Considering all those cinematic or literary occasions in which an emigrant wagon train on the California/Oregon trail was pictured being attacked by a war-party of Indians, it actually happened as represented on very few occasions. That is, a defensive circle of wagons, with the pioneers being well-dug in while the Indians ride around on horseback, whooping and shouting to beat the band, and firing volleys of arrows at them. A little disconcerting for the fan of traditional Wild Westerns to find this out; kind of like discovering that most cowboys didn’t have much actual use for a six-shooter, and that most western towns were actually rather refreshingly law-abiding places. It ruins a whole lot of plots, knowing of these inconvenient verities, but those historians who become passionately interested in the stories of the trail, the frontier, the cattle baronies; they are not terribly surprised. As with everything, the more one looks… the more nuance appears. Of such are books made, non and fiction alike.
Why does this image reoccur, in the face of considerable scholarship to the contrary? Besides the inherent drama in the stories of the westering pioneers and gold-rushers and the desire of those later telling the stories to heighten the drama, probably the biggest reason may be that those who took part in the great transcontinental migrations actually anticipated something of the sort. They had two centuries of bitter history to draw upon, of grudges, warfare, and atrocities on both sides. Of two cultures colliding, of ancient grudges breaking into fresh enmity; why would it be any different west of the Mississippi than it had been east of it?
Amazingly enough, for at least two decades, until well after the Civil War, wagon-train pioneers actually encountered little open hostility from those various tribes whose territories they passed through. Not of the open sort described above, anyway. There was a certain amount of petty thievery, of oxen, horses, and mules stolen or strayed at night, sniping from the badlands along the Humboldt River, and sometimes single wagons and small parties of travelers beset, robbed, or murdered at any point along the way. There are any number of reasons for this, some of them overlapping. In the early years, there were actually relatively few wagon parties venturing over the trail during the course of the trail season. They were transitory, well-armed and usually well led, and had no desire to pick a fight with warrior-tribes like the Sioux, the horse-lords of the upper plains. Other tribes along the route took the opportunity to do business with the wagon-train parties, either trading commodities or labor in helping them to cross rivers, and as historian George Steward pointed out, it must have gotten pretty darned boring in the winter camps in the Rockies and the upper plains. A new set of travelers passing through their lands offered an interruption to the same old routine.
Up until the Civil War there were only a handful of incidents where Indians made a concerted, sustained and ultimately effective attack on a wagon train party; twenty members of the Ward party (including women and children) were overrun and gruesomely massacred near Ft. Hall in 1854, and 44 emigrants of Elijah Utters’ company met a similar fate after being besieged near Castle Butte, Idaho in 1860. Considering the enormous numbers of emigrants and Indians wandering around, fully armed and not particularly inclined to trust each other very much, the length of the trail. and the wide-open nature of the country, this is a very fortunate record indeed.
But there was one single incident which puts the deaths of the Ward and Utter parties into the shade, besides which all the other small incidents pale. There was one particularly brutal and horrendous massacre of wagon-train emigrants which started almost exactly as outlined in all those melodramatic books and movies: the pioneers forted up in a circle of the wagons, and besieged for days while awaiting rescue by the cavalry. And it happened just before the Civil War…
The start of the trail season, spring of 1857 saw a number of prosperous but restlessly ambitious emigrants taking the trail west, many of them linked by ties of kin and friendship: the Bakers of Caroll County, Arkansas, and the Huff and Fancher clans, from Benton County, were joined at some point along the long trail from the jumping-off place at the edge of the sea of grass by families with the prosaic names of Tackett, Jones, Mitchell and Prewitt. Alexander Fancher, the paterfamilias and trail-boss of the Fanchers was experienced in the ways of the emigrant trail, having gone back and forth several times. He and his kin intended to settle for good in California and to that end had bought not only their wives and children, but much of their portable property and savings, and a large herd (estimated at 800-1,000) of long-horned Texas cattle. Some of the party were Argonauts, intending to look for gold, but the Fanchers considered their cattle as their gold, and intended to market them at a profit to the hungry gold miners. They had already registered a brand, for their new ranch and herd.
