The Mountain Meadows massacre was a series of attacks which occurred from 7 September to 11 September 1857 on the Baker–Fancher emigrant wagon train at Mountain Meadows in the southern Utah territory. The wagon train, consisting mostly of families from Arkansas, was in route to California via the Utah Territory during a turbulent time period in Utah’s history which later became known as the Utah War.
By the end of the attacks, approximately 17 injuries had been reported, and some 100 to 140 members of the wagon train had been murdered by members of the Utah Territorial Militia (officially called the Nauvoo Legion) from the Iron County district (in southern Utah), which was composed of Mormon settlers. It is also recorded that some Paiute Native Americans also took part in the mass slaughter. According to the article titled “Mountain Meadows massacre” on Wikipedia.com:
The militia, officially called the Nauvoo Legion, was composed of Utah’s Mormon settlers (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS Church). Intending to give the appearance of Native American aggression, their plan was to arm some Southern Paiute Native Americans and persuade them to join with a larger party of their own militiamen—disguised as Native Americans—in an attack. During the militia’s first assault on the wagon train, the emigrants fought back and a five-day siege ensued. Eventually fear spread among the militia’s leaders that some emigrants had caught sight of white men, and had likely discovered the identity of their attackers. As a result militia commander William H. Dame ordered his forces to kill the emigrants.
By this time the emigrants were running low on water and provisions, and allowed some approaching members of the militia—who carried a white flag—to enter their camp. The militia members assured the emigrants their protection and escorted them from the hasty fortification. After walking a distance from the camp, the militiamen, with the help of auxiliary forces hiding nearby, attacked the emigrants. Intending to leave no witnesses and to prevent reprisals to complicate the Utah War, the perpetrators killed all the adults and older children (totaling about 120 men, women, and children). Seventeen children, all younger than seven, were spared.
Latter-day Saints – A Peace Loving People
By nature, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called the “Mormon” Church by the media and others) are a law abiding people who strive to live at peace with all men. They follow the teachings and admonitions of the Savior who taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The doctrines and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ are therefore centered on the virtues of peace, love, and forgiveness. Members are exhorted in latter-day scripture to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:16). And in the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin in his perennial discourse taught the people that those who are converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ “will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due” (Mosiah 4:13).
Although these ideologies seemed plausible, throughout their history, Latter-day Saints were persecuted time and time again, often violently, for their beliefs which made the obtaining of peace an arduous task. Unfortunately, and tragically, at some point in the 19th century, some Church members made the conscious decision to participate in deliberate acts of violence against a group of people whom they had perceived to be their enemies. The most notable event is the massacre that occurred at Mountain Meadows.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published an essay in their “Topics” section of LDS.org which “explores both violence committed against the Latter-day Saints and violence committed by them.” As the preface to the essay states, “While historical context can help shed light on these acts of violence, it does not excuse them.”
Mormons – A Persecuted People
From the earliest days of the history of their religion, Latter-day Saints faced persecutions on all sides because of their beliefs and lifestyle. Time and time again, although they made every attempt to live at peace with their neighbors, they were driven from their homes, often leaving many of their possessions behind, to find refuge in a new location, only in time to be driven out once again. Many of their Church leaders, including the first Prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, were tarred and feathered, beaten, and thrown in jail on false charges. And they even had an extermination ordered filed against them in late October 1838 when Governor Lilburn W. Boggs of the state of Missouri ordered that the Mormons be expelled from the state or “exterminated”
The Church’s essay titled “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints” recounts a few of the hardships that the Saints endured:
As Latter-day Saints faced these difficulties, they sought to live by revelations to Joseph Smith that counseled them to live their religion in peace with their neighbors. Nevertheless, their adversaries in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois resented the Saints’ differing religious beliefs and social and economic practices. They also felt threatened by the Saints’ growing numbers, which meant that Mormons could increasingly control local elections. These opponents attacked the Saints, first verbally and then physically. Church leaders, including Joseph Smith, were tarred and feathered, beaten, and unjustly imprisoned. Other members of the Church were also the victims of violent crimes. In the most infamous incident, at least 17 men and boys, ranging in age from 9 to 78, were slaughtered in the Hawn’s Mill Massacre. Some Latter-day Saint women were raped or otherwise sexually assaulted during the Missouri persecutions. Vigilantes and mobs destroyed homes and stole property. Many of the Saints’ opponents enriched themselves with land and property that was not justly theirs.
