Mountain Meadows: Pioneering Families See Terror and Murder

Last week, we saw how, in 1990, Danny Rolling inflicted terror on the college students in Gainesville, Florida. This week, we look back more than 160 years to an incident even more terrifying. In 1857 Utah, Mormon militia members massacred between 120 and 140 people travelling from Arkansas to California at Mountain Meadows.

The Mountain Meadows

An oasis of grass in mountainous southwestern Utah, the Mountain Meadows was a spot where travelers could graze their animals. It was, if you will, a nineteenth-century rest stop on the old Spanish Trail. Utah in 1857 was not yet a state but a territory. Its governor was Brigham Young, who was also president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In effect, Utah then was a theocracy and Young was virtually its absolute monarch.

Panoramic view of the Mountain Meadows in 2009 (Phil Konstantin)
Panoramic view of the Mountain Meadows in 2009 (Phil Konstantin)

Joseph Smith founded the LDS church in western New York in 1830. The next year, Smith moved the church to Kirtland, Ohio. He also established an outpost in Jackson County, Missouri, where he planned to eventually move the church. But Missouri residents, perhaps jealous of Mormon success and definitely concerned about their growing political power, drove the Mormons out. Their next stop was Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were jailed in Carthage, Illinois in 1844, accused of treason. While in jail, a mob killed both men. Brigham Young then took over as leader of the LDS church and, in 1847, led his followers west to Utah.

Brigham Young. Historians continue to debate his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Brigham Young. Historians continue to debate his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

A decade later, what Young envisioned as a pre-millennial “Kingdom of God” was mostly flourishing in the deserts and mountains of Utah. Although Utah was a territory of the United States, the LDS was notably reluctant to accept federal authority.

The Utah War

Soon after taking office in March 1857, President James Buchanan decided to replace Young as governor. Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming and ordered about 2,000 U.S. troops under Colonel Edmund Alexander to the Salt Lake valley. They were to establish an outpost in the territory.

Utah Governor Alfred Cumming
Utah Governor Alfred Cumming

In Utah, officials and residents alike viewed the Federal troops as an invading army sent to annihilate them. They prepared for war. Both sides were, in fact, ready to fight. However, although the conflict lasted until 1858, the “Utah War” had a few skirmishes but no battles as such. In the end, both parties reached a compromise. President Buchanan offered a free pardon to all Mormons for acts incident to the conflict. In turn, the Mormons agreed to submit to government authority.

Siege at Mountain Meadows

If you were paying attention to the dates, you noticed that the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred during the Utah War. The chain of events leading to the tragedy in Utah began on May Day 1857. It was then that a wagon train led by Capt. John Baker and Alexander Fancher left Arkansas for California. The Arkansas emigrants followed the California Trail through present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming before ending up in Salt Lake City.

Refused supplies in Salt Lake, the wagons turned southwest following the old Spanish Trail. They reached the Mountain Meadows on September 5 or 6. There was plenty of grass for their animals and a freshwater spring.

The Baker-Fancher pary's campsite at the Mountain Meadows in 2005 (author's photo)
The Baker-Fancher pary’s campsite at the Mountain Meadows in 2005 (author’s photo)

On Monday, September 7, a party of Mormon militia disguised as Paiute Indians attacked the emigrants in their camp. Despite the surprise attack, the Baker-Fancher party quickly regrouped, chained their wagon wheels together, and returned fire.

However, the Arkansans couldn’t withstand a protracted siege. Their ammunition and food quickly dwindled, and they were unable to reach the spring for fresh water. Although a few actual Paiutes participated, it was clear to the besieged emigrants that white men were among the attackers.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

After five days under attack, Mormon militia leader John D. Lee approached the campsite under a white flag. He offered to conduct the travelers safely to Cedar City, about 35 miles away. But the emigrants would have to surrender their wagons and their weapons. As outlandish as that sounds, the Baker-Fancher party probably had little choice by then but to accept those terms.

John D. Lee, the only person convicted of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
John D. Lee, the only person convicted of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

The Mormon militia divided the emigrants into three groups: the men, the women and children, and the wounded. A militia escort accompanied each male member of the Baker-Fancher party. Then, according to a pre-arranged, plan, a signal was given. The militiamen then turned and shot the man they were escorting. More militia hiding in nearby bushes ambushed and killed the women and children. Seventeen children, thought to be too young to tell the story, survived.

Christopher "Kit" Carson Fancher was 6 at the time and survived the massacre
Christopher “Kit” Carson Fancher was 6 at the time and survived the massacre

Every militiaman was sworn to secrecy. The plan was to blame Native Americans for the murders. There was considerable effort to cover up the massacre as well. Although the Los Angeles Star printed a report in 1857, the killings didn’t become general knowledge until two years later. In that year, Brevet Major James H. Carleton, who led the first federal investigation, published his findings.

James Henry Carleton conducted the first federal investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
James Henry Carleton conducted the first federal investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Epilogue

LDS leaders blamed the Baker-Fancher party themselves for the massacre, citing their allegedly disorderly and violent behavior. Most historians reject claims that the emigrants were overly unruly. It’s likely a combination of war hysteria, violent Mormon sermons, and jealousy of the emigrants’ obvious wealth were all factors.

Sarah Frances Baker Mitchell  (L) , then 3, and Nancy Sophrina Huff Cates (R), then 4, both survived the massacre
Sarah Frances Baker Mitchell (L) , then 3, and Nancy Sophrina Huff Cates (R), then 4, both survived the massacre

Seventeen years after the massacre, LDS leader (and Brigham Young’s adopted son) John D. Lee stood trial for the massacre. His first trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial in 1876 resulted in a conviction. Lee was executed by firing squad at the Mountain Meadows in 1877, twenty years after the original tragedy. Lee never denied his complicity but claimed he had not personally killed anyone and was nothing but a scapegoat. However, in his Life and Confessions of John D. Lee maintained that Brigham Young himself instigated the massacre. Historians have debated Young’s involvement ever since. Given the immense power he wielded in Utah, it’s difficult to believe that the massacre could have happened without at least Young’s knowledge.

Memorial at the Mountain Meadows campiste of the Baker-Fancer party in 2005 (author's photo)
Memorial at the Mountain Meadows campiste of the Baker-Fancer party in 2005 (author’s photo)

The Mountain Meadows Massacre remained largely unknown, hidden by LDS obfuscation for almost a century. Then Juanita Brooks, herself an active member of the LDS Church, published The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950. This was the first book to shine a critical light on the incident. Although the Church didn’t take any official action, unofficially Brooks faced ostracism for criticizing the LDS. In 2002, Will Bagley built on Brooks’ initial work in his book, Blood of the Prophets.

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One Reply to “Mountain Meadows: Pioneering Families See Terror and Murder”

  1. Very sad! This country has a lot of sad untold history. I think all history that happened in this country should be taught in all our schools across this country!

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