What is the “Mountain Meadows Massacre”?
The Mountain Meadows Massacre was the killing of roughly 120 emigrants who were passing through Southern Utah in September 1857. The massacre occurred on September 11, 1857. The emigrants–men, women, and children–were traveling from Arkansas to California, part of the Baker-Fancher wagon train. They were killed by a group of Mormons with the help of local Paiute Indians.
Where is Mountain Meadows?
The Mountain Meadows is located in a mountain valley about 35 miles southwest of Cedar City, Utah.
(Image courtesy of LDS.org)
For the present day location of the Mountain Meadows, please see this Google map below. (You’ll see Cedar City to the northeast, and St. George to the southeast.)
How did the Emigrants Run into Mormons?
After leaving Arkansas, the Fancher party traveled west through Kansas and Nebraska territories before entering Utah territory. In Utah, the party passed Fort Bridger and Salt Lake City, traveling south west until reaching Cedar City. Cedar City was the last stop before California. In Cedar City, the Fancher party attempted to buy grain and supplies but was refused by the local Mormons due to the Mormons’ suspicion of aiding potential enemies.
How did the Massacre Happen?
After the Fancher party left Cedar City, frustrated with the refusal of local Mormons to sell them needed goods, they continued southwest through the mountain pass called Mountain Meadows. There they were attacked by Mormon assailants, some of them killed. The remaining emigrants pulled their wagons into a tight circle for protection. Over the next five days, the emigrants were held at siege in their wagon circle. During this period they were attacked two more times.
On September 11, 1857, John D. Lee entered the wagon circle with a white flag, convincing the emigrants to surrender peacefully. Required to put down their guns, the women and children were escorted out first, then the men and boys. Each man and boy was escorted by an armed militiaman.
They walked about a mile when, upon a predetermined signal, the militiamen turned and fired on each man and boy. Indians who had been convinced to participate in the massacre came out from their hiding places to attack the women and children.
Did Anyone Survive?
While most of the Fancher party was killed (about 120 people), there were 17 young children who survived. These 17 children were adopted by local families. Two years later in 1859, the U.S. government reunited the children with their extended families in Arkansas.
Why would Mormons Kill Innocent Emigrants?
Since the founding of their church in 1830, Mormons had been heavily persecuted and attacked. They had been chased from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and then finally to Utah. In Missouri, at Haun’s Mill, 18 Mormons had been massacred and 13 injured. The governor of Missouri had even issued an extermination order against the Mormons, forcing them to leave Missouri or be killed.
The church’s founder, the prophet Joseph Smith, had been tarred and weathered, falsely accused and imprisoned several times, and ultimately killed alongside his brother.
When forced out of Nauvoo towards the west during winter, Mormons camped at Winter Quarters in Nebraska. There, they lost about 600 people to disease and exposure.
In 1857 the federal government sent 1,500 United States troops to Utah to deal with what it thought was a rogue sect. Tensions were high in Utah in 1857.
Also, a beloved leader, Parley P. Pratt, had just been murdered while serving as a missionary in Arkansas. In their interactions with Utah Mormons, members of the Fancher party had been disrespectful and belligerent, inflaming passions among the Saints.
Because of all the past persecution and fear of being attacked or imprisoned by federal troops, it’s likely that local Mormons who participated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre acted out of a deep fear and paranoia.
It was a cluster of irritants involving a dispute over trade, abusive language, fighting words, and resistance to the authority of Cedar City’s marshal John Higbee.
In ordinary times the fracas would have quickly passed. In Cedar City, however, many believed implicitly the rumors that U.S. troops were poised to “invade” their isolated and exposed settlements. These swirling rumors of imminent invasion, perhaps combined with some emigrant’s passing threat, led some Cedar City settlers to conclude that this emigrant train was in league with the hostile U.S. troops.
No one in the Church today condones this event. All wish deeply that it hadn’t happened.
Did Persecution against the Mormons Justify the Mountain Meadows Massacre?
While the Mormons were heavily persecuted, driven from their homes, and killed en masse several times, their persecution did not justify the killings at Mountain Meadows.
Was the Mormon Church Responsible for the Killings or did Local Mormons Act Independently?
Evidence suggests that church president Brigham Young was not responsible or even aware of the Mountain Meadows Massacre before it happened. Assuming this is true, and there’s no strong evidence to the contrary, one can safely say that responsibility for the massacre rests with local Mormons, not the Church itself.
The next morning Colonel Dame and Major Haight, accompanied by staff members, arrived at the death scene. Dame was aghast at the number of victims and was heard to exclaim, “I did not think that there were so many women and children.” Then he and Major Haight fell to quarreling about how it should be reported. Dame protested that he had not been informed of the true situation. At one point Haight responded savagely, “It is too late in the day for you to back water. You know you ordered it . . . and now you want to back out.”
But Haight was to receive his own surprise the following day when James Haslam returned, exhausted, from his journey to Great Salt Lake City. Haslam arrived in the wee hours of Sunday morning, 13 September, having made his 500-mile round-trip ride in less than six days. After grabbing some sleep, he met with Haight. “Haslam handed Haight the unsealed letter from Young directing him to let the emigrants ‘go in peace.’ Haight took the letter, read through it, and broke down. For half an hour, he sobbed ‘like a child’ and could manage only the words, ‘Too late, too late.”
Read more from primary source research by clicking here.
What has the LDS Church (Mormon Church) said about the massacre?
In the September 2007 edition of its Ensign magazine, the Church released a scholarly and detailed article about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The article was written by Richard E. Turley, Jr., managing director of the Church’s Family and Church History department.
The year 2007 marked the sesquicentennial (150-year) anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a year of renewed interest in the event. It’s fitting that the Church released a comprehensive article on the event. Director Christopher Cain also created a full-length film–September Dawn–loosely based on the event. The film script pinned the blame on Brigham Young; it tanked at the box office so badly, that it initiated no discussion of note.
On September 11, 2007, descendants of the emigrant victims held a memorial service at the grave site. Elder Henry B. Eyring, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attended the service representing the Church’s First Presidency. Elder Eyring expressed “profound regret for the massacre” and referred to the “undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time.” He called for reconciliation and also expressed regret to the Paiute people.
September 11 Parallels
Some have pointed out the strange coincidence that the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred on September 11, the same day as the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania in 2001. The movie September Dawn seemed to draw parallels between the two events, attributing them both to religious fanaticism.
Where can I Learn More about the Mountain Meadows Massacre?
To learn more, please see the following third-party web sites:
LDS.org – The Church’s recently released article on the Massacre is a scholarly article by Richard E. Turley. This represents the latest and most thorough study of the history. Mr. Turley has also completed a comprehensive, peer-reviewed book on the event published by Oxford University Press.
Mormonwiki.com – Mormonwiki is a user-collaborative “wiki” site written by Church members.
Fairlds.org – A talk given at a conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research.