On September 11th, 1857, a group of migrants travelling from Arkansas to their new home in California, were massacred in a valley in Utah known as Mountain Meadows, ostensibly by a group of Paiute Indians following a siege lasting several days.
The Baker-Fancher group totalled around 140 members of an extended family or families. Quite well-off by standards of the day, they were making their way by wagon train with horses, mules and cattle to resettle from Arkansas. Led by Alexander Fancher, known as “Colonel” an experienced man on the migrant route, the train had started out with several smaller parties each from different counties in Arkansas, and had met up on schedule at various stops along the route. Eventually convening in Salt Lake City to re-stock their provisions for the continued journey through Utah, the party continued on towards California.
Perhaps unknown to the party, they had inadvertently arrived in the middle of a period of unease, which later was to erupt into what became known as the Utah War. Fuelled by general mistrust of “outsiders” or gentiles, who in turn denounced the religious beliefs of the Latter Day Saints in their own stronghold of Utah, the situation was descending rapidly into stand-off between Mormon State Governor Brigham Young and his followers, and opposing Federal law. Following the hurried departure of the few non-Mormon Federal representatives in fear for their personal safety, from Utah, after the Mormon public began burning official records and documents, President James Buchanan had declared the area as under a state of rebellion and issued orders to muster an army to quell the uprising.
The situation was made worse by the recent murder in Arkansas, of one of the LDS apostles, Parley Pratt, Great-Great Grandfather of Mitt Romney, 2008 Presidential Republican candidate, who had managed to convert an unhappily married young woman, and persuade her away to Utah, along with her two small boys. The aggrieved husband and father tracked Pratt down and killed him. He wasn’t too bothered about losing his wife, but wanted his sons back. Pratt had apparently refused to hand them over. This event took place just two weeks after the Fancher group had departed and wild rumour followed that they had somehow been involved in the killing. The rumour gathered pace as it reached Utah, and by then alleged that members of the party had been involved in the lynching of LDS founder Joseph Smith and his brother, some years before, in Illinois. Following a life of being consistently moved on from each settling point, the Latter Day Saints were not happy at the prospect of once again leaving their new home of Utah, after only seven years, during which time they had come to be in a position of power with their President and King, Brigham Young also being governor and pushing for the formalisation of theocracy in the state.
In 1856, a poor harvest, due to drought and insect infestation had left the Utahan economy in a fragile state. Many of the population were struggling and Young had ordered a Reformation, blaming the crisis on his disciples’ failing morals and sub-standard religious dedication. He introduced re-baptism and other methods designed to reunite the alleged stragglers – the majority of his followers – with their doctrine. For the majority, this order was met with some reluctance. Young’s edict also included the need for ‘blood atonement’. In effect he was giving the go-ahead for the congregation to take the lives of any of their families, friends and neighbours if they felt they had committed unpardonable sin, in order to help the offenders achieve salvation. Punishment was not for the living to administer, it was for the Lord. Taking the offender’s lives was doing them a favour. What these sins were supposed to consist of, was down to conjecture. Many now feel this decision was the catalyst in the violence that followed, and was to have devastating effects on the Baker-Fancher group.
Following their arrival in Cedar city on or around 4th September, the party were met with hostility, and being turned away when attempting to secure their much needed provisions, the party continued out of town. Their goal was to cross through Utah as quickly as possible. By the 6th, the wagon train now at its full capacity of around 140 men women and children, with 250 head of cattle, horses and mules, had reached the lip of Mountain Meadows, went down into the basin and set up camp for the night. A few days earlier on 1st September, Brigham Young had attended a meeting in Salt Lake City, to extend an alliance between the saints and the Paiute Indians, during which a journal entry records he “gifted” all emigrants’ cattle to the natives in return for their assistance in keeping non-Mormon emigrants out of Utah. By fostering the notion that these travellers were a threat to both Native Americans in the area, and the lives of the Mormons, Brigham Young seemed to be giving the go-ahead for conflict. In effect, it has been argued, he signed the warrant for the attack on the Baker-Fancher party.
Early on the morning of the 7th September, 1857 the migrant party came under attack. As they sat around the camp-fire eating breakfast, the first gunshot rang out. One of the party fell dead. More gunfire followed, and several of the men hurriedly scraped a makeshift defence trench under the wagons for the women and children whilst the rest of the men returned fire. After a short battle, the perpetrators, a group of native Americans, ostensibly from the local Paiute tribe were driven back, and the survivors fled. Amongst the emigrant party, were several dead and wounded. It was later stated by one of the few survivors that several of the attackers were white men, dressed as natives. Over the next few days, the attackers returned a number of times to renew the battle, whilst the travellers remained under siege, with no water and little food or cover.
News of the battle quickly reached Cedar city, where the attack on the travellers was received with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the local population. Suddenly unsure, Isaac Haight, local Mormon President, second in command of the Iron brigade – Nauvoo Legion force – and instigator of the attack by the Indians, who had previously given the go-ahead for the entire party to be wiped out if so necessary, sent a message to Young in Salt Lake City, asking him for further instruction. Haight’s superior in the Nauvoo, William Dame, was not so unsure. He continued to state that the travellers would not be allowed to pass through. “My orders are that all the emigrants [except the youngest children] must be done away with.” Mormon reinforcements continued to arrive.
On September 11th, the migrants were approached by a two white men on horseback, later identified as John Lee and William Bateman who waved a white flag. The party sent one of the children, a young girl, also holding a makeshift white flag, to meet part way. When approaching the Baker-Fancher group, the white men revealed themselves to be Mormons, and offered a truce which consisted of the travellers handing over their cattle to the Natives, as that was their target, and in return they would escort the party out of the area to safety. Lee claimed the natives would not attack provided they were accompanied by the men.
