When Mormons dressed up as Indians to kill

The Mountain Meadows Massacre (September 7–11, 1857) was a series of attacks during the Utah War that resulted in the mass murder of at least 120 members of the Baker–Fancher emigrant wagon train. The massacre occurred in the southern Utah Territory at Mountain Meadows, and was perpetrated by settlers belonging to the Utah Territorial Militia (officially called the Nauvoo Legion), together with some Southern Paiute Native Americans. The wagon train, made up mostly of families from Arkansas, was bound for California, traveling on the Old Spanish Trail that passed through the Territory.

After arriving in Salt Lake City, the Baker–Fancher party made their way south along the Mormon Road, eventually stopping to rest at Mountain Meadows. As the party was traveling west there were rumors about the party’s behavior towards Mormons, and war hysteria towards outsiders was rampant as a result of a military expedition dispatched by President Buchanan and Brigham Young’s declaration of martial law in response to the invasion. While the emigrants were camped at the meadow, local militia leaders, including Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee, made plans to attack the wagon train. The leaders of the militia, wanting to give the impression of tribal hostilities, persuaded Southern Paiutes to join with a larger party of militiamen disguised as Native Americans in an attack. During the militia’s first assault on the wagon train, the emigrants fought back, and a five-day siege ensued. Eventually, fear spread among the militia’s leaders that some emigrants had caught sight of the white men, likely discerning the actual identity of a majority of the attackers. As a result, militia commander William H. Dame ordered his forces to kill the emigrants. By this time, the emigrants were running low on water and provisions, and allowed some members of the militia—who approached under a white flag—to enter their camp. The militia members assured the emigrants they were protected, and after handing over their weapons, the emigrants were escorted away from their defensive position. After walking a distance from the camp, the militiamen, with the help of auxiliary forces hiding nearby, attacked the emigrants. The perpetrators killed all the adults and older children in the group, in the end sparing only seventeen young children under the age of seven.

Following the massacre, the perpetrators buried some of the remains but ultimately left most of the bodies vulnerable to wild animals and the climate. Local families took in the surviving children, with many of the victims’ possessions and remaining livestock being auctioned off. Investigations, which were interrupted by the American Civil War, resulted in nine indictments in 1874. Of the men who were indicted, only John D. Lee was tried in a court of law. After two trials in the Utah Territory, Lee was convicted by a jury, sentenced to death, and executed by Utah firing squad on March 23, 1877.

Historians attribute the massacre to a combination of factors, including war hysteria about a possible invasion of Mormon territory and Mormon teachings against outsiders, which were part of the Mormon Reformation period. Scholars debate whether senior Mormon leadership, including Brigham Young, directly instigated the massacre or if responsibility for it lay only with the local leaders in southern Utah.


Baker–Fancher party

In early 1857, the Baker–Fancher party was formed from several groups mainly from Marion, Crawford, Carroll, and Johnson counties in northwestern Arkansas. They assembled into a wagon train at Beller’s Stand, south of Harrison, to emigrate to southern California. The group was initially referred to as both the Baker train and the Perkins train, but later referred to as the Baker–Fancher train (or party). It was named after “Colonel” Alexander Fancher who, having already made the journey to California twice before, had become its main leader. By contemporary standards the Baker–Fancher party was prosperous, carefully organized, and well-equipped for the journey. They were joined along the way by families and individuals from other states, including Missouri. The group was relatively wealthy, and planned to restock its supplies in Salt Lake City, as did most wagon trains at the time.

Interactions with Mormon settlers

At the time of the Fanchers’ arrival, the Utah Territory was organized as a theocratic democracy under the leadership of Brigham Young, who had established colonies along the California Trail and the Old Spanish Trail. President James Buchanan had recently issued an order to send troops to Utah which led to rumors being spread in the territory about its motives. Young issued various orders that urged the local population to prepare for the arrival of the troops. Eventually Young issued a declaration of martial law.

The Baker–Fancher party was refused stocks in Salt Lake City and chose to leave there and take the Old Spanish Trail, which passed through southern Utah. In August 1857, the Mormon apostle George A. Smith traveled throughout the southern part of the territory instructing the settlers to stockpile grain. While on his return trip to Salt Lake City, Smith camped near the Baker–Fancher party on August 25 at Corn Creek. They had traveled the 165 miles (266 km) south from Salt Lake City, and Jacob Hamblin suggested that the wagon train continue on the trail and rest their cattle at Mountain Meadows, which had good pasture and was adjacent to his homestead.

