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Mountain Meadows Massacre?
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A tragic event that stirs hate and dispair, even 150 years later.

One of the most tragic and disturbing events in Mormon history took place on 11 September, 1857, when approximately 120 men, women and children, travelling through Utah to California were massacred by a force consisting of Mormon militia members and Southern Paiute Indians. The Mountain Meadow Massacre, as it is known, has remained a topic of interest and controversy as Mormons and historians struggle to understand this event, and the Church's detractors seek to exploit it for controversial purposes.

Setting the stage

Mormon Settlement

Shortly before July 24th, 1847, the first party of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. These Saints were the first vanguard of Church members who had been driven from Nauvoo, Illinois, by angry mobs. At the time of its first settlement, the area that came to be known as Utah still belonged to Mexico, but was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the end of the Mexican-American War in early 1848. (The treaty ceded all of what would become California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of modern-day Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.)

Over the next two years the bulk of the Church members who had been driven from Nauvoo reached the valley. Great Salt Lake City was built, and under Brigham Young's direction satellite settlements were established north, south, and west of the city. The sites for these settlements were often chosen because of proximity to an important natural resource; one such resource was the iron ore deposits found in what became known as Iron County in Southern Utah.

The continuation of successful missionary work in the Eastern United States and Europe brought a steady influx of Mormon converts to the Mormon communities; the population continued to grow, and settlement expanded outward into present-day Idaho, Canada, Nevada, California, Arizona, Wyoming, and Northern Mexico.

Utah War

In 1850, Utah was established as a U.S. territory, with Brigham Young as its first governor. Because of its territorial status, the federal government retained the right to appoint officials at various levels, in addition to actual federal offices that existed within the territory. While there were no doubt many honest public servants among them, a number of the federal appointees to both territorial and federal positions, including some judges, turned out to be both morally venal and abusive of the prerogatives of their offices. Scandals arose over the behavior of some of these men, who left the territory in disgrace. Rather than accept responsibility for their own failures, a group of them, upon returning to the East, published claims that they had been forcibly expelled, and that the Mormons were rebelling against federal authority.

These claims caused quite an uproar in Washington, where the nascent Republican Party demanded that something be done about the Mormons. Acting without benefit of an investigation, U.S. President James Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming as territorial governor and, on June 29, 1857, ordered federal troops to escort Cumming to Utah. In addition, Buchanan ordered the cessation of all mail service to Utah in an effort to provide the advantage of surprise for the advancing troops.

Despite the efforts of Buchanan to keep the advance of the army secret, Mormon mail runners notified Brigham Young, the incumbent territorial governor, the very next month that the troops were on their way to Utah. He had not been officially notified that he was to be replaced, so he viewed the news—combined with the efforts to hide the movement of the troops—as an act of war by the United States government against the Mormons. Brigham instructed all missionaries to return to Utah, ordered Church missions closed, and the abandonment of the more isolated Mormon colonies. He prepared to defend the territory against the approaching army by adopting a "scorched earth" policy. He sent small parties to harass the approaching troops with the intent of slowing their progress while he prepared the Saints for the very real possibility of imminent battles.

The news of the approaching army spread quickly through the body of the Saints as preparations were made. Many Mormon settlers vividly remembered the hardships of being forcibly (and violently) expelled from Missouri and Illinois, and were resolved not to be driven from their homes again. The mood in the territory was grim and determined. This conflict, known as the Utah War, was ultimately resolved peacefully; but it was into this tense atmosphere that the Baker-Fancher train entered in August of 1857.

The Baker-Fancher Train

The Baker-Fancher train consisted of California-bound emigrants who started their journey in Arkansas and Missouri. The exact number of people in the train is estimated at 120, but some reports have put it as high as 140. This number consisted of men, women, and children. Led by John T. Baker and Alexander Fancher, the train was reported to have been well-stocked, with plenty of cattle, horses, and mules.

The Baker-Fancher train arrived in Salt Lake City about the end of July 1857 and camped west and a little south of the city, on the Jordan River. Their arrival did not apparently raise any eyebrows or concerns, as there was no mention of them in the newspapers of the time. The group was advised by Elder Charles C. Rich to head toward California by circling around the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake, and they started to follow this advice. They got as far as the Bear River, and then decided to take the southern route. This caused them to again pass through Salt Lake City, and then further south through Provo, Springville, and Payson.

There were no reports of problems related to the Baker-Fancher party until they reached Fillmore (about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City). Commencing at this point and through settlements to the south, there were complaints that the emigrants boasted of participating the violence against Mormons in both Missouri and Illinois, that they poisoned a spring, and that they threatened to destroy one of the Mormon settlements.