The party quickly agreed, and gathering up their wounded and one woman into one wagon, and the small children, into another, the wagons were driven by Samuel McMurdy and another Mormon. John Lee walked between the two. It was agreed that the women and older children would go ahead with their escorts, whilst the men would be accompanied at the rear with a one-on-one guard of Mormons. This is how the party set out, the goal to return to Cedar City, and safety. As the march progressed, the men appeared to fall further behind, until there was a considerable distance between the two groups. At the point where the women and children ahead crested the hill, Nelphi Johnson, leader of the Mormon group bringing the men gave the order “men, do your duty!” , and each of them turned around and attacked, mostly with guns, the man they escorted. Hearing the shots from behind, the wagons ahead drew to a stop, and the Mormon escorts opened fire on the women and children from both sides. One person climbed into the wagon carrying the wounded and shot them.
Within minutes the entire party were dead, save for seventeen small children and infants, who were deemed to be too young to be reliable witnesses to the massacre, and due to their age, innocent. The eldest was around six or seven years of age. The youngest just six weeks old. Several of the older children had tried to save their siblings and parents, by hanging from their attackers legs; many of them had their heads smashed in by the guns their attackers carried as they pleaded for their lives. The men then gathered up as many of the traveller’s belongings as they could and taking the cattle, horses and wagons, rode away with the surviving children, leaving their dead families laying where they had fallen, in the Utah desert sun. It was later revealed that the Indians had left the conflict before the truce was offered, as they felt the stand-off was of no benefit to them, and they wanted no part in its conclusion. The following day, Dame, Haight, Lee and Philip Klingensmith went to the massacre site. By now the bodies had all been stripped naked, and the Mormon men were shocked at what they saw. Several small children had died in the arms of their mothers, wild animals were feasting on the corpses. Lee later stated in his confession
“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, who had refused to allow the travellers safe passage and given the orders for the attack reportedly said “I did not think there were so many of them [women and children], or I would not have had anything to do with,” which angered Haight. The orders had come from Dame, and he felt he was going to get the blame for carrying them out. They all agreed that the Natives must be blamed. The following day, the much awaited but sadly too late response came from Young in Salt Lake City. He stated that the travellers should be allowed to pass in peace should they wish to do so.
On September 15th, Brigham Young declared, possibly illegally, martial law in Utah, banning all armed forces from entering the state, and passing a proclamation that nobody was to pass through without a visa from the relevant Mormon officers . He issued an order to muster the Nauvoo Legion forces, and prepare for a conflict with Federal troops. Those troops arrived in late 1858 and after visiting the site of the massacre, early in 1859, found as many of the remains as they could that were scatters and buried them, erecting a hasty monument. These bodies had been left in the open, or alternatively hastily buried in shallow graves, enabling them to be consumed by wild animals. Several skulls and bones were recovered, many showing signs of gunshot wounds and blunt force injuries which would have proved fatal.
Around this time, a relative of one of the families who had been in the party sought answers to the whereabouts of his baby grandson who was but a few weeks old. At this point, it was discovered that there were 17 children who had survived, and were now living with Mormon families in Utah. The government were able to subsequently retrieve the children, but were forced to compensate the Mormons for their costs in keeping the children. The baby was not amongst the survivors.
The growing discontent within the Union, and subsequent outbreak of war prevented a trial taking place of the perpetrators until nearly 20 years later. The first trial was dissolved and the suspects released. In 1875 one man was tried and found guilty of his part in the actions of September 11th 1857. John Lee was taken, five months later to Mountain Meadows and, sitting on his own coffin, on the site of the massacre, was executed by firing squad.
The monument to the victims built by Major Carlton over the remains his men recovered and buried in 1859 and has been replaced several times over the next 150 years. Brigham Young had it pulled down himself in 1861 when he visited the site, but it was later rebuilt. On one occasion a wall was accidentally knocked down, during restoration work initiated by the Church after they realised it was deteriorating, revealing the remains buried by the federal troops many years before, which had been incorrectly recorded as to the spot they were interred in. After several forensic tests performed at the University, they were requested to be returned in time for the 150th anniversary of the massacre. No further archaeological work has been permitted since then although it was determined that three large anomalies picked up on ground radar nearby could possibly be mass graves of some of the other victims, possibly those recovered later in 1859 by Captain Campbell.
Mountain Meadows was not the only incident of this nature during these “wild west years”. Many took place, some equally atrocious. Incidents such as those involving the Utter, Shepherd and Miltimore trains are examples. These took place with similar circumstances, and involved the torture of a little girl prior to her death, the kidnap of four children from one family, the rest of whom were murdered, and other horrific details. All ostensibly committed by Native Americans, some still have doubt cast about the involvement of white men, Mormons. One legend tells that Billy Tate aka William Miller who was a famous rider for the Pony express, before his death at the age of 14 at the hands of Paiute Indians, was a survivor of the massacre, but the evidence surrounding the identities of the children who were recovered disputes this.
Another infamous legend concerning a survivor is that of “Idaho Bill” William Sloan aka Charley Thatcher (Kit Carson Fancher) who used his alleged association to the massacre to aid his defence. He was locked up for a time before his death with John Lee whilst Lee awaited his own trial. Sadly for Sloan, Kit Fancher died in 1873, thus disproving his story.
To coincide with the memorial dedication and anniversary events, a statement was released by the Church of Latter Day Saints apologising for the role the Mormon Church played in the massacre, the first time they had publicly admitted to an active role in the horror. To this day it has not been ascertained exactly to what extent Brigham Young was involved in the murders of the Baker Fancher party, nor in the other similar massacres which took place in the years preceding and following. No compensation has ever been awarded to the survivors nor the families of the victims. None of the proceeds from the sale of their possessions by the Mormons immediately after the massacre has been repaid.