Photo of the Day

The scene at Lee’s execution by Utah firing squad on March 23, 1877. Lee is seated, next to his coffin.

Mountain Meadows Massacre

A series of attacks was staged on the Baker-Fancher wagon train around Mountain Meadows in Utah. This massive slaughter claimed nearly everyone in the party from Arkansas and is the event referred to as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. They were headed toward California and their path took them through the territory of Utah.

The wagon train made it through Utah during a period in time of violence history would later call the Utah War to rest in the area of Mountain meadows. It was leaders from the nearby militia called Nauvoo Legion that staged the attack on the train of pioneers. This militia was comprised of the Mormons that settled Utah. With the intent of pointing the finger at Native Americans, they armed Southern Paiute Native Americans and coerced them to join their party in the attack.

The massacre almost brought the United States to war against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but only one man was brought to trial: John D Lee. Lee had 19 wives and 56 children, and his descendants are now numerous.

Called “the darkest deed of the nineteenth century,” the brutal 1857 murder of 120 men, women, and children at a place in southern Utah called Mountain Meadows remains one of the most controversial events in the history of the American West.

Although only one man, John D. Lee, ever faced prosecution (for what ranks as one of the largest mass killings of civilians in United States history), many other Mormons ordered, planned, or participated in the massacre of Arkansas emigrants as they headed through south-western Utah on their way to California. Special controversy surrounds the role in the 1857 events of one man, Brigham Young, the fiery prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who led his embattled people to the “promised land” in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. What exactly Brigham Young knew, and when he knew it, are questions that historians still debate.

For over a century and a half, the Mountain Meadows Massacre has shocked and distressed those who have learned of it. The tragedy has deeply grieved the victims’ relatives, burdened the perpetrators’ descendants and Church members generally with sorrow and feelings of collective guilt, unleashed criticism on the Church, and raised painful, difficult questions. How could this have happened? How could members of the Church have participated in such a crime?

Two facts make the case even more difficult to fathom. First, nothing that any of the emigrants purportedly did or said, even if all of it were true, came close to justifying their deaths. Second, the large majority of perpetrators led decent, nonviolent lives before and after the massacre.

The United States government and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints collided in the days of the new church. The church was established on April 6th, 1830.  Since this time the Saints felt that they had not been given their justice and rights as they fled from New York, Kirtland, Missouri, and onto Utah.  Now there were rumours of the Union Army coming to Utah because federal officials had complained of harassment and destruction of records by LDS members. The Saints believed the army was coming to oppress, drive, or even destroy them.” Here it’s obvious to see that the Saints were scared of being driven from their homes again.

In a way of responding to these events Brigham Young, who was the President of the church and Governor of Utah, told the Saints to store their grain and highly needed materials in the mountains in case of siege. He also told them to make allies with the Paiute Indians and to make sure their weapons were ready in case of being invaded too. With these instructions, the Saints made their own militia also.

John Doyle Lee (September 6, 1812, – March 23, 1877) was an American pioneer and prominent early member of the Latter Day Saint Movement in Utah. Lee was later convicted as a mass murderer for his complicity in the Mountain Meadows massacre, sentenced to death and was executed in 1877.

The tragedy in Mountain Meadows on September 11–a date that would later come to stand for another senseless loss of life–can only be understood in the context of the colourful history of the American-grown religion, Mormonism. Today, Mormonism has gone mainstream and Mormons seem to be just one more strand among many in the nation’s religious fabric. Mormonism, however, as it existed in the mid-nineteenth century, was an altogether different matter. Brigham Young’s provocative communalist religion endorsed polygamy, supported a theocracy, and advocated the violent doctrine of “blood atonement”–the killing of persons committing certain sins as the only way of saving their otherwise damned souls.

It is not surprising that practitioners of such a religion might grow suspicious of persons outside of their religious community, nor should it be surprising that non-Mormons living in, or travelling through, the very Mormon territory of Utah might feel like “strangers in a strange land.”

In July 1847, seventeen years after Joseph Smith and a group of five other men founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York and three years after an Illinois lynch mob killed Smith, Brigham Young and his band of followers entered Salt Lake valley.