While most witnesses said that the Fanchers were in general a peaceful party whose members behaved well along the trail, rumors spread about their supposed misdeeds. U.S. Army Brevet Major James Henry Carleton led the first federal investigation of the murders, published in 1859. He recorded Hamblin’s account that the train was alleged to have poisoned a spring near Corn Creek; this resulted in the deaths of 18 head of cattle and two or three people who ate the contaminated meat. Carleton interviewed the father of a child who allegedly died from this poisoned spring, and accepted the sincerity of the grieving father. But, he also included a statement from an investigator who did not believe the Fancher party was capable of poisoning the spring, given its size. Carleton invited readers to consider a potential explanation for the rumors of misdeeds, noting the general atmosphere of distrust among Mormons for strangers at the time, and that some locals appeared jealous of the Fancher party’s wealth.

Conspiracy and siege

The Baker–Fancher party left Corn Creek and continued the 125 miles (201 km) to Mountain Meadows, passing Parowan and Cedar City, southern Utah communities led respectively by Stake Presidents William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight. Haight and Dame were, in addition, the senior regional military leaders of the Nauvoo Legion. As the Baker–Fancher party approached, several meetings were held in Cedar City and nearby Parowan by the local Latter Day Saint (LDS) leaders pondering how to implement Young’s declaration of martial law. On the afternoon of Sunday, September 6, Haight held his weekly Stake High Council meeting after church services and brought up the issue of what to do with the emigrants. The plan for a Native American massacre was discussed, but not all the Council members agreed it was the right approach. The Council resolved to take no action until Haight sent a rider, James Haslam, out the next day to carry an express to Salt Lake City (a six-day round trip on horseback) for Brigham Young’s advice, as Utah did not yet have a telegraph system. Following the council, Isaac C. Haight decided to send a messenger south to John D. Lee. What Haight told Lee remains a mystery, but considering the timing it may have had something to do with Council’s decision to wait for advice from Brigham Young.

The dispirited Baker–Fancher party found water and fresh grazing for its livestock after reaching grassy, mountain-ringed Mountain Meadows, a widely known stopover on the old Spanish Trail, in early September. They anticipated several days of rest and recuperation there before the next 40 miles (64 km) would take them out of Utah. On September 7, the party was attacked by Nauvoo Legion militiamen dressed as Native Americans and some Native American Paiutes. The Baker–Fancher party defended itself by encircling and lowering their wagons, wheels chained together, along with digging shallow trenches and throwing dirt both below and into the wagons, which made a strong barrier. Seven emigrants were killed during the opening attack and buried somewhere within the wagon encirclement. Sixteen more were wounded. The attack continued for five days, during which the besieged families had little or no access to freshwater or game food and their ammunition was depleted. Meanwhile, organization among the local Mormon leadership reportedly broke down. Eventually, fear spread among the militia’s leaders that some emigrants had caught sight of white men, and had probably discerned the identity of their attackers. This resulted in an order to kill all the emigrants, with the exception of small children.

Killings and aftermath of the massacre

Four of the nine Nauvoo Legion militiamen of the Tenth Regiment “Iron Brigade” who were indicted in 1874 for murder or conspiracy

Isaac C. Haight—Battalion Commander—died 1886 Arizona

Maj. John H. Higbee. John D Lee and others said Higbee gave the command that began the killings. Higbee later disavowed responsibility and blamed Lee for the massacre.

Maj. John D. Lee, constable, judge, Indian Agent. The only convicted participant, Lee conspired in advance with his immediate commander, Isaac C. Haight. He led the initial assault and falsely offered emigrants safe passage prior to their mile-long march to the field of the Massacre.

Philip Klingensmith, a Bishop in the church and a private in the militia. He participated in the killings. After leaving the LDS Church he later turned state’s evidence against his fellow conspirators.

