The American Cowboy Chronicles
By Tom Correa
The Mountain Meadows Massacre 1857
For folks who like exploring America, the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre sits just off of Highway 18 about 32 miles North of St. George, Utah. It is about 150 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada. To get there simply follow Interstate 15 North for about 120 miles to St. George. Exit at Bluff Street. Turn left to reach Highway 18 which parallels a part of the historic Old Spanish Trail. Head North through Veyo and go on past the Pine Valley turnoff. The turnoff to the massacre site is well-marked and sits on the left side of the highway.
Since it's always great to know what took place in the areas we decide to explore, let's talk about what happened at Mountain Meadows.
From September 7th to the 11th of 1857, members of the Utah Territorial Militia from Iron County, along with a few Paiute Indians, attacked the Baker-Fancher wagon train at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah. Some refer to the group as the Fancher-Baker wagon train. It was a slaughter of what most agree was 140 emigrants from Arkansas who were on their way to California. That senseless slaughter of innocents became known as "The Mountain Meadows Massacre."
The Utah Territorial Militia, which was officially known as the "Nauvoo Legion," was made up of Southern Utah Mormon settlers. And since they knew perfectly well that their crime of mass murder was one so horrid in nature that they would certainly be hanged for their horrible deeds, they decided to leave no witnesses. So in an effort to prevent anyone from identifying those responsible and to stop the possibility of any sort of reprisals against them, they killed men, women, and children.
Yes, they killers mercilessly killed every adult man and woman, as well as the older children. Out of those attacked, only 17 very young children, all said to be under the age of 6 were spared. And to confuse and deceive their victims, the Utah Militia dressed as Indians and used some Native American weapons to give the impression that the massacre was done by Indians. The militia's plan also included arming a few Paiute, then get them join the militiamen who were dressed as Indians.
The Baker-Fancher wagon train was no different than other wagon trains heading West. Their wagon train was primarily made up of families from Arkansas, all bound for California. The pioneers were folks from Marion, Crawford, Carroll, and Johnson counties in Arkansas. They were headed to Southern California. Aboard the wagons was their lives, family treasures, memories of where they came from, and of course whatever money they had.
The party was made up of a dozen large and prosperous families and their hired hands. No slaves were in the party to anyone's knowledge. The wagon train is believed to have had up to 30 wagons all pulled by ox and mule teams. They also brought several hundred head of cattle and a number of blooded horses with them. Some reports say they were headed to California’s Central Valley while others say they were headed to Southern California. Either way, the group consisted of about 140 men, women and children. The women and children are said to have outnumbered the adult men by 3 to 1.
The wagons made their way through a route that crossed the Utah Territory. And soon, the Baker-Fancher group made their way to Salt Lake City. There they were confronted with Mormons who were not very happy to see them. Basically because of their hostility and distrust for anyone from the outside, Mormons refused to sell the Baker-Fancher group stock when they tried to buy fresh oxen and mules. Because of that taking place, the folks in that wagon train knew full well that their journey was made harder. So they left Salt Lake City as soon as they could and made their way South through the Old Spanish Trail.
While they traveled slower than they normally would have with fresh oxen and mules, they decided to rest and allow their cattle to graze at Mountain Meadows. It was an area that had good pasture and water. Mountain Meadows is considered an alpine oasis on the Old Spanish Trail between Salt Lake City and Southern California. It was there that the Mormon Militia attacked them for no apparent reason.
On Monday, September 7th, at dawn, the Utah Territorial Militia, also known as the "Nauvoo Legion," with it's 70 Mormons and handful of Paiute Indians, attacked the wagon train with a barrage of gunfire and arrows. The Utah militiamen were firing their arrows from a nearby ravine. They used gunfire to rain down on the wagons from hilltops overlooking the 30 wagons. The first volley alone is said to have killed or wounded a quarter of the men.
And though that was the case, the men in the wagon train are said to have leveled their long rifles and fired at the smoke of their attackers. This stopped the Utah Militia from making a full on frontal assault.
With the first attack, the Arkansans pulled their wagons into a circle and quickly built an improvised wagon fort including digging a pit to get their women and children out of the line of fire. Of course besides being under assault from what they assumed were hostile Indians, they were cut off from water.
Rationing water and saving as much ammunition as possible while under continuous gunfire and an assault from arrows, the Arkansas emigrants did in fact stave off their attackers for five days. And yes, it's said that they the Utah Militia attacked the wagon train time and time again but were repealed by the emigrants after each assault.
While a desire to live and persevere motivated those in the wagon train, frustration was being felt by the Utah Militia who soon realized that they were simply not able to wipe out the wagon train as they planned. For the Mormon Militia, their five-day siege of the pioneers from Arkansas was seen as fruitless since those in the wagon train fought back so valiantly.
It is said that it was on the second day of their siege that Mormon Militia's leadership realized that some of the Arkansas emigrants saw that they were Whites and not Indians. Some speculate that it was their knowledge of being discovered for who they really were, and the possibility that some of their militia may be identified at a later date, that made the militia's commander to order the killing of every emigrant in that wagon train. Yes, every men, women, and child.
Because the wagon train was running low on food and water, and since no one thought they would need enough provisions to last out a siege, the folks in the wagon train met with the Utah Militia under a white flag of truce. The Utah Militia gave assurance to the travelers that were there to protect them. That they were there to escort them to safety. But, there was one stipulation. The folks from Arkansas had to lay down their arms.