When a territorial government was formed in Utah in 1850, Young, the second head of the Church of Latter-day Saints, became the territory’s first governor. The principle of “separation of church and state” carried little weight in the new territory. The laws of the territory reflected the views of Young. In a speech before Congress, the federal judge and outspoken Mormon critic John Cradlebaugh said, “The mind of one man permeates the whole mass of the people, and subjects to its unrelenting tyranny the souls and bodies of all. It reigns supreme in Church and State, in morals, and even in the minutest domestic and social arrangements. Brigham’s house is at once tabernacle, capital, and harem; and Brigham himself is king, priest, lawgiver, and chief polygamist.”

Tensions between federal officials and Mormons in the new territory escalated over time. Historian Will Bagley, author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, wrote that “the struggle often resembled comic opera more than a political battle.” According to Bagley, “As both sides talked past each other, hostile rhetoric fanned the Mormons resentment of government. From their standpoint, they had patiently endured two decades of bitter persecution with great forbearance, but their patience with their long list of enemies had worn thin.” As early as 1851, Governor Young said in a speech, “Any President of the United States who lifts his finger against these people shall die an untimely death and go to hell!”

Trail routes of the Mormon pioneers coming to and through Utah. Google Images.

In 1857 an army of roughly 1,500 United States troops were marching toward Utah Territory, with more expected to follow. Over the preceding years, disagreements, miscommunication, prejudices, and political wrangling on both sides had created a growing divide between the territory and the federal government. In retrospect it is easy to see that both groups overreacted—the government sent an army to put down perceived treason in Utah, and the Saints believed the army was coming to oppress, drive, or even destroy them.

In 1858 this conflict—later called the Utah War—was resolved through a peace conference and negotiation. Because Utah’s militiamen and the U.S. troops never engaged each other in pitched battle, the Utah War has been characterised as “bloodless.” But the atrocity at Mountain Meadows made it far from bloodless.

As the troops were making their way west in the summer of 1857, so were thousands of overland emigrants. Some of these emigrants were Latter-day Saint converts en route to Utah, but most westbound emigrants were headed for California, many with large herds of cattle. The emigration season brought many wagon companies to Utah just as Latter-day Saints were preparing for what they believed would be a hostile military invasion. The Saints had been violently driven from Missouri and Illinois in the prior two decades, and they feared history might repeat itself.

Church President and territorial governor Brigham Young and his advisers formed policies based on that perception. They instructed the people to save their grain and prepare to cache it in the mountains in case they needed to flee there when the troops arrived. Not a kernel of grain was to be wasted or sold to merchants or passing emigrants. The people were also to save their ammunition and get their firearms in working order, and the territory’s militiamen were put on alert to defend the territory against the approaching troops if necessary.

These orders and instructions were shared with leaders throughout the territory. Elder George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles carried them to southern Utah. He, Brigham Young, and other leaders preached with fiery rhetoric against the enemy they perceived in the approaching army and sought the alliance of Indians in resisting the troops.

These wartime policies exacerbated tensions and conflict between California-bound emigrants and Latter-day Saint settlers as wagon trains passed through Utah’s settlements. Emigrants became frustrated when they were unable to resupply in the territory as they had expected to do. They had a difficult time purchasing grain and ammunition, and their herds, some of which included hundreds of cattle, had to compete with local settlers’ cattle for limited feed and water along the trail.

Some traditional Utah histories of what occurred at Mountain Meadows have accepted the claim that poisoning also contributed to conflict—that the Arkansas emigrants deliberately poisoned a spring and an ox carcass near the central Utah town of Fillmore, causing illness and death among local Indians. According to this story, the Indians became enraged and followed the emigrants to the Mountain Meadows, where they either committed the atrocities on their own or forced fearful Latter-day Saint settlers to join them in the attack. Historical research shows that these stories are not accurate.

While it is true that some of the emigrants’ cattle were dying along the trail, including near Fillmore, the deaths appear to be the result of a disease that affected cattle herds on the 1850s overland trails. Humans contracted the disease from infected animals through cuts or sores or through eating the contaminated meat. Without this modern understanding, people suspected the problem was caused by poisoning.

The plan to attack the emigrant company originated with local Church leaders in Cedar City, who had recently been alerted that U.S. troops might enter at any time through southern Utah’s passes. Cedar City was the last place on the route to California for grinding grain and buying supplies, but here again, the emigrants were stymied. Badly needed goods weren’t available in the town store, and the miller charged a whole cow—an exorbitant price—to grind a few dozen bushels of grain. Weeks of frustration boiled over, and in the rising tension, one emigrant man reportedly claimed he had a gun that killed Joseph Smith.

