Massacre at Mountain Meadows and the Mormon Murderers of Utah
“When we arrived here in April, 1859, more than a year and a half after the massacre occurred, the ground, for a distance of more than a hundred yards around a central point, was covered with the skeletons and bones of human beings, interspersed with rolls or bunches of tangled or matted hair, which, from its length, evidently belonged to females. In places the bones of small children were lying side by side with those of grown persons, as if parent and child had met death at the same instant and with the same stroke. Small bonnets and dresses, and scraps of female apparel were also to be seen on the ground there, like the bones of those who wore them, bleached from long exposure; but their shape was, in many instances, entire. In a gulch or hole in the ravine by the side of the road, a large number of leg and arm bones, and also of skulls, could be seen sticking above the surface, as if they had been buried there, but the action of the water and digging of the wolves had again exposed them to sight. The entire scene was one too horrible and sickening for language adequately to describe.”
These words were spoken by William H. Rogers describing the panorama that met him as he approached the area of the Mountain Meadow Massacre. The horrid event had taken place on September 11, 1857. One hundred and twenty men, women, and children, emigrants from Arkansas, were murdered by Mormons.
Early persecution of Mormons led to the massacre
Late summer of 1857 was a time of uncertainty for anyone choosing to travel west through Utah territory. The years leading up to that summer had been fraught with growing hostilities between Brigham Young and his clan of Mormons and the Ute Indians to whom the territory had belonged before the United States gained possession in 1848.
When the Mormons first began to settle on the hunting grounds of the Ute, the natives were friendly. They worked out arrangements with the immigrants, inviting Young and his group to send colonists to the Sanpete Valley. Early cooperation gave way to tension as the Mormons attempted to suppress Mexican trade. The Ute had long depended on such trade, especially that of native slaves, a practice highly unacceptable to Mormons. In spite of the trading relationship between Mr. Young and Chief Walkara, other Mormon colonists began to interfere with Ute trade. While tensions were growing, the area was becoming more traveled by settlers moving west. There were a few isolated instances where conflicts gave way to Indian deaths. War broke out between the Mormons and Ute Indians when a relative of the Chief's was killed during a trading session gone wrong.
Eventually, Young and the chief worked out their differences, and the following summer in 1854, about 120 of Chief Walkara's tribe were baptized as Mormons. The end of Indian hostilities between Indians and Mormons didn't mean the end of Brigham Young's troubles. Having been appointed the first territorial governor in 1851, he decided it was time to announce that polygamy was an authorized practice of the LDS Church. From the house he built in 1854, he was serving as both governor and Prophet when the Republican Party's platform denounced the evils of both slavery and polygamy.
James Buchanan became president in 1857 and he replaced Young with a non-Mormon named Alfred Cumming when he declared Utah in open rebellion against Federal authority. An army was sent with Cummintg to force the change in governors. Brigham Young, upon learning of the coming troops, placed Utah under martial law. The result was the Utah War as it has come to be known. Refusing to surrender to federal forces, Young called all Mormons to prepare to defend against the interlopers. They built blockades and dug trenches and the religious leader ordered them to burn everything.
It had been two decades of persecution from the Mormons' perspectives, resulting in the move west to escape. They had been expelled from the state of Missouri during the 1838 Mormon War in which a prominent apostle named David W. Patten had been killed. After the move to Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith, Jr, founder of the LDS Church, and his brother Hyrum Smith were assassinated in 1844. Trouble had risen with the Ute, and then the United States government. In April of the same year when Young was ousted from the governorship, word reached the sect that apostle Parley P. Pratt had been shot in Arkansas by Hector McLean, the estranged husband of one of Pratt's plural wives. Pratt was immediately conferred the title of martyr by church leaders and many held the people of Arkansas responsible.
Church teachings in 1857 were strict. Leaders taught that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent, and that God would exact a just punishment against the US for the slaughter of Smith, his brother, Patten and Pratt, and for the continued persecution of the Mormons as a whole. The faithful followers took an oath to pray for vengeance against the murderers of their prophets. The terrible result of this oath was in several apostles and leaders believing it was their sworn duty to kill the murderers themselves if ever they chanced upon them.
The 1859 newspaper account:
Modern accounts of the massacre have blamed the Utah Territorial Militia and some local Indians as being the culprits behind the atrocities perpetrated that day, but old newspaper accounts provide a different story.
Earlier that year, several groups of emigrants from northwestern Arkansas looking to make their fortunes in California, joined together to form a group known as the Baker-Fancher party. Colonel Alexander Fancher who had already made the trip to California twice, had been informally charged as the wagon train's leader. As they made their way west, trains from other states joined along the way, including a train from Missouri. The entire group was relatively wealthy and well organized, and planned to restock supplies in Salt Lake City as did most who traveled west.
