History of Indian Depredations in Utah (no mention of the Mormon Mountain Meadows Massacre) - 1919

John Taylor's sermon on his treason and hatred of the United States of America - 8/231857

Mountain Meadows Mormon Massacre Smoking Gun Sermon - 9/13/1857

Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows


The tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857

Philip Klingon Smith Confession

William H. Rogers Confession

Bibliographic Perspective

John D. Lee Confession

Utah Indian History

More Information on the Mormon Mountain Meadows Massacre


Interior secretary designates Mountain Meadows Massacre site a historic landmark

Written by: Dan Metcalf Jr.
June 30, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the designation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre site in Washington County as a national historic landmark.

The site is the location where approximately 120 people were killed by a mob comprised of the Iron County district of the Utah Territorial Militia and some local Indians.

The massacre took place on September 11, 1857 with the slaughter of an immigrant party from Arkansas during a time of hysteria in Utah among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who feared the U.S. government might invade to take control of the territory.

Several children were spared by the mob.

A memorial stands at the site that was constructed and dedicated in 1999 with financing and cooperation of the LDS Church and the Mountain Meadows Association.

The controversial event has been a subject of debate by historians and families of survivors for several decades.

The Mountain Meadows site is one 14 historic U.S. designations announced by Salazar on Thursday.

“Each of these landmarks represents a chapter in the story of America, from archeological sites dating back more than two millennia to historic train depots, homes of famous artists, and buildings designed by some of our greatest architects,” said Secretary Salazar. “By designating these sites as national landmarks, we help meet the goals of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to establish a conservation ethic for the 21st century and reconnect people, especially young people, to our nation’s historic, cultural, and natural heritage.”

----Information from: U.S. Dept. of the Interior.

Mountain Meadows Massacre descendants meet



Tulare Advance-Register

September 11, 2010


Sept. 11 is a special day for more reasons than the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, say a group of visitors convening this weekend in Tulare On Sept. 11, 1857, an incident known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place in southwest Utah when 120 members of an Arkansas-based wagon train bound for Tulare were killed by a violent faction of the Mormon church, experts say.


"You might call it the original 9/11," said former College of the Sequoias history professor Newell Bringhurst, who wrote a biography of Mormon patriarch Brigham Young published in the 1980s. "It was a perfect storm in terms of why such a massacre could happen."


The incident remains buried in political turmoil, even to this day, and was a media sensation for more than 20 years after it happened. However, only in the 21st century is the full accounting of the massacre gaining public attention, foundation members say.


Movie released in 2006


A 2006 movie, "September Dawn," starring Jon Voight, is based on the massacre.


"I was at the premiere," said 83-year-old Dr. Burr "Old Doc" Fancher, an Albany, Ore., resident with Arkansas roots whose life's work in recent years has been piecing together the story and tracking down ancestors of 17 young children who were spared that day.


"Voight encouraged us," said Fancher, the main speaker in today's 5 p.m. dinner and historical presentation. Organizers reported 56 signups as of Friday night, many from other states and many who have never been to Tulare.


Fancher is a direct descendant of Capt. Alexander Fancher, who led the wagon train and who was killed in the attack.


"I lost 30 ancestors that day," Fancher said.


Media attention was widespread in the massacre's aftermath.


"That incident drew just as much media attention for that time in history as the 9/11 attacks did in 2001," said Ron Wright, another descendant of the victims.


Massacre chronology


Militant Mormons in the southwest part of Utah were said to have dressed as Indians and attacked the wagon train on Sept. 7, 1857. However, defenders of the wagon train fought back, and held off the assault until Sept. 11. At that point, the attackers removed their Indian disguises and posed as "white" liberators, only to kill the wagon-train defenders after luring them away from their belongings.


Decades of high-profile litigation followed, with survivors' families accusing the Mormon church of as coverup, and eventually one man was convicted of participating in the massacre and executed by firing squad in 1877.


"The wagon train was crossing Utah at the worst possible time," said Bringhurst, a non-practicing Mormon and local expert in Mormon history. "A U.S. army was heading toward Utah. Mormons considered outsiders enemies."


Fancher said the foundation harbors no ill will toward Mormons and that the primary mission of the group is to "memorialize" the slain wagon-train members and the 17 children — deemed "too young" to bear witness to the tragedy — who were spared.


Fancher said that 15 of the 17 surviving children's graves have been located in various states, and that the foundation is closing in on the other two.


"All the confirmed graves of those surviving children will be marked with a $500 historical memorial," Fancher said.


Tulare's historical museum is one of seven locations around the country where a repository of documentation about the Mountain Meadows Massacre can be found.


"Tulare would have made a great home for those people." Fancher said. "They just didn't make it."



Innocent Blood

Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre
Edited by David L. Bigler, Will Bagley

Kingdom in the West: The Mormons and the American Frontier Series Volume 12

Original sources documenting a frontier atrocity and its cover-up.

The slaughter of a wagon train of some 120 people in southern Utah on September 11, 1857, has long been the subject of controversy and debate. Innocent Blood gathers key primary sources describing the tangled story of the Mountain Meadows massacre. This wide array of contrasting perspectives, many never before published, provide a powerful and intimate picture of this "dastardly outrage" and its cover-up. 

The documents David L. Bigler and Will Bagley have collected offer a clearer understanding of the victims, the perpetrators, and the reasons a frontier American theocracy sought to justify or conceal the participants' guilt. These narratives make clear that, despite limited Southern Paiute involvement, white men planned the killing and their church's highest leaders encouraged Mormon settlers to undertake the deed. 

This compelling documentary record presents the primary evidence that tells the story from its contradictory perspectives. The sources let readers evaluate and track the evolution of such myths as the Paiutes' guilt, the emigrants' provocation of their murderers, Brigham Young's ignorance of what happened, and John D. Lee's sole culpability. Clearly revealed is the part Utah authorities took in blocking the investigation until it became expedient to sacrifice Lee. 

Together, these narratives show how the massacre's story has been continually distorted and then revealed over 150 years—and how the obfuscation and cover-up continue. Innocent Blood conveys the encompassing impact the atrocity had on people's lives, then and for generations after. It is a valuable sourcebook sure to prove indispensable to future research.

About the Authors

David L. Bigler, former director of the Utah Board of State History, is an independent historian whose award-winning books on Utah, California, and western American history include Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896. Will Bagley, an independent historian of the West, is author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre and editor of Pioneer Camp of the Saints: The Mormon Trail Journal of Thomas Bullock, 1846–1847.

"A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten"

Archaeology Magazine
September 16, 2003
The Mountain Meadows Massacre

U.S. Army Brevet Major James H. Carleton surveyed and investigated the site in 1859, and reported to Congress that the Mormons were "painted and disguised as Indians." According to Carleton, Lee led the disguised group of Mormons and local Paiute Indians to the emigrants' camp and attacked. As the emigrants fought back, the attackers utilized a new strategy. They withdrew, then the Mormons removed their disguises and returned as a group of white men, telling the emigrants they would protect them from the attackers. The Mormons gained the trust of the emigrants, convincing them the Indians would not hurt them if they gave up their arms. Lee's testimony supports Carleton's report, but Lee offers more gruesome details. He explains that "the troops were to shoot down the men; the Indians were to kill all of the women and larger children." In both Carleton's and Lee's accounts the Paiutes and Mormons share the responsibility of the murders, but the Paiutes have long denied involvement.

Since its beginning, the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS) was at odds with the federal government, its members persecuted for their unorthodox beliefs. Mormonism began in the early nineteenth century with the prophecy of Joseph Smith who wrote the Book of Mormon derived from golden plates he found near a family farm in 1827. From New York, Smith and his followers were continually forced west, their radical theology shunned by each town in which they settled. In 1844, Joseph Smith was killed by an anti-Mormon mob in Illinois, and Brigham Young became the new Prophet. The Mormons finally settled in the Utah territory where they enjoyed autonomous political and religious power. Young was not only in charge of the church, but also of the state when President Millard Fillmore named him territorial governor of Utah in 1850. In the fragile pre-Civil War era, Young openly flaunted secessionist tendencies. In its attempt to develop its own theocratic government, the church often clashed with the federal government, creating a mutual feeling of distrust.

Maj. Carleton, in his report to Congress, describes the scene at Mountain Meadows: women's hair caught in sage bushes, children's bones found in their mothers' arms, and wolves picking at the bones. It was, he wrote, "a sight which can never be forgotten." Carleton buried the remains and piled rocks into a monument topped by a wooden cross on which he inscribed "Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord." Soon after, Brigham Young and his men tore down the monument. Over the next century, it would be rebuilt and destroyed several times, standing in the nearly inaccessible and otherwise unmarked massacre site. As time passed, the descendants of the victims demanded a permanent monument to honor their ancestors, and Brigham Young's descendants wanted to clear his name. In an attempt to keep both parties happy, the state finally built a permanent monument in 1990, an ambiguous inscription engraved in a granite wall: "In Memoriam: In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants led by Capt. John T. Baker and Capt. Alexander Fancher was attacked while en route to California. This event is known in history as the Mountain Meadows Massacre."

Once again the monument fell to disrepair, this time because of weather and poor construction. The descendants made it clear to the government that the monument needed to be repaired or replaced. The LDS Church hired Shane Baker, an archaeologist from Brigham Young University, to survey the land before a new monument could be built. Baker reportedly found nothing relating to the massacre, clearing the way for the construction of the new monument. On August 3, 1999, a backhoe began digging the foundation. To everyone's surprise, it scooped up the bones of 28 massacre victims, and with it unearthed a new controversy (see "Mountain Meadows Massacre," November 30, 1999).

Utah state law required that the bones be studied, a job that went to forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak from the University of Utah. Novak and her colleagues found entrance and exit holes in the skulls of men that could only have come from gunshots fired at close range, while most women and children found died of blunt force. In her analysis of more than 2,600 bone fragments, Novak found no evidence of knives used to scalp, behead, or cut the throats, as well as no evidence of trauma from arrows. Although the study cannot determine what weapons Paiutes might have used in the massacre (if they were involved), it brings up the possibility that white men murdered all of the victims, contradicting John D. Lee's testimony accusing Native Americans of slaughtering the women and children. To Shannon Novak, the bones could provide information that incomplete or biased histories could not. "Prior to this analysis, what was known about the massacre was often based on second-hand information, polemical newspaper accounts, and the testimony of known killers," said Novak. "Furthermore, what had come to be merely an abstract historical event, the 'tragedy at Mountain Meadows,' now became a mass murder of specific men, women, and children with proper names and histories." The analysis of the remains questioned the accuracy of the historical accounts and stirred up many emotions. After five weeks, Novak's analysis was cut short by an order from the governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt, that the bones be re-interred in time for the September anniversary.

Gene Sessions, historian and president of the Mountain Meadows Association (an organization for descendants of the victims), says that the descendants, anxious to leave this issue buried in the ground, appealed to the governor. Leavitt, whose grandfather participated in the massacre, circumvented the law and ordered that the bones be re-interred before the minimum required study was finished because he "did not feel that it was appropriate for the bones to be dissected and studied in a manner that would prolong the discomfort" (Salt Lake Tribune, March 2000). Despite efforts of the Mormon Church to work with descendants in building the monument, Baker's fruitless survey and the early re-interment of remains sparked allegations that the LDS Church intentionally kept information from the public to coverup their involvement in the massacre. Sessions insists that "there was never any attempt to hurry the bones back into the ground to 'hide' anything," and the descendants strongly opposed any further disturbance of the bones. He argues that "the bones reveal nothing that historians have not known since 1859 when Major Carleton reported that 'nearly every skull I saw had been shot through with pistol or rifle bullets.' As a scholar, I naturally believe that a further study of the bones would certainly reveal much detail, but I do not believe that they would reveal anything I do not already know from the historical record abut how the emigrants were killed and who did it."

Shannon Novak, who has interviewed victims' descendants as part of a two-year oral history project, says she has heard a wide range of opinions on the story of the massacre and the treatment of the site. Some want the bones left untouched, without reminders of the event. Some would like to see the bones returned to Arkansas for a mass burial. Others want to see the bones examined with DNA testing to identify and properly bury their ancestors, allowing a sense of closure. While some have reconciled with the LDS Church, Novak claims that "many or most would like an apology from the church before they would be prepared to put the event behind them." For now, the bones remain behind a plaque at the memorial.

The discovery of the bones complicated an already controversial issue. There is no consensus by descendants, researchers, and the LDS

church on what should happen to the remains. The tragedy stirs up deep emotions in the descendants of both the victims and the attackers, and causes one to question whether or not the remains provide insight into the Mountain Meadows Massacre that the historical record does not. In her forthcoming book, however, Shannon Novak addresses her osteological analysis in relation to historical records and recent controversies. Novak found that "The material evidence from the grave appears to have offered some groups and individuals their first opportunity to express their views of the massacre, views that often were in conflict with the traditional accounts touted in state history textbooks and on local monuments."

A bizarre twist to the Mountain Meadows story came in January 2002, when a volunteer found an inscribed lead sheet while cleaning out John D. Lee's fort just across the Utah border in Arizona. The writing, purportedly by Lee, indicated Brigham Young's role in ordering the massacre. Examiners agree that the lead comes from a time and place historically correct to be the document, and contains oxidation on the inscription itself. After investigating the metal and oxidation using isotopic measurements, Thomas Brunty of Arizona State University told the Salt Lake Tribune on March 7, 2003 that "It would take a hoaxer a lot of resourcefulness to have found the right lead from the right place."


A Shameful Chapter in Mormon History

Cecilia Rasmussen

Los Angeles Times

June 29, 2003

As evidence emerged over time -- most recently in an excavation in 1999 -- the massacre was shown to have been the handiwork of about 50 Mormons, many of them disguised as Indians. They were commanded by John Doyle Lee, a prominent and wealthy Mormon and a friend of Brigham Young, who was [Joseph Smith]'s heir and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

President Buchanan declared Utah in open rebellion and sent troops to replace Young with a non-Mormon territorial governor. Young responded by placing Utah under martial law and preparing to go to war.

Despite the vows of secrecy, word of what had happened spread through the tightly knit Mormon communities. Many Mormons, shocked by what they heard and saw -- such as fellow Mormons wearing the finery of the dead -- packed up and left.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre took place in southern Utah nearly 150 years ago, but it touched Southern California's history too, leading to the demise of a fledgling Mormon community in San Bernardino.

Early on a Monday morning in September 1857, about 140 men, women and children on a California-bound wagon train were slaughtered under a flag of truce by Mormons who apparently considered the act a long-delayed vengeance, or "blood atonement," for persecution of their faith.

In the 1830s and '40s, Mormons were often tarred and feathered or even killed, and their homes and businesses were burned. Their founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered in 1844 in Illinois, and Mormons retreated into the western wilderness.

When the 1857 massacre occurred at a popular resting place for wagon trains in a valley on the emigrant trail, the Mormon Church blamed Paiute Indians.

It was not only the number of dead that horrified a westward- moving nation; it was the gruesome butchery. Army troops visiting the site almost two years later reported finding skulls, scraps of clothing and clumps of hair still strewn around.

As evidence emerged over time -- most recently in an excavation in 1999 -- the massacre was shown to have been the handiwork of about 50 Mormons, many of them disguised as Indians. They were commanded by John Doyle Lee, a prominent and wealthy Mormon and a friend of Brigham Young, who was Joseph Smith's heir and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lee, considered by many to have been a scapegoat for Young, was convicted for his role in the murders and executed by firing squad 20 years later at the Mountain Meadows Massacre site.

Sally Denton tells the story in horrifying detail in her new book, "American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857." She draws on official reports of the time, including interviews with witnesses, and on the evidence from the 1999 dig.

In 1846, Young led his people from Illinois to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, a place no one else seemed to want. Young figured it was far enough from the boundaries of the United States to proclaim a new Zion, where Mormons could make their own laws and keep multiple wives.

In 1851, Young sent 437 pioneers from Salt Lake City on an arduous 800-mile trek across harsh desert to settle at the base of the Cajon Pass. Within a year, the Mormons had agreed to buy the 40,000-acre Rancho San Bernardino.

Among the pioneers was Biddy Mason, a slave who would become one of California's richest women and founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. She fought her Mormon owner to win her freedom.

The pioneers built a boom town free of liquor and gambling. It served as a major link in the church's supply line between San Pedro's harbor and Salt Lake City, and as a way station for missionaries and converts heading to Salt Lake. The town's population soon swelled to 3,000.

In 1853, San Bernardino broke away from Los Angeles County, becoming a county in its own right. The town was incorporated a year later.

By early 1857, almost a decade after the Mexican-American War had allowed the United States to expand its territory to include Utah, Mormons in Salt Lake were under pressure from the federal government, whose authority they defied.

President Buchanan declared Utah in open rebellion and sent troops to replace Young with a non-Mormon territorial governor. Young responded by placing Utah under martial law and preparing to go to war.

Against this backdrop, about 200 prosperous and optimistic emigrants left Arkansas for California by wagon train. They passed through Cedar City, Utah, and made camp 35 miles beyond, at Mountain Meadows.

Local Mormons, angry over the recent killing of one of their "apostles" near Arkansas and by the approach of Army troops, viewed the wagon train as a hostile force and refused to sell food to the travelers.

On Sept. 7, 1857, the emigrants were basking in the early morning sun when gunfire rained down upon them. Seven men were killed in the first volley. The others quickly moved the wagons into a barricade. But snipers began picking off settlers one by one, wounding 46 others that day. A bullet tore through the earlobe of a 3-year-old girl.

On the third day of the siege, desperate for water and "hoping to appeal to the humanity of their enemies, the emigrants dressed two little girls in 'spotless white' and sent them with a bucket toward the spring," Denton wrote. "Both were shot dead in an instant."

On the fourth day, a Mormon with a white flag approached the weary, hungry and thirsty immigrants. The travelers were being attacked by Indians, he said; Lee was a federal Indian agent who could escort them safely through Indian territory if they would lay down their weapons and hand over their possessions.

The settlers agreed, only to be betrayed. The men were slaughtered first -- shot, stabbed and clubbed. Then the killers fell upon the women and children.

Two teenage sisters who promised to love and obey Lee in exchange for their lives were stripped of their clothes, raped and brutally murdered.

Seventeen children younger than 8 were allowed to live because the killers believed they were too young to tell credible tales. All were placed in Mormon homes. Some remembered their new "relatives" wearing the clothes and jewelry that had belonged to their slain mothers.

Two children, Rebecca Dunlap, 6, and her sister, Louisa, 4, would be among the first witnesses to report having watched the Mormon killers, disguised as Indians, wash off their war paint in a stream. Rebecca later recounted that they were taken to a ranch with a little boy who had been shot in the leg. He was crying. "The men stopped the wagon. One got out ... took the little boy by the feet and knocked his brains out against the wagon wheel."

