Tuesday, September 11, 2007

911: Remembering another American Tragedy, Mountain Meadows

I took this photo of the site of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre this summer when I was my way into the Pine Valley Mountains to backpack. The cottonwoods in the valley (middle left) mark the site of the spring where the wagon train had camped.

Today is the sixth anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. It is also the150th anniversary of another tragedy in our history, Mountain Meadow’s, the largest massacre of a wagon train in the American West. Both attacks were made by supposedly religious folks acting in a zealous devotion to their leader and, as they mistaken believed, to their god.

In 1857, Utah Territory was abuzz with talk of war against the United States. Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon Church as well as the practical political leader of the territory, encouraged his followers to get ready for an invasion by the American army. That summer, a military detachment lead by Col. Albert Sidney Johnson (later, he would be the Southern General killed at Shiloh) was assembling for their march west, across the plains. Their purpose was to enforce federals laws in Utah, especially polygamy laws, and also to protect the territorial governors and judges who were appointed by the President. In preparation for the pending showdown, Young ordered his followers not to trade with wagon trains passing through the territory for California, but to store up supplies for war. He also allowed the faithful, along with the Paiute Indians, to help themselves to the goods and animals that accompanied the trains. One train that summer had lost 300 head of cattle to raiders. This policy of the Mormon leaders created hardship for those who were making the western journey. Not only were their goods subject to confiscation, they also were unable to trade extra cows for needed stables, especially flour. To make things even more unstable, Mormon leaders had been traveling the territory that summer, preaching fiery sermons designed to excite the faithful to protect themselves and to avenge the death of a Mormon leader earlier that year in Arkansas. With tensions running high, Utah was a dangerous place to be in 1857, especially if you were not a faithful member of the Mormon Church.

The Fancher party, a wagon train of some 120 men, women and children was making its way southwest, through Utah, late at summer. Why they didn’t go the normal route, crossing Nevada and following the Humboldt River is subject to some speculation (the elder Fanchers had made three trips to California, using both the northern and the southern routes. Maybe they were behind schedule and with memories of the Donner party disaster in the Sierra’s early in the fall a decade early helped them decide to take the southern route around the snowy Sierra passes. Or maybe, the grass was better that year along the southern route, or the Natives were thought to be less restless in the South. Both routes were filled with danger, hostile bands of natives along with long stretches without water. Or maybe they had planned all along to head and settle in Southern California. Whatever their reason, their decision to head south through Utah was a fateful one. As Will Bagley notes in his substantial work, Blood of the Prophets, “Once the Fancher party left Salt Lake, it disappeared into a historical maze built of lies, folklore, popular myth, justification, and a few facts.” All the information on the party’s travels came from those either involved in the murder or the cover-up. We can assume that along the way, they continued to try to buy flour and needed stables, but were denied at every town. According to accounts told by those involved in the massacre, the men of the party began to brag about how they’d be a part of those who had slaughtered Mormons at Haun’s Mill in Missouri. Not to be outdone, another bragged to have the gun that shot Joe Smith, the founding prophet of the church. Because most of the party had come from Arkansas, rumor got around that some of the men had been present when Parley Pratt was killed. Pratt was a beloved Mormon leader had been murdered in Arkansas earlier in the year. (The Pratt murder is an interesting side story, as he was killed by his twelfth wife’s legal husband). Other rumors also circulating said that the party had poisoned springs used by the Pauites (a trick the Mormons had used in their war with the Goshutes a few years earlier) or poisoned animals that had died which they knew would have been eaten by the Indians. With tension already running high, such talk and rumors inflamed the situation and the Fancher party pushed hard to get out of Mormon territory.

On Sunday evening, September 6, 1857, the party staggered into Mountain Meadows, a spot known to wagon masters heading south as a place to rest animals and to stock up on grass for the long journey through the Mojave Desert. The predawn hours the next day, Monday, September 7, 1857, Mormon Elder John Lee, accompanied by militia from Cedar City and Harmony who had donned Indian war paint, along with a band of Paiute Indians, attacked. Members of the wagon train quickly grabbed weapons and surprised the attackers by repealing the initial assault, killing one Pauite and wounding a couple others. As day broke, the party circled their wagons, creating a fort, and sent out scouting parties to find the Indians who had attacked them.

The siege of the wagon train continued all week. Attempts by the emigrants to get word and help from other wagon trains following them failed. By Friday, September 11, the Fancher party was tired and running out of ammunition. At this point, John Lee who was now dressed normally, rode in as a savior, saying that he and his men would protect the party from the angry Paiutes and give them safe passage back to Cedar City. Desperate, they agreed to Lee’s terms. His militia (their war paint washed off), collected their weapons and pretended to protect them from the Indians as they divided the party up into groups of men, women and children. The groups were led them toward the north end of the valley and Cedar City. Before they left the valley, the Mormon Indian allies attacked and were assisted by the Mormon militia. Everyone in the party over the age of six was killed.

