On September 11, 1857, a train of emigrants from Arkansas and Missouri driving cattle to California were ambushed and killed in what is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. An already brutal and tragic affair, Mormon Church detractors exploit the incident to defame a faith. The purpose of this article is not to defend the perpetrators, but to give proper historical context and sift fact from accusation.
In July of 1857 the Baker-Fancher Party arrived in Salt Lake City. The group originated in Arkansas, others joined from Missouri, and was destined for California. They followed the Oregon Trail to the Salt Lake cutoff and then headed south through Utah to finish their journey on the Old Spanish Trail. The party is estimated to have been comprised of 120-140 men, women, and children. In addition, they were well-stocked with hundreds of cattle, and several horses, oxen, and mules.
In July the Mormons were celebrating their tenth anniversary since arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, and in the middle of a religious reformation to restore zeal to a people increasingly apathetic. Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith were especially well-known for their fiery sermons. It was in this climate Brigham Young received word that U.S. President Buchanan had cut off mail service to Utah and sent a newly appointed territorial governor, Alfred Cumming, escorted by federal troops, to “restore order.” There was really nothing out of order, but several former appointees of the Utah territory had become embittered with the Mormons because of their block voting and allegiance to Brigham Young, who had been appointed territorial governor by President Mallard Fillmore, and returned east fabricating reports of Mormon treason and insurrection. The Republican Party demanded that action be taken and the President responded. The Mormons had not forgotten the persecutions they had faced prior to their ten years of relative peace, and vowed not to be driven out again. Brigham Young, the governor and Church president, declared martial law, reorganized the defunct Nauvoo Legion, and prepared for a war with the United States. He also solicited the assistance of all the neighboring Indian tribes, claiming that the Mormons and Indians needed to band together to avoid destruction at the hands of the U.S. Army.
Contentions and Accusations
There was not much notice of the Baker-Fancher Party by the Mormon settlers, it being one of many that passed through each year, until they reached Fillmore, 148 miles south of Salt Lake City. Beginning there, many reports arose from the Mormons of rude and threatening behavior from the emigrants. They claimed the Missouri emigrants, who called themselves the Missouri Wildcats, boasted of having participated in the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri and Illinois several years earlier, and even in the killing of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum at Carthage Jail. Another beloved Mormon Church leader, Parley Pratt, had been killed in Arkansas just a few months earlier, and the emigrants from Arkansas boasted of participating in that too. They threatened after they arrived in California, they would return to help the Army deal with the Mormons. There were additional claims that they poisoned a spring which resulted in many getting sick and the deaths of a few Indians and one settler. The veracity of these rumors cannot be verified, but they show that the Mormon settlers felt threatened, having just learned of an invading army and also of threats coming out of California newspapers. Whatever spurred contention between the Mormons and the emigrants, it could not have come at a more dangerous time. Already on edge because of the possible impending war, the association between the emigrants and the murder of Mormon Church leaders may have led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
By the beginning of September the emigrants had reached Mountain Meadows, a mountain pasture outside Cedar City, Utah (250 miles southwest of Salt Lake City), to graze and rest their stock before the last push across the desert to California. At the same time Iron County militia leaders, having received reports and rumors about the threats made by the emigrants, were debating what to do about the party. Initially they dispatched couriers to nearby settlements with orders to leave the emigrants alone, however Major Isaac Haight concocted a plan to incite local Paiute Indians against the emigrants with John D. Lee as their leader. Lee left on September 5 to carry out this plan. The degree of Indian involvement 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 to get orders from Brigham Young. Couriers were also sent to Lee, telling him to protect the emigrants from the Indians until further orders–but too late. Between daylight and sunrise the Indians had attacked the camp at Mountain Meadows, killing several and wounding several more. The emigrants held them off, killing and wounding several of their attackers, and it 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 standoff continued, but on Wednesday night, September 9, two of the emigrants snuck past 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 emigrants were under the impression that their attackers were not the Mormon settlers. When these militia members realized who they had come upon, they attacked, 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, the fear of the impeding war, and the anger toward the behavior of the emigrants was too much. They thought the emigrant who had escaped back to camp would tell them it was Mormons, not Indians they were fighting, and if they let any of them pass to California now, they would surely stir up a mob. On September 10, James Haslam arrived in Salt Lake City and delivered the message to Brigham Young. Haslam began his return trip the same day with Young’s reply to leave the emigrants alone (a copy of the letter is kept in Mormon Church archives). This same day Lee sent word to Cedar City for further orders. What resulted is remembered as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre
By the morning of 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, they 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 emigrant they were marching next to and shot them. 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 there were seventeen of them.
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 done 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 slanted, and the accounts are generally distorted one way or the other. The ability of Mormon critics to describe the events in such detail 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 full, 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. When investigations commenced it was difficult for prosecutors to make a case, especially with Mormon juries. After two trials, John D. Lee was convicted for his involvement and sentenced to death. He was executed and buried in Panguitch, Utah, in 1877. He was the only man tried and convicted for involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
For many years the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a taboo subject among Mormons. It was a tragic event in Mormon history many thought best forgotten. Juanita Brooks, a Mormon, gave the incident its first thorough treatment in decades with her book The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1962. It cleared up many misconceptions and stated the facts plainly. The Mormon Church never endorsed or condemned her work. Before that, Church Historian B. H. Roberts had written about it the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until recently that it became a hot point of debate. In 1999 a new monument was dedicated to the memory of those who died at Mountain Meadows. This may have been a factor in the issue’s resurgence (as well as the development of the internet). It is now used as a point of attack on the Mormon Church, seemingly used as evidence to undermine the credibility of Mormon doctrine or faith.
Two recent books seek to place blame fully on Brigham Young (although John D. Lee would denounce Brigham Young and the others involved in his later years for singling him out, he maintained Young’s innocence concerning the massacre). Will Bagely’s Blood of the Prophets and Sally Denton’s American Massacre have as their thesis the guilt of Brigham Young. Mormon historians Glen Leonard, Richard Turley, and Ronald Walker are currently finishing a book of their own, claiming it to be the definitive work on the subject because of access to previously unavailable Mormon Church historical documents. This is indicative of the thrust-and-parry polemics concerning the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Like most of Mormon history, evidence is conflicting, and the facts serve the ends of those wielding them. What is not debated is that the Baker-Fancher Party was murdered in cold-blood and the perpetrators will stand to be judged of God for their deeds.
The Mormon Church and many of the descendants of those killed have worked to restore goodwill between both sides of this tragic event. The Mountain Meadows Association was founded to this aim.