In the Shadows of a Mountain Meadow – Conclusion

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.

12 thoughts on “In the Shadows of a Mountain Meadow – Conclusion”

  1. Wow, that’s an amazing story. I had no idea that Utah was in the grips of such a violent siege mentality like that. One wonders if ill winds from the Border Wars and other pre-war turmoil blew over into the frontier to help stir things up even more.

  2. “A Study in Scarlet” was written by Conan-Doyle in 1886 and has, as the central story, an account of a massacre in 1847 in Mormon territory. The Saints don’t appear very saintly in this story. As it was the first Sherlock Holmes story, less attention has been paid to the backstory plot.

  3. I had always heard about this but never knew the detail until now. How has the Church treated this shameful bit of history?

    It is a study in mob psychology – and perhaps a lesson that the potential for this exists in virtually everyone.

  4. Yes, Gurray – there was a lot of bad feeling at the time, and some of it entirely justified. Brigham Young did rule with a rather autocratic hand, and there were a fair number of mysterious deaths among non-Mormons in Utah Territory. The antagonism lingered in popular culture for a good while afterwards -it is major plot element in Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage”.

    In Will Bagley’s book, he built on the work of one of the first researchers into the Massacre, a woman who had conversation with many local people about it, early in the 20th century. The deed haunted a great many of the participants.

  5. Bill – the official LDS church is … ambivalent. And historians and researchers who have looked into it all are still split over how much responsibility Brigham Young had for it. Some think he was in it up to his neck, others that it was a case of lower and local authorities going too far. Many contemporary LDS members were absolutely horrified to hear of it and spoke out quite bluntly. I very much recommend Bagley’s book, by the way.

  6. Seems to have similarities to the Jim Jones mass suicide. Amazing what the power of a cult can do.

    Glad that today’s Mormons are generally outstanding citizens and neighbors.

  7. In 1857, James Buchanan dispatched half the Army to put down a non-existent LDS revolt in the Utah Territory.

    Prior experience plus public rhetoric led us to prepare for the worst: massacre, loss of property, and expulsion, as happened in Jackson County, Missouri in 1833, in Caldwell County, Missouri in 1838 when we were driven completely from that state, and in Illinois in 1846 when we were driven into the wilds of the Indian Territory. I heard stories from my grandma about what happened to her grandpa and great-grandfather. 1833, 1838, 1846, and 1857 are closer to us than it is to Americans blessed to be a people without history.

    Brigham Young declared martial law in the Utah Territory and muster the territorial militia. We stopped selling provisions to Gentile travelers since we were preparing for siege. This included the Fancher-Baker party, something which triggered friction between those emigrants and local Utah settlers (Who were generally very poor. Living in a desert, having to irrigate your crops after living in the well-watered Eastern U.S., and 16 years worth of uncompensated property seizure tends to thin your asset base. This was true into the 1980s in many parts of the state of Utah). Words were exchanged. Some emigrants made threats to help the oncoming U.S. troops put down the Saints, though the leader of the emigrants immediately distanced himself from these threats. Local Cedar City militia commanders (they were also local church leaders, inescapable given that the local population was either LDS or non-LDS members of the Paiute tribe) determined to wipe out the company. Excited by threats of annihilation and, for more than a few, a chance for loot, elements of the Iron County militia, led by their officers, destroyed the Fancher-Baker party.

    Vigorous efforts were made to cover up the atrocity, in the near term because of wartime constraints, in the medium term term because of 50 years of confrontation between the Latter-day Saints and the U.S. Federal government, and in the long-term because we fear in our bones the same persecution happening again. It would be an episode of shame in the history of any people. It is an episode of shame in ours. Latter-day Saints were hated in Arkansas until very recent times because of the massacre. We resented Missourians until very recent times for their atrocities. Only recently have efforts to resolve the conflict begun.

    Bagely is a polemicist. His work seeks to take a bad massacre, the sort of atrocity common to many wars, and elevate it to something that demonstrates how uniquely evil Latter-day Saints. For him, Mountain Meadows is the LDS Sabra, a magically distinct atrocity that can be used to mark a people for all time. Like many lapsed Latter-day Saints of my acquaintance, Bagely can leave the church but he can’t leave it alone. He wrote a weekly column for the local leftist daily for years until he crossed even their lax editorial standards. He wants to prove that Brigham Young ordered the massacre and works as hard as Oliver Stone did to turn every shadow in the desert into LBJ standing on the grassy knoll with the 1st Marine Division waiting to wipe out JFK and his eternal flaming halo in one swift stroke.

    We have our own history written by three Church historians (summarized here in our monthly Church magazine in September 2007). It finds no evidence that Brigham Young ordered the massacre. We might be accused of bias and drawing convenient conclusions. We have, after all, avoided discussing it since 1857. However, Bagely has his own axes to grind and he grinds them in the ways most convenient to him. Those curious to explore further can read on and make up their own minds. But, like any historical episode, there is more than one side than that presented by the local leftist academic establishment.