Before returning home, the killers pledged to stand by one another and promised to maintain that the massacre had been the work of Paiute Indians.

"This was the advice of Brigham Young too," Lee wrote in a tell- all book while awaiting execution. The book, "Mormonism Unveiled or Life & Confession of John D. Lee," was published in 1877 and became a best-seller.

Paiutes had witnessed the siege but denied any role in it.

Despite the vows of secrecy, word of what had happened spread through the tightly knit Mormon communities. Many Mormons, shocked by what they heard and saw -- such as fellow Mormons wearing the finery of the dead -- packed up and left.

By October, word of the massacre began to filter out to California. The Los Angeles Star newspaper quoted witnesses who had seen two piles of nude bodies. One said, "I saw about 20 wolves feasting upon the carcasses of the murdered."

In late October, as anti-Mormon fury spread in California, San Bernardino colonists were recalled to Utah. Two-thirds of the members obeyed.

The rest refused, not wanting to leave the prosperous and comfortable settlement, yet knowing they would be excommunicated for staying. Some would later join a splinter branch of the church that bore no allegiance to Young. It would be another 60 years before Mormons established an official presence in San Bernardino.

In January 1858, word of the massacre reached Arkansas. The victims' families appealed to the government to investigate the crime and find the surviving children. Eventually, 15 of the orphaned children were found and returned to their Arkansas relatives. An investigation showed enough evidence to put Lee and 37 cronies behind bars but, with the Civil War looming, the massacre was almost forgotten.

Finally, in 1875, the federal government prosecuted John Doyle Lee, trying him in Utah. His trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted in a second trial and executed in 1877. He was the only participant brought to justice.

The church denied any official involvement in the crime, but church officials seemed at best insensitive to the victims. A memorial erected two years after the massacre was pulled down in 1861, by Brigham Young himself. 


Rescue of the Mountain Meadows Orphans

Wild West Magazine
February 2005

The forgotten legacy of the massacre in Utah Territory in September 1857 includes the 17 children who were spared by the killers and who provided some compelling accounts of what really happened in that Western tragedy.

By Will Bagley

In the fall of 1857, a party of emigrants from Arkansas camped in southern Utah Territory at Mountain Meadows, a lush alpine oasis on the Spanish Trail where wagon trains rested before crossing the Mojave Desert. The party was made up of about a dozen large, prosperous families and their hired hands, driving about 18 wagons and several hundred cattle to Southern California.Of its 135 to 140 members, almost 100 were women and children.

As the travelers brewed coffee not long after dawn on Monday, September 7, a volley of gunfire suddenly tore into them from nearby ravines and hilltops, immediately killing or wounding about a quarter of the able-bodied men. The survivors quickly pulled their scattered wagons into a corral and leveled their lethal long rifles at their hidden, painted attackers, stopping a brief frontal assault in its tracks. The Arkansans quickly built a wagon fort and dug a pit at its center to protect the women and children. Cut off from water and under continual gunfire, the emigrants fended off their assailants for five long, hellish days.

Finally, on Friday, September 11, hope appeared in the form of a white flag. The emigrants let the emissary, a Mormon from the nearby settlement of Cedar City, into their fort, and then the local Indian agent, John D. Lee, entered the camp. Lee told them the Indians had gone, and if the Arkansans would lay down their arms, he and his men would escort them to safety. The desperate emigrants, Deputy U.S. Marshal William Rogers reported two years later, trusted Lee's honor and agreed to his unusual terms. They separated into three groups—the wounded and youngest children, who led the way in two wagons; the women and older children, who walked behind; and then the men, each escorted by an armed member of the Nauvoo Legion, the local militia. The surviving men cheered their rescuers when they fell in with their escort.

Lee led his charges three-quarters of a mile from the campground to a southern branch of the California Trail. As the odd parade approached the rim of the Great Basin, a single shot rang out, followed by an order: “Do your duty!” The escorts turned and shot down the men, painted “Indians” jumped out of oak brush and cut down the women and children, and Lee directed the murder of the wounded. Within five minutes, the most brutal act of religious terrorism in America history was over—and it would not be surpassed until a bright September morning exactly 144 years later, as airplanes filled with passengers were flown into the Pentagon and New York City's World Trade Center.

So ended the Mountain Meadows Massacre—but the story of this mass murder and its twisted legacy had only begun. Although “white men did most of the killing,” as participant Nephi Johnson later admitted, Utah Indian Superintendent Brigham Young informed Washington that “Capt. Fancher & Co. fell victims to the Indians' wrath” and blamed the emigrants for “indiscriminately shooting and poisoning them”—essentially, Young argued, they got what they deserved. Young made no effort to investigate the crime or identify the perpetrators. The murderer—many of whom stripped for battle and donned war paint to look like Indians—took a blood oath to blame the slaughter on the local Paiutes (see “Warriors and Chiefs” in this issue), and since they thought they had killed everyone old enough to tell the emigrants' side of the story, who could contradict them?

The killers, however, made a mistake: They spared 17 of the children, believing they would be too young to be credible witnesses. Mormon doctrine made shedding innocent blood an unforgivable sin, and anyone under the age of 8 was by definition “innocent blood.” Lee later claimed he was ordered to spare only children “who were so young they could not talk.” The Mormons actually killed at least half a dozen children 8 years old or younger, but in an atrocity notably lacking in mercy, that belief in not shedding innocent blood saved the lives of 10 girls and seven boys between infancy and age 6.

Yet their youth did not prevent the orphans from leaving behind some of the most compelling accounts of what actually happened on that black Friday. “The scenes and incidents of the massacre were so terrible that they were indelibly stamped on my mind, notwithstanding I was so young at the time,” Nancy Huff Cates recalled in 1875. The tale of how a hard-bitten crew of colorful frontiersmen rescued these sad orphans is one of the great, untold stories of the American West.

The first news of the worst massacre in the history of the Oregon and California trails appeared in the Los Angeles Star on October 3, 1857. Several children, it reported, “were picked up on the ground, and were being conveyed to San Bernardino.” A week later, that newspaper said the Indians saved 15 “infant children” and sold them to the Mormons at Cedar City. By the end of the year, word of the murders had reached the families of the victims in northwest Arkansas, where an angry citizen asked if the government would send enough men to Utah “to hang all the scoundrels and thieves at once, and give them the same play they give our women and children?”

William C. Mitchell's married daughter, Nancy Dunlap, had been with the so-called Fancher party, as had a married son, Charles, and an unmarried son, Joel. Mitchell wrote to Senator W.K. Sebastian, chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, expressing his hope that an infant grandson had survived. He asked Sebastian to investigate: “I must have satisfaction for the inhuman manner in which they have slain my children,” he wrote, “together with two brothers-in-law and seventeen of their children.” Many of the murdered emigrants came from powerful Arkansas families. In February 1858, the “deeply aggrieved” people of Carroll County in northwest Arkansas petitioned Congress to appropriate funds to reclaim and return the children saved from the massacre.

Utah was still in a virtual state of rebellion, however, and not long after the massacre Mormon guerrillas had burned Army supply trains on the way to the territory. The government could do nothing much until June 1858, after Brigham Young's hoped-for alliance with the Indians collapsed and the “Mormon Revolt” fizzled. Young grudgingly accepted a blanket pardon for treason and allowed the new governor and federal judges into the territory. That same month the U.S. Army established the nation's largest military station at Camp Floyd, 40 miles from Salt Lake City. Alfred Cumming replaced Young as governor, and Jacob Forney took over as Indian superintendent. One of their first priorities was to locate the Mountain Meadows orphans and “use every effort to get possession” of them, as Washington had first ordered Forney to do back in March.

Jacob Hamblin, the president of the Mormon Southern Indian Mission, met with Brigham Young in June and told Young “everything” about the murders, including that whites were involved. Young told him, “Don't say anything about it,” and Hamblin loyally continued to blame the massacre on the Indians. Hamblin told Forney that 15 of the survivors were living near his ranch with white families. With considerable effort, Hamblin claimed, the children had been “recovered, bought and otherwise, from the Indians.” Forney hoped to go south in a month to recover the children, but he put off the job for almost a year, although he did tell Hamblin to collect the children.

In early August, Young sent orders to Isaac Haight and William Dame, religious leaders in southern Utah (and the same men who had given the direct orders to massacre the Arkansans). He told them to have Hamblin “gather up those children that were saved from the Indian Masacre [sic].” Forney also sent orders to Hamblin, “All the children must be secured, at any cost or sacrifice, whether among whites or Indians.” He instructed Hamblin to take the children into his family. “You will be well compensated for all the trouble you and Mrs. Hamblin will have,” Forney promised.

Hamblin had found 15 of the orphans by December 1858, but he was “satisfied that there were seventeen of them saved from the massacre,” he wrote. He claimed two children had been taken east by the Paiutes, a story apparently concocted to extort government money to pay imaginary ransoms to the Indians. In late January 1859, Forney reported to Washington that he had recovered 17 children (when in fact he had seen none of them), and in March he finally headed south on this errand. Meanwhile, Congress had appropriated $10,000 to locate the survivors of Mountain Meadows and transport them back to Arkansas.

Not long after setting out, Forney learned that $30,000 worth of property and presumably some cash had been distributed among Mormon church officials at Cedar City within a few days of the massacre. He reported that he hoped to recover at least some of the stolen property. He stopped 40 miles south of Salt Lake City to testify before the grand jury that the fearless Judge John Cradlebaugh was holding in Provo. Forney had aligned himself with the federal officials led by Governor Cumming who had aligned themselves—and sometimes lined their pockets—with Brigham Young's interests. Forney and Cumming were timid men, and as heavy drinkers both were easily intimidated. Events soon showed that neither of them had the courage to ensure justice was done for the victims of the massacre, let alone the gumption to stand up to a powerhouse like Brigham Young, “the Lion of the Lord.” Despite detailed, credible evidence that whites and not Indians had committed the massacre, Forney hired Mormons to escort him on his trip to southern Utah.

At Nephi, Forney met up with two remarkable frontiersmen: Colonel William Rogers and Captain James Lynch. Rogers, affectionately known as “Uncle Billy” in both California and Carson Valley, was already a Western legend in 1858 when he moved to Salt Lake City, opened the California House (a hotel “fitted up in superior style”) and quickly won a legion of friends. Two years later, British explorer Richard Burton found Colonel Rogers running the Pony Express station at Ruby Valley, trading furs and managing a government Indian farm for the Western Shoshones. Rogers was already a veteran of many “adventures among the whites and reds,” Burton said, and had “many a hairbreadth escape to relate.” But nothing he did in his long, colorful career was as dangerous as his mission to Mountain Meadows.

Uncle Billy joined Forney at Nephi as an assistant. At the same time, Captain Lynch was leading a party of between 25 and 40 men south from Camp Floyd, where he had worked for the commissary department, to the area that would become Arizona (possibly to prospect there), when he too met Forney at Nephi.

Born in Ireland, Lynch had been orphaned not long after his parents immigrated to Brooklyn, and he had drifted to New Orleans, where he enlisted in the frontier army. Lynch had served under Zachary Taylor and Robert E. Lee in the Mexican War and was cited three times for bravery. (Lynch's captain title, however, was honorary, not military.) After his discharge, he joined the Utah Expedition as a civilian, but years later he recalled he resigned in disgust at “the continual failure of the soldiers to rescue the orphaned children.”

Forney told Lynch he was “doubtful” about the Mormons he had hired to escort him to Mountain Meadows. When Lynch reached Beaver in late March, he found the Mormons had indeed abandoned Forney, warning that if he pressed on “the people down there would make an eunuch of him.” Forney asked for help, and Lynch placed his whole party at his command, but he expressed concern that Forney had hired Mormons in the first place, “the very confederates of these monsters, who had so wantonly murdered unoffending emigrants, to ferret out the guilty parties.” It would not be the last doubt Lynch would have about the nervous Indian superintendent.

Forney's party tried to get information as they trekked south, reaching Cedar City on April 16. “But no one professed to have any knowledge of the massacre,” Rogers recalled, “except that they had heard it was done by the Indians.” Jacob Hamblin sent Ira Hatch, a talented Indian interpreter who had probably killed at least one of the Arkansans himself, to guide the men to the scene of the massacre.

“Words cannot describe the horrible picture which was here presented to us,” James Lynch wrote a few months after the mid-April visit to the massacre site. What he and the others saw in this beautiful alpine valley would haunt them to their graves: “Human skeletons, disjointed bones, ghastly skulls and the hair of women were scattered in frightful profusion over a distance of two miles.” The men found three mounds, evidence of “the careless attempt that had been made to bury the unfortunate victims.” In a ravine by the side of the road, “a large number of leg and arm bones, and also skulls, could be seen sticking above the surface, as if they had been buried there,” Rogers reported. They spent several hours burying a few of the exposed remains. “When I first passed through the place,” Rogers later wrote, “I could walk for near a mile on bones, and skulls laying grinning at you, and women and children's hair in bunches as big as a bushel.” The bones of children were lying by those of grown persons, “as if parent and child had met death at the same instant and with the same stroke.” Lynch could not forget seeing the remains of those innocent victims of “avarice, fanatacism and cruelty,” adding, “I have witnessed many harrowing sights on the fields of battle, but never did my heart thrill with such horrible emotions.”

The day after visiting Mountain Meadows, Forney and his escort reached the Mormon settlement at Santa Clara, where they found 13 of the surviving children in the custody of Hamblin, who was just beginning his legendary career as a frontiersman and Indian interpreter for explorers such as John Wesley Powell. In his recollections, Lynch claimed he and a few men might have been sent ahead in disguise to find the children and determine what kind of reception awaited Forney. Fifty years later, Lynch remembered that Hamblin claimed some of the children were being held captive by the Indians. “Produce them or we will kill you,” Lynch recalled saying while pistols and rifles were pointed at Hamblin's head. “He surrendered.” (It's a wonderful story, but none of the contemporary reports— including that by Lynch—tell it.) After Forney arrived, the men spent three days at Santa Clara while clothing was made for the children.

Eyewitnesses gave contradictory reports about the circumstances of the rescued children. “The children when we first saw them were in a most wretched and deplorable condition, ” James Lynch charged, “with little or no clothing, covered with fillth and dirt, they presented a sight heart-rending and miserable in the extreme.” U.S. Army Major James Carleton said their captors “kept these little ones barely alive.” In contrast, William Rogers reported that all the children had sore eyes but were otherwise well, and Jacob Forney believed the children were well cared for. He found them “happy and contented, except those who were sick” and insisted the orphans were in better condition than most of the children in the settlements in which they lived.

Forney rejected a number of obviously fraudulent claims to repay ransoms allegedly paid to save the children, since it was well known that the children “did not live among the Indians one hour.” He received other claims for the children's support and indignantly reported he would not “condescend to become the medium of even transmitting such claims”; however, he later authorized $2,961.77 to pay for the cost of the children's care.

With the orphans in tow, Forney proceeded to John D. Lee's home in Harmony on April 22, 1859. He had learned that Lee had some of the property of the murdered emigrants in his possession and demanded that he surrender it. On the 23rd, Lee denied he had any of the property and insisted he knew nothing about it except that the Indians took it. “Lee applied some foul and indecent epithets to the emigrants,” William Rogers reported. Lee said they slandered the Mormons “and in general terms justified the killing.”

Forney's conduct while visiting Lee astounded his escort, who had refused “to share the hospitality of this notorious murderer—this scourge of the desert,” Lynch swore. He was outraged that Forney accepted Lee's hospitality, despite the statements of the surviving children, who identified Lee as one of the killers. Lee agreed to accompany Forney to Cedar City and discuss the matter of the massacre with other Mormon officials, but on the way he rode ahead and disappeared. The leaders in Cedar City proved no more helpful in tracking down the stolen property. Frustrated and outraged, Forney's party picked up three additional survivors and headed north with 16 orphans.

Meanwhile, both the U.S. Army and Federal Judge Cradlebaugh had launched their own investigations of the murders. In mid-April, Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Department of Utah, ordered one company of dragoons and two of infantry to proceed to Santa Clara to protect travelers on the road to California, investigate reported Indian depredations and provide an escort for the Army paymaster who was on his way to Camp Floyd with a large supply of “spondulicks,” as Utah's Valley Tan reported—back pay in gold, worth a rumored half-million dollars. Johnston then ordered the “Santa Clara Expedition” to provide protection for Judge Cradlebaugh, who was on his way to investigate the crime and, if possible, arrest the murderers.

As Forney marched north, Kanosh, chief of the Pahvants, informed him that some Indians had told him there were two more children saved from the massacre than Hamblin had collected. The information was not deemed very reliable, but after meeting the troops from Camp Floyd at Corn Creek, Cradlebaugh swore in William Rogers as a deputy U.S. marshal, and Forney sent him back south to see if he could find any other children.

Rogers soon learned that one child was at a remote settlement named Pocketville. He sent Hamblin to recover the orphan, “a bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked boy, about two years old,” who proved to be Joseph Miller, youngest son of Joseph and Matilda Miller. Rogers “inquired diligently” for the second child but learned nothing. Despite a host of legends about a surviving child who remained in southern Utah, all reliable evidence indicates that the federal officials successfully recovered every surviving child.

The orphans and their ages at the time of the massacre included the children of George and Manerva Baker: Mary Elizabeth, 5; Sarah Frances, 3, and William Twitty, 9 months; of Alexander and Eliza Fancher: Christopher “Kit” Carson, 5, and Triphenia D., 22 months; of Joseph and Matilda Miller: John Calvin, 6; Mary, 4, and Joseph, 1; of Jesse and Mary Dunlap: Rebecca J., 6; Louisa, 4, and Sarah Ann, 1; of Lorenzo Dow and Nancy Dunlap: Prudence Angeline, 5, and Georgia Ann, 18 months; of Peter and Saladia Huff: Nancy Saphrona, 4; of Pleasant and Armilda Tackitt: Emberson Milum, 4, and William Henry, 19 months; and of John Milum and Eloah Jones: Felix Marion, 18 months. To his credit, Forney quickly determined that “none of these children have lived among the Indians at all.” He found them “intellectual and good looking” with “not one meanlooking child among them.”

In late June 1859, the Salt Lake probate court appointed Jacob Forney guardian of the orphans with the power “to collect and receive all property belonging to the murdered Emigrants.” Forney still hoped to recover some of the wealth looted from the Arkansans, but he and his successors failed to reclaim a single nickel stolen from the Fancher party. Forney's craven behavior with John D. Lee disgusted James Lynch, who swore out an affidavit that called the agent a “veritable old granny.” Lynch accused Forney of assisting the coverup of the crime by undercutting the authority of federal officials like Judge Cradlebaugh by arousing “a feeling of resistance to his authority among the guilty murderers.”

