Mormons and the Mountain Meadows Massacre
It remains a dark chapter in Mormon history, one never fully explained, with questions that will probably never be answered. This much is clear: on Sept. 11, 1857, the Baker-Fancher wagon train was massacred by Mormon militia with some Paiute Native American allies at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah. Every man, woman and older child in the wagon train, around 120 people in all, were slaughtered. The Mormons only spared 17 infant children, whom they adopted into Mormon families.
A few weeks later, in early October, a wagon train arrived in California carrying Mormon settlers (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) from Utah to the Mormon community in San Bernardino. Mormon Elders from the wagon train related a tale of how the reckless Baker-Fancher pioneers had caused their own doom by poisoning an ox they fed to the Indians, and also poisoning the Indians’ water supply, enraging the Indians into a bloody reprisal.
However, there were two non-Mormons also arriving in that wagon train at San Bernardino, George Powers and P. M. Warn, and they told stories that immediately cast suspicion on the Mormon’s complicity in the attack. An outcry began for the government to investigate the massacre. Two wars delayed the investigation (first the Utah War, or “Mormon Rebellion,” of 1857-58, then the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65), and it was not until 1874 that nine Mormon militiamen were indicted for murder or conspiracy related to the Mountain Meadows massacre. Only one, John D. Lee, was convicted, and he was executed on March 23, 1877.
Why did the Mormons slaughter innocent pioneers? Did they somehow feel threatened, or was this a brutal crime of murder and robbery—or perhaps revenge? Were the Mormon authorities at the highest level of the LDS Church—including their leader Brigham Young—involved in the massacre? Historians continue to debate these questions, with no clear resolution.
Certainly one important element in this controversy is the fact that the Baker-Fancher wagon train was carrying emigrants primarily from Arkansas and Missouri, two states where the Mormons had experienced violence and discrimination. On Oct. 27, 1838, Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs had issued an official order to the state militia declaring: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”
After some killings on both sides, including LDS Apostle David W. Patten, an estimated 10,000 Mormons left Missouri. Their leader Joseph Smith, Jr., who had been apprehended, escaped custody in the spring of 1839 and joined their relocation to Illinois, forming their new city of Nauvoo. However, the Mormons were again subjected to intolerance and persecution by their new neighbors in Illinois, and Smith was assassinated by an angry mob on June 27, 1844. Seeking a place where they would be undisturbed, Brigham Young led a group of Mormon pioneers to Utah’s Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, to found a new community.
This was a desolate part of Mexico where the Mormons were left alone—but not for long. On Feb. 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and Mexico ceded the territory occupied by the Mormons to the United States, and the Mormons were once again living in part of the U.S.—where their practice of polygamy was outlawed. As part of the Compromise of 1850, Utah Territory was incorporated on Sept. 9, 1850. Tensions between the Mormons and the rest of the U.S. grew worse, and in the summer of 1857 U.S. President James Buchanan sent troops into Utah Territory to force the Mormons to accept federal authority and obey all U.S. laws.
On July 24, 1857, Brigham Young announced that the U.S. troops were coming. He declared martial law and ordered all Mormons to prepare for war, stockpile food and weapons, and be prepared for evacuation if necessary. Around this time the Mormons learned that LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt had been murdered in Arkansas.
This was the tense situation that the Baker-Fancher wagon train stumbled into in the late summer/early fall of 1857 on their way to a better life in California. Mormons by this time were suspicious of all outsiders, and especially hostile to people from Arkansas and Missouri. It’s possible that the Mountain Meadows massacre was seen by the local militia as an act of war, led by local Mormon leaders acting on their own. It’s possible the Mormon hierarchy was involved.
It’s also possible this was a crime of murder and robbery. The Baker-Fancher wagon train was relatively prosperous, traveling with large herds of cattle, horses and mules, with plenty of guns and supplies, and more money than wagon trains usually carried. It was a rich prize to be plundered—and it’s notable that the Mormons were not content with simply killing the pioneers. They also stole all their animals, supplies and cash.
Here are three of the earliest newspaper articles about the Mountain Meadows massacre. Note that in all of them doubt is cast on the theory that this was solely an Indian raid, with much suspicion that the Mormons were involved in the massacre.
This article was published by the Daily Globe (San Francisco, California) on Oct. 12, 1857:
The news in our columns this morning is of an unusually interesting and in some respects startling character.