It was also common knowledge that the train originated in Arkansas, where earlier in the year beloved apostle Parley P. Pratt had been murdered near the town of Van Buren. Rumor had it that some of the members of the train were among those who had participated in Pratt's murder, or that they bragged about his killing. There are also reports that some of the emigrants told a few Latter-day Saints that when they had transported their families to California they were going to return, join the army, and help subdue the Mormons.

If there is any truth to these rumors, it is clear that the travels of the Baker-Fancher train through southern Utah did not go unnoticed, as had been the case in northern Utah. The presence of the train did nothing to alleviate the tensions already present due to the Utah War.

Overland Travel Conditions

Commencing with the opening of Oregon Territory, and accelerated by the discovery of gold in California, large numbers of emigrants crossed the interior of the continent to the West Coast. Before the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869, overland travel was both difficult and dangerous. Native Americans, alarmed by the ever-increasing numbers of white settlers crossing their land, frequently attacked emigrant groups. The weather could also be dangerous, with winter coming early to the high country and sudden storms occurring during all seasons of the year. For protection against all of these hazards, emigrants typically banded together in large parties called "wagon trains," as covered wagons of the "pairie schooner" type were the most typical vehicles used. The climate made overland travel a seasonal affair, as emigrant parties would try to complete their crossings during the warm months. To be caught on the high plains or the mountain passes when winter came was often a deadly mistake.

The Mormon settlements of Utah provided important rest and reprovisioning points for overland travelers. One of the most widely used wagon trails to California branched off the Oregon trail in Northern Utah, and ran almost due South through Salt Lake City to eventually join the Old Spanish Trail. Emigrants could purchase foodstuffs and other supplies from businesses in Salt Lake City and other towns, while their animals--both beasts of burden and any livestock--could find excellent grazing at a spot near Cedar City known as las Vegas de Santa Clara or the Mountain Meadows. It was common for emigrant parties to camp there for several days or even weeks while their animals gained condition for the gruelling desert crossings still to come.


Mountain Meadows Today

The main participants of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

John Doyle Lee was born September 12, 1812, at Kaskaskia, Illinois, and baptised on June 17, 1838. He served numerous missions for the Church and eventually moved to southern Utah in 1850 or 1851. At the time of the massacre he was a major in the Iron County militia, and commander of its Fourth Battalion. Lee was the only person ever brought to trial for his involvement in the massacre.

William H. Dame was, at the time of the massacre, the commander of the Iron Military District with the militia rank of colonel. He was also serving as a bishop in the Mormon Church at that time. He did not participate personally in the massacre, but was, by the standards of military justice applicable both then and now, administratively responsible for the actions of officers and soldiers under his command.

Isaac C. Haight was the commander of the Second Battalion in the Iron County militia with the rank of major, and Colonel Dame's second-in-command. His ecclesiastical position was stake president. Haight's role in the massacre was a complex one; he was involved in its planning, but also made some efforts to stop or at least delay the actions against the emigrants. Efforts to bring Haight and others to justice after the massacre proved to be fruitless.

Philip Klingensmith was a bishop in Cedar City and an officer in the Iron County militia. In this latter role, he carried orders and other messages between various militia officers. He was present at the massacre and subsequently turned states' evidence, but his testimony was of no real help to the authorities.

The Massacre

As the Baker-Fancher train camped at Mountain Meadows, some of the residents of Cedar City and the surrounding areas determined that some action needed to be taken against the emigrants. The heightened anxiety brought on by rumors swirling about the train, the advancing federal troops, the drought that many had suffered through for the year, and the memories of violence in Missouri and Illinois all combined in an explosive atmosphere, yet the residents were unclear on what action they should take.

An excellent summary of events in the days immediately preceding the massacre is provided by Robert H. Briggs, in his essay "Mountain Meadows and The Craft of History," published in Sunstone, December 2002.