On Friday, September 11, 1857, two militiamen approached the Baker–Fancher party wagons with a white flag and were soon followed by Indian Agent and militia officer John D. Lee. Lee told the battle-weary emigrants that he had negotiated a truce with the Paiutes. Under Mormon protection, the wagon-train members would be escorted safely back to Cedar City, 36 miles (58 km) away, in exchange for turning all of their livestock and supplies over to the Native Americans. Accepting this offer, the emigrants were led out of their fortification, with the adult men being separated from the women and children. The men were paired with a militia escort and when the signal was given, the militiamen turned and shot the male members of the Baker–Fancher party standing by their side. The women and children were then ambushed and killed by more militia that were hiding in nearby bushes and ravines. Members of the militia were sworn to secrecy. A plan was set to blame the massacre on the Native Americans.

The militia did not kill small children who were deemed too young to relate what had happened. Nancy Huff, one of the seventeen survivors and just over four years old at the time of the massacre, recalled in an 1875 statement that an eighteenth survivor was killed directly in front of the other children. “At the close of the massacre there was eighteen children still alive, one girl, some ten or twelve years old, they said was too big and could tell, so they killed her, leaving seventeen.” The survivors were taken in by local Mormon families. Seventeen of the children were later reclaimed by the U.S. Army and returned to relatives in Arkansas. The treatment of these children while they were held by the Mormons is uncertain, but Captain James Lynch’s statement in May 1859 said the surviving children were “in a most wretched condition, half starved, half naked, filthy, infested with vermin, and their eyes diseased from the cruel neglect to which had been exposed.” Lynch’s July 1859 affidavit added that they when they first saw the children they had “little or no clothing” and were “covered with filth and dirt”.

Leonard J. Arrington, founder of the Mormon History Association, reports that Brigham Young received the rider, James Haslam, at his office on the same day. When he learned what was contemplated by the militia leaders in Parowan and Cedar City, he sent back a letter stating the Baker–Fancher party was not to be meddled with, and should be allowed to go in peace (although he acknowledged the Native Americans would likely “do as they pleased”). Young’s letter arrived two days too late, on September 13, 1857.

The livestock and personal property of the Baker–Fancher party, including women’s jewelry, clothing and bedstuffs were distributed or auctioned off to Mormons. Some of the surviving children saw clothing and jewelry that had belonged to their dead mothers and sisters subsequently being worn by Mormon women and the journalist J.H. Beadle said that jewelry taken from Mountain Meadows was seen in Salt Lake City.

Investigations and prosecutions

An early investigation was conducted by Brigham Young, who interviewed John D. Lee on September 29, 1857. In 1858, Young sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs stating that the massacre was the work of Native Americans. The Utah War delayed any investigation by the U.S. federal government until 1859, when Jacob Forney and U.S. Army Brevet Major James Henry Carleton conducted investigations. In Carleton’s investigation, at Mountain Meadows he found women’s hair tangled in sage brush and the bones of children still in their mothers’ arms. Carleton later said it was “a sight which can never be forgotten.” After gathering up the skulls and bones of those who had died, Carleton’s troops buried them and erected a cairn and cross.

Carleton interviewed a few local Mormon settlers and Paiute Native American chiefs and concluded that there was Mormon involvement in the massacre. He issued a report in May 1859, addressed to the U.S. Assistant Adjutant-General, setting forth his findings. Jacob Forney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah, also conducted an investigation that included visiting the region in the summer of 1859. Forney retrieved many of the surviving children of massacre victims who had been housed with Mormon families and gathered them up for transportation to their relatives in Arkansas. He concluded that the Paiutes did not act alone and the massacre would not have occurred without the white settlers, while Carleton’s report to the U.S. Congress called the mass killings a “heinous crime”, blaming both local and senior church leaders for the massacre.

In March 1859, Judge John Cradlebaugh, a federal judge brought into the territory after the Utah War, convened a grand jury in Provo concerning the massacre, but the jury declined any indictments. Nevertheless, Cradlebaugh conducted a tour of the Mountain Meadows area with a military escort. He attempted to arrest John D. Lee, Isaac Haight, and John Higbee, who fled before they could be found. Cradlebaugh publicly charged Brigham Young as an instigator to the massacre and therefore an “accessory before the fact”. Possibly as a protective measure against the mistrusted federal court system, Mormon territorial probate court judge Elias Smith arrested Young under a territorial warrant, perhaps hoping to divert any trial of Young into a friendly Mormon territorial court. Apparently because no federal charges ensued, Young was released.