The reported massacre of over one hundred persons, men, women, and children, at the Mountain Meadows, near the Rim of the Great Basin, while on their way from Missouri and Arkansas to this State, will excite much feeling in the community. We are not aware that the authenticity of the intelligence should be questioned. If true, a terrible retaliation will be meted out to the authors of the act and their instigators, if any. We perceive no positive evidence to connect the Mormons with the outrage; although it is evident they were on friendly terms with these Indians, and two of their Elders, Mathews and Hyde, traveled over the same route a few days afterwards entirely unmolested. It may be noted also, that the charges brought forward of the immigrants giving provocation for the attack by cheating the Indians and leaving a poisoned ox behind in order to destroy them, originates with these same Elders. We await further intelligence with anxiety.
This article was published by the Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California) on Oct. 12, 1857:
Massacre by Indians of an Entire Immigrant Train, on the Plains
Upwards of a Hundred Whites Slain
By the steamer Senator which arrived here yesterday from the southern coast, we have the particulars of a horrible massacre of an entire immigrant [wagon] train, which was committed by the Indians about the 10th or 12th of September, at a place near the southern rim of the Great Basin. An “extra” of the Los Angeles Star of date 9th October tells the lamentable story as follows:
A train of emigrants, from Missouri and Arkansas, for California, were waylaid and cruelly butchered on the route, at a place called Santa Clara canyon, near the Rim of the Great Basin, about three hundred miles from Salt Lake City. The scene of the massacre is differently designated, as the Santa Clara Canyon, the Mountain Springs, and the Mountain Meadows. But all agree in locating it near the Rim of the Great Basin, and about fifty miles from Cedar City, the most southern of the Mormon settlements. Of a party of about 130 persons, only fifteen infant children were saved. The account was given by the Indians themselves to the Mormons at Cedar City, to which place they brought the children, who were purchased from them by the people of that city. Whether the causes assigned are sufficient to account for the result, or whether a different cause is at the bottom of the transaction, we will leave the reader to form his own conclusion. We can scarcely believe that a party traveling along a highway would act in the manner described, that is, to poison the carcass of an ox, and also the water, thus endangering the lives of those coming after them. Yet this is the story told by all who have spoken of the massacre. It is stated that the emigrants had an ox which died, and that they placed poison in the body, and also poisoned the water standing in pools, for the purpose of killing the Indians; that several of the tribe had died from this cause, and that the whole force mustered, pursued the train, and coming up with them at the above named place, which favored their purpose, and murdered the whole party, except a few children. The Indians state that they made but one charge on the party, in which they cut off the greater portion of the men, and then guarded the outlets of the canyon, and shot the men and women down as they came out for water; that one man was making his escape with a few children, and they followed him, killed him, and took the children, fifteen in number, the eldest under five years of age. The report was brought to San Bernardino by Sidney Tanner and W. Mathews.
The following letter from J. W. Christian, of San Bernardino, to G. N. Whitman, of Los Angeles, has been placed at our disposal, and we give it at length, as it is the fullest report of the massacre, and the cause which led to it, that has reached us. The writer seems to intimate that the Mormons will be held responsible for the murder, and in this respect he is fully borne out by present indications, for a general belief pervades the public mind here that the Indians were instigated to this crime by the “Destroying Angels” of the Church, and that the blow fell upon these emigrants from Arkansas, in retribution of the death of Parley Pratt, which took place in that State. The truth of the matter will not be known until the Government makes an investigation of the affair. This should be done, to place the blame in the right quarter, as well as to inflict chastisement on the immediate actors in the fearful tragedy, who are reported to be the Santa Clara tribe of Indians. The following is the letter:
San Bernardino, October 4th, 1857.
I take this opportunity of informing you of the murder of an entire train of immigrants, on their way from Missouri and Arkansas to this State, via Great Salt Lake City; which took place, according to the best information I can possibly acquire (which is, primarily, through Indians), at the Mountain Meadows, which are at or near the Rim of the Great Basin, and some distance south of the most southern Mormon settlements, between the 10th and 12th ultimo [i.e., September]. It is absolutely one of the most horrible massacres I have ever had the painful necessity of relating.