The expulsion from Missouri—involving at least 8,000 Latter-day Saints—occurred during the winter months, heightening the suffering of the thousands of refugees who lacked adequate food and shelter and were sometimes subject to epidemic diseases. In March 1839, when Joseph Smith, imprisoned in Liberty, Missouri, received reports of the suffering of the exiled Latter-day Saints, he exclaimed, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever (Doctrine and Covenants 121:1,6).
After being expelled from Missouri, the Saints found peace for a time in Nauvoo, Illinois. However it wasn’t long before the persecutions started once again. Ultimately Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested and taken to the jail in Carthage. Despite being promised by the state’s governor that they would be protected while in custody, they were martyred by a mob on 27 June 1844. Eighteen months later, beginning in the cold winter month of February 1846, the main body of the Saints left Nauvoo under tremendous pressure. According to the Church’s essay, a non-Mormon who passed through the camps where the Latter-day Saints had taken temporary refuge wrote:
Cowed and cramped by cold and sunburn, alternating as each weary day and night dragged on, they were, almost all of them, the crippled victims of disease. … They could not satisfy the feeble cravings of their sick: they had not bread to quiet the fractious hunger cries of their children.
Vigilantes in the 19th Century
The violent acts that were committed against this one religious group of people is incomparable to any other such act in the history of the United States. After being rejected on numerous occasions when attempting to seek restitution from local and state government officials for the atrocities that had been committed against them, some of the Saints, beginning in 1838, began to respond with retaliatory actions of their own.
The essay further states,
In 19th-century American society, community violence was common and often condoned. Much of the violence perpetrated by and against Latter-day Saints fell within the then-existing American tradition of extralegal vigilantism, in which citizens organized to take justice into their own hands when they believed government was either oppressive or lacking.
In the 1830s and 1840s, the Latter-day Saints’ communities in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Utah were all located in the western frontier regions of the United States, where community violence was readily sanctioned.
At the Latter-day Saint settlement of Far West, some leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites. Their objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians. During the fall of 1838, as tensions escalated during what is now known as the Mormon Missouri War, the Danites were absorbed into militias comprised mostly of Latter-day Saints. In addition, it is reported that Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity. They burned homes and stole goods.
The Danites were short-lived, and as a result of their experiences in Missouri, the Saints organized a state sanctioned militia known as the Nauvoo Legion to protect them upon their arrival in Illinois. The Nauvoo Legion avoided offensive and retaliatory actions even after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. When the governor of Illinois ordered that the Legion disband, the Saints obeyed.
Mormons and the American Indians
The Church essay states:
Unlike most other Americans, Latter-day Saints viewed Indians as a chosen people, fellow Israelites who were descendants of Book of Mormon peoples and thus heirs to God’s promises. As Church president, territorial governor, and territorial superintendent of Indian Affairs, Brigham Young pursued a peace policy to facilitate Mormon settlement in areas where Indians lived. Latter-day Saints learned Indian languages, established trade relations, preached the gospel, and generally sought accommodation with Indians.24 This policy, however, emerged unevenly and was inconsistently applied.
Peaceful accommodation between Latter-day Saints and Indians was both the norm and the ideal. At times, however, Church members clashed violently with Indians. These two cultures—European and American Indian—had vastly different assumptions about the use of land and property and did not understand each other well. Mormons often accused Indians of stealing. Indians, meanwhile, believed the Mormons had a responsibility to share goods and livestock raised on Indian tribal lands. In areas where Mormons settled, Indian experience with Europeans had previously consisted mostly of mutually beneficial interactions with trappers and traders, people who passed through the land or briefly dwelled on it, not staked permanent claim to it as the Mormons did. These misunderstandings led to friction and violence between the peoples.
The Utah War and Mountain Meadows Massacre
The Church essay recounts the events that led up to the massacre at Mountain Meadows as follows:
At the peak of this tension, in early September 1857, a branch of the territorial militia in southern Utah (composed entirely of Mormons), along with some Indians they recruited, laid siege to a wagon train of emigrants traveling from Arkansas to California. As the wagon train traveled south from Salt Lake City, the emigrants had clashed verbally with local Mormons over where they could graze their cattle. Some of the members of the wagon train became frustrated because they had difficulty purchasing much-needed grain and other supplies from local settlers, who had been instructed to save their grain as a wartime policy. Aggrieved, some of the emigrants threatened to join incoming troops in fighting against the Saints.
Although some Saints ignored these threats, other local Church leaders and members in Cedar City, Utah, advocated violence. Isaac C. Haight, a stake president and militia leader, sent John D. Lee, a militia major, to lead an attack on the emigrant company. When the president reported the plan to his council, other leaders objected and requested that he call off the attack and instead send an express rider to Brigham Young in Salt Lake City for guidance. But the men Haight had sent to attack the emigrants carried out their plans before they received the order not to attack. The emigrants fought back, and a siege ensued.