Brigham Young followed the federal investigation closely. In early May, he groused that Congress had appropriated $10,000 and appointed two commissioners to return the orphans to their relatives. “What an expensive and round about method for transacting what any company for the States could easily attend to at any time, and with trifling expense,” he complained.

General Johnston, however, was taking no chances with the survivors' safety, and he assigned two companies of the 2nd Dragoons to escort the orphans to Fort Leavenworth. As “an act of humanity,” the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell (which would start the Pony Express in the spring) offered the children free transportation in their freight wagons, but Johnston provided more comfortable spring wagons. Forney hired five women to accompany the “unfortunate, fatherless, motherless, and pennyless children” and made sure they had at least three changes of clothes, plenty of blankets, and “every appliance” to “make them comfortable and happy.”

Forney took two of the survivors, John Calvin Miller and Emberson Milum Tackitt, to Washington, D.C., in December 1859 to provide their “very interesting account of the massacre” to the government. The next day, Brigham Young's Washington agent reported that Forney had given the Mormon version of the massacre and would “be of service.” Young immediately responded that if Forney continued to be a “friend of Utah,” he would not lose “his reward.”

Interestingly, no record of what the two boys told federal officials survives, but even “Old Granny” had seen enough. Forney reported in September 1859 that he began his inquiries hoping to exonerate “all white men from any participation in this tragedy, and saddle the guilt exclusively on the Indians.” But it simply wasn't so. “White men were present and directed the Indians,” he concluded. Forney named the “hell-deserving scoundrels who concocted and brought to a successful termination” the mass murder: Stake President Isaac Haight, Bishop Philip Klingensmith, Branch President John D. Lee, Bishop John Higbee and Forney's own trusty guide, Ira Hatch. He gave their names to the attorney general, but nothing was done to bring the murderers to justice before the Civil War broke out—and nothing would be done for a dozen years.

William C. Mitchell, who was an Arkansas state senator, had picked up the other 15 children, who included his granddaughters Prudence Angeline and Georgia Ann Dunlap (but not his infant grandson, who was among the dead), at Fort Leavenworth in late August 1859, and on September 15, friends and relatives gathered at Carrollton, Ark., to welcome the orphans home. According to the Arkansian, Mitchell told the crowd the children were “kept secreted by the Mormons” until Forney offered to pay a $6,000 ransom.

No one who witnessed the return of the children ever forgot it. Mary Baker, whose husband Jack had died at the Meadows, took charge of her three grandchildren. “You would have thought we were heroes,” Sarah Frances “Sallie” Baker recalled in 1940. “They had a buggy parade for us.” Her grandmother gave each of the children a powerful hug. The children arrived home not long before Confederate guns opened fire at Fort Sumter, and Arkansas witnessed some of the most brutal conflict of the Civil War. Despite the turmoil, all the children found homes with relatives, who raised them as best they could.

According to John D. Lee, Brigham Young said that the government took the children to St. Louis and sent letters to their relatives to come for them. “But their relations wrote back that they did not want them—that they were the children of thieves, outlaws and murderers, and they would not take them, they did not wish anything to do with them, and would not have them around their houses.” However unreliable Lee's quote might be, a generation of Mormon historians repeated the slander that most of the children wound up in a St. Louis orphanage.

Efforts continued well into the 20th century to win some kind of compensation for the survivors of Mountain Meadows, but nothing was ever done. For the 17 orphans, the pain of their loss never went away. “I remember I called all of the women I saw `Mother,'” Sallie remembered. “I guess I was still hoping to find my own mother, and every time I called a woman `Mother,' she would break out crying.”

None of the Mountain Meadows orphans had bleaker prospects than Sarah Dunlap, who was only 1 year old when a gunshot wound almost severed her arm during the massacre. An eye disease acquired in southern Utah left her virtually sightless. After returning to Arkansas, she was educated at the school for the blind in Little Rock and settled with her sister Rebecca in Calhoun County.

James Lynch wandered the world as a mining expert, but he never lost touch with the orphans. After retiring, Lynch visited his old charges in Arkansas, who greeted him “as a returned father.” The old frontiersman found Sarah Dunlap, now “a cultured lady of 34 years,” and he soon “wooed and won” Miss Sarah. The couple were married on December 30, 1893, when the groom was 74. Lynch ran a store in Woodberry, and Sarah taught Sunday school. They eventually moved to Hampton, where Sarah died in 1901. Her ornate gravestone and vault were “proof of the tenderness that James felt for Sarah.” For decades the community recalled how Captain Lynch “never tired of telling how he rescued her from the Mormons.”

Lynch died about 1910 and was buried next to his wife in an unmarked grave. His fellow Masons conducted his funeral, the Arkansas Gazette recalled, “the likes of which have never again been seen in these parts.” The survivors of Mountain Meadows never forgot “the brave, daring and noble Capt. James Lynch,” but he rested in the unmarked grave until March 21, 1998, when the Arkansas State Society Children of the American Revolution dedicated a monument to his memory.

Will Bagley,who operates the Prairie Dog Press in Salt Lake City, is the author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (see interview in “Reviews” in the December 2003 Wild West) and has a second book about the massacre, Innocent Blood, in the works. Bagley was also one of the people interviewed for a Mountain Meadows episode—coproduced by Bill Kurtis and Paul Andrew Hutton, and scheduled to air in late December 2004—of the History Channel's Investigating History series. Also recommended for further reading: The Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Juanita Brooks.

Historical writer Charles Kelly mocking the 1932 Mormon Moument to the Mountain Meadows Massacre

September Dawn movie recounts tragedy of local women’s ancestors

By Keith Purtell

Muskogee Phoenix
Phoenix Staff Writer

For most people, 9/11 refers to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

For Muskogee residents Doris Peavler, 74, and Sue Staton, 70, it is a reminder of another Sept. 11 — Sept. 11, 1857, the date of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

The massacre is the real story behind the movie “September Dawn,” which is now showing at Arrowhead Mall 10.

Approximately 120 emigrants passing through southwest Utah Territory died in the massacre. They were part of a wagon train were traveling from Arkansas to California. They were killed by Mormon militiamen with the help of local Paiute Indians.

Peavler and Staton had ancestors who were targeted in the massacre. Some survived, but most were killed.

“My great-grandmother, Sara Frances Baker, was among 13 members of the Baker family headed west with the wagon train,” Peavler said. “She said she was sitting on her father’s lap when something, a bullet or an arrow, tore through her ear and killed her dad. Then she turned around and saw her mother tumbling out of the back of the wagon, and she knew she was shot.”

Peavler’s great-grandmother was 3 at the time. She was among 16 or 17 young children who survived.

After an initial attack, the wagon train circled and held off the militiamen for several days. On Sept. 11, militia major, John D. Lee, approached the wagon fort under a white flag. He offered safe passage to nearby Cedar City on the condition that the pioneers give up their possessions and surrender their weapons.

As agreed, the youngest children and wounded left first in two wagons, followed by women and children on foot. The men and older boys filed out last, each escorted by an armed militiaman. The group marched for approximately a mile until, at a prearranged signal, each militiaman turned and shot the emigrant next to him. Indians rushed from their hiding place to attack the women and children.

Peavler suspects LDS church President Brigham Young was involved in the bloodbath.

“We definitely believe nothing would have happened without Brigham Young,” she said. “No Mormon would make a move without his approval.”

Peavler said her grandmother Baker never showed any negative feelings about the tragedy.

“She was soft-spoken and kind all of her life,” Peavler said.

The children who survived were taken in by local Mormon families. Peavler and Staton both say children who were siblings were separated. Although the government retrieved the children a year and a half later, Peavler believes the Mormons kept one child. She said her great-grandmother was walking down a street and saw her sister on the other side. The girl ran across the street and the two embraced, then adults pulled them apart. She never saw her sister again.

In the 1980s, there was an effort to bring together descendants of the survivors and descendants of those who participated in the massacre. Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley supported the effort. One step was rebuilding the monument at the massacre site. During the construction, more victims’ bones were discovered.

Peavler was involved in the attempted reconciliation and says it went very well until the conclusion.

“When the monument at the site was rebuilt, he (Hinckley) was making a speech at the dedication,” she said. “At the very end, he said, ‘But we didn’t do it.’”

Staton’s surviving ancestor was her great-grandmother, Nancy Saphrona Huff, age 4. Staton criticized both those who killed the pioneers and the lack of remorse by current LDS church leaders.

“They killed these people for the booty; it was one of the richest wagon trains that ever went west,” she said. “A lot of those who did the killing went kind of crazy afterwards. One man died screaming.”

By August 1859, Jacob Forney, superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah, had retrieved the children from Mormon families housing them. They were then returned to their relatives in Arkansas.

Another of Staton’s ancestors was part of the Forney’s response to the incident.

“My great-grandfather went in with the army to get the kids back,” she said. “Even though they had killed all those people, taken their possessions and taken the children, they charged the government for the time they had them. I believe it was $286 per child.”

Staton said the LDS church has not done enough to take responsibility for the tragedy.

“After 150 years, they have never apologized,” she said. “The site of the massacre is controlled by the Mormon church. It should become a national monument.


September Dawn: Criticism or Sabotage?

By Ken Eliasberg


A few months ago, I had an opportunity to attend a pre-opening screening of the film, September Dawn, a movie based on an unpleasant event that occurred 144 years prior to 9/11: the massacre by a group of Mormons of a wagon train of Christians on their way to California. The massacre occurred in Mountain Meadow, Utah, on September 11, 1857. I found the film to be artistically pleasing, theatrically well done, and, based on my less-than-exhaustive research, historically correct. I had the opportunity to view it on two occasions before its official release on August 24th. After speaking to the star and the director, I got a very good picture of the thinking that went into the decision to make the movie, and it was clear to me, no matter how prudent that decision may have been, anti-Mormon bias was never a consideration. Indeed, the makers of the film and I have great respect for the Mormon religion, the Mormon community, and the positive contribution that both have made to America. It was realized at the outset that the subject matter was sensitive and would be made more sensitive by virtue of the fact that a Mormon might be a candidate for the presidency (although this fact was not known at the time the initial decision to make the film was made).

Nonetheless, it was anticipated that the film might be judged based on its artistic features, its historical accuracy, and, hopefully, on its contemporary relevance, i.e., that all religions have, over the course of their existence, trafficked in intolerance from time to time. And, in this vein, we are now dealing with a strain of religious fanaticism that threatens our very existence. It was hoped that the film might drive this message home and highlight the need to maintain a constant vigil against such fanaticism. I repeat, there was never even the slightest measure of animus towards Mormons felt or expressed. And, I have always personally felt a sort of allegiance to the Mormon Community.

While I did not expect the Mormon Community to be enthusiastic about the film, as noted, I hoped that, in view of their having now become part of America’s mainstream, they would allow the film to be judged on its merits as an artistic undertaking and not a political statement of any kind. However, the commonality of certain language contained in a number of reviews have caused me some concerns in this regard. Specifically, the expression “ham-fisted,” or similar derivation thereof, while not unusual, is certainly not apt to appear in more than one or two criticisms of almost any particular effort; yet it appears in more than a dozen reviews of this movie, all published on the same day. It has been suggested this abundance strains any notion of mere coincidence, especially due to the fact that several noted film critics such as Jeffrey Lyons, and Rex Reed praised the film without hesitation. Even Michael Medved, while disapproving of the subject matter, praised the director, Christopher Cain, and the star, Jon Voight, for their respective talents. Indeed, Medved called both of them “some of the good guys in Hollywood.”

While the Mormon hierarchy denies any effort to directly or indirectly sabotage the film, it seems possible much of the criticism dealing with the film is derived from some common blueprint. Perhaps the suggestion is wrong – indeed, I sincerely hope that it is – but, while not being prone to embrace conspiratorial theories, I can understand those who question coincidence in matters of this nature. However, any effort to suppress speech in such a manner would not be in keeping with the thinking of friends of mine in the Mormon community. No matter how upset they might be with what they considered to be an unfair criticism of their religion, they are Americans first and Mormons second. As a consequence, they respect our freedoms, particularly freedom of expression. They would grit their teeth and let the film rise or fall on its artistic merits, secure in the knowledge that it is merely a film and their religion is more than strong enough to withstand any criticism – accurate and profound or unfair and derivative. And, again, no such criticism of the present day LDS Church was ever intended. Moreover, it concerns me that members of a great religion, such as Mormonism, may feel the need to sabotage a film in order to preserve their version of history.

I hope that this notion is mistaken, and that there is no effort on the part of the Mormon establishment to do this film in. If there is such an effort, I have to believe it emanates from certain individuals who are acting on their own, who have so little faith in the power of their religion that they think a mere film about one isolated historic incident could do it harm.

Mormons have historically been committed to American rights and values. They know freedom of expression is not to be taken lightly.


Sketch of the site of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre
(from the cover of the August 13, 1859 Harper's Weekly)
"The scene was one too horrible and sickening for language to describe. Human skeletons, disjointed bones, ghastly skulls and the hair of women were scattered in frightful profusion over a distance of two miles." (1859 report)

The Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 and the Trials of John D. Lee

by Douglas O. Linder (2006)

Called "the darkest deed of the nineteenth century," the brutal 1857 murder of 120 men, women, and children at a place in southern Utah called Mountain Meadows remains one of the most controversial events in the history of the American West.  Although only one man, John D. Lee, ever faced prosecution (for what probably stands as one of the four largest mass killings of civilians in United States history), many other Mormons ordered, planned, or participated in the massacre of wagon loads of Arkansas emigrants as they headed through southwestern Utah on their way to California. Special controversy surrounds the role in the 1857 events of one man, Brigham Young, the fiery prophet of the Church of Latter-day Saints who led his embattled people to the "promised land" in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.  What exactly Brigham Young knew, and when he knew it, are questions that historians still debate.

The tragedy in Mountain Meadows on September 11--a date that would later come to stand for another senseless loss of life--can only be understood in the context of the colorful history of the most important American-grown religion, Mormonism.  Today, Mormonism has gone mainstream and Mormons seem to be just one more strand among many in the nation's religious fabric.  Mormonism, however, as it existed in the mid-nineteenth century, was an altogether different matter.  Brigham Young's provocative communalist religion endorsed polygamy, supported a theocracy, and advocated the violent doctrine of "blood atonement"--the killing of persons committing certain sins as the only way of saving their otherwise damned souls.  It is not surprising that practicioners of such a religion might grow suspicious of persons outside of their religious community, nor should it be surprising that non-Mormons living in, or traveling through, the very Mormon territory of Utah might feel like "strangers in a strange land."

In July 1847, seventeen years after Joseph Smith and a group of five other men founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York and three years after  an Illinois lynch mob killed Smith, Brigham Young and his band of followers entered Salt Lake valley.  When a territorial government was formed in Utah in 1850, Young, the second head of the Church of Latter-day Saints, became the territory's first governor.  The principle of "separation of church and state" carried little weight in the new territory.  The laws of the territory reflected the views of Young.  In a speech before Congress, federal judge and outspoken Mormon critic John Cradlebaugh said, "The mind of one man permeates the whole mass of the people, and subjects to its unrelenting tyranny the souls and bodies of all.  It reigns supreme in Church and State, in morals, and even in the minutest domestic and social arrangements. Brigham's house is at once tabernacle, capital, and harem; and Brigham himself is king, priest, lawgiver, and chief polygamist."


Rising Tensions

Tensions between federal officials and Mormons in the new territory escalated over time.  Historian Will Bagley, author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, wrote that "the struggle often resembled comic opera more than a political battle."  According to Bagley, "As both sides talked past each other, hostile rhetoric fanned the Mormons resentment of government.  From their standpoint, they had patiently endured two decades of bitter persecution with great forbearance, but their patience with their long list of enemies had worn thin."  As early as 1851, Governor Young said in a speech, "Any President of the United States who lifts his finger against these people shall die an untimely death and go to hell!" 

When drought and grasshopper infestations produced desperate economic conditions in Utah (or Deseret, as the Mormons called the territory), Brigham Young concluded that the problem stemmed from a loss of righteousness among his people.  In early 1856, Young launched the Reformation, a campaign to arouse religious consciousness.  Mormon leadership urged spiritual repentance and rebaptisms.  All those unwilling to make the necessary religious sacrifices were invited to leave Utah.  The most troubling aspect of the Reformation was its obsession with the doctrine of blood atonement.  Young asked his followers to kill Mormons who committed unpardonable sins: "If our neighbor...wishes salvation, and it is necessary to spill his blood upon the ground in order that he be saved, spill it."  While Young aimed his fiery words about blood atonement at Mormons who committed serious sins, his speeches undoubtedly contributed to a growing culture of violence.  The Reformation might have had a spiritual goal, but it fueled a fanaticism that led to the tragedy at Mountain Meadows.

In 1857, conflict between the Mormon leadership and Utah and the federal government reached the boiling point.  Worried that a federal army might be sent to the territory, the Mormon-dominated Utah legislature enacted legislation in January reactivating the territorial militia, called the Nauvoo Legion.  Federal officials in Utah complained of harassment and destruction of records by Mormon citizens.  On April 15, 1857, a federal judge, the territorial surveyor and the U. S. marshal (all the federal officials in Utah except one Indian agent) fled the state, convinced that they were about to be killed.  President James Buchanan responding by ordering an army to Utah to quell what he called a "rebellion." 

Buchanan's order alarmed Utah's Mormon population, who saw it as nothing less than a threat to the existence of their religion.  Past persecution experienced by Mormons in the Midwest made the danger seem especially real.  Church officials referred to Federal officials and the U. S. army as "enemies," and Utahans readied for what many saw as a life-or-death struggle for their faith.  Young embarked on an effort to rally Indian support for the Mormon cause--support that he saw as potentially critical in the battle to come.

Meanwhile, several extended families left Arkansas by wagon train on what they planned to be their long emigration to southern California.  Unfortunately for the groups of families (which came to be called "the Fancher party"), a revered Mormon apostle (and the great-great grandfather of 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney), Parley Pratt, was murdered in western Arkansas within two weeks of their departure.  News of the Pratt murder, committed by a non-Mormon angered over Pratt's taking of his wife, soon reached Utah, and greatly inflamed local hostility toward non-Mormons.  When further word reached Salt Lake in July 1857 that the army was headed its way, Utah became a place hungry for retribution.

On September 1, 1857, Brigham Young met in Salt Lake City with southern Indian chiefs.  According to an entry in the diary of Dimick Huntington, Young's brother-in-law who was present at the meeting, Young encouraged the Indians to seize "all the cattle" of emigrants that traveled on the "south route" (through southern Utah) to California.  (The journal entry actually says Young "gave" the Paiute chiefs the emigrant's cattle.)  The meeting increased the likelihood of a violent encounter between Indians and emigrants, something Young apparently saw as a useful shot across the federal government's bow.  In fact, Young had been working on such a plan even before his September 1 meeting, having sent apostle George A. Smith south with instructions to let the Indians know that Young considered emigration through Utah a threat to the well-being of both Mormon and Indian residents of the territory.