"On or about 2 September 1857, some encounters between individuals in the Fancher train and others in the Mormon iron mining settlement of Cedar City sparked an angry reaction among the Mormon settlers. By Friday, 4 September, however, militia leaders in Cedar City had decided against direct Mormon interference with the train. Thus, Major (also stake president) Isaac Haight dispatched couriers to Pinto, a new settlement near the California Road directly west of Cedar City. The couriers, Joel White and Philip Klingensmith, carried orders for settlers there to not interfere with the approaching emigrant train. Meanwhile, however, a pivotal meeting occurred that same evening in Cedar City between Major Isaac Haight of the Second Battalion and Major John D. Lee of the Fourth. What emerged was a plan to incite local Paiute Indians to gather at Mountain Meadows with Lee as their leader. Lee departed in the early hours of Saturday, 5 September. Evidently, Lee had no further contact with militia leaders at Cedar for the better part of the next four days.
Lee returned home to Fort Harmony and laid over on Saturday and part of Sunday, making preparations. He departed for the Meadows on Sunday and arrived there later that afternoon or evening. Other couriers carried word to outlying settlements, each relaying that Indians were to be assembled. There was some confusion about exactly where this rendezvous was to occur. Many Paiutes from the region of Cedar and Fort Harmony were sent to Mountain Meadows. Other bands along the Santa Clara River were urged to gather at Santa Clara Canyon (west of present Veyo).
Similar preparations continued in Cedar City over the weekend but came to a halt in mid-afternoon on Sunday, 6 September. During the usual council meeting of community leaders from Cedar City and outlying settlements, Laban Morrill lead a faction which heatedly opposed Isaac Haight’s plan. Morrill extracted a promise from Haight that no aggressive action would be taken against any emigrants until they had sought the advice of President Brigham Young. Thus, as things stood in Cedar City, the plan was off.
All of this was unknown to John D. Lee. At that moment, Lee was en route to the Mountain Meadows, his adopted Indian son in tow to act as interpreter. They met up with Paiute bands at Mountain Meadows that afternoon or evening. One line of evidence suggests that Santa Clara Canyon, roughly a dozen miles south of Mountain Meadows, was where the planned attack would occur. Yet early Monday morning, 7 September, Lee’s Paiute auxiliary force attacked the emigrant encampment at the southern tip of Mountain Meadows. We will probably never know for certain whether Lee attacked according to a preconceived plan or, driven by some personal desire or impulse, attacked on his own initiative. In any case, as things stood at the Meadows, the attack was on.
Activity erupted throughout Southern Utah. In Cedar City, Major Haight dispatched the youthful Englishman James Haslam to Great Salt Lake City for orders from President Young. Haight also sent an express via Joseph Clews to Amos Thornton at Pinto which Thornton was to relay. In it, Haight ordered Lee to “keep the Indians off the emigrants and protect them from harm until further orders.”8 Thornton rode to the Meadows but searched in vain for Lee. Unbeknownst to Thornton, Lee had gone south, spending the night near Santa Clara Canyon with Mormon militiamen and the Paiute allies he encountered there. This group arrived at the Meadows on Tuesday afternoon, 8 September. That is the earliest Lee could have received an express that the planned attack had been postponed.
There were additional expresses between Tuesday, 8 September and Thursday, 10 September. The most significant of these was one from militia headquarters in Parowan which conveyed the ambiguous order to save emigrants lives yet not to precipitate a war with the Indians under any circumstances. "

In a meeting at Cedar City on the afternoon of September 6, 1857, local leaders received word that the wagon train, at Mountain Meadows, had been surrounded by Paiute Indians who were determined to attack the emigrants. (Some historians are undecided as to whether Paiute Indians were actually involved in the massacre at all; some assert that it was white men disguised as Indians.) The leaders decided that they needed to ask Brigham Young what to do, so they dispatched a fast rider to Salt Lake City with a message to that effect. James H. Haslam, the messenger, left on Monday, September 7, and made the 300-mile journey in just a little more than three days. Within an hour he had an answer from Brigham 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." Unfortunately, the messenger arrived back in Cedar City two days after the massacre, on September 13, 1857.

As Haslam was leaving for Salt Lake City on September 7, the Indians' attack commenced. Several of the emigrants were killed, as were several of the Indians, producing a stalemate situation. The emigrants circled their wagons and dug into a rifle pit, and the Indians sent a call to the surrounding country for reinforcements. They also sent for John D. Lee, an area farmer on friendly terms with the Indians. According to Lee's later court testimony, the Indians asked him to help with the attack. Lee instead sent word to Cedar City on September 10, asking what should be done.

It is at this point that the exact nature of the events becomes sketchy; most are provided by Lee, and the veracity of his testimony is naturally suspect. He indicated that in short order there were quite a few other Indians and white settlers who had joined the group outside of the siege. The night of September 10 and the following morning the whites debated what to do. It appears that one incident which factored into their eventual murderous decision was the killing, the night before, of one of the emigrants by white men. It appears that two men from the Baker-Fancher party left the camp, evaded those surrounding their camp, and started toward Cedar City to request help. Within a few miles the two met three white men, whom they asked for help, but then they were attacked by the white men. One of the two was killed, and the other was able to make his way back to the Baker-Fancher party.