Others threatened to join the incoming federal troops against the Saints. Alexander Fancher, the captain of the emigrant train, rebuked these men on the spot.

The men’s statements were most likely idle threats made in the heat of the moment, but in the charged environment of 1857, Cedar City’s leaders took the men at their word. The town marshal tried to arrest some of the emigrants on charges of public intoxication and blasphemy but was forced to back down. The wagon company made its way out of town after only about an hour, but the agitated Cedar City leaders were not willing to let the matter go. Instead, they planned to call out the local militia to pursue and arrest the offending men and probably fine them some cattle. Beef and grain were foods the Saints planned to survive on if they had to flee into the mountains when the troops arrived.

This shows the route from part of Northern Utah to where Mountain Meadows took place. The locations are in present-day location. LDS., org.

Cedar City mayor, militia major, and stake president Isaac Haight described the grievances against the emigrant men and requested permission to call out the militia in an express dispatch to the district militia commander, William Dame, who lived in nearby Parowan. Dame was also the stake president of Parowan. After convening a council to discuss the matter, Dame denied the request. “Do not notice their threats,” his dispatch back to Cedar City said. “Words are but wind—they injure no one, but if they (the emigrants) commit acts of violence against citizens inform me by express, and such measures will be adopted as will insure tranquillity.” 

Still intent on chastening the emigrants, Cedar City leaders then formulated a new plan. If they could not use the militia to arrest the offenders, they would persuade local Paiute Indians to give the Arkansas company “a brush,” killing some or all of the men and stealing their cattle.

They planned the attack for a portion of the California trail that ran through a narrow stretch of the Santa Clara River canyon several miles south of the Mountain Meadows. These areas fell under the jurisdiction of Fort Harmony militia major John D. Lee, who was pulled into the planning. Lee was also a federally funded “Indian farmer” to local Paiutes. Lee and Haight had a long, late-night discussion about the emigrants in which Lee told Haight he believed the Paiutes would “kill all the party, women and children, as well as the men” if incited to attack. Haight agreed, and the two planned to lay blame for the killing at the feet of the Indians.

The generally peaceful Paiutes were reluctant when first told of the plan. Although Paiutes occasionally picked off emigrants’ stock for food, they did not have a tradition of large-scale attacks. But Cedar City’s leaders promised them plunder and convinced them that the emigrants were aligned with “enemy” troops who would kill Indians along with Mormon settlers.

It was decided that members of the Fancher party were to be arrested for how they acted, and Haight and Lee deeply wanted something more to be done. Soon a plan was made up that the Paiute Indians would ambush the travellers and take their cattle. After the Fancher party had travelled down to Mountain Meadows the Paiutes ambushed the party and had them cornered.  The plan was going well until two Saints tried to kill two men on horseback.  One man fled and told the company that it was white men who had killed his companion.  A new plan had to be made up because nobody could know that militiamen had anything to do with this.

John D. Lee. Photo: Clarelle (Richardson) Kristofferson

On September 11th, 1857 the massacre began. John D. Lee marched into the circle of handcarts the emigrants had circled about them with a white flag to declare peace. Lee said he and his men would lead the Fancher party to safety in Cedar City if they would leave their guns and possessions behind. Reluctantly the party agreed. In this way, Lee used the circumstances of the Indians seizing the Fancher party to his benefit in gaining the trust of the members of the party. Douglas O. Linder wrote that one wagon took the youngest children, following the injured/sick, women and older kids, boys, and then the men, each accompanied by a militiaman. “After a mile or two, a man yelled, ‘Halt! Do your duty” he also wrote. This was the signal for the militia to turn to who they were escorting to Cedar and shoot them. All but about 17 children under the age of seven were killed.

A letter had been sent with a man on horseback to Brigham Young concerning what to do about the Fancher company. Two days after the massacre had happened a letter had been received dated September 10th. Brigham Young wrote of the United States Army not being able to come until after winter and that all would be okay.  He also wrote, “So you see that the Lord has answered our prayers and again averted the blow designed for our heads… In regard to 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.  There are no other trains going south that I know of.  If those who are there will leave let them go in peace. While we should be on the alert, on hand and always ready we should also possess ourselves in patience, preserving ourselves and property ever remembering that God rules”

John D. Lee had a major part in this massacre. He helped plan it and took part in the killing also.  He was excommunicated from the church along with others who took large roles with the massacre. Of all the people who took part in the massacre, John D. Lee was the only one who was tried and convicted.