The same day that Young talked with Paiute leaders, the Fancher Party, consisting of about 140 Arkansans, camped about seventy miles north of Mountain Meadows.  On the Fancher party's way through Utah, rumors spread that some of its members participated in the killing of Parley Pratt and the lynching of Joseph Smith in Illinois.  John D. Lee, a Mormon living in southern Utah, believed the stories to be true: "This lot of people had men amongst them that were supposed to have held kill the prophets in the Carthage jail."  (Later, in attempts to rationalize the slaughter, Utahans would accuse the Fancher party of committing all sorts of manufactured sins and depredations: "tormenting women,"  swearing, insulting the Mormon Church, brandishing pistols, and even poisoning cattle.  There is virtually no evidence to support any of these charges.  Undoubtedly, the Fancher party understood it was not welcome in the territory and simply wanted to get out as fast as possible.)

On September 4, Cedar City was gripped in the white heat of fanaticism as the Fancher train rolled into the southwestern Utah town.  The wagon train's imminent arrival had prompted Isaac Haight, second in command of the Iron Brigade (the Nauvoo Legion's force in southern Utah) and President of the Cedar City Stake of Zion (the highest Mormon ecclesiastical official in southern Utah), to call a meeting to discuss the course of action to be taken against the emigrants.  According to Lee's later account of the meeting, Haight said it was "the will of all in authority" to arm Paiute and incite them to "kill part or all" of the party.  Haight sent Indian interpreter Nelphi Johnson off on a mission to "stir up" the Indians so that they might "give the emigrants a good hush."  Haight shed no tears for the party's fate, telling Lee, "There will not be one drop of innocent blood shed, if every one in the damned pack are killed, for they are the worse lot of outlaws and ruffians that I ever saw in my life." 

Sunday, September 6 was a day for dramatic speech making at Mormon services around Utah.  In Salt Lake City, Brigham Young took the occasion to declare that the Almighty recognized Utah as a free and independent people, no longer bound by the laws of the United States.  In Cedar City, meanwhile, Isaac Haight told those gathered at the morning service that "I am prepared to fee to the Gentiles the same bread they fed to us.  God being my helper, I will give the last ounce of strength and if need be my last drop of blood in defense of Zion."  That Sunday evening, the Fancher party crossed over the rim of the Great Basin and encamped at a place called Mountain Meadows.

The next morning's calm at the meadows was interrupted by gunfire. A child who survived the attack wrote later, "Our party was just sitting down to a breakfast of quail and cottontail rabbits when a shot rang out from a nearby gully, and one of the children toppled over, hit by a bullet."   The shots came from forty to fifty Indians and Mormons disguised as Indians.  The well-armed emigrants returned fire.  Soon the gun battle turned into a siege.  Meanwhile, in Cedar City, Isaac Haight, responding to pressure from Mormons lacking enthusiasm for the attack on the emigrants, sent a courier on a 600-mile trip (that will take six days, round trip) to inform Brigham Young of the situation at Mountain Meadows and ask his guidance about what to do next. 

Over the next three days, Mormon reinforcements, totally about 100 men, continued to arrive at the battle scene.  Men on horseback carried messages back to Haight, and his immediate superior in the Nauvoo Legion and head of southern Utah forces, William Dame.  Dame reportedly reiterated his determination to not less the emigrants pass: "My orders are that all the emigrants [except the youngest children] must be done away with."  On September 10, the messenger send to Salt Lake City arrived and handed Haight's letter to Young.  Young, according to published Mormon reports, sent the messenger back to Haight with a note telling him to let the Indians "do as they please," but--as for Mormon participation in the siege--if the emigrants will leave Utah, "let them go in peace."  The message will be too late. 


The Massacre

By September 11, Legion officers had devised a plan for ending the stand-off.  Most of the Paiutes had left after growing weary of the siege and could play no role in the bloody conclusion.  The plan was devious, but effective.  Major John Higbee, in command of the forces at Mountain Meadows, persuaded John Lee and William Bateman to act as decoys to draw the emigrants out from the protection of their wagons.  Lee and Bateman, carrying a white flag, marched across the field to the emigrants' camp.  The desperate emigrants agreed to the terms promised by Lee: They would give up their arms, wagons, and cattle, in return for promise that they would not be harmed as they embarked on a 35-mile hike back to Cedar City.  Samuel McMurdy, a member of the Nauvoo Legion, took the reigns of one of the wagons into which were loaded some of the youngest children.  A woman and a few seriously injured emigrant men were loaded into a second wagon.  John Lee positioned himself between the two wagons as they pulled out.  Following the two wagons, the women and the older children of the Fancher party walked behind.  After the wagons had moved on, Higbee ordered the emigrant men to begin walking in single file.  An armed Mormon "guard" escorted each emigrant man.

When the escorted men had fallen a quarter mile or so behind the women and children, who had just crested a small hill, Higbee yelled, "Halt!  Do your duty!"  Each of the Mormon men shot and killed the emigrant at his side.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, Nelphi Johnson shouted the order to begin the slaughter of the women and older children.  Men rushed at the defenseless emigrants from both sides, and the killing went on amidst "hideous, demon-like yells."   Nancy Huff, four years old at the time of the massacre, later remembered the horror: "I saw my mother shot in the forehead and fall dead.  The women and children screamed and clung together.  Some of the young women begged the assassins after they run out on us not to kill them, but they had no mercy on them, clubbing their guns and beating out their brains." It was over in just a few minutes.  120 members of the Fancher party were dead.  The youngest children, seventeen or eighteen in all, were gathered up, to later be placed in Mormon homes.  None of the survivors was over seven years old.

The next day, Colonel Dame and Lt. Colonel Haight visited the site of the massacre with John Lee and Philip Klingensmith.  Lee, in his confession, described the field on that day: "The bodies of men, women and children had been stripped entirely naked, making the scene one of the most loathsome and ghastly that can be imagined." Dame appeared shocked by what he found.  "I did not think there were so many of them [women and children], or I would not have had anything to do with, Dame reportedly said.  Haight, angered by Dame's remark, expressed concern that Dame might try to blame him for an action that Dame had ordered.  The men agreed on one thing, however: Mormon participation in the massacre had to be kept secret.  Within twenty-fours hours, Haight had another reason for concern.  Brigham Young's reply to his inquiry arrived in Cedar City.  "Too late, too late," Haight said as he read Young's letter and began to cry.

Brigham Young declared martial law on September 15.  In his proclamation (of dubious legality), Young prohibited "all armed forces...from entering this territory" and ordered the Nauvoo Legion to prepare for an expected invasion by federal forces.  The proclamation also prohibited any person from passing through the territory without a permit from "the proper officer."

Shortly after his proclamation, Young learned of the tragic events at Mountain Meadows, first from Indian chiefs and then from John Lee, who traveled to Salt Lake City to provide a detailed account of the massacre.  According to Lee, Young at first expressed dismay about the Mormon participation in the massacre.  He seemed especially concerned that news of the massacre would damage the national reputation of the Latter-day Saints  The next day, however, Young said he was at peace with what happened.  According to Lee, Young said, "I asked the Lord if it was all right for the deed to be done, to take away the vision of the deed from my mind, and the Lord did so, and I feel first rate.  It is all right.  The only fear I have is from traitors."

Response to the Massacre

The first published reports of the massacre begin appearing in California newspapers in October.  One came from John Aiken, who with mail carrier John Hunt, passed by Mountain Meadows in late September with a pass signed by William Dame.  Aiken wrote, "I saw about twenty wolves feasting upon the carcasses of the murdered.  Mr. Hunt shot at a wolf, and they ran a few yards and halted.  I noticed that the women and children were more generally eaten by the wild beasts than were the men." The Los Angeles Star called it the "foulest massacre ever perpetrated," and added that responsibility for the attack "will not be known until the Government makes a full investigation of the affair."  The San Francisco Bulletin was far less restrained, calling for "a crusade against Utah which will crush out this beast of heresy forever."  Public outrage grew.  Americans from California to Washington, D. C. begin calling for military action against those responsible for the crime.

Aware of the sensitivity of the events at Mountain Meadows, Mormon officials from Young on down worked to shift the blame for the massacre either to Indians or the emigrants themselves.  By November, John Lee completed a fictionalized account of the massacre, attributing all the killing to Indians, and sent the report on to Young.  Young, as Superintendent of Indians in addition to his other titles, prepared a report blaming the massacre on the mistreatment of Indians by non-Mormons, and sent it on to the Indian Commissioner.  "Capt. Fancher & Co. fell victim to the Indians' wrath near Mountain Meadows," Young wrote.  "Lamentable as the case truly is, it is only the natural consequences of that fatal policy which treats Indians like wolves, or other ferocious beasts."

None of the Mormon-drafted reports, however, prevented Congress from debating the massacre.  On March 18, 1858, Congress ordered an official inquiry into the cause of the tragedy of September 11.  The next month, one fourth of the United States army reached Fort Bridger, in present-day Wyoming.  Rather than fight the Nauvoo Legion forces guarding the canyons leading to Salt Lake, General Albert Alston decided to overwinter at the Fort.  President Buchanan expressed his determination to put down the "rebellion" in Utah, with force if necessary: "Humanity itself requires that we should put it down in a manner that it shall be the last."

In this dark moment of Mormon history, Brigham Young had the good fortune in April 1858 of being replaced as Governor of Utah by Alfred Cumming, a gullible man who believed Young's promise to get to the bottom of the Mountain Meadows matter, and who established, as his principal goal, preserving peace in the Utah territory.  Governor Cumming planned a trip south to Mountain Meadows almost as soon as he took office to investigate "that damned atrocity," as he put it.  Young, in a visit to Cumming's office, succeeded in convincing the governor of his genuine desire to identify the perpetrators.  Cummings decided to put "the whole matter" in Young's hands, trusting him "to put the finger upon the miscreants."  He also recognized, as he later told Young, "I can do nothing here without your influence."  Pushing to open again free emigration on the south route, Cummings took pleasure in announcing on May 11, "the Road is now open."  Over time, Cummings became convinced that the threats to the territory's peace of an aggressive inquiry into the Mountain Meadows massacre, in his mind, outweighed the benefits.  He also lacked the will to challenge Young and was, in the words of one observer, "mere putty" in the Mormon leader's hands.

In the latter half of 1858, the federal government began to reassert some measure of federal control in the Utah territory.  On June 26, federal troops marched through Salt Lake City, on their way to a fort forty miles from the city under the terms of a deal brokered with Young.  (The deal included a pardon for those acts considered part of "the rebellion.")  In November, U. S. District Judge John Cradlebaugh arrived in Utah and, unlike the governor, saw no reason not to aggressively pursue justice for the victims of the Mountain Meadows massacre.  After several months of investigation, Judge Cradlebaugh issued arrest warrants for John Lee, Isaac Haight, and John Higbee for the murders.  Angered by his discovery that the massacre was committed "by order of council," the judge wrote a letter to President Buchanan seeking his commitment to secure convictions for the guilty.  Cradlebaugh's efforts, however, were frustrated when the federal case is essentially dropped after the U. S. marshal declared his unwillingness to execute arrest warrants without federal troops to protect him from local citizens--and that help was not provided.  

By 1860, with the Union ready to split apart, interest in prosecuting the Mountain Meadows case waned.  Governor Cumming saw little reason to press for prosecution, especially in a territory where the law put jury selection entirely in the hands of Mormon officials.  "God Almighty couldn't convict the butchers unless Brigham Young was willing," Cumming said.  

The Trials of John D. Lee

Renewed interest in the Mountain Meadows case developed in the early 1870s, thanks largely to a series of stories in the Utah Reporter by Charles W. Wandell, writing under the pen name "Argus," that challenged Brigham Young's response to the massacre.  Wandell's articles produced the first confession in the case when, on April 10, 1871, Philip Klingensmith, a former LDS bishop who subsequently left the Church, appeared in a Nevada court and swore out an account of the massacre, including a detailed description of his own role in the crime.   Still, however, Mormon control of the Utah justice system stymied any prosecution in Utah.

The key to a possible successful prosecution finally came in 1874.  Congress passed the Poland Act, which redefined the jurisdiction of the courts in Utah.  The law restricted the authority of Mormon-controlled probate courts and opened all Utah juries to non-Mormons. 

Within months of passage of the Poland Act, arrest warrants for nine men: Lee, Higbee, Haight, Dame, Klingensmith, Stewart, Wilden, and Jukes. Federal authorities arrested John Lee, long considered Mormon officials' most likely candidate for scapegoat for the massacre, after finding him hiding in a chicken coop near Panguitch, Utah, on November 7, 1874.  Shortly thereafter, Dame was also arrested.  The best prospects for conviction seemed to rest with Lee, so the decision was made to proceed first with his trial.


The First Trial

The trial of John D. Lee opened on July 23, 1875 before U. S. District Judge Jacob Boreman in Beaver, Utah.  Talk of possible mob action against witnesses filled the crowded streets of Beaver.  Marshal Maxwell sought to preserve order by threatening potential instigators: "We will hang any god damned Bishop to a telegraph pole and turn their houses over their heads."  The crowd, the bailiff reported to Judge Boreman, got the message that the government meant business.

U. S. attorneys William C. Carey and Robert Baskin managed the prosecution, while four attorneys--bankrolled by Brigham Young--comprised Lee's defense team.  Marshal Maxwell sought to preserve order by threatening potential instigators: "We will hang any god damned Bishop to a telegraph pole and turn their houses over their heads." Throughout the trial, conflicts arose among Lee's lawyers, with two members of the defense team (including Wells Spicer who, six years later as a magistrate in Tombstone, ruled--after a several week hearing--that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday should face a criminal trial for the famous "shoot-out at the O.K. Corral") determined to provide Lee with his strongest possible defense even if it meant implicating higher Mormon officials, while two other members of the team seemed equally focused on protecting those same higher officials.  The jury, gathered in the improvised courtroom on the second floor of the Beaver City Cooperative, consisted of eight Mormons, one former Mormon, and three non-Mormons.

After Carey opened the case for the prosecution with a compelling description of the massacre, a parade of witnesses took the stand to describe various aspects of a concerted plan by Mormon officials to make life for emigrants traveling through Utah in 1857 as difficult as possible.  Several witnesses testified that they had received orders not to sell grain or provisions to the Fancher party.  One witness said he was hit over the head by fence paling because he sold onions to one member of the party who was a friend of his from years back.  Another witness testified Church officials excommunicated him after he traded one emigrant cheese for a bed quilt.  Still other witnesses recalled the fiery sermons of George A. Smith and other Church leaders, all warning of the threats posed by emigration through the state, in that 1857 summer of high passions and fanaticism.

The prosecution's star witness was Philip Klingensmith, the former bishop of Cedar City and the apostate Mormon whose affidavit given in a Nevada courtroom had first renewed hopes of achieving long-delayed justice in the Mountain Meadows case.  The heavyset Klingensmith began his account slowly, but his emotions showed as the events he described moved toward their tragic climax.  He recounted how the Mormon men responded to the militia call by traveling to the emigrant's camp by wagon and horseback. He told of the men watching in formation as John Lee conducted his "negotiations" with the emigrants.  Finally, he described the killing.  From his vantage point, he could see only the shooting of the men; Lee was over the crest of the hill with the wagons and the women and children.  About fifty of the emigrant men, Klingensmith testified, died with the first volleys from their "guards."  A few started to run away, but none got very far.  Lee appeared downcast as the prosecution's chief witness told his story of death.  Klingensmith said Lee and the other men acted on orders from Higbee, which had come from Isaac Haight, and--in turn, he thought--from Dame.  The former bishop testified that a few weeks after the massacre he was among a group of Mormons that met with Brigham Young.  Young, he said, discussed how the emigrant's property should be divided and counseled them against discussing the massacre: "What you know about this affair do not tell to anybody; do not even talk about it among yourselves."

For the defense, Wells Spicer presented Lee as a reluctant participant.  He said the bad behavior of the emigrants was largely responsible for the massacre, and that Lee had cried and "tried to protect the emigrants" when their killing had first been proposed by Haight and Higbee.  Lee only did what he did, Spicer said, after having John Higbee aim a loaded rifle at his head.  According to the defense attorney's version of events, hundreds of Indians at Mountain Meadows forced the few dozen white men into helping in the killing: "if they didn't, the Indians would kill them and sweep off their homes, and families and settlements." 

In the trial's oddest turn of events, Spicer came back after a courtroom recess to withdraw all his remarks concerning Lee's having acted under orders.  Spicer's 180-degree turn, according to a report of the trial, "left the gentlemen of the jury in a hapless state of mystification."  Clearly, some people were not at all happy that Spicer had adopted a strategy of pointing fingers at higher officials.

The defense never presented a cohesive story of the massacre itself.  Instead, it presented witnesses that testified that members of the Fancher party had done things to earn the enmity of local Indians.  One witness claimed to have seen members of the wagon train leave bags of poison by a spring at Corn Creek.  The defense witness testified that Indians told him that members of their tribe had died after drinking poisoned water from the spring.  On cross-examination, however, the defense's poison story fell apart.  In his summation, defense attorney Jabez Sutherland said the massacre was all the doing of the righteously angered Paiutes: "[The Indians] were implacable in their wrath, and even threatened the Mormons for their efforts to pacify them."

The prosecution, in Brigham's Young's Utah with a jury that included eight Mormons, never expected a guilty verdict--and they didn't get one.  The jury hung, with the eight Mormons and the one former Mormon voting to acquit Lee, and the three non-Mormons voting to convict.  A newspaper in Idaho presented a typically cynical view of the trial's outcome:  "It would be as unreasonable to expect a jury of highwaymen to convict a stage robber as it would be to get Mormons to find one of their own peculiar faith guilty of a crime."


The Second Trial


What a difference a trial makes: the second trial of John D. Lee bore almost no resemblance to the first.  Mormon witnesses against Lee suddenly materialized in the second trial, many with enhanced memories that put Lee in the middle of the killing.  The prosecutors, in a rejection of the strategy in the first case which placed shared blame well up the Mormon command chain, suddenly seemed only too willing to present Lee as the driving force behind the massacre.  What happened?

