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In the Line of Duty: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

by By Sharon Lindbloom

There was a massacre in these hills.…” (Stewart Lee Udall, The Mountain Meadows [1990], from a poem written by Udall, a descendant of John D. Lee, and read at the reinterment of victims bones at Mountain Meadows, September 1999)

It was spring of 1857. Promises of a bright future in the west beckoned. A collection of families banded together, leaving their homes in Arkansas, to find a better life. They traveled by wagon train; forty men, thirty women, and seventy children (Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets, p.4). Along the trail they met other travelers who shared their journey for awhile. One of these, a Mormon missionary returning to Utah, recounted later that they were “people from the country districts, sober, hard-working, plain folks, but well-to-do and, taken all in all, about as respectable a band of emigrants as ever passed through Salt Lake City” (Blood of the Prophets, pp.96-97).

The people of this wagon train, led by Alexander Fancher and John T. Baker, carried their hopes and dreams with them all along the Oregon-California Trail. But they never made it to California. Their journey came to an end within the boundaries of Utah Territory.

On 7 September the emigrants were camped in a lush, quiet meadow in present extreme southwestern Utah. This was their last chance to rest before beginning the difficult crossing of the Mojave Desert. As they sat down to breakfast on that chilly Monday morning they were surprised by gunfire. The camp was under attack. The men marshaled their weapons and for the next four days fought off what they believed to be an Indian assault.

By Friday morning, 11 September, the wagon train was in desperate straits. Fewer than two dozen men were left to defend the women and children. The emigrants were cut off from their water supply and they were nearly out of ammunition. When the camp was approached by white men waving a flag of truce, the emigrants were ready to listen. They spent the following two hours with Mormon John D. Lee arranging for the emigrants’ surrender.

Lee was a high-profile Mormon. He was a brother-in-law and adopted son of the Mormon Prophet Brigham Young; he served in the LDS Church secret police (the Danites) when the Saints were in Missouri; and he served in the theocratic Council of Fifty under Brigham Young. To the Arkansas emigrants, Lee appeared as a savior, sent to rescue them from the Indians.

Even so, the surrender proposal met with debate among the beleaguered emigrants. Lee insisted that the only way the travelers could escape from the Indians was in the surrender of their weapons, but he promised to control the Indians while Mormon men led the unarmed people to safety. Several of the men in the Fancher/Baker party expressed their belief that it would be foolish to give up their guns, that it could result in their deaths. However, as one of the children present later wrote in her memoirs, “…they were about famished from thirst, and were ready to accept almost any terms” (Blood of the Prophets, p.145).

So the Arkansas men gave up their arms, piling them into a wagon. Placing bedding on top of the guns, they then filled the wagon with their wounded and a few women and children. A second wagon held more wounded and children. Lee led the emigrants out of the camp: wagons first, women and children next, and finally, trailing far behind, the men; all were walking in single file. As the men marched they were each given an armed Mormon militia escort.

Half an hour into the march Major John Higbee fired a shot into the air and with a predetermined command, told his troops, “Do your duty!” Immediately the Mormon guards turned and shot their charges. Not all the bullets found their marks, however, so the killing continued with knives. Some used their guns as clubs. Ahead on the trail, more Mormon men shot and killed the wounded in the wagons. Others, disguised as Indians, along with a few real American Indians, sprang out of the brush to slaughter the women and older children (Blood of the Prophets, pp.5, 146-150).

Survivor Sarah Baker, only 3 years old at the time, later wrote, “You don’t forget the horror. You don’t forget the blood-curdling war-whoops and the banging of guns all around you. You don’t forget the screaming of other children and the agonized shrieks of women being hacked to death with tomahawks. And you wouldn’t forget it, either, if you saw your own mother topple over in the wagon beside you, with a big red splotch getting bigger and bigger on the front of her calico dress” (Quoted in Blood of the Prophets, p.150).

In the end 120 people—including more than two dozen women and 50 children—were slain by both Mormons and Indians at Mountain Meadows. Nephi Johnson, the Mormon lieutenant who led the murders of the women and children, later confessed that “white men did most of the killing” (Blood of the Prophets, pp.147, 151).