They had left Salt Lake City, traveling through southern Utah, when in August, Mormon apostle George A. Smith and Jacob Hamblin camped near them at Corn Creek. Hamblin invited the group to rest their cattle at Mountain Meadows, a pasture located adjacent to his homestead. They were happy to do so, being weary and looking forward to a few days rest before attempting the next 40 miles which would take them out of Utah.
After the massacre, an early investigation was conducted by Brigham Young, who sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, stating that the horrors were the work of the natives. The ensuing Utah War delayed any further investigation by the US government until 1859 when Federal Judge John Cradlebaugh was brought into the territory.
When it became known that a more thorough investigation into the massacre was to commence, several people made visits to him under cover of darkness, providing the judge with facts connected to the massacre. The informers all said they were risking their lives if their divulging of secrets became known.
The 153 year old newspaper account makes mention of a man who called on Judge Cradlebaugh and confessed that he had participated in the massacre. The following is his account as reported in the paper:
“Previous to the massacre there was a council held at Cedar City, which President Haight an Bishops Higby and Leed attended. At this council they designated or appointed a large number ofmen residing in Cedar City, and in other settlements around, to perform the work of dispatching these emigrants. The men appointed for this purpose were instructed to resort, well armed, at a given time, to a spring or small stream, lying a short distance to the left of the road leading into the Meadows, and not very far from Hamblin's ranch, but concealed from it by intervening hills. This was the place of rendezvous; and here the men, when they arrived, painted and otherwise disguised themselves so as to resemble Indians. From thence they proceeded, early on Monday morning, by a path or trail which leads from this spring directly into the Meadows, and enters the road some distance beyond Hamblin's ranch. By taking this route, they could not be seen by anyone at the ranch.”
The informant goes on to describe how the disguised attackers arrived at a corral built by the traveling party. Men were standing about campfires recently built, and they were the first to be fired upon by the would be Indians. Seven men were killed in he first volley but the rest ran to the inside of the corral. Everyone began preparing for defense. They shoved wagons together and dug beneath them to drop them so as to block any stray bullets from going beneath. Snipers hit and wounded another 46 that day. The assault went on for four days, during which time the emigrants had no way to reach water or food. On the 3rd day, hoping to appeal to their attackers' humanity, two little girls were dressed in white and sent towards the spring with a bucket. Both were shot and killed.
Believing they would not be able to vanquish the party of travelers in the manner first adopted, the attackers returned to the spring where they had rendezvoused earlier. They removed their disguises and redressed themselves in their clothes. Bishop Lee returned to the emigrants' camp with a party of men, waving a white flag in truce. The party met the white flag by dressing up a small girl all in white and placing her at the entrance to the corral as a token of friendliness. Lee and his men were invited inside where the story of the attack was relayed to them, the emigrants not recognizing their attackers out of the phony Indian get-ups.
Lee stated that the Indians had gone off for the time being, but if the emigrants should lay down their weapons and give up their property, he would lead them back to Cedar City and safety. Lee explained that taking up arms again would lead the Indians to attack again. The emigrants trusted Lee and consented to his proposal, leaving their arms and all their property at the corral. Under the escort of Lee and his party, they headed towards Cedar City.
John D. Lee was the only one of nine to be convicted and executed
“After they proceeded about a mile on their way, a signal given by Bishop Higby, who was one of the party that went to the corral with Lee, the slaughter began. The men were mostly killed or shot down at the first fire, and the women and children who immediately fled in different directions, were quickly pursued and dispatched.”
John Lee approached two teenage girls, asking if they would love and obey him in exchange for their lives. When they consented, they were stripped, raped and murdered. A few small children were spared because they were considered too young to relate the story. These children were taken in by local Mormon families. Later, 6 year old Rebecca Dunlap and her 4 year old sister, were witnesses who reported watching the Mormons washing off their disguises in a stream. During her retelling of their ordeal, she recounted the story of being taken to a ranch with a little boy who had been shot in the leg. He was crying in pain without let up. “The men stopped the wagon. One got out...took the little boy by the feet and knocked his brains out against the wagon wheel.”
Jacob Hamblin and his wife Sarah were said to have adopted the majority of the 17 to 20 children saved from death. Later they were claimed by the US Army and returned to relatives in Arkansas.
Cradlebaugh's investigations were halted in 1861 due to the outbreak of the American Civil War, but proceeded again in 1871 when prosecutors obtained the affidavit of militia member Phillip Klingensmith, who had been a bishop and blacksmith in Cedar City. By the 1870's he had moved to Nevada after leaving the church.
During the 1870's, Maj. John D. Lee, William H. Dame, Phillip Klingensmith, Eliot Willden and George Adair, Jr. were indicted and arrested. Warrants for the arrests of Samuel Jukes, William C. Stewart, Isaac Haight, and Maj. John H. Higby were issued but they had gone into hiding. Lee of the Utah Militia, a constable, judge and Indian Agent was the only one of the nine to be convicted and executed.