Mountain Meadows Massacre
On September 11, 1857, a wagon train traveling through Utah was ambushed and its approximately 120 members killed in what is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Committed by a force of Mormon militia and Southern Piute Indians, the tragedy has remained a topic of curiosity and controversy as Mormons and historians struggle to understand the event, and critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormon Church) seek to exploit it for their own purposes.
In the summer of 1857 the Mormons were celebrating the tenth anniversary since their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, and they were undergoing a religious reformation, because many had unfortunately started to develop an apathetic attitude towards their faith. In this climate, Church President Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith delivered fiery sermons to the people. Then Brigham received word that U.S. President Buchanan had cut off mail service to Utah and secretly dispatched a newly appointed territorial governor, Alfred Cumming, to “restore order” with the aid of federal troops. There was really nothing out of order, but several corrupt appointees to the Utah territory had become embittered with the Mormons because of their block voting and allegiance to Governor Brigham Young, and they returned east with false reports of Mormon treason and insurrection. The Republican Party demanded that action be taken, and the President responded, which action is now known as “Buchanan’s Blunder.” Meanwhile, the Mormons had not forgotten the extreme persecutions and multiple expulsions they had suffered prior to their ten years of relative peace, and they vowed not to be driven out again. Brigham Young declared martial law, reorganized the defunct Nauvoo Legion, and prepared to defend his people in a possible war with the United States. He also solicited the assistance of neighboring Indian tribes, asserting that the Mormons and Indians needed to band together to avoid destruction. These various actions, known as the Utah War, were ultimately ended peacefully, but it was into this tense atmosphere that the Baker-Fancher wagon train entered in July.
The wagon train arrived in Salt Lake City via the Oregon Trail. Led by John T. Baker and Alexander Fancher, the group had started their journey in Arkansas and Missouri and were bound for California. Traveling south from the city, this body of men, women, and children planned to hook up with the Old Spanish Trail and continue to guide their livestock west.
Initially the Mormon settlers took little or no notice of the Baker-Fancher party, as it was only one of many that passed through each year. Beginning in Fillmore in southwestern Utah, however, many reports arose of rude and threatening behavior on the part of the travelers. The Mormons maintained that the Missouri members of the train, who called themselves the Missouri Wildcats, boasted of having participated in the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri and Illinois and even in the killing of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum at Carthage Jail. Another Mormon Church leader, Parley Pratt, had been killed in Arkansas in May 1857, and the Arkansas party members proudly claimed responsibility for that incident. The migrants apparently threatened that after they arrived in California, they would return to help the U.S. Army deal with the Mormons. There were also reports that the party poisoned a spring, which resulted in some death and sickness among the white and Indian residents. While the truth of these reports cannot be verified, they illustrate that the Mormon settlers felt seriously threatened. Whatever provoked the contention between the Mormons and the migrants, it could not have come at a more dangerous time. Already on edge because of the impending war, some Mormons may have allowed the possible association between the migrants and the murder of Mormon Church leaders to provoke them into instigating the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
By the beginning of September, the migrants had reached Mountain Meadows, a pasture land outside Cedar City in southwestern Utah, to graze and rest their livestock before the final push across the desert to California. At the same time, Iron County militia leaders, having heard reports and rumors about the threats made by the migrants, were debating over what to do about the party. Initially they dispatched couriers to nearby settlements with orders to leave the migrants alone, but Major Isaac Haight conceived a plan to incite local Piute Indians against the migrants with John D. Lee as their leader. Lee left on September 5 to carry out this plan. The degree to which Indians were truly involved is a matter of polar debate. Some claim they were not involved at all, and the Mormons disguised themselves as Indians; others claim the Indians were already furious and the Mormons were holding them back until they decided what to do. In an Iron County council meeting on September 6, opinions were divided. Isaac Haight wanted to take action, but Laban Morrill finally persuaded him to inquire of Brigham Young.