The bodies of the dead were stripped of their clothing and jewelry and left to become food for the buzzards and wolves. The wealth of the wagon train—including wagons, cattle, and cash—was divided among Mormons with token gifts going to their Indian allies (Blood of the Prophets, pp.157, 171-173).

Only 17 children, all under the age of seven, were left alive. They were taken to the nearby home of Rachel Hamblin. She later described how the children arrived “in the darkness of night, two of the children cruelly mangled and the most of them with their parents’ blood still wet upon their clothes, and all of them shrieking with terror and grief and anguish” (Quoted in Blood of the Prophets, pp.158-159). The following day John D. Lee took the children and disbursed them among Mormon homes in southern Utah where they remained for several months. In 1859 Indian Superintendent Jacob Forney recovered the children and returned them to their relatives in Arkansas. Adding insult to injury, the Mormon guardians billed the U.S. government $7000 for care and feeding of the orphans (J. P. Dunn, Jr., Massacres of the Mountains, p.307).

After the massacre the Mormon participants were ordered to keep the whole thing secret and to “lay it all to the Indians” (John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, p.250). Yet it was impossible to maintain the secrecy—and the fabricated story. Within weeks those outside of Utah Territory knew of the killings and attributed the crime to the Mormons. Inside Utah, faithful Mormons were shaken and troubled over the murders condoned by their Church leaders and committed by their friends. Still, they would not betray their neighbors and instead helped cover up the truth (Juanita Brooks, Mountain Meadows Massacre, pp.139-140; 164-165; 177).

Brigham Young obstructed investigations and attempts to prosecute Mormons for any part in the crime (Blood of the Prophets, pp.243-245, 249-250). A dozen years after the massacre there still had been no justice for the victims. Under mounting pressure from both inside and outside the LDS Church, the Church finally conceded the involvement of a few renegade Mormons. John D. Lee was alleged to be the person ultimately responsible for the massacre and was excommunicated in October of 1870 (Blood of the Prophets, pp.270-272). Six and a half years later, on 23 March 1877, Lee was executed by firing squad, having been found guilty of first degree murder, the only person ever convicted for the atrocities at Mountain Meadows. Lee’s all-Mormon jury never attempted to explain how one man could have murdered 120 people with a gun, a tomahawk, a knife and a club, but they hoped the conviction would shift blame away from the Church and put a stop to non-Mormon speculation about the Church’s duplicity in the matter (Blood of the Prophets, p.315; Mountain Meadows Massacre, p.211).

Until the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was unparalleled in United States history. It was the worst civilian mass murder ever carried out on American soil. But unlike Oklahoma City, where the perpetrators were small in number and acting independently, Mountain Meadows involved an entire society—either in the execution of the crime or in the cover-up that followed. One historian wrote: “There was not a Mormon of any prominence who did not know the truth about the massacre, and not one who did not take part in this deception” (Massacres of the Mountains, p.314).

As LDS historian Juanita Brooks pointed out, “A careful study of the lives of the participants will show that they were normally not highway men or murderers; they were sober and industrious folk, deeply religious, superstitious, perhaps, but unquestioningly loyal to their church” (Mountain Meadows Massacre, p.218). This may provide the key to understanding how the massacre at Mountain Meadows could have happened.


In the spring of 1857 LDS Apostle Heber C. Kimball counseled the Saints, “…when brother Brigham says dance, then dance; but when he says stop, then stop; and when he says prophesy, then prophesy, but be sure to prophesy right” (6 April 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:23). Total obedience was expected of the Latter-day Saints.

What is a man’s duty here?” asked LDS Apostle John Taylor. “It is obedience to the oracles of God that are in our midst;…Now Brother Brigham has said all is right, and he is the representative of the Almighty upon the earth, and it is for us to stand by him and obey him; and he says ‘Rejoice, and live your religion, and all shall be well.’ Is not that the voice of God? It is” (30 August 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:191-192).