By 1857 the emigrant trail was not the long and desperate march through unsettled wilderness that it had been ten years before. The US Army had managed to spottily garrison and patrol the Platte River Valley, and the Mormon settlements spreading out from Salt Lake City offered one last and often life-saving chance at rest and resupply before the final calculated leap into the desert and over the sheer mountain wall of the Sierra Nevada. The Fanchers and the Bakers and the other families arrived in the Salt Lake City area at the end of August, and after consultation decided that they were too late in the season to venture the northern trail, following the Humboldt River into the desert where it sank eventually into the sand, and up the long rocky climb up the Truckee River to the steep mountain pass named after the emigrant party which had so famously left their own traverse too late. Experienced and sensible, Alexander Fancher and his fellows would not chance being trapped in the snow; not with their long train of wagons, their herd of cattle and their horses. They would take the southern route, the old Spanish Trail that led down through the Mojave Desert, through the less precipitous passes farther south. (Roughly following present-day I-15, from Salt Lake City, Los Vegas and San Bernardino) It would be a long haul through various deserts, and a couple of hard pulls through mountainous terrain, but nothing like the cruel snows which had doomed the Donner-Reed Party ten years before.
By early September they had reached Cedar City, the last outpost for resupply before descent of the Virgin River George and the long desert crossing below. They met a cold reception from the Mormon settlers there, and were not able to purchase any supplies. Doubtless shrugging it off, they moved on south and camped in a pleasant mountain valley at the foot of the Iron Mountains and adjacent the Spanish Trail. This camping place offered generous pasturage and water, but on the morning of September 7th the emigrants began to be attacked by a large war-band of Piute Indians. Dismayingly, it soon became clear that the Indians were unusually persistent; this was no quick smash and grab ambush, a sudden screaming foray at dawn, with a handful of casualties and a few cattle or horses stolen in a few minutes. This was a deadly, concerted siege. The Fanchers and the Bakers and the others swiftly forted up, chaining their wagons together and digging hasty trenches; they held out for five days. Seven of them were killed outright, another twenty or so wounded, and dismayingly, they began to run low on ammunition, and were tormented by an inability to reach water without being repeatedly sniped at. Of two men who attempted to fetch water from the spring closest to the encampment, one was shot down, and the other escaped … but not before seeing that the man who shot them was not an Indian.
This was not unusual in itself; there were brigands all over the west who pretended to be Indians as a cover for robbery and murder, and there were whispers of white turncoats among the various tribes. Still and all, when the cavalry appeared on the horizon, probably everyone in the besieged encampment took a deep breath of relief. Here was rescue at hand; well armed frontiersmen like themselves. Not actually the cavalry, for this was still Mormon territory – it was the local militia, their leaders advancing under a white flag, with good news for the emigrants.
They could leave, the militia leader said; they had been able to call off the Piutes and negotiate some kind of truce with them. But they would have to disarm, leave their wagons and cattle and horse herd, and walk back under escort of the militia to Cedar City. Oh, the children and the wounded could be taken in wagons, but everything else would have to be left behind. No doubt the Fanchers and the Bakers, the Prewitts and the Tacketts and their wives and older children did not like the idea much … but they had their lives and what they could carry on them. So they left the wagon encampment in three parties, trusting the men who had come to their rescue. First came some wagons with the wounded, some of the women with babies and small children in it, then another group of women with the older children on foot, and then the men, each of them escorted by a militiaman.
And when a prearranged signal was given by the militia leader, they turned and executed the men, and all of the women and children but for seventeen of them who were babies or assumed to be too young to ever remember what they had seen at the place called Mountain Meadows.
(To be continued – in part 2; the reason why.)