, although progress was slow, this one eventually had the most success.

In 1855, another group of men (including Jesse N. Perkins) was called to go to Carson Valley, Nevada far to the west.  This mission lasted only a few months before troubles between the miners and the Mormons, as well as concerns back at home, brought about the closing of this mission.

The fourth mission was also established in 1855 and sent north to the Shoshone, Bannock and Flathead Indians.  There was some confusion about just where this group of men was heading, but they understood that their call was to set up an Indian Mission anywhere between Fort Hall in Idaho and Flathead Lake in present day Montana.  When they arrived at Fort Hall, they were told by an old trapper that the Salmon River area would make a good location to set up their mission as three major Indian groups came there each year to fish for Salmon.

Eventually the group made their way up the Snake River to Mud Lake and then cut across the valley in a northwesterly direction toward the mountain valley that lead them to the area where they determined to settle down and commence farming among the Indians.  They called the area Lemhi (a misspelling of the word “Limhi” from the Book of Mormon) and the Indians in that area, from then on, were known as the Lemhi Indians.  This was the same tribe from which Sacajaweah had come--a tribe which had helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition in 1805. 

At first seemingly friendly relations were established with the local Indians and the new pioneers didn’t even bother building a fort for some time.  When they were admonished to build a fort, they did so to one side of the valley, where it was later seen that any hostels could simply ride up higher on the hillside and shoot down into the fort.  So, again the fort was moved to a new location.

For some time the missionaries carried on good relations with the local Indians, teaching them how to grow crops and also trying to teach them gospel principles.  A couple of the Mormon men even took Indian wives. 

In 1856, the US Congress authorized a military action to be mounted against the Mormons the following year.  Word spread quickly by means of the trappers, that the army was going to annihilate the Mormons.  With such news, the Lemhi Indians began to be contentious with the local missionaries.  Soon sufficient trouble ensued that the Mormons resorted to their fort for their safety.  Hostilities broke out and a couple men were attacked and killed.

Several months went by and the Mormons remained holed up in the fort besieged by the Indians.  In the winter, one brave missionary, under cover of darkness, was sent on foot to escape to Salt Lake in hopes of bringing support back to save the rest.  This young man made his way through bitterly freezing weather to Fort Hall where the residents there were surprised to see him arrive, particularly when he told them how far he had traveled on foot.  He was cold and hungry.  The men at the fort gave him warmth and food but had no horse to give him.  He left right away and continued wading through the snow until he made it safely to Salt Lake.

President Brigham Young called out a large number of additional “missionaries” to leave immediately on a rescue mission to support the men in Fort Lemhi.  Among these additional men was Henry Nebeker.  This was not a mission on which these men were allowed to take their wives.  They had to be ready to depart immediately for an area they had hardly heard of, with very little advance time to prepare themselves or their families.  Still, Henry was ready and responded within the scarce time given (1857). 

The party carried needed supplies to restock the fort and departed quickly.  In time they reached Fort Lemhi and helped to lift the Indian’s siege.  The missionaries remained there for a while longer, but the trust was never rebuilt and in 1858 the mission was discontinued with the men returning to their homes in Utah.  Henry had served honorably, but he was welcomed back to his home and family who were waiting for him in Payson, Utah.