For ten years Mormonism had thrived in virtual isolation. Latter-day Saints lived under Brigham Young’s theocracy where there was no separation between the secular and the holy. The people were indoctrinated through the exclusive teaching of Church leaders while the society placed a heavy emphasis on performance. They were building the kingdom of God, and that required absolute obedience to the law:

Nothing but obedience to [God’s] law, obedience in families, obedience to Bishops and to the Priesthood in all its ramifications, and especially to President Brigham Young as the head, to carry out his law to the whole people, can accomplish the purposes of God or our salvation as a people,” Apostle Taylor taught (20 September 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:265).

In addition to the commands of duty and obedience, Church leaders fostered a general distrust of outsiders. The sermons continually reminded the Saints that they had a multitude of enemies and no one from outside their community could be trusted—even some from within the community were dangerous (For examples see Journal of Discourses 5:4-5, 11-12, 24-25, 56-58, 74-76, etc.). Furthermore, they were told, the Saints had the responsibility to maintain truth and righteousness on the earth against all odds. It was us-against-them, all or nothing. Consider a sermon preached by Brigham Young just weeks after the Mountain Meadows Massacre:

The President of the United States, his Cabinet, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the priests of the various religious sects and their followers have joined in a crusade to waste away the last vestige of truth and righteousness from this earth, and especially from this part of it. Yes, they have joined together; and we have to maintain truth and righteousness, virtue and holiness, or they will be driven from the earth. With us, it is the kingdom of God, or nothing; and we will maintain it, or die in the trying,…” (18 October 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:342).

All of these factors worked together to produce a community dedicated to serving their god by obeying their leaders. Mormons were discouraged from questioning their superiors or thinking for themselves. LDS Apostle Wilford Woodruff instructed, “You need not fear; all we have to do is to be passive in the hands of the Lord, and follow the counsel of our leaders, and not be particularly anxious that the Lord should reveal to you or to me his mind and will and intentions concerning our present difficulties;… All we have to do is to live our religion; and when the Presidency say ‘Come here,’ or ‘Go there,’ let us be on hand to obey, and all will be right” (27 September 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:268).

So, in September 1857 the Saints obeyed their leaders. With concern—and even misgiving—Mormon men did their “duty.” One hundred and twenty men, women and children were betrayed and killed for the sake of the Mormon kingdom of God. Yet the question remains: Why did LDS leaders believe it was necessary to murder these emigrants?

But how to cleanse the stained earth? / To erase old griefs and grievances? / To quench long-
dying embers of anger? / To forgive unforgivable acts?…”
(Stewart Lee Udall, The Mountain Meadows, loc. cit.)


Virtually all historians agree that the massacre was ordered by Mormon leaders, but there is disagreement over the level at which the order originated. The LDS Church “has steadfastly denied responsibility, first blaming Indians and later a rogue church official for the crime,” reported the New York Times. Some historians believe there is enough evidence to place the order for the massacre squarely on the shoulders of Brigham Young (Emily Eakin, “Reopening a Mormon Murder Mystery,” New York Times, 12 October 2002, online edition). It is beyond the scope of this article to decide the matter, but instead will leave any conclusions in the hands of the reader. The following information provides the context in which the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred.


On Sunday morning, 16 August 1857, Brigham Young stood at his pulpit in Great Salt Lake City. Looking out over his church congregation he declared, “I am at the defiance of all hell [and] Governments, but especially ours.…[they] raise a force to come and slay all the Latterdaysaints, men, women and children.…I tell you, the Lord Almighty and the Elders of Israel being our helpers, they shall not come to this territory. I will fight them and I will fight all hell” (16 August 1857, unpublished sermon, quoted in Blood of the Prophets, p.89).

As Young continued his sermon he spoke of the depredations he imagined the United States army would commit against Mormon women and children. He spoke of government plans to hang Mormon church leaders. He spoke of burning every building and crop, laying the territory to waste and turning it into a Potter’s field rather than let it fall into the hands of these enemies. “Can you flee to the mountains, men, women and children, and lay wast[e] and desolate everything before them?” Young asked his followers. Sound exploded as thousands shouted their willingness to lose all for the sake of the Mormon kingdom (Blood of the Prophets, pp.89-90).