How could such news factor into the decision to massacre the emigrants? There is no doubt the news that both Indians and white men—Mormons—were attacking the emigrants was not well received. If any of the emigrants should escape to California and tell the story, prejudice against the Mormons—already quite high—would be incited and there would be greater likelihood that a military force would move upon the southern settlements from the west. Facing down an army from the east might be bearable, but facing one from both the east and the west was unbearable.

Such reasoning does not excuse, of course, the decision that the white men in the area then made; it is only offered as a way to understand some of the excitement and the hysteria that enveloped those in the area. The decision was apparently made on the morning of September 11 to destroy those in the Baker-Fancher party who were over the age of seven. To effect the massacre with a minimum of loss among the white men, it was decided to lure the emigrants out of their circled wagons and into the open. In the words of B.H. Roberts,

The conception was diabolical; the execution of it horrible; and the responsibility for both must rest upon those men who conceived and executed it; for whatever of initiative may or may not have been taken by the Indians in the first assault upon these emigrants, responsibility for this deliberately planned massacre rests not with them.

Thus it was that on September 11, a flag of truce was carried to the Baker-Fancher party by William Bateman. He was met outside the camp by one of the emigrants, a Mr. Hamilton, and an arrangement was made for John D. Lee to speak to the emigrants. Lee described to them a plan to get them through the hostile Indians. The plan involved the emigrants giving up their arms, loading the wounded into wagons, and then being followed by the women and the older children, with the men bring up the rear of the company in a single-file order. In return for compliance with these terms, the white men would give the emigrants safe conduct back to Cedar City where they would be protected until they could continue their journey to California.

The emigrants agreed, the wagons were brought forward and loaded with the wounded and the weapons, and the procession started toward Cedar City. Within a short distance, one armed white man was positioned near each of the Baker-Fancher party adults, ostensibly for protection. When all was in place, a pre-determined signal was given and each of the armed white men turned, shot, and killed each of the unarmed Baker-Fancher party members. Within three to five minutes the entire massacre of men, women, and older children was completed. The only members of the original party remaining were those children judged to be under eight years old, numbering about 17 persons.

Historical Healing

The events that transpired during the Mountain Meadows Massacre have (and should) live in infamy; there is no explanation that will justify the murders of those five days in September, and we cannot fully understand them. In the words of one scholar, "the complete—the absolute—truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it are all very inadequate at best." [Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Revised Edition (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 223.]

In spite of the tragedy, efforts have been made to heal the wounds that were gouged into the collective American psyche 150 years ago. In the 1980s descendants of the victims and the perpetrators met together to start bridging the divide and make peace with the past. In a series of meetings, the seeds of trust were planted and a hopeful sense of accord started to bloom. On September 15, 1990, many of these descendants gathered together at Mountain Meadows to dedicate a memorial and marker to those who died there. The new memorial was a rendition of the original rock cairn constructed at the site by a military expedition under the direction of Major James H. Carleton about two years after the massacre.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre stands without a parallel amongst the crimes that stain the pages of American history. It was a crime committed without cause or justification of any kind to relieve it of its fearful character... When nearly exhausted from fatigue and thirst, [the men of the caravan] were approached by white men, with a flag of truce, and induced to surrender their arms, under the most solemn promises of protection. They were then murdered in cold blood.

-William Bishop, Attorney to John D. Lee

Mountain Meadows was a terrible and tragic event. Many of the descendants of the victims of the massacre now hold a hate towards the LDS church for their own reasons. Many believe that the Brigham Young ordered the massacre. I firmly believe that he did not. There is neither enough evidence to say that he did, nor to say that he didn't. John D. Lee was acting on his own accord, and made a very bad decision. This event should be recognized and remembered, but we should not remember in hate.
As the current leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaimed, "...we may never know what really Mountain Meadows."

I have no doubt, on the basis of what I have studied and learned, that Mormons, including local leaders of our church, were prime movers in that terrible episode and participated in the killing. And what a terrible thing to contemplate, that the barbarity of the frontier, and the conditions of the Utah war and whatever provocations were perceived to have been given, would have led to such an extreme episode, such an extreme atrocity perpetrated by members of my faith. I pray that the Lord will comfort those that are still bereaved by it, and I pray that he can find a way to forgive those who took such a terrible action against their fellow beings.

- Dallin H. Oaks, Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Other readings about the Mountain Meadows Massacre

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