There are three main streams of water draining from the Tushar Mountains east of the town of Beaver, Utah. The center of the three is the Beaver River that carries most of the run-off from the towering peaks to the east. The two streams flanking the Beaver are simply called North Creek and South Creek. The northern stream flows from the twelve-thousand foot peaks towering above the timberline – Mount Baldy and Mount Belknap. The southern stream is smaller, bringing water from the west slope of Circleville Mountain and Birch Creek Mountain. It quickly dries as the summer advances while the other two continue to flow.
It was on the South Creek that the J.P. Lee family established a homestead in the 1860s. The plot of land was a few miles up the canyon in the foothills of the Tushars. Here the stream supported a stand of cottonwood trees, some willows, and “rabbit brush.” They cleared some of the rabbit sagebrush, diverted South Creek to water pastureland, and built a cabin and some out-buildings from pine logs. The cabin had a single window for light and a sturdy plank door on metal hinges. There was a small “lean-to” in the back, accessed by a small door in the rear of the cabin. The main part of the building was divided into two rooms, each with a small fireplace.
The out-buildings included a barn, just large enough to shelter the few cows, horses and other livestock they owned. This was fronted by a corral of about the same size. A chicken coop leaned against the barn, but the few hens and rooster roamed the grounds.
The road that passed by the ranch came from Beaver, about six miles to the northwest, continued past the house, followed the canyon over the hills south of the Tushers and continued east down to Circleville near the Sevier River. The road wasn’t heavily used, but small bands of Native Americans followed it to cross the range.
The Black Hawk war in the Utah Territory was heating up. In 1865 a young Ute after whom the war was named lead a number of native braves in battles with Mormon settlers – that’s another story to be told in our series later. But regarding our tale here, on October 27, 1866, the Lee’s found themselves in a confrontation with some renegade Paiute men who were coming from Beaver and decided to camp upstream from the ranch. At their leisure the visitors apparently imbibed a few bottles they had brought from the small town.
The Lee’s didn’t think much about the camp, it was a common thing to have such groups pass by the ranch, so they went about their duties of caring for their livestock and diverting the trickling stream to water the pasture land.
But the Native Americans appeared to be friends of Black Hawk, and decided to visit the ranch and demand food for their party. After all, the Black Hawk war of Utah was started when some starving Indians butchered Mormon cattle in Sanpete County for food.
When the Lees refused to allow the men inside the cabin and told them there was no food for them here, the Paiutes decided to take what they wanted from the corrals and hen houses. In order to protect themselves the Lees fired through the door and window to frighten the men away. It worked – but only for a short time; until the sunset and darkness came upon the ranch house.
Mr. and Mrs. Lee had two guns and ample ammunition to defend themselves, but there were also three of their children, two young girls and their 8-year old brother inside. Also two friends were visiting at the ranch, a young woman named Hall and Joseph Lillywhite. They were unarmed.
During the night, the defenders inside the cabin gathered together to decide on a strategy. Joseph suggested that he attempt to sneak out and ride to get help, but they all knew that the attackers were likely surrounding the ranch and a rider would not make it. Lee’s young son, Charles, said that he and his sister, Jane, had the best chances of getting through. They knew the country well, and places to hide if they were discovered – they had played hide-and-seek together for years and they knew every tree and bush along the creek. The family wasn’t sure of this tactic, but could see no alternative.
Early in the morning hours the two sneeked out the back door, slipped through brush surrounding the house until they reached the creek bank, and then slowly and cautiously crept through the willows along the water’s edge. Fortunately, the night was moonless and their hunting skills, taught by their father, came into good use as their movements were quiet and patient.
At the canyon’s mouth they split up. The girl continued to follow the creek bed as it twisted toward the west. The boy ran along a path he knew well through the country north until he reached a flat-topped hill that stretched westward into the valley. He knew that at the end of this ancient alluvial fan, called Jackson County Hill, were farms. As the day began to break, he raced to the western edge of that hill and descended to get help from a farmer named James Anderson.
Quickly Anderson saddled a horse and, with Charley behind, raced to Beaver less than a mile away.
The men of the town were at work putting a roof on a church warehouse when Anderson rode up. Within minutes the men were organized and began their dash toward Lee’s Ranch.
It didn’t take long to reach the cabin. The first men there pulled up their horses and ran for the door – calling to the people inside. Mrs. Lee opened the door and said “When we heard horses coming we thought the Indians were attacking again, but when we heard your voices we knew we were saved.”
The cabin was still full of smoke and the ceiling was still glowing with red embers. Mr. Lee had tried to cut an opening in the roof to allow circulation, but the roof was so heavy with lumber and battened slabs that he couldn’t do it.
The attackers had left. Taking the livestock and other supplies with them, they had crossed the mountains toward the Sevier River. The men from Beaver traced their trail for 35 miles but never caught the renegades.