What happened, apparently, is that a deal--or at least an understanding--was reached.   In April 1876 Sumner Howard replaced William Carey as the U. S. Attorney for Utah.  Under pressure from Washington and the public to convict someone for the massacre, Howard pondered how a unanimous jury verdict could ever be achieved in the case without Brigham Young giving the prosecution his blessing.  It couldn't, he concluded.  An agreement with Young had to be struck.  Howard and Young met in Salt Lake.  Young was anxious to put the Mountain Meadows matter behind and accepted that someone had to be sacrificed.  The excommunicated Lee was the obvious candidate.  The terms of the agreement between Howard and Young were never disclosed, but former U. S. attorney Robert Baskin outlined his speculation as to the key understandings.  Baskin believed that Howard agreed to impanel an all-Mormon jury, place Brigham Young's 1875 affidavit in evidence, present testimony that would tend to exonerate higher Mormon officials, and--after trying Lee--promised to prosecute no one else for what happened at Mountain Meadows.  In return, Young would help round up witnesses who would incriminate Lee and see to it that the jury returned a conviction.  (Not everyone is willing, however, to accept Baskin's speculation as truth.  Howard denied that a deal had been struck in a letter he sent to Attorney General Taft.  Howard instead suggested that Lee's attorney manufactured the deal theory in a last-ditch attempt to gain sympathy for his client.  Critics of the deal theory also note that the government made some efforts--although rather half-hearted--to pursue other massacre perpetrators until 1888, when the case was finally dropped.)

The second trial began on September 14, 1876, soon after the prosecution dropped all charges against William Dame.  Jury selection went quickly, as a report sent to Brigham Young noted: "Howard made no effort to get Gentiles on the Jury--In fact the word Mormon was scarcely mentioned in court all day."  The surprising turn of events--the Church aiding the prosecution--left Lee's defense attorney, William Bishop, angry and confused.  Before the trial began, Bishop assumed that the Mormon leadership would protect his client.  Writing a few months after trial, Bishop's anger poured out: "I claim that Brigham Young is the real criminal, and that John D. Lee was an instrument in his hands.  That Brigham Young used John Lee, as the assassin uses the dagger to strike down his unsuspecting victim; as as the assassin throws away the dagger, to avoid the bloody blade leading to his detection, so Brigham Young used John Lee to do his horrid work; and when the discovery becomes unavoidable, he hurls Lee from him...and casts him far out into the whirlpool of destruction."

From its opening statement on, the prosecution made clear that its goal was to convict John Lee, not try the entire Mormon hierarchy.  The prosecution case made Lee to appear even more guilty than he was.  Lee incited the Indians to attack the wagon train.  Through deception, Lee lured other Mormons into the battle.  Lee hatched the plan that led to the massacre.  Lee himself killed a number of emigrants, then helped divide the plunder.  Out of the Utah woodwork came a whole host of loyal Mormons ready to testify as to Lee's bad deeds.  Samuel Knight testified that he watched Lee club a woman to death.  Samuel McMurdy said he saw Lee shoot a woman, as well as two or three of the wounded emigrants.  Jacob Hamblin told the court he witnessed Lee throw down a girl "and cut her throat." Nelphi Johnson testified that Lee and Klingensmith seemed to be "engineering the whole thing."

Lee could do little against the onslaught but complain.  Pacing his cell floor during a break in the trial, Lee bitterly complained that witnesses were charging him with "awful deeds...that they did with their own wicked hands."  Everyone could see the game plan: the buck stops with Lee.  The memories of witnesses memories suddenly faded when asked to name other Mormons present at the battle see.  No one could remember who else might have participated in the killing.

Resigned to his fate, Lee asked his attorneys to present no defense after the prosecution closed its case.  With little evidence from which to draw, William Bishop in his summation could only note the obvious: "The Mormon Church had resolved to sacrifice Lee, discarding him as of no further use."  On September 20, 1876, at 3:30 in the afternoon in Beaver, the all-Mormon jury returned its verdict.  John Lee was guilty of murder in the first degree.


The Execution

When asked by Judge Boreman if he wished to say anything prior to sentencing, Lee remained silent.  Boreman sentenced Lee to be executed in three weeks.  Lee told the judge, "I prefer to be shot."

Appeals delayed Lee's scheduled execution over five months. Lee used much of the time to write his autobiography.  On a March afternoon in 1877 in Beaver, Utah, U. S. Marshal William Nelson led John Lee to a closed carriage that would take him south over the emigrant trail to Mountain Meadows.  On March 23, Lee, dressed in a red flannel shirt, enjoyed breakfast and a cup of coffee near the site of the 1857 massacre.  A minister walked the condemned man to his own coffin.  Lee sat down on the coffin while the Marshal read his death warrant.  When the reading ended, he rose to address the federal officers, firing squad, and seventy or so spectators. 

"I feel as calm as the summer morn," Lee told the gathering, "and I have done nothing intentionally wrong.  My conscience is clear before God and man....Not a particle of mercy have I asked of the court, the world, or officials to spare my life.  I do not fear death, I shall never go to a worse place that I am now in...I am a true believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young.  I do not care who hears it.  It is my last word--it is so.  I believe he is leading the people astray, downward to destruction.  But I believe in the gospel that was taught in its purity by Joseph Smith...I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner....Having said this, I feel resigned.  I ask the Lord, my God, if my labors are done, to receive my spirit."

Lee shook hands with those around them and resumed his seat on his coffin.  He shouted to the firing squad, hidden in three wagons forming a semi-circle around him: "Center my heart, boys!  Don't mangle my body!"  When the shots came, he fell back without a cry.




Five months after Lee's execution Brigham Young died.  The cause of death was uncertain, but appendicitis was suspected. 

William Bishop, Lee's attorney in his second trial, sent the manuscript Lee had completed in prison to a publishing company in St. Louis.  In 1877, Mormonism Unveiled or the Life and Confession of John D. Lee became an immediate bestseller.  The book provided an important history of early Mormonism as well as offering Lee's somewhat self-serving account of the events leading to the Mountain Meadows massacre.  As historian Will Bagley noted, Lee "reconstructed his chronology to distance himself from the initial attack" and provided blistering attacks on the men who testified against him.  Lee's list of murderers, aside from those who admitted killing emigrants, included only his enemies.

In 1998, Gordon B. Hinckley, President of the Church of Latter-day Saints, visited Mountain Meadows.  He found himself embarrassed at the dilapidated condition of monument at the site and committed the Church to building a proper memorial.  "We owe [the dead] respect," Hinckley declared, "that land is sacred ground."  On September 11, 1999, a new monument was dedicated at Mountain Meadows.  President Hinckley, in the afternoon sunshine, told the assembled crowd:  "[The past] cannot be recalled.  It cannot be changed.  It is time to leave the entire matter in the hands of God."

The best source for more information about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the subsequent investigations and trials is: Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre by Will Bagley (Univ. of Oklahoma Press 2002).

Brigham Young the Mormon Murderer - 1851

What Did Brigham Know, And When Did He Know It?

"I do not profess to be very good. I will try to take care of number one, and if it is wicked for me to try to preserve myself, I shall persist in it; for I am intending to take care of myself.” Brigham Young, July 26, 1857 (approximately 6 weeks before the Mountain Meadows Massacre) Journal of Discourses, 5:76-77.

The meeting was then addressed by some one in authority, I do not remember who it was. He spoke in about this language, “Brethren, we have been sent here to perform a duty. It is a duty that we owe to God, and to our Church and people. The orders of those in authority are that all the emigrants must die. Our leaders speak with inspired tongues, and their orders come from the God of Heaven. We have no right to question what they have commanded us to do; it is our duty to obey.” John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled or The Life and Confessions of John D. Lee, 1877, p. 235.

Truth matters; or does it? If truth, honesty and integrity are governing values of Latter-day Saint religion, why is separating fact from fiction such a daunting task when it comes to the subject of the Mountain Meadows massacre?  Is it possible that defending and maintaining a certain image for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is of greater value than the truth? While independent historian and Salt Lake Tribune columnist Will Bagley does not directly address this question in his award-winning [1] book Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, he does openly acknowledge the difficulty of the task of getting at the truth. He writes:

Once the Fancher party left Salt Lake, it disappeared into a historical maze built of lies, folklore, popular myth, justifications, and few facts.   After the reports of Malinda Cameron Scott and Basil Parker, all information about the emigrants’ conduct came from men involved in their murder or its cover-up. …

The skillfully crafted legends shrouding the fate of these murdered and maligned people make penetrating this mythology extremely difficult, but logic and common sense can test the evidence. The earliest sources tell a remarkable story, while the constants of time and distance provide a standard to sort fable from truth. Yet from the morning the emigrants left Corn Creek, nothing is certain about the Fancher party except that in less than three weeks every member who could have given a reliable account of its fate would be dead [emphasis added] (p. 99).

What a tangled web we weave …

Yet Bagley brings a semblance of order to the tangled historical web because he does more than retell the story. He puts the premeditated murder of 120 people into historical and cultural context helping the reader grasp both how and why a crime of this magnitude could take place and be sanctioned by LDS Church leaders.  In the process he also explains how this lamentable event came to be shrouded in the ambiguity and misinformation that clouds the truth to this day.

And that is perhaps the most helpful, if disturbing aspect of Bagley’s work.  For while we may never know exactly what Brigham Young knew about the massacre, and when he knew it, the inescapable conclusion is that both Brigham Young and the LDS leaders directly involved in the murders, lied, deceived, and obstructed justice in this case for years.

Murder in the Meadow

The basic details of the story are fairly well known.  A wagon train going from Arkansas to California stops to rest and recoup for a while in a lush meadow in Southern Utah territory.  It is the natural place to prepare for the final 400-plus mile segment of the southern wagon trail to Los Angeles, an arduous trek that includes crossing the Mojave Desert.

However, the Fancher wagon train, with about forty men, thirty women and seventy children is ambushed by whites painted as Indians and Southern Paiute warriors.  The besieged travelers circle their wagons and dig in, and manage to hold off their attackers for five days.  Then, after being approached by white men bearing a white flag of truce, the leaders of the wagon train agree to lay down their weapons in exchange for a promise of safe passage out of the area. The emigrants are cut off from water, and fearful for the lives of their women, children and wounded friends, so, understandably, they would cheer the Mormon militia and their Indian allies who come to escort them on foot down the trail.  They are divided into three separate groups: men, women and children, and the wounded, each group separate from the others by a considerable distance.

Once the women and children are out of sight, the men are lined up single file each with an armed Mormon man at their side. At a pre-arranged signal, the would-be protectors open fire on the men, and the Paiutes attack the women and children, while other members of the Mormon militia turned on the wounded men who were in a separate wagon, thus killing all the settlers except seventeen children under the age of seven.  The killers swear an oath of secrecy, and immediately begin a campaign of misinformation that persists to this day. Since many accounts come primarily from those who did the killing, sorting out what happened and why, means sifting through contradictory stories, justifications and deliberate obfuscation. Bagley tackles this monumental task, building on Juanita Brooks’ research of 52 years ago, and draws on unpublished accounts, memoirs, journals and diary entries to winnow fact from fiction.

Brigham Young: Mislead Bystander or Accessory to Murder?

Historically, the predominant LDS position is that Mormon Church President Brigham Young had nothing to do with the massacre and was merely a misinformed bystander of events carried out by independent Mormon settlers acting wholly on their own initiative.  At the September 11, 1999 dedication of the new Mountain Meadows memorial, on the advice of legal council, LDS President, Gordon B. Hinckley, included the following in his statement:

That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgement of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day. (p. 376).

In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune in February 2000, when President Hinckley was asked about the massacre at Mountain Meadows he replied:

I’ve never thought for one minute as I’ve read the history of the tragic episode that Brigham Young had anything to do with it. And it was a local decision and it was tragic. … Well, I would place the blame on the local people. (p. 376).

It appears that this standard LDS Church position will be upheld by three Mormon Church historians who are writing their own book on the subject, due to be published by Oxford University Press in 2004. [2]

Yet Bagley’s research led him to a markedly different conclusion than that put forth by current LDS Church leaders.  The historical evidence has led him to conclude that Brigham Young both set in motion events that led directly to the attack of this wagon train, and was an accessory after the fact, covering up the incident that was planned, ordered and carried out by Mormon Church leaders.  Bagley’s thesis and book cannot be taken lightly and have raised both interest and strong feelings as evidenced by Dennis Lythgoe’s review of Blood of the Prophets in the September 1, 2002, Deseret News.  He referred to the book as “an anti-Mormon tract” and states it, “has a gigantic axe to grind,” while calling Bagley “a man with a sledgehammer agenda.”

However, thoughtful reviewers removed from partisan involvement find Bagley’s work helpful. Caroline Fraser in her November 21, 2002 article in the New York Review of Books, refers to Bagley and Juanita Brooks as “able historians” who have “unraveled much of what happened at Mountain Meadows.” Earlier in the same review Fraser praises Bagley for providing “an exhaustive, meticulously documented, highly readable history that captures the events and atmosphere that gave rise to the massacre, as well as it’s long tortuous aftermath.  Bagley has taken great care in negotiating the minefield presented by what remains of the historical record”

In his review for the Association of Mormon Letters, Jeff Needle writes:

"Blood of the Prophets" is the latest, and an impressive, addition to the literature covering a pivotal episode in Mormon history, the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Bagley's intense and detailed work attempts to separate the myth from the history, stepping outside the role of loyal member to curious historian.

C.G. Wallace’s October 11th Associated Press review, notes the debate stirred by Bagley’s book, as does New York Times reviewer, Emily Eakin.  Eakin mentions another forthcoming book on the massacre by investigative reporter Sally Denton, who, like Bagley, holds Brigham Young responsible for the crime.  Denton is quoted as saying, “Nothing happened in the place that did not happen under his [Brigham Young’s] direct orders.”

So wherein lays the truth? The myriad of source material cited by Bagley, conflicting and contradictory as it is, demands the issue be framed in terms of plausibility rather than absolute proof. What is most likely or probable to have happened? Given the nature of the evidence and our knowledge of LDS religious and social culture of that time period, which conclusion best fits what we do know to be true?

Is it likely that Brigham Young knew nothing about the involvement of Mormon leaders and thought it was only an act of Indian aggression till over a decade later? How feasible is it that he was lied to and systematically kept in the dark by some of the very Mormon leaders he had appointed, and that he never knew he was being deceived?  If Young thought the Indians acted alone, why did he sign a voucher for $3527.43 worth of goods to go to Paiute chiefs and their bands less than three weeks after the massacre? (p. 178)   And if Young were innocent of any involvement, why did he not use his power to help the U.S. Army track down and arrest the killers, since Army officers assigned to the case had concluded by May of 1859 that the Paiutes could have never pulled off a systematic killing of this magnitude? Major James H. Carleton of the U.S. Army discovered:

Skulls and bones bleached white by the weather lined the California Trail. Nearly every skull ‘had been shot through with rifle or revolver bullets.’ ‘I did not see one that had been “broken in with stones,” he said. He reported seeing several bones of what must have been very small children (p. 227).

Bagley found,

The army officers quickly concluded the Paiutes were entirely incapable of executing the massacre. Campbell thought they were ‘a miserable set of root-diggers, and nothing is to be apprehended from them but by the smallest and most careless party.’ The emigrants ‘could have whipped ten times their number of Pah-Ute Indians.’ Major Carleton argued that the ‘whole plan and operations, from beginning to end, display skill, patience, pertinacity, and forecast,’ which only the Mormon settlers possessed (p. 227).

Interestingly enough, this army report was corroborated in September of 1999 when University of Utah anthropologist Shannon Novak carried out thirty hours of forensic analysis on bones unearthed by a backhoe digging at the Mountain Meadows site.[3]

Brigham Young: “I gave them all the cattle …”

It should be understood that Mormon Prophet Brigham Young was both governor of the Utah Territory, and the U.S. government appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  As such, he was the spiritual leader, social leader and a principle moving force in Indian–American relations in the Utah territory.  Young was also predicting the overthrow of the United States and was in constant conflict with federal government officers assigned to Utah territory.  According to Bagley’s research, “A series of federal officials either died mysteriously or fled to tell tales of rampant rebellion in the territory. Such stories offended politicians and inflamed the American public against this odd and unpopular minority” (p. 39).

By the end of May, 1857, U.S., President Buchanan had decided to send an army and a new governor to Utah. Brigham’s response was to accuse the U.S. government of sending a mob to invade Utah and prepare for war. “The rush of events had convinced the Mormon Prophet that the end of time was near … The cornerstone of his plan was to rally Utah’s Indians to the Mormon cause. … ‘they must learn that they have either got to help us or the United States will kill us both’” (pp. 81-82).  Where emigrant trains that passed through Utah were once a means of trade and income, they were now seen as a way to intimidate the U.S. army to leave them alone.  Bagley writes:

Young had to choose between his fidelity to the U.S. government and what he saw as his duty as a prophet of God and his loyalty to the Mormon people. The superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah Territory was charged with protecting overland emigrants from Indian attacks, and on August 16 Superintendent Young had declared he would abandon that responsibility if the army came to Utah. Now Young explicitly violated his sworn duty and sent agents to encourage Indian attacks on wagon trains, dispatching Huntington north to the camp of some one thousand Shoshonis near Farmington.   … That the leading emissary of the Indian superintendent would encourage them to attack emigrant trains astonished the chiefs: this was something new.  They ‘wanted to Council & think of it’ (p. 92).

Bagley weaves together a chilling story from historical records and reminiscences:

… Emigrants had no doubt who was behind these assaults. On reaching California, overlanders recounted ‘many sad evidences of outrage and murder’ that they swore implicated the Saints. For three hundred miles emigrants had to run ‘the gauntlet of Indian attacks and Mormon treachery,’ Richeson Abbot complained. His party was ambushed at City of Rocks, and he was ‘satisfied the attack was led by Mormons, as they heard them cursing in regular Mormon slang, and calling out to them to get out of the country, as they had no business there.’ The Saints boasted they would kill them all (p. 93).

… As the Fancher train made camp some seventy miles north of Mountain Meadows on the evening of September 1, 1857, Young met for about an hour with the southern [Indian] chiefs to implement his plan to stop overland emigration on the southern road. … Describing his meeting with the Paiutes in his journal, Young claimed he could ‘hardly restrain them from exterminating the ‘Americans.’’ In truth, that Tuesday night Young encouraged the Indians to seize the stock of the wagon trains on the southern route. Juanita Brooks recognized the importance of this crucial meeting but could only speculate on its purpose. Historians have long assumed no detailed eyewitness account of the interview existed, but the diary of Young’s brother-in-law and interpreter, Dimick Huntington, has survived in the LDS Archives since 1859. Describing the September 1 parlay, Huntington wrote: ‘I gave them all the cattle that had gone to Cal the south rout   it made them open their eyes   they sayed that you have told us not to steal    so I have but now they have come to fight us & you for when they kill us they will kill you   they sayd the[y] was afraid to fight the Americans & so would raise [allies] and we might fight’

Bagley comments:

The language of Huntington’s critical journal entry is archaic, but its meaning is clear. Even a devout Mormon historian has identified the “I” in this entry as Brigham Young. The Paiute leaders had camped with the Fancher party only a week earlier at Corn Creek, so Young did not have to paint a picture for the chiefs to know whose cattle he was giving them. The donation of cattle to the Paiutes was not a direct order to massacre every Mericat (non-Mormon American) in southern Utah, but Indian Superintendent Young had told the apostles, ‘The Gentile emigrants [will] shoot the indians wharever they meet with them & the Indians now retaliate & will kill innocent People.’ He understood it was likely that innocent women and children would die in the Indian attacks he tacitly authorized (pp. 113-114).

