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1857: Mountain Meadows Massacre

rock pile

Monument to the dead at Mountain Meadows, 1900.

In short:

September 11, 1857, was the date of Utah’s darkest, most disturbing day.  Just like on September 11, 2001, religious zealots murdered innocent people in cold blood. Mormons and Paiutes killed 123 men, women, and children who had put their lives in their hands.

More of the story:

A controversy that won’t go away.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is one of the most controversial moments in Utah history.  From the beginning, accounts have been confused and muddled about why it happened, who ordered it, and what might have provoked it. 

Although many historians and organizations have weighed in with evidence and opinions on one side or another, we may never really know for sure why the massacre happened and who gave the order for it.

A wagon train starts out with high hopes for the future.

What we do know are the basic facts: A wagon train left Arkansas in April 1857, headed for California. It had as many as 150 people, and hundreds of head of cattle. 

In August, the group arrived in Salt Lake City and bought supplies. They then decided to take the southern route to California. This would take them south through Utah—so that they could avoid running into early snows in the Sierra Nevada.

Suspicion and paranoia in Utah.

This was a very tense time in Utah. The U.S. government thought Mormons in Utah Territory had started a rebellion against the country. Troops were even on the way to put down the “rebellion.”

In Utah, the Mormons feared what the approaching troops might do. They mistrusted the government and any unknown parties traveling through the state. 

The Fancher party gets caught in the rumor mill.

Brigham Young had declared that anyone traveling through Utah should have a pass from the territorial government, but the Fancher party didn’t have one. The Mormons began to spread about the emigrants as they traveled through the state. By the time they reached southern Utah, the tales had grown very tall indeed.

The residents along the way refused to sell the wagon train any supplies. So, unwelcomed, the wagon train headed past Cedar City and camped at Mountain Meadows, a popular stop on the trail. 

Attack.

On September 7, according to accounts written by Anglo Americans, a band of Paiutes and Anglos dressed up like Indians attacked the emigrants.   However, the Paiute tribe today says that, according to their oral tradition, they did not participate in the massacre.

The attackers killed seven of the emigrants immediately.

The Fancher party circled the wagons and managed to fend their attackers off for five days. But they couldn’t hold out forever. When Mormon militia offered to protect them, the emigrants agreed to leave all their possessions behind—and to give up their weapons.

The miltiamen separated out men, women, the wounded, and children for a march toward Cedar City. After the group walked for more than a mile, the line of people grew strung out and separated.

Betrayal.

Suddenly, instead of leading the people to safety, the militiamen killed everyone but the smallest children.

The militia took the small children to Cedar City to stay with Mormon families and buried the dead in shallow graves. 

Official response.

people gathered

Dedication of a new monument at Mountain Meadows in 1932. The LDS church has since replaced this with an even newer monument.

A messenger that had been sent days earlier to get Brigham Young’s advice on what to do with the wagon train returned shortly after the killings. His message from Young: Let the wagon train pass through unharmed. 

When Young learned that the awful massacre had occured, he blamed it on the Paiute Indians. 

Investigation.

The families of the victims began to wonder what had really happened. The U.S. government investigated and finally prosecuted only one man, John D. Lee. Although many men had participated in the decision and deed, Lee took the blame for it all. He was executed in 1877. 

This massacre won’t die.

This event shows that the only thing we know about the past is the evidence left behind. We don’t have enough evidence to know why this tragedy happened. Historians must interpret the documents, journals, accounts, and recorded memories the best they can. Everyone sees it differently. And that is why there are so many different books about this event—as historians struggle to figure it out.