The execution of approximately a hundred and twenty men, women … and yes, children also … of the Fancher-Baker wagon-train party stands out particularly among revolting accounts of massacres in the old West, and not just for the number of victims. The most notorious 19th century massacres usually involved Indians and either settlers or soldiers in some combination, overrunning a settlement or encampment, or ambushing a military unit or a wagon-train and slaughtering all in it or after a brief and bitter fight. Sometimes this was the overt intent of the aggressor, or just customary practice in the long and bitter Indian Wars; ugly deeds which can be given some fig-leaf of rationalization by attributing them to the heat of battle. But Mountain Meadows was carefully planned beforehand and committed in the coldest of cold blood. How it came to happen is a story almost unknown and incredible to modern ears; bitter fruit of a poison tree which had its roots in the persecutions of earlier Mormon settlements in what is now the mid-West. A recitation of the events and reasons for this would make this account several times as long. Sufficient to say as did the character of Dr. Sardius McPheeters, that the Mormons came to realize that they could only get along with their immediate neighbors if they had no neighbors, and they decamped en masse for the wilds of Utah Territory.
There they set about building their new city, on the shores of a salt lake at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. Driven by zeal, missionaries for the Church of Latter Day Saints traveled and proselytized fearlessly and widely. Eager and hardworking converts to the new church arrived in droves, ready to build that new and shining society in the desert wilderness. It has been no mean accomplishment, outlasting all of the other 19th century social-religious-intellectual communes: Brook Farm and the Shakers, the Amana Colony and any number of ambitious and idealistic cities on the hill. Most of these places barely survived beyond the disgrace or death of their founder, and the disillusion of their membership.
That the mid-19th century Mormons did so must be credited to the iron will, organizational abilities, and dynamic leadership of Brigham Young. President of the church, apostle and successor to murdered founder Joseph Smith, Young was also appointed governor of the Utah Territory by then president of the US, Millard Fillmore. Essentially, Utah and the Mormon settlements were a theocracy to a degree not seen since the very early days of the Puritan colonies. Young and his church continued to have a contentious relationship with the US government as to who would actually be in charge; the civil authorities represented by the US Government, or the religious establishment, personified by Young, in his position at the apex of LDS authority? Church-approved polygamy rattled mainstream Americans to no end, since many suspected that it was a wholly self-serving justification for the indulging of male lusts. (The Victorians generally entertained lively suspicions about male lusts, which would today not disgrace a modern university women’s studies department.) On their side, memories among the Mormon settlers of their persecutions in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas were still raw, even as more American settlers continued to move westwards to California and Oregon. Isolation in the far West turned out to be less absolute every year.
By 1857 rumors were flying thick and fast, shouted from every meeting place of Mormons in Utah that an American military invasion of the Utah Territory was on the way, with the stated intention of deposing the theocracy, murdering every believing Mormon and laying waste to the settlements they had built with so much heartbreaking labor over the previous decade. And early that spring, shortly after the Bakers and the Fanchers had departed Arkansas, a popular and much-loved Mormon missionary, Parley Pratt, had been murdered there by the estranged former husband of one of his plural wives. As historian Will Bagley wrote in his account of the massacre, Brigham Young may have been respected – but Parley Pratt was loved. And when there were rumors passed around that some of his murderers were among the men in the Fancher-Baker train, there was stirred up a perfect storm of paranoia and millennial fears. Brigham Young had ordered that a number of outlaying Mormon colonies in California, Wyoming and Nevada to immediately withdraw, and for his people to stockpile supplies and steel themselves for all-out war.
The Fancher-Baker party were nearly the last large emigrant party of that year. They had the astounding ill-luck to be traveling south as tensions in the Utah settlements mounted in anticipation of an all-out apocalyptic war between the Saints and the forces arrayed against them. Brigham Young had declared martial law, sealing the borders and outlawing travel through out the territory without a permit. Having already departed Salt Lake City by the time this requirement had been made public, the Fanchers and their party had no such permit, and were probably not even aware that such was required of them. They were probably aware, since they had not been able to purchase supplies from Mormon settlers, that such necessities were being stockpiled in anticipation of a war.
What they did not realize – possibly not until that last horrifying moment when the words “Do your duty!” was shouted and the men of the party were gunned down by the militiamen escorting them – they had become the enemy, the “other”, the white-hot focus for hatred, and thus elimination. For that was what they were transformed into, during the week since departing from Salt Lake City. They had become identified with the advancing US Army, with the persecutors of the Saints in Missouri, the murderers of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the murderer of Parley Pratt. Rumors – most of them concocted after the fact as justifications for the massacre and therefore unlikely to be true – had them leaving poisoned food for the Indians, boasting of rape and murder, allowing their cattle to trample crops, and numerous other offensive incivilities. It is fairly certain that the local Piutes were encouraged to steal cattle from emigrant trains by no less than Brigham Young himself, who had built strong ties between his church and the local tribes. The Indians were also encouraged to attack Americans, which appears to have baffled the tribes somewhat, since they had been discouraged from doing so before. In the meantime, an emissary from Salt Lake City, one George Smith, visited the southern hamlets of Parowan and Cedar City, steeling those militia units for battle, encouraging residents to resist an American invasion, and telling them that they might not be able to wait for orders … but to use their own initiative.
At this late date, and because all witnesses who gave testimony afterwards were up to their necks in the matter, it is impossible to deduce whose idea it was to attack the Fancher-Baker train, only that it seemed to be a course of action simultaneously agreed upon. There were meetings held by various authorities in Cedar City and Parowan. It was falsely reported at one of those meetings on September 6th that men in the Fancher train had boasted of being among the mob that had killed Joseph Smith, and that they would wait at Mountain Meadows for the approaching Army and join in on the resulting attacks against Mormons in Utah. A messenger was sent to Salt Lake City asking for Brigham Young’s advice, but it was a six-day round trip journey. Another messenger was sent to the south, where the LDS Indian Agent John D. Lee had already gone to assemble the Mormon’s Indian allies. But by the next day, the Piute had already begin skirmishing with the Fancher train at Mountain Meadows. Brigham Young did not even receive the message from the dispatch rider until the night of the 10th. His instructions to allow the Fancher Party to pass unmolested – although he allowed that the Indians might do as they pleased as regards emigrant trains – was not received until too late. Of the local authorities who had taken some part in the massacre, only John D. Lee was convicted and sentenced. He was the one who had carried a white flag into the Fancher encampment and told them that their safety had been negotiated with the attacking Indians. He was executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows in 1877, twenty years afterwards … to the end acknowledging that he was a scapegoat for others involved.
The seventeen surviving children, all under the age of seven – presumed to be young enough that they would not remember anything of the massacre (although the older among them recalled most vividly) were retrieved from the local families who had fostered them after the murders of their parents in 1859 and returned to their kin in Arkansas. Nothing of the property and possessions of their parents was ever recovered. While they were living in the Utah settlements, several children observed men driving their fathers’ ox-teams, and women wearing their mothers’ dresses and jewelry.
A dreadful story, of murder and sanctioned looting, committed by Americans against other Americans. But within three years of it happening, the armies of the Union and the Confederacy would be doing much the same on American soil, to American citizens who were their cousins, brothers and friends, on a degree that would put what happened in a meadow in Southern Utah far into the shade.