The U.S. army was marching on Zion. Utah Territory had been in quiet rebellion against the federal government for some time. Brigham Young ruled his people according to his own conscience rather than by territorial laws. U.S. President James Buchanan delivered a message in 1857 in which he stated, “Without entering upon any minute history of occurrences, it is sufficient to say that all the officers of the United States, judicial and executive, with the single exception of two Indian agents, have found it necessary for their own personal safety to withdraw from the territory, and there no longer remains any government in Utah but the despotism of Brigham Young” (Quoted in Massacres of the Mountains, p.286). The President dispatched troops to Utah for the purpose of insuring “the establishment and maintenance of law and order” (Blood of the Prophets, p.79). By 16 August, when Young preached the above quoted sermon, the army was well on its way. The Saints were preparing for war.

Meanwhile, LDS Apostle George A. Smith carried news of the coming confrontation to the southern Utah settlements. During a month-long tour, Smith effectively stirred up the Saints with fear and hostility against all outsiders. Also meeting with the Paiutes in the area, Smith told the Indians that Americans were their common enemies. He promised that if they would fight with the Mormons, they would be well cared for (Blood of the Prophets, pp.84-86).

In September the U.S. army sent Captain Stewart Van Vliet, a sensitive and diplomatic man, ahead into Salt Lake to assure the people that the army’s mission was a peaceful one. Brigham Young invited him to Sunday services. As Young took the pulpit he told the congregation of 4,000 that he was too angry to preach. But he did preach, rehearsing the persecutions the Saints had endured in the past and decrying unwarranted interference from the U.S. government. “We have borne enough of their oppression and hellish abuse, and we will not bear any more of it; for there is no just law requiring further forbearance on our part. And I am not going to have troops here to protect the priests and a hellish rabble in efforts to drive us from the land we possess…” (Blood of the Prophets, pp.134-138; Brigham Young, 13 September 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:227). No matter what Captain Van Vliet might have told the Mormon people about the army’s mission, they did not believe him after hearing from their Prophet.

Later that day Young sent a clear message from his pulpit to the government: “Our enemies had better count the cost;…If they persist in sending troops here, I want the people in the west and in the east to understand that it will not be safe for them to cross the plains.” Young told of how he had previously kept the Indians at peace with white people crossing the territory, but that his ability to do so could not be guaranteed any longer. “Probably, scores of persons have been killed,” Young said (13 September 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:236).

The Fancher/Baker party was already dead, though Young did not receive confirmation of the fact for another few days (Blood of the Prophets, p.170). Historian Will Bagley wrote: “The emigrants fell victim to Brigham Young’s decision to stage a violent incident that would demonstrate his power to control the Indians of the Great Basin and to stop travel on the most important overland roads” (Blood of the Prophets, p.380). The emigrants were sacrificed as an example and a threat against the U.S. government so that “no officer apointed [sic] by government should come and rule over us from this time forth” (Brigham Young, quoted in Blood of the Prophets, p.135).


Another possible motivation for the Mountain Meadows Massacre was vengeance. While the Saints had enjoyed ten years of peace since arriving in the Great Basin, they carried with them scars from a dozen years of conflict with their previous non-Mormon neighbors. Having left their homes in both Missouri and Illinois under duress, the Saints harbored anger and bitterness against “gentiles” (i.e., non-Mormons)—feelings which were fed by fiery sermons from the pulpit:

We have had to stoop to our enemies heretofore and bear many things from them worse than death; but if there is anything that gives us joy and consolation,…It is when I heard the Brethren say, ‘You are free, brethren, you are free and you may prove yourselves before God and man that you are willing to defend yourselves against tyrants and oppressors.’ …It would sweeten death to a man to know that he should lay down his life in defense of freedom and the kingdom of God, rather than to longer bow to the cruelty of mobs,…I thank God, and I rejoice that this people are determined to be free of mobocracy and oppression, and that they are determined to have peace, if they have to fight for it” (Mountain Meadows Massacre, p.22; John Taylor, quoted in Mountain Meadows Massacre, p.23).