Further investigations were cut short by the American Civil War in 1861, but proceeded in 1871 when prosecutors obtained the affidavit of militia member Philip Klingensmith. Klingensmith had been a bishop and blacksmith from Cedar City; by the 1870s, however, he had left the church and moved to Nevada.

Lee was arrested on November 7, 1874. Dame, Philip Klingensmith, Ellott Willden, and George Adair, Jr. were indicted and arrested while warrants to pursue the arrests of four others who had gone into hiding (Haight, Higbee, William C. Stewart, and Samuel Jukes) were being obtained. Klingensmith escaped prosecution by agreeing to testify. Brigham Young removed some participants including Haight and Lee from the LDS Church in 1870. The U.S. posted bounties of $5000 ($107145 in present-day funds) each for the capture of Haight, Higbee, Stewart, and Klingensmith.

Lee’s first trial began on July 23, 1875, in Beaver, before a jury of eight Mormons and four non-Mormons. One of Lee’s defense attorneys was Enos D. Hoge, a former territorial supreme court justice. The trial led to a hung jury on August 5, 1875. Lee’s second trial began September 13, 1876, before an all-Mormon jury. The prosecution called Daniel Wells, Laban Morrill, Joel White, Samuel Knight, Samuel McMurdy, Nephi Johnson, and Jacob Hamblin. Lee also stipulated, against advice of counsel, that the prosecution be allowed to re-use the depositions of Young and Smith from the previous trial. Lee called no witnesses in his defense, and was convicted.

Lee was entitled under Utah Territorial statute to choose the method of his execution from three possible options: hanging, firing squad, or decapitation. At sentencing, Lee chose to be executed by firing squad. In his final words before his sentence was carried out at Mountain Meadows on March 23, 1877, Lee said that he was a scapegoat for others involved. Brigham Young stated that Lee’s fate was just, but it was not a sufficient blood atonement, given the enormity of the crime.

Criticism and analysis of the massacre

Media coverage about the event

The cover of the August 13, 1859, issue of Harper’s Weekly illustrating the killing field as described by Brevet Major Carleton “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.” “the remains were not buried at all until after they had been dismembered by the wolves and the flesh stripped from the bones, and then only such bones were buried as lay scattered along nearest the road”.

Initial published reports of the incident date back at least to October 1857 in the Los Angeles Star. A notable report on the incident was made in 1859 by Carleton, who had been tasked by the U.S. Army to investigate the incident and bury the still exposed corpses at Mountain Meadows. The first period of intense nationwide publicity about the massacre began around 1872 after investigators obtained Klingensmith’s confession. In 1868 C. V. Waite published “An Authentic History Of Brigham Young” which described the events. In 1872, Mark Twain commented on the massacre through the lens of contemporary American public opinion in an appendix to his semi-autobiographical travel book Roughing It. In 1873, the massacre was given a full chapter in T. B. H. Stenhouse’s Mormon history The Rocky Mountain Saints. The massacre itself also received international attention, with various international and national newspapers also covering John D. Lee’s 1874 and 1877 trials as well as his execution in 1877.

The massacre has been treated extensively by several historical works, beginning with Lee’s own Confession in 1877, expressing his opinion that George A. Smith was sent to southern Utah by Brigham Young to direct the massacre.

In 1910, the massacre was the subject of a short book by Josiah F. Gibbs, who also attributed responsibility for the massacre to Young and Smith. The first detailed and comprehensive work using modern historical methods was The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950 by Juanita Brooks, a Mormon scholar who lived near the area in southern Utah. Brooks found no evidence of direct involvement by Brigham Young, but charged him with obstructing the investigation and provoking the attack through his rhetoric.

Initially, the LDS Church denied any involvement by Mormons, and was relatively silent on the issue. In 1872, it excommunicated some of the participants for their role in the massacre. Since then, the LDS Church has condemned the massacre and acknowledged involvement by local Mormon leaders. In September 2007, the LDS Church published an article marking 150 years since the tragedy occurred, containing its first official apology about the massacre.

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