Not willing to wait for counsel and direction from President Brigham Young, militiamen pressed forward and carried out their plans of a deliberate massacre. With a false flag of truce, they lured the emigrants away from their covered wagons, and with the aid of several Paiute Indians which they had recruited, they slaughtered 120 men, women, and children in the valley known as Mountain Meadows. Only small children who were believed to be too young to recall what had happened were left alive. Two days after the massacre, an express rider which had been sent to Brigham Young returned with a letter from President Young counseling the Saints not to interfere with the emigrants, but to allow them to pass through the southern Utah territory. The militiamen attempted to cover up their crime by placing the blame on the Paiute Indians, some of whom were members of the Church.
According to the Church essay:
Two Latter-day Saints were eventually excommunicated from the Church for their participation, and a grand jury that included Latter-day Saints indicted nine men. Only one participant, John D. Lee, was convicted and executed for the crime, which fueled false allegations that the massacre had been ordered by Brigham Young.
In the resulting book, published by Oxford University Press in 2008, authors Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard concluded that while intemperate preaching about outsiders by Brigham Young, George A. Smith, and other leaders contributed to a climate of hostility, President Young did not order the massacre. Rather, verbal confrontations between individuals in the wagon train and southern Utah settlers created great alarm, particularly within the context of the Utah War and other adversarial events. A series of tragic decisions by local Church leaders—who also held key civic and militia leadership roles in southern Utah—led to the massacre
Speaking of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Elder Henry B. Eyring, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated,
The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done here long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.
The Aftermath – A Time of Healing and Forgiveness
Of those who were a part of the Baker–Fancher emigrant wagon train, only 17 innocent children age six and under were left alive after the tragic events that occurred in the Mountain Meadows valley, located roughly 35 miles southwest of Cedar City, Utah, in the early days of September 1857. Those children who were considered “too young to tell tales” were adopted by local families and later, in 1859, were retrieved by government officials who returned them to family members in Arkansas.
The perpetrators of those horrendous events were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As such, The Church of Jesus Christ has made great efforts to heal the wounds and undue suffering of the relatives and descendants of those emigrants whose lives were unjustifiably snuffed out during the massacre. In September 1999, President Gordon B. Hinckley, then President and Prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, went to Mountain Meadows to join with descendants in dedicating a monument at the site of the massacre. Since the dedication, the Church has collaborated with descendent groups in maintaining the monument and the surrounding property, and has committed to improving and preserving the area in the future.
To help shed light on the details of this dismal event in the Church’s history, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ opened the Church’s archive for research purposes to the authors of the 2007 book titled “Massacre at Mountain Meadows.” On 11 September 2007, President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency, gave the following remarks at the sesquicentennial of the massacre:
Two of the significant conclusions they [the authors] have reached are (1) that the message conveying the will and intent of Brigham Young not to interfere with the immigrants arrived too late, and (2) that the responsibility for the massacre lies with local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the regions near Mountain Meadows who also held civic and military positions and with members of the Church acting under their direction.
The truth, as we have come to know it, saddens us deeply. The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done here long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct. We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here.
Today, due to the collaboration and cooperation of descendants and other relatives of the emigrants and the perpetrators, great efforts have been made in memorializing the victims. With the support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah state officials, and other institutions and individuals, two memorials now stand at the massacre site and several plagues have been placed commemorating the Arkansas emigrants, including a plague which lists the names of the 17 children who survived the incident. Descendant groups, Church leaders and members, and various civic officials continue to work towards reconciliation and forgiveness.
Two of the descendants of children who survived the massacre made the following remarks:
James Sanders is a great-grandson of Nancy Saphrona Huff, one of the children who survived the massacre. “I still feel pain; I still feel anger and sadness that the massacre happened,” said Brother Sanders. “But I know that the people who did this will be accountable before the Lord, and that brings me peace.” Brother Sanders, who serves as a family history consultant in his Arizona ward, said that learning his ancestor had been killed in the massacre “didn’t affect my faith because it’s based on Jesus Christ, not on any person in the Church.”
Sharon Chambers of Salt Lake City is a great-granddaughter of child survivor Rebecca Dunlap. “The people who did this had lost their way. I don’t know what was in their minds or in their hearts,” she said. “I feel sorrow that this happened to my ancestors. I also feel sorrow that people have blamed the acts of some on an entire group, or on an entire religion.”