Nothing happened until Congress passed the Poland Act that allowed non-Mormons to serve on a jury in 1874. The first trial took place in Beaver, Utah and opened on July 23, 1875. Lee’s defence attorney tried to prove that the Indians had done everything. First, he said the emigrants had it coming for the way they treated the Indians and then that the militiamen were forced to help. Later the attorney withdrew his remarks, but he never led to a cohesive story. With eight Mormons, a former Mormon, and only three non-members on the jury, there was never a verdict reached. “A newspaper in Idaho presented a typically cynical view of the trial’s outcome. ‘It would be as unreasonable to expect a jury of highwaymen to convict a stage robber as it would be to get Mormons to find one of their own peculiar faith guilty of a crime'”

This trial began on September 14, 1876, just over 19 years by three days of the massacre happening. Suddenly there was a change in events.  People testified of Lee having the most part of the massacre. Suddenly he orchestrated the entire thing on his own, killed most of the people, and made others take part in the massacre. Lee complained, “Awful deeds… that they did with their own wicked hands.”

In just a week the jury was unanimous for conviction, some admitting later that they had salved their consciences by the thought that “it was better that one man should perish than that a whole nation should dwindle in unbelief.” Between the time of his conviction and his execution, a petition was circulated on his behalf. It was signed by more than eight hundred citizens of the Beaver and Panguitch areas. Lee was given the alternative: “Life and freedom, if he would tell all that he knew of what went on that fateful day, or death before a firing squad if he would not.” The political enemies of Brigham Young had pressured Lee throughout all the years of his imprisonment to testify that his prophet had ordered the massacre. He chose the firing squad. He said, “There’s no man I hate worse than a traitor. Especially I could not betray an innocent man.”

Only one man being convicted was very little to do with justice for the 120 people killed.

On March 23, 1877, John D. Lee was killed. He was taken to the Mountain Meadows and sat on his coffin as a firing squad shot him. Lee’s last remarks were, “I feel as calm as the summer morn and I have done nothing intentionally wrong. My conscience is clear before God and man…Not a particle of mercy have I asked of the court, the world, or officials to spare my life. I do not fear death; I shall never go to a worse place that I am now in… I am a true believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practised by Brigham Young. I do not care who hears it. It is my last word–it is so. I believe he is leading the people astray, downward to destruction. But I believe in the gospel that was taught in its purity by Joseph Smith…I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner…

Having said this, I feel resigned. I ask the Lord, my God, if my labours are done, to receive my spirit”

Transporting him all the way to the Mountain Meadows for his execution was probably another attempt to arrange the stage props for the final tragedy, a last effort to break his will. During his last statement, he remained calm; he spoke clearly; he asked only that his executioners centre his heart and not mutilate his body. Five simultaneous shots rang out. He fell back into the coffin upon which he sat and died without a struggle. He was buried in the cemetery at Panguitch where a simple shaft marked his grave.

Appendix B. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. – The Literature Network

Mormon Historians Shed Light On Sept. 11, 1857: NPR

The 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre – Religious tolerance

Mountain Meadows Massacre – Archaeology Magazine Archive

“Horrible Massacre of Emigrants!!” The Mountain Meadows Massacre …

Mountain Meadows Massacre | Utah, United States [1857] | Britannica …

Descendants get first to look at alleged Mountain Meadows Massacre …

Mountain Meadows Massacre

Mountain Meadows Massacre – I Love History / Utah – Utah.gov

Mountain Meadows Massacre – Newsroom

PBS – THE WEST – Mountain Meadows

Mountain Meadows Massacre – Legends of America

The Aftermath of Mountain Meadows | History | Smithsonian

Mountain Meadows massacre – Wikipedia

The Mountain Meadows Massacre – Ensign Sept. 2007 – ensign

Mountain Meadows Massacre –

Mountain Meadows Massacre – Famous Trials

Mountain Meadows Massacre | HistoryNet

mountain meadows massacre: one of my family’s best-kept secrets

 


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