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Inside the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Donate Myths, conspiracies, and coverups cloak this 1857 massacre of American emigrants.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under History & Pseudohistory

Skeptoid Podcast #768
February 23, 2021
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Inside the Mountain Meadows Massacre

When a wagon train of emigrants met its bloody end in Utah in 1857, it launched over a century of lies, coverups, conspiracy theories, and inquiries. Today, when you hear the Mountain Meadows Massacre mentioned, it's likely to be in the context of the Mormon Church exterminating non-Mormons from its territory; or perhaps a colorful story of white men disguised as Native Americans to conceal their mass murder; or perhaps a cloak and dagger tale of anti-Mormon terrorists sneaking into Utah to poison the wells and cattle of the faithful. There's hardly any possible version of this story that hasn't been told at some time by someone. But regardless of the details, September 11, 1857 ended with some 120-140 emigrants dead, their bodies literally left to the scavengers on the open meadow. Today we're going to have a look at what's known and what's not known, and hopefully dispel some of the myths around this horrible historical massacre.

It's best to start out with appropriate modern context and acknowledge that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka the Mormons) issued a "statement of profound regret" — if not an apology — for the massacre, in 2007 — 150 years to the day after it happened. In it, they fully and frankly recognized that it was committed by Mormons:

On September 11, 1857, some 50 to 60 local militiamen in southern Utah, aided by some American indian[s], massacred about 120 emigrants who were traveling by wagon to California. The horrific crime, which spared only 17 children age six and under, occurred in a highland valley called the Mountain Meadows, roughly 35 miles southwest of Cedar City. The victims, most of them from Arkansas, were on their way to California with dreams of a bright future.

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.

We express profound regret for the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time.

A separate expression of regret is owed to the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre. Although the extent of their involvement is disputed, it is believed they would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local Church leaders and members.

These facts as stated do conform the mainstream secular historical view, so there is no longer any doubt or dispute over who committed the massacre — though it took a century and a half for that to be acknowledged. Yet while that largest question is now finally at rest, other questions — including who is ultimately responsible — do not have such a clear answer.

In 1857 the Utah Territory was, for all practical purposes, a theocracy. While it had all the official trappings of a United States Territory, its civic, judicial, law enforcement, and militia leaders were almost all church officials. The laws and courts of the United States existed, but the only law that anyone paid attention to was that of Brigham Young: Prophet and President of the Mormon Church, Governor of the Utah Territory, and by all accounts, probably one of the most capable and commanding personalities the world has ever known (in addition to being a serial rapist of multiple underage wives*). And squarely upon his shoulders rests the biggest question we need to answer today: Did Brigham Young know about, or perhaps even order, the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Or, was it the action of a few rogue individuals?

The best way to make this determination — or more accurately, to determine whether we'll be able to make such a determination — is to start by looking at the sociopolitical context in which the massacre happened. It's well known that the Mormons had an uneasy relationship with the "Americans" — the Mormons' term for everyone else. The history between the two had been bloody. 22 people had died, including Mormon apostle David Patten, in the 1838 Mormon War between Mormons and the people and militia of Missouri, and there had been any number of small skirmishes and acts of violence as the Mormons emigrated from Missouri to Illinois. There, church founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were lynched. Next, in Arkansas, church apostle Parley Pratt was murdered. Indeed, Pratt's death came just a few months before the massacre, and hatred for the people of Arkansas simmered hot in the collective Mormon heart. It was not at all insignificant that the victims of the massacre, the 120+ members of the Baker-Fancher Party, were from Arkansas.

But the single greatest boiling point was the specter of impending war with the United States. What's now known as the Utah War was just getting underway. This was a mostly cold, tactical standoff between Mormon militia and a number of US Army regiments. In a nutshell, the Army had come to squash the Mormons' contempt for American laws. Polygamy, practiced by the Mormons, was a major issue. So was the Mormons' increasing belief that they were a sovereign state, and their general ignoring of federal statutes in favor of their own theocratic system. One month before Mountain Meadows, Brigham Young declared a state of martial law. Its provisions declared:

    1. All armed forces of every description were prohibited from coming into the Utah Territory, under any pretense whatsoever;

    2. All the Utah militia forces were ordered to hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment's notice to repel any and all such invasion; and

    3. No person was to be allowed to pass or repass into, through or from the territory without a permit from the proper officer.

In short, tensions were as high as they could possibly get.

When this declaration was issued, the Baker-Fancher Party had already arrived in Salt Lake City for their planned restocking — though only by a day or two. They found the Mormons unwilling to sell them grain. They were lucky to make it out of town; many Mormons considered it their religious duty to exact revenge for the Arkansas murder of Pratt just weeks before. They left quickly, hoping to buy the needed supplies at Cedar City, 250 miles south.

