Chief Walkara a master horse thief

Master horse thief Chief Walkara. Public domain photo.

Walkara and his brother, Arapeen. Public domain photo.

The thunder of thousands of horse hooves resounded through Cajon Pass and onto the Mojave Desert one spring morning in 1840.

Ute Indians, led by famed chief Walkara and assisted by a half-dozen American trappers, galloped 5,000 stolen horses eastward from southern California’s coastal communities. The raiders pointed their stolen livestock toward Utah Lake, nearly 700 miles away.

But close on their heels were Mexican authorities and rancheros from missions and ranches around Los Angeles — from San Luis Obispo in the north to the Santa Anna River on the south — places where the horses had been stolen.

The Mexicans eventually recovered about 2,000 of the stolen animals. But, what’s been called the largest horse theft in North America still netted more than 3,000 horses.

Some horses no doubt died in the rapid run across the Mojave Desert, on to the springs at Las Vegas, then northeast to Walkara’s headquarters near Spanish Fork, Utah.

But there were still enough for Walkara and his friends to make money on their enterprise.

After they’d had time to recover from their desperate run, the horses were sold or traded to rancheros in New Mexico, to the U.S. military or to immigrants on the recently opened Oregon Trail.

For several decades, horse raiders from the east — both Indians and whites — had become increasingly bold in stealing from the large herds of fine-bred horses the Spanish developed in Southern California. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexican authorities sought to stop the raids.

But they weren’t prepared for the scale of the 1840 raid.

Walkara divided his men into a dozen or more small cadres, which raided multiple horse herds simultaneously, then gathered the horses at a point far from the ranches.

Walkara and other raiders utilized part of what is now called the Old Spanish Trail. The trail was used by legitimate traders from the 1820s through the 1840s as they carried woolen goods and other products from New Mexico to California, and brought back horses and mules.

Often, human slaves captured or purchased from tribes along the route, were part of the cargo, to be traded to households, farms and ranches at both ends of the trail.

Walkara was known as a frequent slave trader. He also stopped other traders and demanded payment for their pack caravans to pass.

Walkara and his Timpanago Utes from the region around Utah Lake weren’t the only Indians to steal horses.

The California rancheros’ word for the horse raiders was Los Chaguanosos, believed to be derived from the name of the Sabuagana Utes of western Colorado, who likely conducted their own raids on the California rancheros.

But it was Walkara who staged the largest and most frequent raids.

Often called Walker by whites, Walkara was born early in the 19th century, probably near Spanish Fork. He became a leader by dint of his horsemanship and his prowess as a warrior.

William Manly, who encountered Walkara in 1849, described him as “a fine looking Indian who sat as a king in the lodge,” and was very intelligent. His raiding tactics won him the nickname “the Napoleon of the Desert.” But some viewed him as “a cruel, merciless savage.”

By the mid-1830s, Walkara had become friends with American trappers, including the notorious Peg Leg Smith, a hard-drinking man who’d been shot in the ankle and had reportedly amputated his own leg.

Peg Leg and other trappers conceived the idea for the 1840 raid while wintering in Browns Park in northwestern Colorado in 1839.

Walkara agreed to their ambitious plan, but demanded that he and his men conduct the thefts, while white trappers guarded the escape route through Cajon Pass. They heeded his demands, and the raid was a great success.

Soon after Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Walkara demanded and got a meeting with Brigham Young.

In 1853, he briefly went to war against the Mormons. But he eventually converted to Mormonism and told his followers not to steal from or harm the “Mormonees.”

However, his religious conversion did not stop Walkara from stealing from the Mexican rancheros. He continued raiding the Mexican colonies, making forays into California, New Mexico, and even south of what became the U.S.-Mexico border in 1848.

During one raid into Old Mexico, Walkara and his men were headed home with several hundred head of stolen horses, but they were delayed while trying to herd the reluctant equines across the Colorado River in present-day Arizona. Not far behind them were Mexican rancheros.

Instead of running, Walkara turned back with a few of his men and some of the stolen horses.

Encountering the Mexican posse, he convinced the rancheros that he was a renegade from Walkara’s gang who wanted to return the horses to their rightful owners. The rancheros accepted his story and even paid the Ute for the horses he returned to them.

Walkara reportedly kept raiding almost until his death in January 1855.

By then, the Mormon domain included the Utah Lake region, and Walkara had accepted a 40-acre ranch for himself and his family, carved out of the immense territory the Utes had once claimed as their tribal home.

By the mid-1850s, the U.S. military had a significant presence in the West, the slave trade had all but ended, the Old Spanish Trail was no longer used regularly by merchants, and long-distance horse raids were becoming relics of history.

But Walkara’s audacious raids and daring escapes across vast, rugged territory remain a unique part of the region’s history.

Information for this column came from Paul Bailey’s book, “Walkara, Hawk of the Mountains;” also, “Violence over the Land, Indians and Empires in the Early American West,” by Ned Blackhawk; “Chief Watched Way of Life Vanish,” the Deseret News online, Feb. 21, 1995; and “The Old Spanish Trail,” by LeRoy and Ann Haiflen.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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