Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mountain Meadows Massacre

I first heard parts of this story from my father who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was a ‘gentile’, which is the term Mormons give to people who are not of their faith. 

The story he told me was a brief tale of how some Mormons in southern Utah in the 1800s had slaughtered an entire wagon train of people who were heading west to California. He went on to describe there was an attempted cover-up in which it was said Indians had committed the crime.

I was finishing an undergraduate degree, in history, at the time he told me this story. Thinking back, I am amazed I didn’t probe him for more information. 

Today, I regret I didn’t for the story he told me as it turns out involves one of the most heinous crimes committed in the history of the American frontier.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre happened on September 11, 1857. The victims were a group of emigrants mostly from Arkansas who were traveling by wagon train north to south through Utah on their way to California. 

They were camped near what is the present-day town of Enterprise when they were besieged by what they thought were Indians. They circled their wagons and held their attackers at bay for four days. 

On the fifth day their ammunition, water, and food were almost gone. So when a group of white men approached holding a white flag they were relieved. These men offered to escort them safely past the Indians to Cedar City and persuaded them to surrender their arms.

What these Arkansas emigrants didn’t know is tensions were extremely high in Utah in September of 1857. The Mormons felt that the U.S. Army was preparing to forcefully remove Brigham Young, who was head of the Mormon church, as the Utah territorial governor and impose martial law on Utah. 

One of their members Parley P. Pratt had been killed in Arkansas recently which further fanned the flames of anger. 

The white men who offered their help to these innocent Arkansas emigrants were motivated by inflammatory sermons given by their Mormon leaders so they actually resented these ‘gentile’ travelers.

This motivation, plus the fact that the wagon train led by John Baker and Alexander Fancher was relatively affluent drove the Mormons to attack. 

The emigrants' wealth was apparent for they had a large herd of cattle-- estimated to be around a thousand head. There were also many other animals: work oxen, horses, mules, etc. Besides these animals, there was thirty to forty wagons and equipment, and individual members cash. It was estimated that the train was worth at least ten thousand dollars.

The Mormons disguised as Indians first ambushed the train on September 7th with the assistance of the “usually peaceful” Paiute Indians. These Indians assisted because they were promised all of the Fancher cattle at a pow-wow held by Brigham Young in early September. 

The proceeding statement is denied by the Mormon Church--they deny their leaderships’ role in the massacre. They state it was done by a group of Mormons without the sanction of the church. The Mormon Church does state that the Arkansas victims’ deaths were unjustified.

John D. Lee, a Mormon militiaman, led the men who approached the wagon train holding the white flag. 

Under the false guise of a truce the emigrants surrendered their weapons and were told to leave all their possessions behind, all the wounded were piled into wagons, the women and children were gathered together, and each of the Arkansas men was accompanied by a Mormon. 

At the signal, “do your duty” all the men were shot point blank by the Mormon walking next to them. Then the Mormons, still wearing war paint, with the assistance of the Indians killed all the women and all the children above the age of seven. Mostly, Mormon militiamen carried out this slaughter.

The bodies were stripped and left unburied where their bones were found later. There were chew marks left from scavenging wolves and coyotes. 

Afterward, travelers in this area saw the remaining hair of the victims tangled in the trees and brush nearby. 

Of the 140 people who made up the Baker/Fancher wagon train, most were women and children; only 17 children were spared because they were “too young to tell tales". These children were given into the care of various Mormon families.

The bones of the victims were not interred until two years later when a troop detachment was sent out from Camp Floyd. 

The surviving 17 children, ages two months to seven years, were found by the summer of 1858. They were returned to Arkansas to be raised by their Methodist and Presbyterian extended families. The U.S. Congress appropriated $10,000 for their recovery and restoration.

Originally, the Mormons covered up the massacre by blaming the Indians. But when it was discovered that a group of Mormons had returned to Cedar City with spoil and that the Indians were complaining that they had been treated unfairly in the division of the booty, U.S. officials stepped in and spent over a year procuring evidence. 

When Brigham Young was asked why he had not investigated the massacre he stated that another governor had been appointed and he did not feel it was his place.

It was not until 1859 that a trial was held, hampered all along by a very tight-knit Mormon society, the investigators had a hard time finding evidence to charge anyone with murder. 

So most involved were never charged. But John D. Lee was tried and found guilty. Lee at his own request was shot. 

Bitter that he was used as a scapegoat he did tell the truth at his trial, his accounts and the accounts given by the descendants of the Mormons who participated in the Massacre are the reason we know the truth today. 

The descendants of the surviving children of the Baker/Fancher Party worked for many years to get the truth told.

Of the Mormons involved, several opposed the plan to kill the Fancher Party. One Mormon descendant tells the story of how her relative was shot when he tried to assist a girl during the slaughter. 

But many of them being young men, and being apart of the Mormon community were bound to follow their leaders' commands. Which to a Mormon back then was the ultimate authority. 

The irony here is all these men before the slaughter and after led decent law-abiding lives. 

Some say years of persecution of the Mormons caused the Mountain Meadows Massacre. But greed was obviously also a part of this motivation.

In June of 2011 this high Mountain Meadow was designated a National Historic Landmark. This landscape holds untold sorrow. Some have caught EVP evidence here. But I feel it is best to leave these victims in peace.

Today, ‘The Mountain Meadows Association” have members that are descendants from both sides; they have come together to promote understanding and forgiveness. Their mission is to preserve the memory of the victims.

The following video is a good summary of what happened.

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