The Mountain Meadows Massacre
(and the continuing controversy)

It was 1857. A wagon train, on its way to California, arrives in Utah. There are some 40 wagons, a few hundred beef cattle, horses and other draft animals, and about 140 people, most from Northwestern Arkansas. Little did they know what was going to transpire that fall.

The Mormons of Utah at the time were in a state of great concern over the possibility of war. President James Buchanan had dispatched an expedition to the area, thinking there was to be a rebellion. The plan was to replace Brigham Young as territorial governor. Between fears real and imagined and the clergy stirring up resentment against the federal government, there was what has been described as "war hysteria."

Young declared a state of martial law on 5 August, making it illegal for people to travel through the territory without a special pass. The people of Utah were also to avoid trading with any outsiders or offering food and shelter. The militia for the territory was on full alert and as of 8 August preparing its men and the citizens for the outbreak of war.

It was into this situation the people of the Fancher train (as it was known, though it had other names previously, probably due to various parties joining and leaving as it traveled) stumbled. They were without a pass and traveling on low rations and supplies. Any contact with local settlers turned bad and resentment ran high. Stories began to circulate that members of the train had acted with "gross misconduct." The stories, in that atmosphere of war, were believed. Past issues among the Mormon communities resurfaced—the ill treatment and persecution they received in Ohio and Missouri and the murder of their leader Joseph Smith in Illinois. Further, earlier that year, one of their brethren had been murdered in Arkansas.

It was decided by the militia that the train had to be " eliminated." Before they were going to act, a rider was sent to get orders directly from Young. Unfortunately, the round trip was 500 miles and took six days (Young reportedly said that the train should be allowed to pass unmolested; there is some question about that, see below). In the meantime, things escalated and the rider didn't return until two days after the massacre took place.

The train arrived at Mountain Meadows at the beginning of September. It was a well-known site on the trail and was often used by travelers. They camped there, planning to rest up before moving on. But around dawn on 7 September, the train was attacked by Paiute Indians and militia (possibly disguised as Indians—the massacre was originally blamed entirely on the Indians; for more, see below). At the same time, a small group that had camped a bit farther away was also attacked and forced into retreating to Mountain Meadows.

They circled the wagons, chained the wheels together, and dug in. The settlers were able to fight off the attack, only losing seven with sixteen wounded. But they had nowhere to escape to and the militia waited them out. On 11 September, short on all supplies, including water and ammunition, they were approached by militia men waving a white flag. Some of the train thought they were there to rescue them. The militia led them to believe that by giving up their possessions to the Indians and returning with the soldiers to nearby Cedar City they would be safe. The militia walked the settlers back toward the town (some of the children, mothers, and wounded were allowed to ride in wagons). They were separated into groups: first the wagons, then women and young adults, then the men.

They only traveled about a mile and a half, when the militia (and possibly the Indians) attacked the party. Everyone was killed with the exception of seventeen small children who were taken and given to Mormon homes. The bodies were left where they lay or scattered about. No attempt was made to bury or even cover them.

Estimates of the death toll include 14 Arkansas men shot in the head, 12 women and 35 youngsters clubbed or knifed to death, with 17 children younger than the age of 8 surviving the double-cross.

Nine cowhands hired to drive cattle were also murdered, along with at least 35 unknown victims. In all, 120 people, mostly women and children, were slain.
Salt Lake Tribune

As I noted, there was an initial cover-up blaming the Indians for the massacre. But the relatives of the party demanded an investigation. An army escort visited the site and buried what they could find. They also built cairns as monuments to the victims. The army was also able to return the seventeen children to their relatives in Arkansas (arriving a full two years after the massacre took place).

Eventually, one man, John D. Lee (an adopted son of Young) was prosecuted for the massacre. He was a major of the Fourth Battalion of the militia at Harmony. On the other hand, he was in all likelihood a scapegoat, sacrificed to dispose of the problem and make it go away (whatever his degree of guilt, he was hardly alone in acting, nor was he at the head of the chain of command). In 1877, he was taken to the site of the siege and executed by firing squad. The Mormon church excommunicated him and a few others but no other action was taken against the members of the militia.

A monument was erected on the site. One that didn't make clear the true nature of the massacre.

The story doesn't end there. In 1999, while attempting to rebuild the monument, a backhoe uncovered the remains of as many as 29 victims from the massacre (the count was based on the number of right femurs found among the mass of bones at the site). The bones were sent to BYU where they were confirmed to be from the massacre. A controversy erupted, as Utah has a state law requiring examination of any "accidentally discovered human remains" (SLT), over whether they should be studied or immediately reburied. Governor Mike Leavitt personally stepped in to get the bones reburied before the dedication ceremony of the monument.

At the ceremony, the governor stated "That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day" (SLT). It was put in by attorneys for the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, apparently fearing lawsuit.

Additionally, bringing up the massacre is unsettling because it asks too many questions about the church, itself. As Mormon writer Levi Peterson notes:

If good Mormons committed the massacre, if prayerful leaders ordered it, if apostles and a prophet knew about it and later sacrificed John D. Lee, then the sainthood of even the modern church seems tainted. Where is the moral superiority of Mormonism, where is the assurance that God has made Mormons his new chosen people?
(Qtd. in SLT)
Thus the long history of denial beginning with blaming the Indians. Other stories told as "true" included demonizing the settlers and blaming the incident on their behavior. Further, there is some evidence suggesting that Young may have actually been aware all along, if not somewhat in charge. In a journal, Young's Indian interpreter writes that Young let the Indians know that after the army finished with the Mormons, they would come and kill the Indians. Less than three weeks after the massacre, Young authorized over $3500 in goods to be given to the Indians. Also there is
a frequently censored phrase from Young's Aug. 4, 1857, letter to Mormon "Indian missionary" Jacob Hamblin to obtain the tribe's trust, "for they must learn that they have either got to help us or the United States will kill us both.
(Qtd. in SLT)
How much he did or didn't know isn't clear, but questions brought up by the massacre continue to cause great unrest among some Mormon leaders.

And what about the findings of the archaeologists and forensic anthropologists? When they were told they had to return the bones before a thorough examination could be done, the team spent thirty hours straight in an attempt to gain as much information as possible from the bones and twenty skulls they had. According to accounts, the Indians beat or stabbed the women and children and the militia shot the men. Evidence showed that men, women and children were shot. Five of the twenty (children and young adults) were killed by blunt force. And there was much evidence of predatory damage, most likely wolves or coyotes, due to the bodies being left unburied.

On the other hand, no evidence for knife or hatchet wounds was found. Many descendants of the Indians believe this corroborates their oral histories that state the Indians did not participate or had little participation. Unfortunately the evidence ends there and as one of the team notes: "Obviously, skeletal trauma cannot corroborate ethnically who was responsible for the shooting and whom for the beating" (SLT). It is true that the Indians were on fairly good terms with the Mormon community and their tribe accounted for the highest number of Mormon converts. And if the evidence about Young and his dealings with the tribe is accurate, a motive is suggested.

But no one can know for sure and what is on record is confounded by conflicting stories of the militia, themselves. Stories range from the Paiutes barely participating to full participation to forcing the Mormons to kill them. One affidavit claimed that the Indians came and asked them to kill the train or they would join the army and fight the Mormons. Adding the cover-up that painted the Indians as the sole participants and denying the militia's part and one has a mess of history. One that will probably never be completely sorted out.

(Sources:, a series of articles from the Salt Lake Tribune that can be found online at

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