The year 1857 was not a very good year for the Latter-day Saints. Even though they had just celebrated the tenth anniversary of their arrival into Utah, there were still fears that the government would interfere in their affairs. Misunderstandings and hard feelings on both sides continued to prevail as they had when the Mormons lived in the east.
Mormonism had become a political pariah in the election of 1856. In order to make sure that the Democratic Party had no positive connections whatsoever with the LDS Church, newly elected President James Buchanan decided to replace Utah Governor Brigham Young with Alfred Cumming. To ensure that Young’s replacement would be accepted, Buchanan also dispatched a large military contingency.
Apparently, Buchanan’s big mistake was in not officially notifying Young of the change or of the approaching army. Given past circumstances, it is difficult to fault the LDS people with the mistaken notion that trouble was again about to take place. Brigham Young declared martial law and ordered the Nauvoo Legion to prepare for what was called the “big fight.”
In a classic case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a wagon train of around 140 emigrants from Arkansas chose to go through Utah on their way to California. Their hopes of buying needed supplies from the Mormons were rejected, but their refusal is somewhat understandable since the Mormons were expecting a siege from federal troops. Supplies would be at a premium for their own survival if such a siege became a reality. The Fancher/Baker party turned south towards Cedar City and camped at a well-known resting-place called the Mountain Meadows. Here, they could feed their animals prior to crossing the desert on the way to California.
Exacerbating suspicions were rumors that some of the party had expressed joy in the thought of the coming army possibly annihilating the Mormons. Adding fuel to the fire was talk that some of the party had actually participated in the killing of Joseph Smith, including one of them who supposedly had a gun used in their prophet’s death. Statements such as these must be accepted with a great deal of caution given the fact that just about everything we know about the massacre comes from the perpetrators of the crime.
Circumstances, either real or imagined, led local Mormons to concoct a plan to eliminate the emigrants by involving local Paiute Indians, no doubt hoping that they would receive the blame. On the morning of September 7th, Indians attacked the camp. Wagons were drawn into a circle and a standoff that would last five days ensued.
According to the Comprehensive History of the Church (CHC), “two men left their camp in the Meadows, evaded the watchfulness of the Indians and were making their way to Cedar for help.” Along the way, “they met three white men to whom they told their errand, but were immediately attacked and one of them was killed. The other escaped and returned to the emigrant camp, with his news, of course, that the white settlers were doubtless in league with the Indians for their destruction, since his companion had been killed by white men.” (4:153).
When it was apparent that the Indians could not successfully complete the job, the Mormons schemed to kill the emigrants by another means. John D. Lee was chosen to speak with the emigrants. On September 11, 1857, under a flag of truce and a promise of armed protection to Cedar City, he successfully convinced the besieged party to give up their arms and load their wounded in a wagon. The women, older children, and men would follow behind in that order.
LDS historian and Seventy, B.H. Roberts describes the tragedy in the following manner:
“Meantime the Indians, several hundred in number, had been concealed in patches of scrub oaks and cedars behind a swell of the hillside, out of view from the emigrant camp, but beside the road over which this forming procession would move. A short distance from the emigrant camp the settlers from Cedar City and the Clara valley were drawn up in double file, and between the files the procession of wagons, women and children and men passed. The file of settlers was then changed from double to single order, an armed settler by this arrangement marching on the right of each unarmed emigrant man. When the wagons and the women and children had reached the stretch of road beside which the Indians were in ambush, the signal agreed upon was given, and in from three to five minutes the Mountain Meadows Massacre was made a horrible fact of history” (CHC 4:157).
When the site was later visited by Major James Carleton, he erected a wooden cross with the words, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay saith the Lord.” According to reliable accounts, Brigham Young, upon reading the inscription sometime later, said, “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord, and I have repaid!” (CHC 4:176).
All of the Mormons involved took an oath of secrecy. It would take 20 long years before the whole story would be told and punishment would be met. Of all of the Mormons who were involved, only John D. Lee faced the ultimate wrath of the courts. On March 23, 1877, Lee was escorted back to the Mountain Meadows and executed by a firing squad.
In 1932 a marker was placed on the site, but the information it contained was very vague. In 1990 a new marker was placed at the site located off Highway 18 north of St. George. Unfortunately, this information was even more vague than the marker it replaced. A person with no knowledge of the incident would scarcely understand what really took place there in the mid-nineteenth century. This changed for the better in the late 1990s when the descendants of the murdered families worked with the LDS Church to provide a new memorial that included plaques that give a more detailed account of the massacre. The new memorial site was dedicated in 1999, but as of this writing, the LDS Church continues to place the blame on local LDS officials and has yet to formally apologize to descendants for the deaths of their ancestors. For many, the thought of devout LDS members taking it upon themselves to kill 120 people without orders from Salt Lake City seems incredibly unreasonable.
Descendants of the victims have tried to have the massacre site placed under federal stewardship because they believe the LDS Church was complicit in the murders. Phil Bolinger of the Arkansas-based Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation asks, “How do you think the Kennedy family would feel if the Lee Harvey Oswald family had control of the Kennedy tomb?” The foundations’ request was rejected by the LDS Church in June of 2007. (“Mountain Meadows site focus of dispute,” Deseret News, 6/26/07).