What Brigham Knew

Bagley records a remarkable confession made by Brigham Young in July 1857. “I do not profess to be very good,” the prophet admitted. “I will try to take care of number one, and if it is wicked for me to try to preserve myself, I shall persist in it; for I am intending to take care of myself.” (p. 176) It would appear John D. Lee, a Mormon General authority and Brigham Young’s head clerk, was unaware how far Young would go to preserve himself.  Though Lee was sealed to Brigham Young as a spiritual son in a now-abandoned temple ordinance known as the law of adoption (p. 19), Lee would be the only one found guilty of the murders committed at Mountain Meadows and die at the hands of a firing squad.  While sitting on his coffin just before being executed he lamented his devotion to Young:

I studied to make this man’s will my pleasure for thirty years. See, now, what I have come to this day! I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner (p. 316).

According to Bagley’s research, following the massacre, Lee went directly to his Prophet and President and,

‘gave to Brigham Young a full detailed statement of the whole affair, from first to last.’  … Lee insisted he told Young everything, including ‘the names of every man who had been present at the massacre.’ I told him who killed the various ones,’ Lee said.  ‘In fact I gave him all the information there was to give’ (emphasis in original) p. 176

In spite of this and other evidence, Mormon leaders since the time of the massacre have done their utmost to suppress evidence, alter historical records and shift blame. The author’s final chapter (“Nothing but the Truth is Good Enough”) and his Epilogue, aptly titled “The Ghosts of Mountain Meadows,” identify some of the repeated efforts of the LDS Church to suppress or whitewash what actually happened and who was to blame. (pp. 354-359) According to Bagley, church officials apparently went so far as to use their influence to keep the story from being made into a movie both in 1950 and in the late 1970s (pp. 359-360, 366-367).

The Poison Story – Blame the Emigrants

A fascinating aspect of Blood of the Prophets is the sheer quantity of historical material compiled by Bagley, as he sifts through huge amounts of folklore and rumor to find historical truth.  One example of his research involves the oft-told story that the emigrants poisoned both water and the meat of a dead ox in an attempt to kill the Indians and in retaliation the Indians attacked the wagon train.  Bagley cites numerous different Mormon versions of this story and how they were used to explain why the Indians would attack this wagon train.

However, he also found that the “poison story” had serious problems since it never seemed to be told the same way twice. Some of the most telling historical evidence comes from wagon trains that came through the area shortly after the Fancher party. They watered their cattle at the same place with no ill effects, found the Indians of the area friendly towards them and when asked about people dying from poisoned food, the Indians knew nothing of it (pp. 106-108).  Bagley found that:

Emigrant George Davis gave the most telling assessment of the poison tale: everyone in the Duke’s train regarded the story as ‘a fabrication, on the part of the Mormons to clear themselves of suspicion, and to justify the Indians in murdering that company of emigrants.’ Davis camped at Corn Creek just ten days after the Fancher party, and over four days he ‘never heard anything of the poisoning.’ ‘We used the same water,’ he reported, ‘and between five and six hundred head of our cattle and horses used the water, yet we discovered no poison, nor heard anything of it, til we got to Parowan.  … Yet the poison story actually preceded the Fancher party on their trip south’ (pp. 109-110)

Yet even with the lack of solid evidence available today that the Fancher party ever did anything to incite the Indians to violence, some LDS historians continue to assert the Fancher party provoked and abused the Paiutes (p. 110).

“Priviledged to … avenge the blood of the prophets”

Bagley gives us a glimpse into life on the Mormon frontier during difficult times when once again LDS people anticipated persecution from the government and non-Mormons.  He also provides insight into the mentality of men like Brigham Young, John D. Lee, Col. William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight, and sheds light on the attitudes of the Mormon people toward authority, the United States government, Native Americans and non-Mormon emigrants.

Illustrative of this is Bagley’s treatment of the attitudes and actions of the Mormon leaders involved immediately following the killing. He writes:

After the burial detail completed its grisly chore, Nephi Johnson said the men formed a circle to hear ‘a great many speeches.’ According to Lee, he, Dame, Haight, Klingensmith, Higbee and Charles Hopkins spoke, praising God for delivering their enemies into their hands and ‘thanking the brethren for their zeal in God’s cause.’ The officers stressed ‘the necessity of always saying that the Indians did it alone, and that the Mormons had nothing to do with it.’

At Dame’s request Haight told the men ‘they had been priviledged to keep a part of their covenant to avenge the blood of the prophets.’ The men closed the circle, each putting his left hand on the shoulder of the man next to him and raising his right arm to the square. Higbee, Haight, Lee and Dame stood at the center, facing the four points of the compass. Stake President Haight led the men in a solemn oath never to discuss the matter, even among themselves, to keep the whole matter secret from every human being, and ‘to help kill all who proved to be traitors to the Church or people in this matter.’  Lee recalled the men voted unanimously to kill anyone who divulged the secret.  It would be treason to the men who killed the emigrants and ‘treason to the Church.’ (emphasis in original)  … ‘The orders to lay it all to the Indians, were just as positive as they were to keep it all secret,’ Lee wrote.  ‘This was the counsel from all in authority.’ … The meeting ended after Colonel Dame blessed the men (p. 158).

A Legacy of Lies Continues

The final chapter contains a positive note for it chronicles the LDS Church’s recent involvement in constructing a monument to the innocent victims of the massacre. But it resounds with a word of exhortation as well:

In the face of such complexities, the sincere efforts of Mormon leaders to bring healing to the subject are admirable, but their hope that ‘the book of the past is closed’ is futile without an acceptance of the religion’s role in this event … Church leaders might wish until the end of time that the matter could be forgotten, but history bears witness that only the truth will lay to rest the ghost of Mountain Meadows’ (p. 382).

There is no doubt that Bagley has an agenda. His research led him to the thesis that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was enabled, encouraged and carried out by Mormon Church leaders. Ultimately, each reader will decide if he has successfully supported that thesis with historical evidence. However, no matter what conclusion one comes to after reading Blood of the Prophets, Bagley has painted a dramatic picture of 19th century Mormonism under Brigham Young.  It was a society that both used and justified lies, falsehood and deception as a means to their own ends—that of protecting the image and existence of the Mormon Church. This legacy continues to this day with current President Gordon B. Hinckley’s repeated dodging and dissembling on sensitive historical and doctrinal issues, [4] raising once again the question, what is the higher value within the Mormon Church? Is it truth, or is it image and self-preservation?

—    Joel B. Groat

—    Mormons in Transition Website


[1] Winner of the 1998 Utah Arts Council Publication Prize.

[2] LDS Church historian Richard Turley, Ronald W. Walker, a BYU history professor, and Glen Leonard, director of the LDS Church’s Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, vow their own history of the massacre will exonerate Young and show that the attack was locally planned and carried out, according to Emily Eakin’s October 12, 2002 article in the New York Times, reprinted in the Salt Lake Tribune.

[3] Caroline Frasier, in her article for The New York Review of Books, wrote regarding Novak’s work that:

Her conclusions lent scientific credence to the belief that Mormons armed with guns—not just Indians wielding clubs or tomahawks, as Mormon legend had it—killed women and children at Mountain Meadows. One woman's skull revealed evidence that she had been shot in the head or face at close range; one child, aged ten to twelve, was killed by a gunshot through the top of the head.

[4] Richard & Joan Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, p. 296; “Dodging and Dissembling Prophet?”, Luke P. Wilson,


Ahead of 'September Dawn,' Mormon Church revisits dark period

In response to the new movie, the church sheds light on the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre.

By Ben Arnoldy
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the August 24, 2007 edition

Mountain Meadows, Utah - At a time when the Mormon Church is drawing heightened public visibility because of Mitt Romney's presidential bid, the church is grappling more openly with one of its darkest chapters.

The "Utah War" has largely faded from American memory as the Mormon Church – and the public's acceptance of it – evolved. But one incident from that time stubbornly lingers and is now the subject of a fictionalized film that opens in theaters Friday.

On Sept. 11, 1857, Mormons aided by native American allies massacred about 120 unarmed men, women, and children bound for California by wagon train. The slaughter took place amid war hysteria: The US Army was marching toward Utah to confront Mormon leaders.

After covering up the Mountain Meadows massacre for years, the church is supporting an exhaustive Mormon research effort to leave no stone unturned. The findings, unflattering in spots, are being broadcast worldwide in the latest edition of the church's magazine.

"It's clear that at very important levels the church is opening itself in ways that it had not felt comfortable with [before]," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor and religion expert at University of Pennsylvania. "People [in Utah] really understand – perhaps as they hadn't until the last five, six years or so – that there's a need and a possibility for real investigation and acceptance of a painful past."

Kent Bylund, a Mormon who owned land at the site in southwestern Utah, has seen a shift in attitude. Tapped by Mormon President Gordon Hinckley to head up construction of a memorial in 1999, Mr. Bylund turned to the local Mormon community for donations of time and money.

"People wanted to be a part of this healing process. For Mormons, it's a part of their heritage, and it's hard for them to come to terms with it," says Bylund.

But Bylund also received death threats from Mormons unhappy with the effort. And when a backhoe accidentally dug up a shovel full of bones, distrust of the church flared among victims' relatives. Finally, at the dedication ceremony, Mr. Hinckley offered words of healing to the descendants, but punctuated them with a legalistic disclaimer of any church responsibility.

"Compared to what we've seen in the last 150 years, since 1999 [church officials] have made strides," says Patty Norris, head of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, a group of those related to the 17 children under age 7 who were spared. "But they need to go a lot further. We want them to openly acknowledge that church leaders were involved."

She says her group also wants the church to help round up property that was stolen from the train, agree to turn over the site to some other steward, and – very simply – apologize.

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed sympathy. "My heart has gone out to the descendants," Elder Dallin Oaks said in a recent PBS documentary. "What a terrible thing to contemplate, that the barbarity of the frontier and the conditions of the Utah war, whatever provocations were perceived to have been given, would have led to ... such an extreme atrocity perpetrated by members of my faith."

The church, says author Will Bagley, is on the horns of a dilemma: "Until you can embrace confession, you can't repent. If you can't repent, there's no forgiveness."

His 2002 book on the massacre, "The Blood of the Prophets," argues that evidence points to Brigham Young hatching the plot to scare the US from its march to war. Religious leaders then used Mormon imagery of apocalypse and vengeance to whip up subordinates.

Like Mr. Bagley, the new movie "September Dawn," puts the blame on top Mormon leaders and religious fanaticism, at times using heavy-handed contrasts with the protestant piety of the immigrants.

The forthcoming history written by three Mormon authors sees many universal – rather than just Mormon dynamics at play. The book looks at other atrocities in different cultures and finds commonalities with Mountain Meadows, including the tendencies to demonize outsiders during times of war.

But the religion played a role: "There were statements made both in Salt Lake City and by local leaders down in southern Utah that tended to inflame emotions," says coauthor Ron Walker. "To that extent, ... there is a measure of culpability."

After reading their manuscript, Jan Shipps, a preeminent non-Mormon scholar, urged the writers to flesh out the religious backdrop. But she praises the book's research, and says it's a big deal that the church is publishing a synopsis in next month's church magazine.

"Can you imagine what that means in the official magazine of the church that's going all over the world to people who have just joined the church?" says Dr. Shipps.

Being a fifth-generation Mormon like Bylund doesn't make the massacre any less jarring to faith.

"The children who died – you can't be out here without thinking about them," he says, looking across the sage-strewn meadow. He could see the bullet holes in the bones dug up by the backhoe.

Yet he also thinks of his ancestors who were chased out of Missouri and Illinois by violent mobs. They feared the Army's arrival, and having to start over again.

He asks other Mormons whether they could imagine getting swept up in the massacre had they been in the local militia in 1857. "I've never met anyone who has this type of heritage who would say no," say Bylund. And would they regret it afterward? "They all said yes."  


Movie Review: 'September Dawn'

Tragic terrorism of a past 9/11 parallels our present

By Ben Zgodny

Sep 03, 2007

The date 9/11 is infamously associated with terrorism and tragedy. September Dawn is a rendition of another tragedy that occurred on the date of 9/11 on the plains of Utah in the year 1857.

The story begins with a wagon train heading westward toward California, stopping in Mormon territory in need of rest. The cautious Bishop offers help to the settlers while instructing his son Jonathan to keep an eye on them.

Jonathan happily accepts as Emily, the daughter of a minister in the encampment, has captivated him. A love story develops between the two, amidst a plot by the Mormon leader, Brigham Young, to ambush the weary travelers.

The story builds to a bloody and senseless massacre with a Romeo and Juliet -styled twist.

Chris Cain directed, wrote, and produced this independent film based on a confession and some supporting documentation. He wanted to represent the account as historically correct as possible and demonstrate how such a tragedy occurred 150 years ago in our own country among Americans. Cain succeeds in illustrating the plight of the killers, their conflicts, and ultimately how they were driven to commit such a heinous act. As Cain remarked, "…you read Brigham Young's speeches and what he's saying and you see his ability to fire people up to do things."

The pivotal role of the Bishop's son, Jonathan, was well played by Trent Ford, a model turned actor with previous appearances in Gosford Park and "The West Wing."

It seems Academy Award winner John Voight was thrust into the role of the Bishop to give the movie more presence. He delivers a solid depiction of the Bishop's internal conflict.

Although in a small role, Terence Stamp delivers a standout performance as the stern, strict, and not-to-be messed with Mormon leader Brigham Young. Stamp is no stranger to the antagonist role, such as his memorable General Zod in the Superman series, and he also leaves his chilling mark on September Dawn.

The plot was average, but the love story was altogether too predictable, making the movie at times flat. I often knew what was coming next, but the Romeo and Juliet twist still succeeded in drawing me closer to the tragedy.

If you're looking for comedy or a first date movie, you should pass. However, if you're looking for drama and post-movie discussion, you'll be pleased with September Dawn.


Facing the truth of Mountain Meadows

By Robert Kirby
Tribune columnist


In 1874, Mormon pioneer relatives of mine lost three children in three days. Robert, Amelia and Thomas Kirby were all younger than 4 when diphtheria came calling.
    The level of faith in God required to endure such tragedy and continue on with the church was a testament to the devotion of my fathers. Down through the years, my family believed steadfastness like this solidly proved the truthfulness of Mormon doctrine.
    Not necessarily. People get tough for all sorts of reasons, including an utter lack of options. With three kids in the ground and more still to feed, it's not as if the Kirbys could go bowling. Putting their heads down and moving forward may have been the only alternative.
    I don't want to take anything away from my pioneer ancestors, but I don't want to give them more credit than they're due, either. Martyrdom, suffering, deprivation and unwavering devotion prove the intensity of belief, not the truthfulness or even common sense of it.
    My church raised me on the saintliness of my Mormon pioneer ancestors, an honest folk persecuted for no reason other than that we were God's favorites. Satan raged against us because we had The Truth.
    I heard all the faith-promoting stories about Haun's Mill, Carthage Jail and Nauvoo, Ill. We were whipped, burned out, murdered, robbed and stripped of our civil rights. The U.S. sent an army against us. All of this proved we had The Truth, right?
    Unfortunately, such a one-sided view of our history presented a problem when I finally learned that in 1857, Mormons (including my great-grandfather) slaughtered 120 defenseless men, women and children at Mountain Meadows.
    As unforgivable as that was, just as troubling to me were our subsequent efforts to dodge The Truth, to cover it up, to water it down, to pretend that it never happened or, worse, to blame it on others.
    I heard all the self-serving explanations for Mountain Meadows, ranging from the deliberately obfuscating to the patently ludicrous: "Indians did it." "The immigrants had it coming." "We only shot them a little."
    Historians, notably the inestimable Juanita Brooks, who tried to bring the facts of the massacre to light, were ostracized by fellow Mormons and even threatened by church leaders. We couldn't, it seemed, handle The Truth about ourselves.
    Considering what we believed about ourselves, it's understandable that we didn't want to talk about it. After all, if enduring persecution is all the proof we need of having The Truth, what's proven when we're the ones causing it?
    Faith can be a tricky business. It's a valuable lesson we should have learned years ago. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mountain Meadows next week, we can start by realizing that faith is something we owe God, not other human beings.


Is Brigham Young to blame?

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune


One hundred and fifty years after the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the biggest question remains: Was Brigham Young involved?
    Some historians and descendants clearly lay blame for the 1857 slaughter of Arkansas emigrants on Young, who ruled the Utah territory politically and ecclesiastically. They reason Young must have personally endorsed an action of such magnitude taken by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Others insist no evidence directly links him to the crime.
    So who's right?
    Historian and author Will Bagley believes Young gave the order and is to blame for the atrocity. The Mormon leader, Bagley says, "acted guilty, lied about it for 20 years and didn't go after the Mormon perpetrators."
    He points to a meeting Young, who also served as an agent of Indian affairs, held in Salt Lake City with a dozen chiefs, during which he encouraged them to attack wagon trains and suggested they had a right to the emigrants' property.
    "That's a criminal act," says Bagley, author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.
    Bagley believes the Fancher party didn't reach Cedar City until Sept. 4 and on Sept. 7 was attacked by 60 to 70 Mormons and some Paiutes (though both the dates and size of the Mormon contingent are in dispute).
    "How long does it take to assemble a force that big stationed in several places? Longer than a long weekend," which suggests to him the attackers already had an order to act.
    Bagley is convinced Young offered a kind of confession in May 1861. Stopping at the Meadows with 125 friends, he spied the rock pile the army had raised on the victims' graves, with its inscription, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord."
    Young reportedly repeated the phrase, then added, "and I have taken a little."
    "It reveals the motivation and the authority for the murders," Bagley says.
    Mormon historian Ronald W. Walker, co-author of the forthcoming volume Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, says it's not that clear-cut. "Young's statement about vengeance most likely was based on reports to him that emphasized emigrant misconduct [reportedly bragging about killing Mormon founder Joseph Smith]."
    It was the "antagonistic" U.S. Army that reported the figure of 60 to 70 Mormons at the first attack, Walker says. Other sources say it was mostly John D. Lee and some Indians. Additional militia members slowly arrived during the five-day siege.
    As for the meeting with the Indian leaders, none of the chiefs in attendance participated in the massacre.
    To Walker and his co-authors, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard, the most compelling reason for rejecting Young as the instigator is how conditions evolved in southern Utah.
    "The day-by-day ebb and flow of events wasn't consistent with an agenda," Walker says. "They were constantly changing their minds, arguing with each other."
    If it was ordered by Young, he says, "that had to be one of the best-kept secrets ever. How do you get all these people involved and then, after the fact, telling a consistent story? Conspiracies break down because people spill the beans, he says. "In this case, nobody did."
    Does that mean Young was blameless?
    Not entirely, Walker says. Young's preaching "tended to inflame emotions. Because of that, he does bear a measure of culpability."