As crazy as it sounds, knowing that they would be unarmed against hostiles, those in the wagon train accepted the help. They were split into groups and walked a distance from the camp before they were all summarily slaughtered. All who were thought old enough to be potential witnesses to what really took place were killed.
It's true, on Friday, September 11th, 1857, two Mormon militiamen walked up to the wagon train holding a white flag of truce. They assured the folks from Arkansas that they were there to help. The two were soon accompanied by a local Indian Agent and militia officer who told the Arkansas travelers that he had personally negotiated some sort of truce with the Paiutes. He told the Arkansans that he and his men had come to rescue them from the Indians. If the emigrants would lay down their arms, then he assured them that they would be escorted to safety under Mormon protection. But only if they laid down their arms and turned over all of their livestock and supplies to the Indians.
Because the folks from Arkansas were out of options, they did as instructed. Right after that the Mormons separated the survivors into three groups. The wounded and youngest children were the first to be loaded onto two wagons to lead the way to safety. The second were the women and older children who walked behind the wagons. The third group were the men. Each of them were escorted by an armed guard from the militia. They brought up the rear.
The Indian Agent led the groups away from their wagons for what some say was more than a mile to the California Trail and right there at the rim of the Great Basin. It was there that a senior Mormon militia officer escorting the men gave the order to halt.
With that, a single shot rang out. Then each escort turned and shot the man he was escorting. Other militia members are said to have jumped out of the brush lining the trail and cut down the women and children. The Indian Agent himself is said to have personally directed the murder of the wounded.
Within a mere five minutes, the horrible atrocity was over. Everyone from the wagon train lay dead. That is except for what some believe were 17 children all under the age of 7.
Surprisingly, killers saw those children as being too young to be credible witnesses. They were also said to have "qualified" as "innocent blood" under Mormon doctrine. Those children were actually taken in by local Mormon families. Reports say that in an effort to conceal the massacre, the Utah Militia ordered local families to take in one or more of the 17 children that were spared.
After the massacre, believe it or not, the Utah Militia actually buried the victims in shallow graves. If you're thinking that this would not look like an Indian massacre, you're right. And since they did bury them in a hurry, the bodies of their victims were left vulnerable to critters searching for food. That means that they were probably unearthed enough for investigators to examine. The bodies were found and the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to murder. And since Indians did not bury their victims, people there knew it was not them.
The goods and family treasures that survived the trip from Arkansas to that deadly spot in Utah was said to have been auctioned off by the militia itself. In reality, after the massacre, some of the property was said to have been taken by the Paiute. But since the wagon train carried all of the worldly goods of those murdered, and was considered the wealthiest wagon train to make that trek, their valuables and of course their cattle were taken by the Mormon Militia and split up among them. Some of the cash and property is said to have ended up in the pockets of Mormon leader Brigham Young. To me, that sounds a lot like a murder robbery than simple vengeance for some reason.
As for the cattle, it's believed that some of the cattle were driven to Salt Lake City and sold there. Much of what was left was personal property, those things are believed to have ended up in the "tithing house" in Cedar City. It is believed that those things were also auctioned off to Mormons there. Imagine that.
The officers in charge made the Utah Militia swear an oath of secrecy. Then a plan was put into play that would blame the entire massacre on the Paiute Indians. And though that was the official line about what took place there, as the evidence inevitably came out, those guilty tried to explain it away with lies and even denying that it ever took place. And yes, it's also said that some of the killers actually went insane and tried killing themselves. Other Utah Militia members are said to have fled to Mexico one step ahead of the hangman. Or more aptly for Utah, one step ahead of a firing squad.
In 1874, investigations led to nine Utah Militia officers and the Indian Agent John D. Lee being indicted. Of the men indicted, only Lee was tried in court. After two trials in the Utah Territory, Lee was finally convicted by a jury and sentenced to death by firing squad. It should be noted that he made a full confession without implicating others before being executed.
On March 23rd, 1877, Indian Agent John D. Lee was executed by firing squad for what took place at Mountain Meadows. He is regarded today as a scapegoat.
Later the U.S. Army reclaimed 17 of the children and returned to relatives in Arkansas. Those children never received a penny in compensation. was ever offered to the survivors. For many living descendants and relatives of the victims, it's said that the massacre remains a bitter reminder of the injustice that was experienced by some in the Old West.
And there is something else, sadly those who were killed have been slandered over the years in one way or another. Some have actually said that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a reprisal for the killing of some Mormon in Arkansas about the same time. Others say those folks in the wagon train were criminal types who left Arkansas on the run. Many fabricate such stories in an effort to make excuses for such a crime against humanity. We should be aware of that when researching history.
As for the motive? Some say it was because of the Utah War against Federal troops entering Utah from 1857 to 1858. The Utah Militia reportedly used tactics such as destroying supplies while avoided direct fighting. It's also reported that commanders and members of the Iron County Utah Territorial Militia, were overcome with suspicion and war hysteria when they massacred the Baker-Fancher wagon train.
While Mormons were the majority in the Great Salt Lake basin, the Western part of the Utah Territory was populated by non-Mormon settlers. This led to a great deal of hate and discontent for those not of their faith because the Mormons saw their arrival as an encroachment on Mormon territory. And while that may have been the motive for the massacre, it's also possible that the Utah Militia used their sanctioned authority to simply murder and rob those traveling through their territory.