But upon arriving there, they found their welcome was even worse. Rumors about the Baker-Fancher Party had arisen. Among these was that certain members had, while in Salt Lake City, boastfully flaunted the actual gun that had killed Joseph Smith. Another was that among the party were militia who had fought the Mormons in the Haun's Mill Massacre during the Missouri Mormon War. One story was that Pratt's wife had been in Salt Lake City and had recognized her husband's murderers among the emigrants. Yet another rumor, reported as fact, was that on the way from Salt Lake the party had poisoned a water supply at a place called Corn Creek, killing a number of cattle and a few Mormons who ate their meat. Historians regard all these rumors, and others, as false.

Yet they had the intended effect. Church leaders in Cedar City and nearby Parowan — who also happened to be the militia leaders — gathered to discuss how to deal with the Baker-Fancher Party; by Brigham Young's declaration, it was there illegally. The prevailing view was to have Paiute natives slaughter the party. The Mormons and Paiutes were allied in their resistance to the approaching American army, and it would be easy enough to persuade the Paiutes that the Baker-Fancher Party was an American advance. However support for this plan was not universal, so a rider was sent to Salt Lake City to get definitive orders from Brigham Young. There was no telegraph and it was a six-day round trip ride.

Having escaped from Cedar City, the Baker-Fancher Party stopped at an area of fine grassy pasture, suitable for camping for several days while their cattle could graze, called Mountain Meadows.

History records nine Mormon leaders as being most responsible for the massacre. One of these didn't want to wait six days. He took a party consisting of an unknown number of Paiutes plus an unknown number of militia disguised as natives, and besieged the wagon train. The gunfight lasted five days, during which seven emigrants were killed. The tipping point came when two of them tried to make a break to get fresh water. One was killed; the other made it back, but not before seeing that his attackers were white men.

When news made it back to Cedar City that their disguise had been blown, the Mormon leaders concluded they had no choice but to leave no witnesses. At that point, the Paiute ruse was dropped, and undisguised militia finished the job. The murders were singularly cold-blooded executions. The emigrants were divided into three groups, each of which was marched away from the camp on foot separately. One group consisted of all the adult men, and each was guarded one-on-one with a militiaman. At the shout of an order, each militiaman leveled his gun and executed his man, all at once, and the bodies were left where they fell. There was no battle or siege or fight. In all, as many as 140 were murdered, leaving only seventeen children alive, all under the age of seven.

Several days later, the rider returned from Salt Lake City with Brigham Young's reply, devastatingly dated September 10, only one day before the massacre was concluded, and thus at least two days by horseback too late. Brigham's orders read, in part:

In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of. If those who are there will leave let them go in peace.

Taken together with the other evidence, this letter informs the prevailing opinion among historians that neither Brigham Young nor any of the most senior church officials either knew about or condoned the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It's also generally accepted that Brigham would have stopped it if he could have. Quite a few massacre participants were excommunicated from the church. Nine were criminally indicted for murder or conspiracy — not insignificant since the church and Utah's legal system were essentially one and the same. However only one man was convicted; and though he was the one most directly responsible and was executed, the lack of additional convictions seems a clear dereliction of duty by the church. There are some theories that Brigham's original letter — which does not survive — may have also contained other instructions that perhaps did give more license to the murderers than is known. Another theory, as asserted by the man who was executed, was that Brigham had given standing orders for any such parties to be wiped out. Both theories are without evidence.

Nevertheless, most historians still lay the ultimate blame for the massacre on the church itself, and on Brigham Young, for having created the conditions which drove the men of Cedar City. This much larger question of judgement is one that this podcast does not take a hand in, but rather, these are the basic historical facts for the philosophers to do what they will with.

* Addendum: I did anticipate that there would be negative blowback, mostly from Latter Day Saint listeners, to my apparently-gratuitous comment about Brigham's underage wives. I prepared a response to such feedback here. —BD


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Inside the Mountain Meadows Massacre." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 23 Feb 2021. Web. 5 May 2021. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4768>

 

References & Further Reading

Bagley, W. Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Bancroft, H. History of Utah, 1540-1886. San Francisco: The History Company, Publishers, 1889.

Brooks, J. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

Lee, J. Mormonism Unveiled; of the Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop John D. Lee. St. Louis: Bryan, Brand & Company, 1877.

MacKinnon, W. "Loose in the Stacks: A Half-Century with the Utah War and Its Legacy." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 1 Jan. 2007, Volume 40, Number 1: 43-81.

Moore, C. "LDS Church issues apology over Mountain Meadows." Deseret News. Deseret News Publishing Company, 12 Sep. 2007. Web. 19 Feb. 2021. <https://www.deseret.com/2007/9/12/20040883/lds-church-issues-apology-over-mountain-meadows>

PBS. "Deposition of Brigham Young Regarding the Mountain Meadows Massacre." Archives of the West. Public Broadcasting Service, 30 Jul. 1875. Web. 19 Feb. 2021. <https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/six/young.htm>

 

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