Mountain Meadows Massacre: After 150 years, ire toward LDS Church persists

From spilled blood to monument

By Jessica Ravitz
The Salt Lake Tribune
September 11, 2007

MOUNTAIN MEADOWS - A recently discovered part of Parley Pearce's family history is laid out before him in the broad expanse of a valley floor that is Mountain Meadows.
    It was here amid the sage and scrub, 150 years ago today, that one of his ancestors, a member of a local Mormon militia, participated in the killing of 120 Arkansas emigrants who were traveling by wagon train to California. Descendants of the victims, the 17 survivors (all children 7 and younger) and the perpetrators, as well as others, will stand together this morning to remember the Mountain Meadows Massacre - perhaps Utah's, and the LDS Church's, darkest chapter and one that has fueled historical debate, descendant infighting, conspiracy theories about cover-ups and, at times, fragile detentes.
    "I thought with a name like mine, I might get lynched down here," says Pearce, 57, of Walla Walla, Wash., who decided to brave the trip so he could learn more about his family's past, good and bad. "You can't go back and change history, but it's important to know the truth."
    The only thing as complicated and contested as nailing down exactly what happened before, during and after the bloodbath in this valley - then a common stop along the Old Spanish Trail - is determining the future of the grave site monument.
    Situated off Highway 18, about an hour's drive southwest of Cedar City, stands the grave site monument where Pearce and others will gather today for a memorial service. The large rock pyramid-like structure, which measures about 15 feet tall and is encircled by a protective wall, was built and is maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this part of the land.
    That fact alone rankles Phil Bolinger, president of the Arkansas-based Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation Inc. (MMMF, one of three organizations representing descendants), because he, like many victim and survivor descendants, sees then-LDS prophet Brigham Young - and, by extension, the church - as culpable for the crime.
    Quoting an often-used analogy, he asks, "How do you think the Kennedy family would feel if the Lee Harvey Oswald family was in charge of the Kennedy grave?"
    Bolinger's organization wants third-party intercession, namely federal stewardship of the grave site, an issue MMMF members and guests discussed at length during a Monday morning roundtable discussion.
    Only then, they say, can the story of their ancestors, and the remains of those who died in Mountain Meadows, be protected.
    The bodies of the dead were left where they fell. Captains Reuben T. Campbell and Charles Brewer, along with their men from Camp Floyd, Utah, reportedly arrived a year or so later. They gathered and buried, in three separate sites, some of the remains in the northern valley, where the massacre took place. Of those sites, at least two are unmarked and all three are believed to be on privately owned land.
    When Brevet Major James H. Carleton of Ft. Tejon, Calif., entered the meadows in 1859, he and his troops found bones strewn across the southern valley. They gathered partial remains of about 36 individuals, in the area where the original siege of the emigrants took place days before the massacre, and buried them beneath a large stone cairn. That structure, and the actual rocks used, would become
    the model and materials for today's monument.
    In the years that followed, the cairn crumbled, was torn down, moved and rebuilt 11 times, says Marian Jacklin, who oversees historical issues for Dixie National Forest, which manages much of the federal land in the area.
    Along the way, different plaques adorned it. A 1932 bronze marker placed blame squarely on John D. Lee, the one Mormon militiaman convicted of the murders, who was executed in 1877 at Mountain Meadows while sitting on his coffin. By mid-September 1990, with the approval of the LDS Church (which had been deeded the land in the 1970s), the Lee family members removed that marker and replaced it with a new plaque that spoke of a massacre but offered no explanation of who was behind the killings.
    That plaque appeared in conjunction with the placement of another monument about a mile up, atop Dan Sill Hill overlooking the valley. Etched in granite imported from Arkansas are the names of the 120 victims and 17 survivors. There are signs offering a historical overview (placing blame on Mormon settlers and Indians, which has been refuted by some historians and members of the Paiute Nation), a map depicting the path of the emigrants, and a metal viewfinder to help visitors pinpoint where the massacre occurred. All of this is neither owned by the LDS Church nor on the land the emigrants traveled. Instead, this monument is on federal land, is managed by Dixie National Forest and was built under the direction of the Mountain Meadows Association (MMA), the oldest descendant's organization, Jacklin says.
    The experience of pulling this together showed how loaded this chapter in history remains.
    "Back in '89, there were 27 different accounts of what happened at Mountain Meadows, and it's just gone from there," she says. "It's still very volatile. . . . The emotions are right there on the edge."
    So it goes at the rock cairn, too.
    LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley visited the site in October 1998, saw the then-deteriorating cairn and determined it was time to refurbish it.
    On Aug. 3, 1999, under the supervision of several MMA members and archaeologists from Brigham Young University (who had reportedly accessed the land so as to avoid disturbing burial grounds), workers digging a trench unearthed, with a backhoe, the remains of about 29 individuals. The bones, as is common practice when human remains are found, were sent to BYU and the University of Utah
    for analysis.
    Initial studies by then-U. anthropologist Shannon Novak showed that wounds were not consistent with LDS Church historical accounts that had placed blame on Paiute Indians. But before she and others could complete their work, then-Gov. Mike. Leavitt (a descendant of some massacre perpetrators) intervened, issuing an order to stop the evaluation and return the bones to the grave site so that they could be reinterred in time for the Sept. 11, 1999 dedication.
    The whole ordeal not only stirred up conspiracy theories, it created a schism among descendants. Those living in Arkansas resented that certain MMA members were speaking for them, and in so doing were misrepresenting their wishes to the church. The establishment of MMMF soon followed.
    MMMF members say theirs is a frustration with the church institution, not the Mormon people in general. What they want are assurances that developers won't sweep in and build condos, that access to the hallowed grounds will remain open, that mishaps like the backhoe incident of 1999 won't take them by surprise and that no one party will own the history's narrative.
    The story, after all, belongs to many, no matter how discomforting it may be.
    "It's a discovery process. Everyone needs to face up to the realities," says Pearce, who's just beginning to open the past. "I would rather know, even if it's somewhat painful."


150 years after the blood, an apology

LDS Church says its role in Mountain Meadows Massacre 'terrible and inexcusable'


But some of victims' families upset the word 'sorry' missing from statement

By Jessica Ravitz
The Salt Lake Tribune


MOUNTAIN MEADOWS - A Mormon apostle, speaking Tuesday at the 150th anniversary memorial service for victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, apologized for the church's role, expressing "profound regret for the massacre."
    In a statement considered groundbreaking, Elder Henry B. Eyring, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said new research shows local Mormon leaders were responsible for recruiting Paiute Indians to participate in the crime during which 120 men, women and children of the Fancher-Baker wagon train, en route to California from Arkansas, were brutally killed by a group of Mormon militia members and some Paiute allies, although the Paiutes' participation remains disputed.
    "What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct," said Eyring, who choked up while reading a statement delivered on behalf of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here."
    The words, "we're sorry," were not part of the statement, but Richard Turley Jr., the LDS Church's managing director of family and church history and co-author of the forthcoming book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, insisted after the ceremony that the statement was meant to be an apology.
    ''[The church] is deeply, deeply sorry,'' he said. ''What happened here was horrific.''
    The apology went out to descendants of victims, but also to those of survivors and perpetrators.
    "Many of those who carried out the massacre were haunted all their lives by what they did and saw on that unforgettable day. They and their relatives have also suffered under a heavy burden of guilt," Eyring said. ''No doubt divine justice will impose appropriate punishment."
    The service, attended by about 400 people, began as an antique wagon, driven by Arkansas descendants and pulled by two Belgian work horses, wound its way down to the memorial grave site. Behind the wagon were descendants carrying flags bearing the names of the 29 families who were massacred in this valley that was a popular stop along the Old Spanish Trail.
    Hanging from the fence surrounding the memorial about an hour's drive southwest of Cedar City were 120 crosses representing those who died in the massacre, plus another 17 adorned with red ribbons to represent the children who survived.
    Onlookers watched the procession, snapping pictures and filming with hand-held recorders. Some wiped away tears, while several others sobbed openly and embraced. They wept for people they'd never known but whose memories they and their families have held onto for decades.
    The bloodbath in this meadow has stood out as perhaps Utah's, and the LDS Church's, darkest and most disputed chapter. Descendants, in varying degrees, have cried out for apologies, recognition and protection of their ancestors' stories. So while the people in the audience heard Eyring's words and viewed them as progress, few seemed to hear an outright apology.
    Historian Will Bagley, who wrote Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, appreciated the expression of contrition to the Paiutes, but he felt the church - as an institution - fell short in owning up to its culpability.
    ''I don't think shoving it off on local [Mormon] leadership is an apology,'' he said. ''Did you hear an 'I'm sorry?' ''
    Added Priscilla Dickson, 60, of St. George, a descendant of the Tackett family, which was among the emigrants, ''Simply saying 'I'm sorry,' would go a long way.' "
    Patty Norris of the Arkansas-based Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants organization referred to the statement as an ''almost apology.''
    ''I don't think they came right out and apologized, but I did feel like it was an apology,'' said Norris, whose organization represents descendants of child survivors of the massacre. ''It's closer than anything we've ever had, and I appreciated at least, the effort.''
    The scars of that time have been long-lasting for the Paiutes, said Lora Tom, a representative of the Paiute Nation.
    "For 150 years no one asked for our account," she said.
    Tom, whose remarks elicited a standing ovation, said long-perpetuated lies faulting her ancestors have hurt Paiute youth who've grown up reading about this in history books. She said her ancestors had remained silent because they were trying to survive. They feared speaking up because they relied on local Mormons.
    ''That was a time not to confront this story, but now is the time," she said. The Paiutes "have kept to themselves for too long . . . This is the beginning for us. Let us begin together."
    Eyring's statement offered a "separate expression of regret" to the Paiutes, "who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre."
    While the extent of the Paiutes' involvement is disputed, Eyring said church leaders now believe they ''would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local church leaders and members.''
    New research, to be included in Turley's book, which will be released in coming months, "enabled us to know more than we ever have known about this unspeakable episode. The truth, as we have come to know it, saddens us deeply," he said.


The Legacy of Mountain Meadows

A bloody attack on an emigrant wagon train that occurred in a remote location in southern Utah Territory 150 years ago continues to raise disturbing questions and haunt the Mormon Church.

Wild West Magazine - September 2007
By Will Bagley

At dawn on Monday, September 7, 1857, Major John D. Lee of the Nauvoo Legion, Utah’s territorial militia, led a ragtag band of 60 or 70 Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, and a few Indian freebooters in an assault on a wagon train from Arkansas.

The emigrants, now known to history as the Fancher Party, were camped at Mountain Meadows, an alpine oasis on the wagon road between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The party, led by veteran plainsmen familiar with the California Trail and its variants, consisted of a dozen large, prosperous families and their hired hands. The wagon train comprised 18 to 30 wagons pulled by ox and mule teams, plus several hundred cattle and a number of blooded horses the men were driving to California’s Central Valley. The company included about 140 men, women and children—the women and children outnumbered the able-bodied men 2-to-1.

As daylight broke in the remote Utah Territory valley, a volley of gunfire and a shower of arrows ripped into the wagon camp from nearby ravines and hilltops, immediately killing or wounding about a quarter of the adult males. The surviving men of the Fancher Party leveled their lethal long rifles at their hidden, painted attackers and stopped the brief frontal assault in its tracks. The Arkansans pulled their scattered wagons into a circle l and quickly improved their wagon fort, digging a pit to protect the women and children from stray projectiles. Cut off from any source of water and under continual gunfire, the emigrants fended off their assailants for five long, hellish days.

On Friday, September 11, hope appeared in the form of a white flag. The emigrants let the emissary, a Mormon from a nearby settlement, into their fort, and then John D. Lee, the local Indian agent, followed. Lee told the Arkansans he and his men had come to rescue them from the Indians. If the emigrants would lay down their arms, the local militia would escort them to safety. The travelers had few options: they surrendered and agreed to Lee’s strange terms.

The Mormons separated the survivors into three groups: the wounded and youngest children led the way in two wagons; the women and older children walked behind; and the men, each escorted by an armed guard, brought up the rear. Lee led this forlorn parade more than a mile to the California Trail and the rim of the Great Basin. There, the senior Mormon officer escorting the men gave an order: perhaps “Halt!” but by most accounts, “Do your duty!” A single shot rang out, and each escort turned and shot his man. Painted savages—a few of whom may have been actual Indians—jumped out of the oak brush lining the trail and cut down the women and children, while Lee directed the murder of the wounded. Within five minutes, the atrocity was over.

Everyone was dead except for 17 orphans, all under the age of 7, whom the killers deemed too young to be credible witnesses and who qualified as “innocent blood” under Mormon doctrine.
For the men who committed this horrific atrocity, the legacy of Mountain Meadows became a haunting memory they could never escape. Those most guilty of the crime explained it with denials, lies and alibis that twisted and turned as the evidence inevitably came out. Some of the killers went mad, some apparently killed themselves and several fled to Mexico, but only one man faced the music and was executed for the crime: John D. Lee, regarded as a scapegoat by his descendants and historians alike. For the children who survived and the families of the victims, the massacre became a deep and enduring wound. The murderers appropriated the Fancher train’s considerable property and cash. Much of it apparently made its way into Mormon leader Brigham Young’s pockets, and not a penny of compensation was ever offered to the survivors. For many living descendants and relatives of the victims, who have long been slandered as frontier hard cases who got what they deserved, the massacre remains a bitter injustice.

For today’s Latter-day Saints, Mountain Meadows is the most troubling event in their religion’s complicated history. There is nothing like it in the faith’s history of suffering, sacrifice and devotion. For 150 years, leaders and official historians of the LDS Church have worked hard to justify or explain away the crime, and a large part of the legacy of the murders is a tangled web of lies and deception.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2007, another wagon train from Arkansas will arrive at Mountain Meadows to commemorate the sesquicentennial of one of the grimmest anniversaries in American history. After a long forgetfulness, the last five years have seen a flurry of histories, biographies, novels, plays, films and articles about the massacre. Academic presses are primed to release at least three serious nonfiction studies of the event over the next year, including one by the forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones of 28 men, women and children the U.S. Army buried in 1859. Despite the passage of 150 years, it appears that Latter-day Saints, survivors of the Southern Paiute Nation, descendants of the victims and their murderers, and a scattering of historians and the curious will gather at the meadows. They will wrestle with the complicated legacy of what all agree was an atrocity and some view as America’s first act of religious terrorism.

I’ll be there, too, as I have been for about every other September 11 over the last 20 years. During that time, I’ve witnessed the dedication of two monuments—one near the highway on Dan’s Hill overlooking the killing ground, where a 1990 granite monument financed by descendants and the state of Utah honors the victims; and a second that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints raised in 1999 over the grave of the victims, whose remains were inadvertently unearthed by a backhoe during the monument’s hurried construction. Ironically, the cairn standing at the center of the second memorial is modeled after the “rude monument, conical in form and 50 feet in circumference at the base and 12 feet in height,” that Brevet Major James Henry Carlton’s 1st Dragoons raised in 1859 and Brigham Young directed his minions to destroy two years later. I’ve met grandsons and great-great-great-great grandsons of the men who committed the crime—members of the Lee, Klingensmith, Johnson, Knight, Adair, Pearce, Haight, Higbee, Wilden and Bateman families—all of whom still live under the shadow cast by their ancestors’ act 150 years ago. I’ve encountered even more descendants of the Baker, Cameron, Dunlap, Fancher, Jones, Miller, Mitchell, Prewit and Tackitt families who lost loved ones at the meadows. I admire and respect almost every one, and I have come to love more than a few of them.

I’m also the author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, which took five years to write; and editor (with David L. Bigler) of Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which took another five years to assemble and should appear next year from the Arthur H. Clark Company. I have a dog in this fight and make no pretensions to being a disinterested party: I happily admit I’ll be fascinated to witness whatever drama plays out at Mountain Meadows late this summer. I am also intrigued by the massacre’s strange legacy and a little astonished to find myself as enmeshed in the awful tale and its ongoing story as was its greatest chronicler, southern Utah historian Juanita Brooks. Like Brooks, I am amazed to find myself slandered, libeled, reviled, hated and even feared for simply following the evidence to its obvious conclusions.

An Incident That Should Be Forgotten: Books

At first glance, it seems incredible that the largest massacre of American citizens in the history of the Oregon and California trails is practically forgotten. Again and again, I’ve had people ask, “Why haven’t I ever heard about this?” Upon consideration, the atrocity’s obscurity is easier to understand: After all, such a tale of blood and sorrow had little to recommend it to those who created the legend of the West. It involved white people killing white people in an act of treachery that does nothing to support our pride in what makes us Westerners. Since the story involved a persecuted religion, historians liked to navigate around it. Latter-day Saints, the people with the biggest stake in the story, long tried to blame it on someone else, anyone else—the victims, the Indians, a single evil fanatic and now, it appears, a whole bunch of fanatics. The bloody tale gave them no comfort whatsoever, and they were happy to see it disappear into the mists of time.
Josiah Gibbs, author of the 1909 book Lights and Shadows of Mormonism, recalled that “a prominent Salt Lake editor” said, “The Mountain Meadows massacre is an incident that should be forgotten,” for the sake of peace in Utah. Yet events surrounding the upcoming sesquicentennial appear primed to bring more attention to the massacre than it has had since the death of

Brigham Young.

A surprising number of books, both fiction and nonfiction, have dealt with the massacre during the last five years. They form part of a long tradition: Writers as renowned as Mark Twain and Jack London told the story, and Buffalo Bill Cody rescued his sister May from the massacre in a play that helped launch his career. Amanda Bean’s The Fancher Train won the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for best novel of the West in 1958, and Danièle Desgranges published Autopsie D’un Massacre: Mountain Meadows in Paris in 1990.

My personal favorite among all the recent books on the massacre is Judith Freeman’s Red Water, which brilliantly reconstructs the lives of three of the wives of John D. Lee. Freeman’s novel transports the reader to a very different time and place: the ragged edge of the Mormon frontier in southern Utah. Unlike historical novelists who simply dress up contemporary characters in funny clothes and put them in quaint places where they encounter famous dead people, Freeman re-creates the alien world of Deseret, where men like Major/Judge/President John Lee held simultaneous power as military officers and legal and religious authorities. Historians operate by strict and often restricting rules, but Freeman’s use of imagination to re-create the past offers perceptions that I often found jarring—and enlightening.

