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The Mountain Meadows Massacre Revisited

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Library of Congress
Library of Congress

In September 1857, the church that now fascinates a nation experienced one of its darkest moments. At Mountain Meadows, deep in southern Utah, a group of Mormon militiamen slaughtered 120 unarmed non-Mormon emigrants.

Utah was nearly at war with the U.S. government at the time. In the wake of multiple reports of Mormon disloyalty, President James Buchanan had sent one-fifth of the nation's army to assert federal authority over Utah affairs. For many Mormons, the approaching Utah Expedition summoned up memories of the eastern mobs that had attacked church members and repeatedly driven them from their homes. Brigham Young, Utah's governor and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, feared that the army was marching with orders to kill him and destroy his church. In response to that fear, he unwisely prepared his people to fight the army.

In one sermon, Young equated the U.S. Army with the vigilante killers of Joseph Smith and other Mormon martyrs. "[L]ift the sword and slay them," Young encouraged the congregation. He had no illusions about the ability of Utah's militia to defeat the better-equipped U.S. Army. Instead, Young aimed to prevent the troops from reaching Salt Lake City that fall, with the not unrealistic hope that events elsewhere might necessitate their recall.

In the meantime, Young's representatives traveled across the territory, urging local militias to drill and telling Latter-day Saints to horde their grain and not sell it to Gentiles (i.e., non-Mormons) passing through Utah. Young also asked native leaders to join him in a possible fight against the approaching American soldiers, and he sanctioned Indian raids against non-Mormon wagon trains.

Meanwhile, non-Mormon emigrants stopped in Salt Lake City and then passed through Utah on their way west. A group known as the "Arkansas company," so called because many of its members came from that state, repeatedly clashed with Mormon settlers as it made its way south. In Cedar City, frustrated with their inability to purchase needed supplies, some of the emigrants became angry and apparently made threats against the settlement's mayor, Isaac Haight.

Haight, also a major in Utah's militia, ordered John D. Lee to recruit local Paiute Indians for an ambush on the Arkansas company. The attack took place on Monday, Sept. 7, at the Mountain Meadows, a cool, relatively lush expanse above the Santa Clara Canyon, where the emigrants had camped to refresh their animals before the push across the desert to San Bernardino.

The flaws in the plan immediately became apparent. The emigrants were far too numerous, capable and armed for a disguised Lee and the Paiutes to overcome. They circled their wagons, returned fire, dug in and buried their dead. The attackers succeeded in capturing much of the train's stock (another credible motivation for the decision to attack), but the ambush became a protracted siege. Despite the intention of Lee and Haight to lay blame on their Indian allies, the emigrants saw through Lee's disguise. They knew Mormons were involved.

At this point, Haight sent a letter asking Brigham Young for advice. For unclear reasons, local leaders did not wait for the church president's response. Perhaps they feared that some emigrants would escape and reach California with the news of Mormon criminality, or they may have wanted to finish the butchery before trailing wagon trains reached Mountain Meadows.

Acting on orders from Haight and his superior William Dame, on Friday morning Lee approached the emigrant corral with a white flag and offered them passage to Cedar City. Telling them they needed to take precautions to avoid instigating another Indian attack, Lee required the emigrants to surrender their weapons and exit the meadows according to his precise instructions. The wounded and small children would travel first in wagons, the older children and women would then proceed next, and the men would bring up the rear in a single-file line flanked by armed members of the militia. Despite their misgivings, the hungry, thirsty and nearly hopeless emigrants accepted Lee's terms.

The trek began. After a short distance, a signal was given, and the members of the militia shot the emigrant men at point-blank range. Most died instantly. At the same time, Mormons and apparently some remaining Paiutes butchered the women, the wounded and most of the children. The attackers mercilessly shot, stabbed and slashed the throats of emigrants who pled for their lives. They spared only 17 children considered too young to provide credible reports about the crime. Local families took in the surviving children until the U.S. Army returned them to eastern relatives eighteen months later. In all, about 120 men, women and children died. The Mormon men quickly looted the wagons and corpses.

The rough outlines of the slaughter are fairly clear, but questions of meaning and culpability still linger. What does Mountain Meadows say about Mormonism, a religion more recently associated with such anodyne figures as the Osmonds and the Romneys? The massacre says much more about the mid-19th-century state of Mormon-Gentile relations (stained with considerable blood on both sides) than it does about Mormonism as a religion per se.

The massacre has long stained Brigham Young's reputation among non-Mormons in particular, as many outsiders (and a few insiders) pointed accusing fingers at him once the extent of the crime became known. Given Young's authoritarian leadership of his church, it seems incredible that local leaders would perpetrate such a crime without his explicit authorization. At the same time, given his political objective of keeping the army away from Mormon settlements, there was no good reason for Young to order a massacre with the potential to focus the full fury of the American government on Utah.

Unless someone unearths the September 1857 diary of John D. Lee (the only person convicted and executed for his role in the massacre), an element of mystery will probably always surround the chain of events that led to the mass murder. Still, the existing evidence suggests that Young did not order the crime. Had he done so, it is difficult to imagine that southern Utah leaders would have spent so much time deliberating what was to be done. Moreover, when Young responded to Haight's letter, he made it clear that Mormon settlers "must not meddle with them [the emigrants]."

In other ways, though, Young bears significant responsibility for what took place at Mountain Meadows. A more prudent and responsible leader would have calmed rather than inflamed anti-Gentile sentiment and restrained rather than encouraged Indian attacks on American civilians. Instead, Young's military strategy and rhetoric made it conceivable for his followers in southern Utah to commit one of the most treacherous and unusual mass murders in American history.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre has long stained Brigham Young's reputation and that of his church, partly because Young afterwards showed little indication of wanting the perpetrators punished. Reconciliation, alongside justice, is often elusive in the long wake of mass murder.

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