The company consisted of about 130 or 135 men, women and children, and including some forty or forty-five capable of bearing arms. They were in possession of quite an amount of stock, consisting of horses, mules and oxen. The encampment was attacked about daylight in the morning, so say the Indians, by the combined forces of all the various tribes immediately in that section of the country. It appears that the majority of them were slain at the first onset made by the Indians. The remaining forces formed themselves into the best position their circumstances would allow; but before they could make the necessary arrangement for protecting themselves from the arrows, there were but few left who were able to bear arms. After having corralled their wagons, and dug a ditch for their protection, they continued to fire upon the Indians for one or two days, but the Indians had so secreted themselves, that, according to their own statement, there was not one of them killed, and but few wounded. They (the immigrants) then sent out a flag of truce, borne by a little girl, and gave themselves up to the mercy of the savages, who immediately rushed in and slaughtered all of them with the exception of fifteen infant children, that have since been purchased, with much difficulty, by the Mormon interpreters.
I presume it would be unnecessary for all practical purposes, to relate the causes which gave rise to the above described catastrophe, from the simple fact that it will be attributed to the Mormon people, let the circumstances of the case be what they may. But it seems, from a statement which I received from Elders Wm. Mathews and Wm. Hyde, who were in Great Salt Lake City when this train was there, recruiting their “fit out”; and were on the road to this place at the time they were murdered, but several days’ journey in the rear—somewhere about the Beaver Mountains, which is between Parowan and Fillmore cities—that the causes were something like these: The train camped at Corn Creek, near Fillmore City, where there is an Indian village, the inhabitants of which have raised a crop of wheat, and a few melons, etc. And in trading with the Indians they gave them cash for wheat, and they not knowing the value of coin were severely cheated. They [the Indians] wanted a blanket for a sack of wheat, but they gave them fifty cents, and told them that amount would buy a blanket. They [the emigrants] also had an ox with them which had died, and they put strychnine in him for the purpose of poisoning the Indians; and also put poison of some description in the water, which is standing in holes. This occasioned several deaths among them, within a few days after the departure of the train. And upon this, it seems, the Indians gathered themselves together, and had, no doubt, chosen the place of attack, and arranged everything before the train arrived at the place where they were murdered.
It was ascertained by some of the interpreters, from a few of the Indians, who were left at Corn Creek, that most of the Indians in the country had left; but they could not learn for what purpose, and before any steps could be taken to ascertain for certain what was the cause, the story was told—they were all killed.
—J. Ward Christian.
This article was published by the Daily Democratic State Journal (Sacramento, California) on Oct. 14, 1857, stating the known facts of the massacre and concluding:
The Massacre of the Immigrants
…The story is related by the Mormons, and it is probable that although they have not made it any worse than the facts warrant, yet they may have changed many important features of the affair to suit their own individual purposes. In fact, the Mormons are suspected of having assisted, directed, or urged the matter, and many circumstances attending the slaughter, or the report of the same, would tend to increase this suspicion. In the first place, it seems improbable that any body of men, such as usually compose a [wagon] train, would adopt a course of treatment which if it did not bring down upon their own heads the revenge of the Indians, could not fail to cause evil or danger to the trains immediately following. In addition to the poisoning of the ox referred to, they are accused of impregnating with strychnine the wells from which the savages obtain their supplies of water. Such a tale bears a sort of improbability upon its face, and is difficult of belief. The tale, too, that a train containing forty-five men, capable of bearing arms, should be attacked in that locality, and utterly destroyed, seems hard of belief by any one acquainted with the habits of immigrants and the character of the Indians found upon the Plains. In our whole history of overland immigration, no such instance is related, nor anything approaching to its boldness, so far as the different tribes are concerned. It seems indeed at the very first glance, even did no other circumstances suggest the idea, that white men must have been concerned in the outrage. The emigrants were from Missouri and Arkansas, and against the people of these States the Mormons have long cherished a blind and indiscriminate hatred. They have sworn vengeance against the entire race, and have always declared an intention of future revenge. Circumstances have recently occurred inducing the suspicion that the saints have decided upon a change in their line of policy, and this may be one of the first concerted outbreaks. That they employed the Indians as tools cannot be doubted, for they have always claimed, and many recent matters show the claim to be well based, that in case of any outbreak the entire body of savages, dwelling upon the Plains, would be found acting with them. It seems also that two or three of the Mormon Elders traveled this same route by themselves only a day or two after the massacre, and were allowed to pass unharmed.
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