On September 11, 1857, a group of travelers passing through Utah were killed on their way to California. The group responsible for the tragedy was Mormon settlers who were living in Utah at the time. This incident is referred to as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Many use this incident to defame the church as a whole. This church is still having to answer questions and dispel myths about the Mormon Church that this tragedy surfaced. However, much speculation and many false rumors have circulated concerning this incident in history that we must dispel in order to truly understand the issue.
The Baker-Fancher Party came to Salt Lake City in July of 1857. The group was originally from Arkansas and picked up some from Missouri on their way. Their destination was California. It is estimated that the group consisted of 140 men, women, and children. 40 well-equipped wagons and household items, gold, and currency amounting to about $100,000 were brought by the travelers as they would settle in their new land. However, they would not make it to California.
The Utah War
In July, 1857, Utah harbored much hostility and mostly fear towards the American government. 1857 marked the tenth year of Mormons settling in the Utah Valley. There was a great amount of pride and zeal among the Mormons. They had escaped the Mormon persecution in the east and had established their Zion in Salt Lake. The saints were extremely protective of their new home, and would not be kicked out, as they had been in Missouri and Nauvoo. Fear of losing their home to the government or to other groups of settlers was great among the saints at this time.
That same year, Brigham Young learned that President Buchanan had cut off mail service to Utah. Also, President Buchanan was planning on demanding Brigham Young out of his office as governor and was planning to replace him with someone less threatening to the US government. President Buchanan had plans to send troops to Utah to “restore order” among the saints. Mormons hadn’t broken the law but there was, in general, a fear of the power Mormons held. They voted as a block, giving them much power in government. Many feared Brigham Young’s duel position as governor and prophet of the Mormon Church. President Buchanan was simply responding to the reports of Mormon treason that were widespread opinions held throughout the country.
Brigham Young was not happy to hear about President Buchanan’s plans. Young declared martial law, put the Nauvoo Legion back into place, and prepared for war against the country. In his preparation, he allied himself with groups of neighboring Indians.
Contention, Hostility, Miscommunication
Trouble arose when the Baker-Fancher Party reached Fillmore, Utah. Mormons were threatened by the party’s presence in their land, which was somewhat under attack by the US government. Fear and tension was high. Mormons reported that the group claimed to be called the Missouri Wildcats, bragging about their role in driving the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois – and even about killing Joseph Smith, the first prophet and founder of the Mormon Church, and other church leaders like Hyrum Smith and Parley P. Pratt. The murder of a sacred prophet would have been enough to provoke the massacre for Mormons. They also claimed to have poisoned a spring that killed a number of Indians and a Mormon settler. Mormons also overheard the group saying that they intended to return to Utah after they reached California to help the US Army deal with the Mormons.
We are unable to confirm whether or not these reports were true but they do prove one thing; fear and tension among the Mormons was high. The Army was coming, threats against them were coming out of California newspapers, and Baker-Fancher party only fueled Mormon fears.
In early September, the emigrants reached Mountain Meadows, a pasture outside Cedar City, Utah. The group intended to rest in this area before traveling on to California. The rumors about the party had reached the militia leaders of Iron County. At first, these leaders sent word to nearby settlements to leave the party alone. Despite this initial plan, Major Isaac Haight gave orders to the Paiute Indians to attack the party. John D. Lee carried out Haight’s attack against the party. Opinions were divided among leaders on how to handle the threat of the Baker-Fancher party. The leaders decided to enlist Brigham Young and ask his advice on what to do.
Brigham Young ordered the men not to take action but the orders were received too late. By the time Lee received Young’s order, the Indians had already attacked the camp at Mountain Meadows, killing several. The attack lasted four days. Historians attempt to gather as much information as they can about the incident, however, some questions and facts remain unknown and uncovered.
Two of the party members escaped the Indian seize on September 9th and stole away to Cedar City for help. They ran across a few members of the Mormon militia on the way and turned to them for help. At this point, it is speculated, that the settlers didn’t think Mormons had anything to do with the attack. When the Mormon militia discovered that the two men were apart of the Baker-Fancher party, they killed them immediately. When these two men were killed, is when Mormons became tied to the massacre. This incident gave the party a reason to hate the Mormons and give them real reason to come back to Utah and attack Mormons. The militia members were terrified of the consequences of their own fearful and awful actions.
After the killing of the two party members, Brigham Young remained firm in his order to the militia to leave the settlers alone.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre
However, blood would be shed at the Mountain Meadows, despite the order from Brigham Young. Lee informed the party that if they surrendered, gave up their weapons, then the Indians would leave them along and the Mormons would allow them safe passage to Cedar City, allowing them to resume their trip to California. At this point, the party was running low on supplies, ammunition, and spirit. Many of their party members had been killed already. They surrendered to the militia.
And so, the militia escorted the party out of the territory. Then, out of nowhere, the leader of the march gave a signal, calling out “Do your duty!” Each militia member shot the Baker-Fancher party member they marched next to. The entire wagon party was murdered, with the exception of only very small children who were spared.
After the Massacre……
Brigham Young’s orders were received on September 13, 2 days after the massacre. The local leaders played off the massacre as an Indian attack. The massacre was largely forgotten, as a new governor and army arrived in the Utah territory. But before long, white settlers began being implicated in the massacre. 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 Cumming’s opinion that anything whites had done during the war was covered by it. No one made formal investigations at this time. However, unofficial accounts were written up, including one by Mark Twain, Roughing It. It was extremely difficult to draw conclusions because the only survivors of the massacre were young children and the people responsible for the massacre weren’t talking about it.
Many people living in Arkansas, where the wagon party originated, were furious. Normally, a federal investigation would have been conducted had it not been for the Civil War. After the Civil War in 1870, the issue reignited and would be investigated. By that time, it had been fifteen years since the incident. Tempers had cooled, much of the evidence was lost, and the Mormons banded together to protect their own, guilty or innocent. With little evidence after fifteen years, 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 is an incident in history that the Mormon Church would like to forget. Many consider it a terrible tragedy best left forgotten.
However, many Mormon historians today are not shying away from talking about the issue. 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 or 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. Two books, recently published, try to put the entire blame on Brigham Young – Blood of the Prophets and American Massacre.
In 1999, Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated 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. Many Anti-Mormons still use the Mountain Meadows Massacre to attack the Mormon Church.
Today, leaders of the Mormon religion and descendants of those killed have worked to restore goodwill between the two groups. In an attempt to accomplish this, the Mountain Meadows Association was founded.