While the U.S. army was marching toward Utah Territory, and the Fancher party was making its way to Great Salt Lake City, the Saints received some heartbreaking news. One of their most beloved Apostles, Parley P. Pratt, had been murdered in Arkansas. His killer was a “gentile”; the Saints considered Pratt a martyr for his Mormon faith (Blood of the Prophets, p.70. Hector McLean murdered Pratt in cold blood, accusing him of taking McLean’s wife and children. Pratt did take McLean’s wife for one of his own plural wives, thereby living the Mormon “principle” of polygamy. Hence, in the Mormon mind, Pratt died for his faith. See Blood of the Prophets, pp.68-70).

Pratt’s widow, Eleanor, lovingly prepared her husband’s body for burial. “Parley, thou are not dead but sleeping,” she said. “And thy innocent blood and thy wounds are before the God of Israel, to plead for the innocent, and call forth vengeance on the guilty” (Quoted in Blood of the Prophets, p.71). Pratt died two weeks after the Fancher party left Arkansas, yet the Utah Saints connected the people of the wagon train with Pratt’s murder.

Once the Fancher party reached Salt Lake rumors began to fly. Mormons claimed the emigrants were abusing Indians, assaulting Mormon women, poisoning water, and burning property as they went. They were allegedly boasting of having been involved in some of the crimes enacted against the Mormons in Missouri and Illinois. These and many more were the accusations. One historian wrote: “Rumor wearied her countless wings in incessant flight, carrying before them the reports of their evil deeds, which grew and spread until their original inventors might have blushed for them.…True, they saw none of this evil-doing as the emigrants passed them, but their belief in it was not shaken by that. They had Mormon testimony to its truth, and that was sufficient” (Massacres of the Mountains, pp.290-291. Even LDS historians agree there is no truth to these rumors. See Richard Turley, Ensign, “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” September 2007).

By the time the Fancher party reached Mountain Meadows their fate was set. Mormon leaders had enlisted the help of Indians to avenge the wrongs committed against the Saints in days past. Mormon doctrine maintained Indians were “the battle ax of the Lord,” a weapon in the hands of the Mormons to be wielded against their enemies (Mountain Meadows Massacre, p.56; Blood of the Prophets, p.36). Furthermore, LDS scripture told them, “…thine enemy is in thine hands; and if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified;…” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:31. Earlier in this D&C section Latter-day Saints are instructed not to retaliate against wrongs done to them, but verse 31 begins, “Nevertheless…”).

Intriguingly, two months before the massacre a newspaper in California considered possible fallout for the murder of Parley Pratt. The journalist wondered “whether the hot blood which must now be seething and boiling in the veins of Brigham Young and his satellites, at Salt Lake, is to be cooled by the murder of Gentiles who pass through their territory.…whether the ‘destroying angels’ of Mormondom, are to be brought into requisition to make reprisals upon travelers, or, whether, as has been done before, ‘Saints’ disguised as Indians are to constitute themselves the supposed ministers of God’s vengeance in this case” (Daily Alta California, 9 July 1857, quoted in Blood of the Prophets, p.72. Fifteen of the white Mormons involved in the Massacre did disguise themselves as Indians. In 1859 a young survivor told his playmate, “My father was killed by Indians; when they washed their faces they were white men.” Blood of the Prophets, pp.143, 154).

Three and a half years after the massacre at Mountain Meadows Brigham Young made a tour of southern Utah and met with John D. Lee. Young told Lee that those killed had been relatives of those who had murdered the prophets and so had merited their fate. Six days later Young visited the massacre site. He found that a pile of stones 12 feet high had been erected by American soldiers as a monument to the dead. Topping the rock cairn was a wooden cross bearing the inscription: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Young read the inscription aloud, but altered it to reflect his own feelings. Accounts vary, but Young is remembered saying either, “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord; and I have taken a little,” or, “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord; I have repaid.” Then, lifting “his right arm to the square,” Young silently directed his men to destroy the monument. “[I]n five minutes there wasn’t one stone left upon another,” one of those present reported. “He didn’t have to tell us what he wanted done. We understood” (Blood of the Prophets, p.247; Mountain Meadows Massacre, p.182-183).


