John Sterling Lawton – Medal of Honor Awardee
John Sterling Lawton, born May 13, 1858 was a descendant of Thomas Lawton who, along with his brother George, emigrated from Cranfield, Bedfordshire, England in 1639 to the newly forming colony on Rhode Island. John was born and raised in Bristol, Rhode Island. By the age of 21 he was a Sergeant in Company D of the 5th Cavalry of the United States Army stationed at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Before the coming of the whites the Ute Indians had traditionally lived in Colorado, Utah, and northern New Mexico. In accordance with their Manifest Destiny the whites believed they were destined to own all land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and therefore the Indians must be placed on reserved areas rather than have the right to wander wherever they chose. After the close of the Civil War in 1865 the whites began in earnest to assimilate the entire west. In a treaty with Colorado Territory’s Governor Evans in 1863 the Utes had been promised all Colorado land west of the Continental Divide. Five years later in 1868, ten tribal chiefs were invited to Washington to renegotiate the treaty. Under the new treaty the Utes were established on two reservations, one at Los Pinos and another 150 miles north on the White River. Another five years passed until the United States government once again wanted more Ute land in 1873. This time the Utes lost four million acres to the U S Government. Colorado became a state in 1876.In 1878 a new U S government agent named Nathan Meeker was assigned to the White River Reservation. Inept at best, unscrupulous could also be considered, Meeker never got along with his charges. By early September 1879 matters had worsened to the point Meeker asked Colorado Governor Pitkin for military protection. Major Thomas T. Thornburgh, commander of Fort Steele, near Rawlins, Wyoming was notified by the U S War Department to move with sufficient troops to the White River Ute Agency. Thornburgh outfitted about 200 cavalry and mounted infantry for the journey.
On September 29, 1879 Thornburgh’s men crossed the Milk River, eastern boundary of the Ute Reservation. The Utes considered this an act of war. Suddenly a shot rang out. Unknown who, or which group fired it, a battle was on. Thornburgh circled his wagons in a defensive posture. Within the first hour Thornburgh had died and command was assumed by Captain Scott Payne who was also wounded. Trenches were dug within the circle of wagons. During the first night when the Indians didn’t completely surround the besieged troops, two men, Sergeants John S. Lawton and Jacob Widmer volunteered to go for reinforcement. They were successful in their foray and three days later 35 men from Fort Dodge arrived with ammunition. On October 5th 255 men arrived from Fort Russell in Cheyenne. At that point the Utes decided any further action on their part was useless, and surrendered.
The two Sergeants were each awarded a Medal of Honor for their perilous ride through the night.