Supposedly, Lee had previously requested instruction from Brigham Young, asking if he should exterminate the party. Two days after the attack, word came back with the message to let them go. Although Young may not have given the direct word to attack, his rhetoric that summer had created conditions ripe for such a situation. Justice was long coming for the murders. It took years for full details to get out about the attack and by then the nation’s attention was held by the impending Civil War. In 1877, John Doyle Lee, the leader of the Mormons in the South was offered up as a sacrifice. After being found guilty, he was executed by firing squad at the Mountain Meadows site. No one else was charged with the murders of over a hundred men, women and children.

For years, little was known about the attacks. Lots of materials concerning the attacks are missing and there are no accounts from members of the Fancher’s party. Mark Twain had a chapter on the attack in Roughing It. In 1950, Juanita Brooks, a brave woman historian published her research in The Mountain Meadows Massacre. For the next fifty years, her book would be the best source of information on the attack. When I first visited the site in the early 1990s, there was plaque noting that the worst massacre on the overland trail had occurred there in 1857, but there was no suggestion as to who was to blame and one was left to assume it was either Indians or Space Aliens. There was no mention of Mormon involvement and the only mention of the church involved an acknowledgement that members of the Mormon Battalion after having been mustered out of the army following the Mexican War had traveled through the area. In the late 1990s, the LDS Church did install a new plaque, noting the involvement of Mormon settlers, saying they attacked for unknown reasons. In the past few years a number of books have explored the events surrounding the massacre including Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young ad the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 2002).


  1. The crossing over the Colorado River (between Page and the north rim of the Grand Canyon), Lee's Ferry, is named after Lee.

    There are so many different versions of this story, depending on where you are, who you talk to, and what historian has researched it. We will never know exactly what happened, sadly enough.

  2. Dawn, there is also a "Lee's Pass" in the Kolob Section of Zion. One of the stories (told mostly verbally in Cedar City), is that the Leigh family--a prominent family there--changed their name from Lee, after J. D. Lee's execution

    You're right about not knowing the full story. Many documents don't exist (or never existed) and their was great secrecy involved. Most of my knowledge of the event comes from Bagley and Brooks.

  3. As usual, I enjoyed the picture. I recently saw the movie 'September Dawn' which was about this very topic albeit with a few fictionalized events mixed in (like a love story between a Mormon boy and one of the girls in the wagon train) so it's neat to see the actual spot it happened at.

  4. Wow, I had never heard of this. Fascinating story. That is bizarre and disturbing that the plaque didn't mention any Mormon involvement.

  5. Imagine how history would have been written if religion had been kept private.

  6. I also heard about this in Under the Banner of Heaven, a fascinating book about religious fanatics . . .

  7. Great post Sage. It's always great to read about what happened long ago. I enjoyed it.

    It's hard to believe that 9-11 was six years ago.

  8. Murf, I will have to see that movie--September Dawn (btw, I love that name and once camped for two nights by a lake named September Dawn (or was it Sept. Morn), high in the Beartooth Mts of Montana.

    Diesel, there is now a plaque that admits their involvement--but it wasn't put up until the late '90s.

    Karen, religion can be for great good or terrible evil--it often seems to run the extremes.

    Diane, that book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is fasinating--I keep trying to get information about the Warren Jeff's trial in Utah (he's the prophet for the Fundamentalist LDS Church)

    Joe, it doesn't sem like it was that long ago, does it, so much changed on that day

  9. I bet you love 'September Morn' by Neil Diamond as well. ;-) I know I do.

  10. This is an interesting bit of history I knew nothing about. After the post, I went back to the photo and it looked different to me, kind of spooky.

    I have friends that were once Mormon who have some strange stories to tell about the faith. I'll have to share what you've written here with them.

  11. Religion makes people do some weird things...doesn't it?

  12. ooof. horrible.

    what happened to the children aged under six? any ideas?

  13. Murf, Yes, like that song--actually there is a lot of Neil Diamond's songs I like

    Scarlet, How did the photo look different? that is spooky

    Mistress, Religion often brings out the best and the worst in folks

    Keda, at first, the kids were "adopted" into Mormon homes, but then the US Govt. took them and reunited them with relatives back in Arkansas

  14. There is a book "Train to Pakistan" dealing with Partisan of India. A true account.

    That train carried dead bodies from each side..India and Pakistan..killed by religious fanatics from each side.
    Each day hundreds were murdered and loaded into the train--up and down both.

    Not even childrn were spared. Fanatics have no religion.

  15. Hallelujiah! Finally we have some common ground!

  16. Gautami, I may have to look that book up, Freedom at Midnight" also tells about those trains and the movie "Earth" shows the situation (I've reviewed both of them in my blog).

    Murf, yeah, yeah, yeah, that one song would get awfully old quick if I was stuck in a car with you!

  17. Train to Pakistan is written by Khushwant Singh.

    And I misspelled partition...:D

  18. Neil Diamond rocks!

    Great story on that place and kind of the rest of the story for my little mini-vacation. I'll have to add the movie to my list and possibly one of the books.