Mountain Meadows Massacre
On September 11, 1857, a train of migrants driving cattle through Utah were ambushed and killed on the way to California. This is called the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and it is one of the greatest tragedies in Mormon history. This no one denies. However, critics of the Mormon Church use this massacre to defame the faith as a whole and Brigham Young especially. This article will hopefully give the massacre its proper context and divide fact from accusation.
The Baker-Fancher Party came to Salt Lake City in July of 1857. The party was originally from Arkansas, but others had joined from Missouri. The party probably consisted of between 120 to 140 men, women, and children (and hundreds of cattle). Their destination was California.
The Utah War
That very July, the Mormons celebrated their tenth anniversary in the Salt Lake Valley. This was also a time of fiery sermons, to a people who’d replaced their zeal with apathy. In the middle of this, Brigham Young learned President Buchanan had cut off mail service to Utah and was sending a new territorial governor (Brigham Young was serving as governor at the time, as well as the President of the Mormon Church). And this new governor was coming escorted by troops to “restore order.” The Mormons had done nothing out of line, but they did tend to vote as a block and had elected Brigham Young as their governor, which had been a very bitter thing for some former appointees of the territory. They brought reports of Mormon insurrection and treason to Washington and the Republican Party, and the President responded.
The persecutions the Mormons had suffered in the East were still fresh, despite the ten years peaceful distance, and they refused to be driven out of Utah. Brigham Young declared martial law, put the Nauvoo Legion back into place, and prepared for war. He also sought alliances with all the neighboring Indian tribes, believing that banding together was essential to avoid destruction.
Contentions and Accusations
No one noticed the Baker-Fancher Party much until they reached Fillmore. But once the party reached Fillmore, the Mormons made report of rude and threatening behavior from the migrants. They claimed the Missouri members of the party called themselves the Missouri Wildcats, and bragged about driving the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois – and even about killing Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, and his brother Hyrum. The Mormons further reported that the migrants from Arkansas bragged about killing another Mormon Church leader, Parley P. Pratt, just a few months before. They also claimed to have poisoned a spring that killed a number of Indians and a Mormon settler. Further, the party said that, once they got to California, they’d come back to help the Army deal with the Mormons.
We can’t be certain if these reports were true or not, but the Mormons felt very threatened. The Army was coming, threats against them were coming out of California newspapers, and this party only fueled Mormon fears. Even if the rumors were false, the association of these migrants with the murder of Joseph Smith and others may have led to the Massacre.
The migrants reached Mountain Meadows, a pasture outside Cedar City, Utah, in the beginning of September. There, they intended to graze and rest their cattle before pushing across the desert to California. The rumors, by this time, had reached the militia leaders of Iron County. At first, these leaders sent word to nearby settlements to leave the party alone. However, Major Isaac Haight decided to incite the local Paiute Indians against the party. John D. Lee left on September 5th, with others, to carry out Haight’s plan. We’re not entirely sure how much the Indians were involved, whether extensively, slightly, or not at all, but we are certain of Haight’s order and Lee’s involvement. But even on September 6th, in an Iron County council meeting, opinions were divided. Haight, obviously wanted to take action, but he was finally persuaded by Laban Morill to ask Brigham Young what to do.
James Haslam rode toward Salt Lake City on the morning of September 7 to get orders from Brigham Young. Messengers were also sent to Lee, telling him to hold off, but it was too late. Lee didn’t receive the information until that afternoon. The Indians (we think) had already attacked the camp at Mountain Meadows and killed several, but the attack turned into a stand-off, a siege, that lasted for four days.
Two of the party managed to sneak past the Indians on September 9th and headed for Cedar City to get help. They ran across a few members of the militia on the way and turned to them for help. This would suggest that the migrants didn’t think that the attack on their party had anything to do with the Mormon settlers. But when the militia realized who the migrants were, they attacked, killing one. But the other escaped.
Mormons believe that this event sealed the fate of the Baker-Fancher Party. The Mormons had struck openly and the migrants would know they were hostile. Now, if the party made it to California, they would have concrete reason to stir up the state against the Mormons. The entire state might come to wipe them out. The militia members were terrified of the consequences of their own fearful and awful actions.
James Haslam made it to Salt Lake City on September 10 and gave Brigham Young the message. He began his return trip the same day, with a letter from Brigham Young telling the Iron County militia to leave the settlers alone. This same day, Lee sent to Cedar City for further orders.
The result was the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre
Fifty to sixty militia members were at Mountain Meadows by the morning of the next day, September 11. They raised a white flag, which was answered by one Mr. Hamilton. Lee told him that if the party gave up their weapons, the Indians would leave them alone, and the Mormons would allow them safe passage to Cedar City, where they could resume their journey to California. The party, exhausted and low on ammunition, with several dead and more dying, accepted. Guns were loaded on one wagon, wounded on another, and the group went in single file: wagons, women and children, men. Each male member of the party had a militia member marching on his right. When the group reached a patch of scrub oak and cedar, the leader of the march gave a signal. This is reported to have been “Do your duty!” Each militia member shot the man they marched next to. Reportedly, the Indians fell on the group as well. A few managed to escape, at first, but were caught and killed. Only the youngest children were spared. There were seventeen of them.
The Aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
Brigham Young’s orders arrived two days too late. September 13. John D. Lee later went to Salt Lake City to report.
The local leaders described the massacre as an Indian attack. Because of the arrival of the new governor and the army, the massacre was largely forgotten. But then evidence and accusation began to implicate white settlers. Brigham Young asked the new governor, Cummings, to make an investigation. But President Buchanan had granted amnesty to the Mormons for the Utah War in 1858 and it was Cummings’ opinion that anything whites had done during the war was covered by it. No one made formal investigations at this time, but several unofficial accounts were written up, including one by Mark Twain in Roughing It. These accounts, though, were distorted and based on mostly supposed evidence. The only survivors of the massacre were young children, and the people responsible for the massacre weren’t talking about it.
Many people in Arkansas were furious. Despite the amnesty, a full, federal investigation might have been inevitable if it hadn’t been for the Civil War. Afterwards, though, in the 1870s, the issue reignited. By that time, however, it had been fifteen years since the incident. Tempers had cooled, much of the evidence was lost, and the Mormons, still wary of the recurrence of persecution, did band together to protect their own, guilty or innocent. With Mormon juries facing the prosecutors, the case was difficult to make. John D. Lee was the only man convicted for his involvement. He was executed in 1877.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre was a taboo subject among Mormons for many years, a terrible tragedy best left forgotten. Even so, Church Historian B.H. Roberts wrote about it in the early 1900s and Juanita Brooks, a Mormon writer, gave the event a very thorough treatment through a book published in 1962, which the Church never endorsed nor condemned. Although her book was nicely detailed, straightforward, and cleared up many misconceptions, the massacre was not really a topic of debate at the time.
In 1999, Gordon B. Hinckley helped dedicate a new monument at Mountain Meadows, in memory of the dead. Perhaps partly because of this, and partly because of the Internet, the issue resurged in importance. The massacre is used as a point from which to attack Mormonism and Mormon doctrine.
Two books, recently published, try to put the entire blame on Brigham Young – Blood of the Prophets and American Massacre. Although John D. Lee would, in fact, later denounce Brigham Young and others for singling him and only him out as the perpetrator, even he always insisted on Young’s innocence. Historians of Church history (Mormon), Glen Leonard, Richard Turley, and Ronald Walker are finishing a book on the subject, which they believe will be definitive because they have access to historical documents not previously available.
But no one argues that the Baker-Fancher Party was murdered in cold blood and that those responsible will be judged of the Lord.
Leaders in the Mormon religion 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.