Mountain Meadows fiction keeps appearing, and though most of it is awful, Elizabeth Crook’s The Night Journal, in which the main character’s father is an orphan of the massacre, won the Western Writers of America Spur Award this year for best long novel. Mainstream publishers released two nonfiction works in 2003 that dealt with the atrocity. Alfred A. Knopf published Sally Denton’s study of the killings in American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857. Denton is a talented writer, but Mormon historians found her book an easy target. Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was more successful. His study of modern polygamy and violence provoked such a strong denunciation from Richard Turley, the managing director of the LDS Church’s Family and Church History Department, that Mormon outrage helped propel the book onto bestseller lists for months. (Insiders speculate that Doubleday’s publicity department tore up their promotion plans when the attack appeared on the church’s Web site two weeks before its release: Their work was done.)
Burying the Past: Movies

A surprising hero of the Mountain Meadows wars of the last two decades is Gordon B. Hinckley, who became president, prophet, seer and revelator of the LDS Church in 1995 after effectively running the organization since the early 1980s. When descendants began to lobby to build a monument to the victims of the massacre in the late 1980s, their efforts went nowhere until they enlisted President Hinckley’s support. Once he was on board, powerful southern Utah politicians co-opted the project and eventually claimed credit for the whole idea. The descendants, however, knew the truth and were grateful for Hinckley’s help. At a meeting in 1989, they asked how they could reward his good efforts. Hinckley asked only one favor: “No movies.”

It was a typically astute request from a man who had spent his life working on public relations for the LDS Church. The institution had successfully kept the story off screens both big and little for decades. After The Mountain Meadows Massacre hit the silent silver screen in 1912, almost a century passed before another major film appeared. The church itself shot down several attempts to make a movie about the massacre. Warner Brothers (and later, rumor has it, Paramount) optioned the rights to turn Juanita Brooks’ The Mountain Meadows Massacre into a movie—despite historian Dale L. Morgan qualifying it as “the least likely candidate for a movie among the books published in 1950.” Powerful Mormon political and financial figures put an end to the project. Following the success of Roots, the 1977 ABC television miniseries, David Susskind hoped to create a similar phenomenon with a series on the massacre. The epic had scheduled production when CBS cancelled it.

As Hinckley surely knew, his hope that no one would ever make a film about Mountain Meadows was wishful thinking. The Arts & Entertainment Channel had already shown an episode on the murders as part of Kenny Rogers’ Real West series. Noted Mormon historian Leonard Arrington served as the main talking head, and the episode relied heavily on legends about “Missouri Wildcats” and other evil emigrant fantasies, with similar blame assigned to the terrifying Southern Paiutes, who in Mormon legend forced the righteous settlers to kill the emigrants.

Along the same lines, Dixie State College cinema professor Eric Young, a descendant of Brigham Young’s brother, made another film in southern Utah in 2000. Based on Juanita Brooks’ study, the documentary is a classic LDS retelling of the story with lots of blame for the victims and the Indians, but it won two “Telly” local television awards. Young became interested in the subject when he tried to date a descendant of John D. Lee. Her mother told him bluntly that because of what Brigham Young did to her ancestor, she wouldn’t let him date her daughter. Ironically, Professor Young “said he made the film with the aim of clearing Brigham Young of responsibility for the massacre, but was unable to find the evidence to do so.”

Bill Kurtis’ Investigating History produced an episode for the History Channel in 2004 about the murders from University of New Mexico professor Paul Hutton’s script. It incorporated Hutton’s updated research and focused largely on the 1859 federal investigation of the atrocity. The channel’s Standards and Practices Committee, which had never objected to any of Kurtis’ productions, took an intense interest in the Mountain Meadows episode. The final script (which won a Spur Award) bore only a passing resemblance to Hutton’s original.

Another film professor, Brian Patrick of the University of Utah, released a more compelling documentary in 2004, Burying the Past: Legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. (I’m one of several historians Patrick interviewed.) Patrick became interested in the story after reading a news article about the reestablishment of the Mountain Meadows Association. It had regrouped in 1998 to prod the state of Utah into restoring the monument at Dan Sill Hill after the granite slab listing the victims toppled over due to poor construction, weather conditions or an earthquake, take your pick. A newspaper story about the association’s attempts at reconciliation among those who share the massacre’s legacy caught his attention. During the five years Patrick spent making the film, the story evolved as the LDS Church dedicated the second monument, and different factions and personalities came into conflict. (The accidental discovery of their ancestors’ grave, and secretly shipping the bones to Brigham Young University for analysis, offended many of the victims’ descendants.) Ultimately, the film dealt not only with reconciliation but—as its title reveals—the difficulty of dealing with the darker side of Mormon history.

Patrick’s film did very well on the independent film festival circuit and garnered 11 awards, but he was unable to persuade PBS to broadcast it and his documentary found no national distributor. It did attract media attention when Spudfest, the fledgling film festival founded by actress Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island), pulled the documentary from its lineup, claiming the film was too violent for a family-oriented event. Patrick heard a different story: local Mormon authorities were up in arms, he told a reporter, claiming “the film is hateful and mean-spirited, and they don’t want their people to see it and, if [Spudfest] is going to show it, there’s going to be big trouble.”

Bigger trouble was brewing. Every LDS public relations flak’s nightmare arrived this June with the release of September Dawn, director Christopher Cain’s romantic telling of the awful tale and the first feature-length film ever made about the massacre (see review in June 2007 Wild West). Cain, best known to Western buffs as the director of Young Guns, financed the project himself and shot it in British Columbia. He added a melodramatic love story to a born-again script by Carole Whang Schutter. Cain assembled a stellar cast, including Terence Stamp, Jon Voight and Lolita Davidovich. Cain’s son Dean (best known as Superman in Lois and Clark) put in a brief appearance as Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Trent Ford and Tamara Hope gave solid performances as the conflicted Mormon hero and his doomed love. But Terence Stamp created a terrifying vision of Brigham Young, while sticking to dialogue drawn from the religious leader’s fire-and-brimstone sermons and legal statements. Jon Voight, as Bishop Jacob Samuelson, has generated fear and loathing in Mormon country. Latter-day Saints who saw advance screenings objected to the film’s “stereotypical, one-dimensional portrait of blindly obedient church members that bordered on cartoonish at times.” A brief scene showing a frontier version of the sacred Mormon temple ceremony was especially sensitive.

As I write this, how the public will react to September Dawn is an open question. In early May 2007 I attended a preview showing the day after the broadcast of Helen Whitney’s PBS documentary The Mormons, which included a long and powerful segment on Mountain Meadows. (I presented the case that Brigham Young did it, while LDS historian Glen Leonard argued he didn’t.) September Dawn’s producers invited to the viewing more than 100 descendants and relatives of those killed in the massacre, and seeing the film with them was an honor. If nothing else, the movie will introduce millions of people to this forgotten stain on America’s history—and most importantly, it should doom forever attempts to blame the disaster on its victims.

Whodunit? A Case of Vengeance and Retribution

A single question lurks behind almost everything ever written about the Mountain Meadows Massacre: Did Brigham Young order it, and if so why? Predicting how someone will come down on the issue is not hard: “It’s a story I’ve lived with my entire life, being a so-called gentile in Salt Lake City,” rare book dealer Ken Sanders said. “No faithful, believing Mormon will ever accept that Brigham Young had anything to do with the Mountain Meadows Massacre.” At the same time, Sanders is certain no non-Mormon “will ever believe otherwise.”

Attempts to vindicate the Mormon prophet have been underway since news of the murders reached California in early October 1857. It was filtered through Mormon representatives at San Bernardino before the story appeared in the Los Angeles Star. These spin doctors fooled no one. The statements the paper gathered from emigrants with the wagon trains following the Fancher Party “distinctly charge, that this persecution and murder of the emigrants is promoted by the Mormon leaders, [and] that opposition to the Federal Government is the cause of it.” A mass meeting of concerned citizens in Los Angeles on October 12, 1857, denounced the “long, undisturbed, systemized [sic] course of thefts, robberies, and murders, promoted and sanctioned by their leader, and head prophet, Brigham Young, together with the Elders and followers of the Mormon Church, upon American citizens, who necessity has compelled to pass through their Territory.”

I believe Mountain Meadows was a calculated act of vengeance directed and carried out by Brigham Young and his top associates. The Mormon prophet himself viewed the murders that way. Nine days after the massacre, his interpreter, Dimick Huntington, told Ute leader Arapeen in Young’s presence, “Josephs Blood had got to be Avenged.” Why was this particular train the target of prophetic wrath? The answer was no mystery to the editor who first published the news in California. “A general belief pervades the public mind here that the Indians were instigated to this crime by the ‘Destroying Angels’ of the church,” the Los Angeles Star concluded on October 10, less than a month after the slaughter, “and that the blow fell on these emigrants from Arkansas, in retribution of the death of Parley Pratt, which took place in that State.” Brigham Young’s resolute suppression of the truth about the atrocity for almost 20 years and the fact that he sheltered and protected all the perpetrators (except John D. Lee) who could have “put the saddle on the right horse,” supports this conclusion.

The LDS Church presented its first systematic alibi for the massacre in 1884. It claimed Brigham Young issued orders intended to prevent the massacre and remained blissfully ignorant about what happened due to the lies of southern Utah leaders. Such an interpretation is based on an impossibility—that devout frontier Mormon authorities believed they could deceive Brigham Young. “I am watching you,” he said in an 1855 sermon printed in the territory’s only newspaper. “Do you know that I have my threads strung all through the Territory, that I may know what individuals do?” John D. Lee was the newspaper’s agent for Iron County that year, but as a key element in the prophet’s internal intelligence network, Young’s boast would hardly have surprised Lee.

Brigham Young, while serving as both Utah’s governor and Indian superintendent in 1857, never raised a finger to find out what happened or recover the wagon train’s property from the murderers. Four months after the massacre, in his official report of the largest slaughter of American emigrants in the history of the Oregon, California and Mormon trails, Young charged the Arkansans in the wagon train had murdered four Indians with poison. “This conduct so enraged the Indians that they immediately took measures for revenge.” The evildoers fell victim to “the natural consequences of that fatal policy which treats Indians like wolves or other ferocious beasts.” For 13 years, Young insisted Mormons had nothing to do with the massacre: Indians killed the emigrants, who simply got what they deserved.

Powerful men can obstruct justice or try to suppress the truth for a variety of reasons, but personal guilt drives most coverups. Several Mormon historians have made recent attempts to refute Juanita Brooks’ conclusion that “Brigham Young was accessory after the fact, in that he knew what happened, and how and why it happened.” Their efforts seem unwise, especially since Brooks observed, “Evidence of this [Young’s involvement] is abundant and unmistakable, and from the most impeccable Mormon sources.” But Mormon historians as distinguished as Thomas Alexander now insist that Brigham Young investigated the massacre repeatedly over 15 years yet somehow never figured out whodunit. This newly imagined creation, Brigham as Mr. Magoo, might sell in Utah Valley, but elsewhere it will probably not fare well. Young knew the names of the Mormons who participated in the wholesale atrocities, Robert Glass Cleland and Juanita Brooks concluded 51 years ago. “Brigham Young was not a credulous simpleton: he was not duped or hoodwinked: he was not misinformed.”

When historians confront a complex historical event, they try to develop an interpretation that provides the simplest explanation of the evidence—a task complicated when evidence is destroyed, manufactured and relies on testimony of young children or men with blood on their hands. After writing Blood of the Prophets and Innocent Blood, I believe the atrocity is best explained as a calculated act of vengeance. It was not retribution, which is the just application of punishment for a bad act, but revenge, which simply involves getting even and is not particular about who gets the ax.

In May 1861, after destroying the monument the U.S. Army raised over the graves of the victims in 1859, Young told Lee that those “used up at the Mountain Meadowes were the Fathers, Mothe[rs], Bros., Sisters & connections of those that Muerders the Prophets; they Merittd their fate, & the only thing that ever troubled him was the lives of the Women & children, but that under the circumstances [this] could not be avoided.” Lee’s story is difficult to challenge, since a Mormon apostle confirmed the quote that he ascribed to the prophet: “When he came to the Monument that contained their Bones, he made this remark, Vengence is Mine Saith the Lord, & I have taken a litle of it.”

Coverups Never Ending

Yet another battle in the ongoing war over how the story of Mountain Meadows will be told may begin soon. Mormon historians Richard Turley, Ronald Walker and Glen Leonard claim Oxford University Press will release their opus, Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, next year. They have been making the same claim every year for the last five years, but give them credit: They’ve got their story and they’re sticking to it. This is not, lead author Turley insists, an “official” history, despite the fact that the LDS Church has seemingly spent millions of dollars subsidizing the project.

Since the book has not appeared, it would be unfair to judge a pig in a poke, but a “press release” handed out at the book’s 2002 announcement—“Forthcoming in 2003 from Oxford University Press!”—has me waiting on the edge of my seat. “Tragedy at Mountain Meadows takes a fresh look at one of Mormon history’s most controversial topics,” it promises. The work will be drawn “from documents previously not available to researchers.” Like me, I suppose, although sources at the church’s historical department have told friends “Bagley got everything of significance” at LDS Archives. Ah well, “this spell-binding narrative offers fascinating conclusions on why Mormon settlers in isolated southern Utah deceived the emigrant party with a promise of safety and killed the adults and all but a few of the youngest children.”

I would not want to be among those “Mormon settlers in isolated southern Utah” right about now. I’m always eager to read a spellbinding narrative, especially when written by a committee, but the announcement’s last sentence leaves me cold: “Tragedy at Mountain Meadows offers the definitive account of a dark chapter in American history.” Generally it’s best to wait till you’ve written a book before proclaiming it definitive, and even better to leave it to someone else to make that proclamation. “The word ‘definitive’ is often overused,” historian Brigham D. Madsen wrote in his review of Blood of the Prophets in The Western Historical Quarterly. “This account of the killings merits that distinction.”

What will happen this September 11 when another Arkansan wagon train rolls into Mountain Meadows? As of June, the rumor mill is already working overtime with hints of possible breakthroughs on a number of contentious fronts. For years, relatives of the victims and friends of the site have watched in disbelief as the St. George megalopolis has begun to fill up the once-open rangeland at the Meadows with vacation homes and McMansions. For most of a decade, friends of the place have lobbied against long odds to secure federal protection and administration of this contested ground as a National Historic Park Site (or Monument). Those odds would change dramatically if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agreed that what its prophet has called “sacred ground” deserves the protection of the American people. 

“All the women were prostitutes.”

September 10, 2008

By Sharon Lindbloom

Tomorrow (September 11, 2008) is another anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the traitorous murders of 120 men, woman and children led by Mormons in southern Utah in 1857. This year a couple of new books about the Massacre have been published. One is House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre by forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak.

Ms. Novak’s book is quite different from the others I’ve seen. Rather than spend a great deal of time on the Massacre itself, Ms. Novak looks more intently at the greater American context in which the ill-fated wagon train of emigrants left Arkansas for a new life in the west. Having been privileged to study the bones of twenty-eight Massacre victims, bones that were accidentally unearthed in August of 1999, Ms. Novak approaches her understanding of the Mountain Meadows Massacre from an entirely different perspective than that of a literary (non-scientific) historian. Many details from House of Mourning are worthy of mention, and perhaps they will appear here at Mormon Coffee sometime in the future. But for today, I’ll present just one aspect of Ms. Novak’s research.

In the chapter titled “Constitution,” Ms. Novak wrote:

“Many traditional accounts of Mountain Meadows have claimed that the Arkansas emigrants were, in some sense, diseased. Some two weeks after he participated in the massacre, John D. Lee described the victims as syphilitic: ‘Many of the men & women was ro[tten?] with the pox before they were hurt by the Indians’… Soon it was reported in the Los Angeles Star… that William H. Dame, colonel of the [LDS] Iron County militia, had examined the bodies of the Arkansans and determined that all the women were prostitutes. As Bagley… points out, such stories seem to have been transmitted to reporters by William Matthews, a leading Mormon official in California, as part of a ’systematic defamation of the murdered emigrants.’

“This conclusion is no doubt correct. To understand such defamation, however, we must consider what it meant to be ‘diseased.’” (page 88, source citations in the original replaced here with ellipses)

After explaining multiple types of diseases common in Antebellum America and the health of the Arkansas victims as evidenced by their remains, Ms. Novak turned to a discussion of syphilis and it’s “endemic” status “within any nineteenth-century population center” (107). She wrote:

“The remains at Mountain Meadows, however, tell a different story. In the study sample of at least 28 massacre victims, there was no evidence of lesions that would be consistent with a diagnosis of venereal or congenital syphilis. Once again we are struck by the apparent vigor of this population.

“These findings are in sharp contrast to claims that were made in the immediate aftermath of the massacre… Though the skeletal evidence from the mass grave at Mountain Meadows cannot decisively refute the claims of Lee, Dame, and others, it casts doubt on the image of an emigrant party that was ‘rotten with pox,’ as Lee put it…

“For the sake of argument, however, let us grant the possibility that the victims bodies might have been examined for evidence of the disease and other abnormalities. How would anyone have been able to tell that they were infected with syphilis? Unless the victims were in the advanced stages of the disease, only a close examination of their genitalia would have revealed any symptoms. Needless to say, none of the newspaper accounts or journal entries provides details about how such a procedure was conducted. It is known that the bodies were stripped of their clothing soon after the massacre. So the possibility remains that the perpetrators, under the guise of medical examination, committed a final outrage on the killing field.” (107-108)

To place the charge of “defamation” into a proper context, Ms. Novak continued:

“Perpetrators of the massacre seem to have been justifying an especially ‘bad outcome’ for the Arkansas emigrants. In their version of events the emigrants themselves bore responsibility for their deaths. Such reasoning allowed even children to be viewed as morally corrupt…

“Thus, in the case of Mountain Meadows, to insinuate that parents were afflicted with disease—especially one such as syphilis—was to comment on the character, or future character, of their offspring. It was especially offensive to claim, as Dame was purported to do, that ‘all the women were prostitutes.’ Because an infant was ‘dependent upon the state of the mother’s blood from the moment of conception till weaned from the breast,’ emotional states such as anger, sexual desire, or envy ‘could potentially injure the nursling by contaminating its milk’… Such logic allowed the perpetrators of the massacre to deny the innocence even of the surviving children [aged 9 months to 6 years). Thus, on September 29, 1857, Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal… 'Brother [John D.] Lee said that He did not think there was a drop of innocent Blood in their Camp for he had too of their Children in his house & he Could not get but one to kneel down in prayer time & the other would laugh at her for doing it & they would sware like pirat[e]s.’” (108-109)

So it went, in the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, that the Mormon leadership, who ordered and carried out this horrendous crime, justified the brutal murders of 40 men, 30 women, and 53 children passing through Mormon country on their hopeful way to a new life.