Utah Post 1847 has one of the most interesting namesake, an Ulster Scot named General James Ferguson. Ferguson’s exploits have always been short on documentation but long on notoriety, from hunting for mountain man Jim Bridger to almost igniting a war between frontier Utah and the federal government. Yet the brilliant career of this colorful soldier, actor, missionary, newspaperman and attorney was cut short before he reached middle age.
Jim was born in Belfast, Ireland on 23 Feb 1828 to Francis (Frank) Ferguson and Mary Patrick. He was always fiercely proud of his Irish - Scottish heritage. Like other young men, he had to work from a young age. At age 12 he began working as a clerk in Liverpool England. In 1842 at the age 14, he was baptized a member of the Mormon Church (LDS) He immigrated to the United States and served in ‘A’ Company of the Mormon Battalion as a Private until the Battalion was disbanded in 1846.
He married Lucy Nutting in San Francisco, (Yerba Buena) California. They had five children Julia, Lucy, Sarah, Daniel Heber, Barlow. Along with his wife, he traveled to Utah in the Ebenezer Brown Company that departed California in 1848. He was appointed by LDS Church President and territorial Governor Brigham Young as the first Sheriff of Salt Lake County.
He reenlisted in the Nauvoo Legion (territorial militia) as Historian and Sergeant Major, latter commissioned to the rank of 1st Lt. He was the commander in the Utah Expedition to Fort Bridger and Green river. In 1853 he led a 150-man posse to hunt down Jim Bridger, who stood accused of arming Indians and encouraging them to attack Mormon settlements. Bridger escaped, but the Saints seized “Old Gabe’s” property and fort. Ferguson’s posse destroyed Bridger’s stock of rum “by doses.”.
Lt. Ferguson rode in the decisive cavalry charge in a battle with Ute Indians at Fort Utah which is now Provo. There he also acted as a translator for the militia forces. Upon return he was appointed as one of Brigham Young’s personal bodyguards.
In 1854 he went back to Liverpool, England as a Mormon missionary, where he served as pastor of Ireland. He also arranged for travel and organizing of handcart companies to the Salt Lake valley.
He remained with several other returning missionaries to assist in organizing the outgoing companies. After the accounts were closed, he joined Grant’s express company that consisted of the emigration agents and returning missionaries to continue the journey to the valley. Immediately after arriving in Salt Lake City, he turned around and went back out to participate as one
of the 1856 rescuers sent out to assist the members of the Church stranded in the Wyoming winter in two handcart and two wagon companies.
He served as the Territorial Attorney General. Perhaps craving action, he led a mob that dumped the law library of federal judge George P. Stiles into an outhouse and burned it, helping to ignite the Utah War that brought one-quarter of the U.S. Army to enforce federal authority in the “State of Deseret.”
Although a prolific writer, practically none of Ferguson’s literary work survives, including his graphic account of the Mormon Battalion. He was also a noted Shakespearean actor in Salt Lake.
He was named Adjutant General of the Nauvoo Legion when he returned to Salt Lake. After the Utah War, Ferguson returned to his law practice and acting career. He first had to fend off charges he had intimidated Judge Stiles after burning the judge’s papers in 1856. The court compelled Brigham Young to testify, and historian Norman Furniss noted that he appeared with seven apostles “clustered around him, their pistols and knives ready for service” and the additional support of 300 well-armed spectators. Ultimately, a Mormon jury found Ferguson not guilty.
In 1859 Ferguson and his law partners launched ‘The Mountaineer’, a newspaper created to counter the blasts of Utah’s first non-Mormon periodical, ‘The Valley Tan’. (Decorum prevented the ‘Deseret News’, the LDS Church’s official newspaper, from joining the fray.) The venture failed after two years due to a shortage of newsprint.
An increasingly debilitating drinking problem haunted this rising star. Wilford Woodruff wrote in 1859 that the general “came near dying drinking poisoned whisky.” By August 1863 he died at age 35 in Salt Lake City. He was buried at Salt Lake City Cemetery. At his funeral, fellow members of the Utah Territorial Bar expressed their sorrow that his “devotion to the inebriating cup brought him to a premature grave.”