Closely tied to the idea of vengeance is the concept of atonement. Vengeance is defined as the return of an injury for an injury in punishment or retribution; revenge. Atonement promotes the primary idea of reconciliation by making amends or reparation. Secondarily it is satisfaction given for wrongdoing, injury, etc. The Fancher party may have been killed to exact punishment against a nation the Mormons believed had wronged them and their kindred; or the Arkansans may have been killed to atone for their own sins.

Brigham Young taught his followers that some sins were beyond the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The only way to be cleansed from these sins was to atone with one’s own blood (Journal of Discourses 4:53-54). An LDS Apostle proclaimed the same message, instructing those whose sins fell into that category: “…let your blood be shed and let the smoke ascend, that the incense thereof may come up before God as an atonement for your sins,…” (Jedediah M. Grant [Second Counselor in the First Presidency], Deseret News, 1856, p.235).

Brigham Young expanded this doctrine of blood atonement beyond merely being effective for Church members wanting to atone for their own sins. He also included Saints sacrificing others in order “to save them.” From the pulpit in February 1857 Young said, “This is loving our neighbor as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it.…That is loving mankind.…Now, brethren and sisters, will you live your religion?” (Journal of Discourses 4:53; 4:220).

When the Mormon militia received their orders regarding what to do with the Fancher wagon train, some wondered whether it was right to follow through. Historian J.P. Dunn said the men sought the guidance of God. “On the still night air of that mountain pass, one voice after another rose in fervent prayer, asking God to say to them whether or not they should betray and murder one hundred and twenty of their fellow-men. The last voice ceased; a moment of silence ensued; then Major Higbee announced, in confident tone, ‘I have the evidence of God’s approval of our mission. It is God’s will that we carry out our instructions to the letter’” (Massacres of the Mountains, p.295).

The following morning they did just that. When it was over the men, women and children from Arkansas lay dead and scattered across the Meadows. Seventeen young children were spared because, according to Mormonism, children are not accountable for their sins until they reach eight years of age (When devising the Massacre plan, Mormon leaders assigned Indians the task of killing the women and older children in order to protect Mormons from inadvertently shedding “innocent blood.” Blood of the Prophets, p.143).

After the massacre Brigham Young began to worry about repercussions for the Church and wondered what should be done. John D. Lee reminded the Prophet that the militia needed to be supported by him; they had committed the massacre under orders and in accordance with the Oath of Vengeance they had taken in their temple endowments. That oath had been instituted by Young himself after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844. Each temple participant from that time on had pledged, “I will pray, and never cease to pray, and never cease to importune high heaven to avenge the blood of the Prophets on this nation, and I will teach this to my children, and my children’s children unto the third and fourth generations” (Blood of the Prophets, p.176). The Oath of Vengeance was removed from the Mormon temple ceremony in 1927, but in 1857 John D. Lee understood that Mormons were “placed under the most sacred obligations to avenge the blood of the Prophet, whenever an opportunity offered…” (Mormonism Unveiled, p.160).

There was a massacre in these hills. / Four generations have come and gone, / but the deed that haunted the children / that haunted the lives of the militiamen / hovers over the silent land.…” (Stewart Lee Udall, The Mountain Meadows, loc. cit.)

The Mountain Meadows Massacre was a demonstration of early Mormon theology in action, the tragic result of blindly following a man rather than God. Mormons today often say we can know the truth of Mormonism by its fruit. Here, friends, is fruit that must not be overlooked. True, some Mormon doctrine has changed in these intervening years, but the underlying principles remain. God passionately warns us in His Word, “Beware of false prophets.” History shows us how Brigham Young led his followers to moral ruin. Even worse, false prophets lead their followers to spiritual ruin.

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