Gunnison was born in Goshen, New Hampshire, in 1812 and attended Hopkinton Academy before entering West Point. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1837 and became a Second Lieutenant of topographical engineers.
After serving in the Florida War of 1837-1839, he spent the next ten years surveying the lakes and harbors of the great northwestern United States. While working in the Salt Lake City region of Utah, he befriended the Mormons and acted as a negotiator in several uprisings between them and the local Native Americans. Winning him the admiration of his peers and giving Gunnison confidence in his abilities to deal with the Indians, it would later prove to be the death of him.
In 1853 he was charged with finding and surveying a railway route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. After moving along the Kansas–Nebraska border, his journey took him over the Rocky Mountains and into the Gunnison River Valley. Working with Marcelino Baca, a guide from Taos, New Mexico, the pair and the rest of Gunnison’s party came into conflict with Ute warriors on several occasions. However, Gunnison appeased them and moved on, further boosting his confidence in dealing with the natives.
However, as he and his party moved into Utah, locals warned them of recent trouble with the Paiute. Overconfident in his ability to negotiate with the Indians, he divided his crew into two groups before going around Lake Sevier. It was a fatal mistake. The following day, October 26, 1853, a band of Paiute, seeking revenge for the killing of their chief, ambushed and killed Gunnison and all but four of the 11 members in his group.
Gunnison’s route through the fabled Black Canyon of Gunnison was never used for a transcontinental railroad; however, the information he gathered throughout his career would later be extremely useful in the development of the west.