On the morning of Monday, September 7, James Haslam rode for Salt Lake City (250 miles away) to obtain instructions from Brigham Young. Couriers were also sent to Lee, telling him to protect the migrants from the Indians until further orders came—but it was already too late. Between daylight and sunrise the Indians had attacked the camp at Mountain Meadows, killing several and wounding several more. The migrants held them off, killing and wounding several of their attackers, and the conflict settled into a siege that lasted the next four days. By the time the couriers arrived at Mountain Meadows, Lee had gone south to spend the night near Santa Clara Canyon. The message was not delivered to Lee until Tuesday afternoon.
The stalemate persisted, but on Wednesday night, September 9, two of the migrants evaded the Indians and headed to Cedar City for help. On their way they encountered a few militia members who they thought would help them. This indicates that the migrants were under the impression that their attackers were not Mormon settlers. When these militia members realized who they had come upon, they attacked the pair, killing one; but the other escaped back to camp. It seems this event sealed the fate of the Baker-Fancher party. For years the southern Utah Mormons had heard rumors that Californians were going to come and wipe them out. This fear, coupled with the threat of the impending war and the anger over the migrants’ behavior, was too much. The settlers apparently believed that the migrant who had escaped back to camp would tell the others that it was Mormons, not Indians they were fighting, and if any of the group should make it to California now, they would surely stir up a mob. The thought of facing the U.S. Army was bad enough; the prospect of clashing with a second army from the West was intolerable.
On September 10 James Haslam arrived in Salt Lake City with the message to Brigham Young. Within an hour the courier had an answer and began the journey back to Cedar City. Brigham’s message said, in part, “In regard to the emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them.” These instructions, held to this day in Mormon Church archives, would not arrive in time to stop the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
By the morning of Friday, September 11, fifty to sixty militia members were now at Mountain Meadows. A flag of truce was sent to the camp and answered by a Mr. Hamilton. Lee spoke with him and proposed that if they surrendered their arms, the Indians would leave them, and the Mormons would give them safe passage to Cedar City until they could resume their trek to California. Low on ammunition and rest, with several dead already and more dying of wounds, the migrants accepted the offer. Their guns were loaded into one wagon and the wounded into another. They proceeded in single file, the wagons, women and children, and then the men. Each man was accompanied by a militia member marching on his right. When they approached a patch of scrub oaks and cedars the leader of the march gave a signal, which is purported to have been, “Do your duty!” Each militia member turned to the migrant he was marching next to and shot him. From behind the trees Indians fell upon them as well. A few people managed to escape the initial assault but were pursued and killed. Only the youngest children were spared; records indicate they numbered seventeen.
Jacob Haslam delivered Brigham Young’s response to Isaac Haight on September 13, two days too late. John D. Lee was later sent to Salt Lake City to make a report to Brigham Young on the matter. The local leaders at first portrayed the incident as an attack by Indians. For the next year nothing was done due to the arrival of the army and the new governor. When evidence and accusations began to implicate white settlers, Brigham Young urged the new Governor Cumming to investigate. It was Cumming’s opinion that anything committed by whites was pardoned under the amnesty granted by President Buchanan in June 1858 in the Utah War, so no formal investigation was made right away. Several contemporary accounts were made, including one by Mark Twain in Roughing It, but like all issues concerning Mormons, this one was already divided and the accounts were generally distorted one way or the other. The ability of Mormon critics to describe the events in such detail as they do is dubious since the only survivors were young children, and the participants certainly were not talking.
Many in Arkansas were furious over the incident, and momentum was building for a complete federal investigation of the incident. However, in just a few years the Civil War began and the issue was largely forgotten until it was reignited in the 1870s. By that time 15 years had passed since the Mountain Meadows Massacre; tempers had subsided and much of the evidence had disappeared. Regardless of the guilt or innocence of participants, the Mormons banded together to protect their own from unfair trials they imagined would be dealt against them. When investigations finally began in earnest, it was difficult for prosecutors to make a substantial case. After two trials, John D. Lee was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed and buried in Panguitch, Utah in 1877, and was the only person tried and convicted for involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Today’s members of the Mormon Church do not seek to justify the actions taken by a few Mormons who went astray. Regardless of the pressures of life, faithful Mormons understand the importance of keeping the commandments and striving to always do good. Imperfect as they may be, they work at continually improving individually and collectively, coming ever closer to the lofty ideals that have been taught them by their perfect Master, Jesus Christ.