  8. Yes, LC – but at the end of it, there were 120 men, women and children – dead for no more fault than having been in the wrong place in the wrong time, and the victims of public hysteria. The mass murder of the Fancher-Baker train was cold, calculated, and deliberate. I made it clear in this post that Brigham Young’s involvement is a matter of debate, historically. Avoiding any discussion or soft-pedaling the bare facts of the matter doesn’t make it all go away. The note that you (and I assume that this is the editorial we) have avoided discussing it since 1857 is revealing. Also the assumption that I am a part of the local leftist academic establishment is terrifically amusing.

    (later) And the possibly-too-subtle point that I am trying to make – is how easy it is to demonize the other, in unsettled time. How convenient it is to make them a focus for community anger for whatever reason, how readily disposable once the decision is agreed upon, how easy to kill, and to convince the immediate community to go along with it. David Foster has posted about how easily the German establishment gave over to the Nazis … my point is – how easy it is, for whatever the justification – to fall into the trap of demonizing and scapegoating the ‘other’.

    It’s convenient, it’s easy to go along. But acting upon that very base human impulse is the way to hell.

  9. Pfft.

    Bagely and I reside in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is part of the leftist political establishment local to me. How revelatory.

    Members of my church deceived 120 men, women, and children to come out of their fortified wagon train.

    We slaughtered everyone we thought could testify against us.

    We stole their cattle and looted their belongings.

    We tried to adopt the children into our strange religious practices.

    We had cavalry in reserve to run down any escapees, all of whom were respectable white Americans seeking new opportunities in the West.

    We sought to soft-pedel and avoid discussions of bare facts for 150 some odd years.

    We even tried to blame it all on the no good Paiutes.

    We deserve our Will Bagelys. We deserve, no, demand our own special two part series on our sins. Why not our own special three part series, four part, five part series so our black souls can be carefully revealed to the world for the revelatory heinous creatures we are.

    We deserve to drink damnation to our souls.

    Let’s count tropes and red warning flags for evil Mormons:

    1. “120 men, women, and children”
    3. “no more fault that having been in the wrong place at the wrong time”
    4. “victims of public hysteria”
    5. “mass” (MASS I say) murder
    6. cold
    7. calculated
    8. deliberate

    Won’t someone think of the children?

    Won’t someone save the telegenic from those cold, calculating, deliberate, embarrassingly publicly hysterical Mormons?

    If we do nothing, these Mormons will embrace their inner Fritz von Papens and let in the Nazis due to their unique non-private hysteria. To see a Mormon walking down a street is see someone mentally marking out members of a community for the gas chambers since they have a unique ability to focus community anger on whatever Other strikes their fancy. If not that, Mormons are digging traps that when triggered will drive the Other out of the Camp of Israel and feed them to demonic prejudice.


    Bagely coldly, calculatingly, and deliberately weaponizes the deaths of 120 people. Must be a vestige of his Mormon heritage. If they didn’t exist, he’d defrost or invent some other 120. Others of his ilk do so all the time. If your political end is clear, any 120 bodies will do so long as they can be used a club in local Utah political infighting or as a trope to demonize your former co-religionists.

    Bagely strives with all his might in the venues he has his claws into to place Brigham Young and every Latter-day Saint, living or dead, in Dealy Plaza on the grassy knoll. He goes in search of the Brigham Young he wants to find. He finds what he’s looking for. His species of (truly) local leftist euphemistically call their efforts creating a matter of debate (historically speaking of course). But they find some matters more debatable than others and feel some debates matter more than others. All matters are equally debatable but some are more debatable than others.

    Historically speaking of course.

    A lefty friend of mine whines that Latter-day Saints shouldn’t be allowed to complain about our past oppression or current prejudice. He’s more than happy to fetishize Mountain Meadows but falls silent when it comes to a group that was driven from one spot to the other, killing many whose deaths unfortunately are less convenient for Bagely’s purposes, having our constitutional rights denied and our property stolen. Perhaps if we were a non-white, dependably left-of-center voting bloc being oppressed for adhering to unpopular ideas other than religion, we’d be fashionable and have a case. We aren’t and so we don’t.

    My note that we have avoided discussing it since 1857 reveals nothing. Like most Americans, Utah Latter-day Saints are ignorant of history. Like most, what history we do glean is that which reinforces our group cohesion. Like most, we selectively emphasize the positive. To see silence and condemn it a cover up is a childish pantomime of “What did the Mormons know and when did they know it?”.

    As a people, we live busy lives. We can’t spend every waking moment dwelling on one incident in our past. We still have to atone for our general blood guilt for the Crusades, Columbus, slavery, and genocidal Western Civilization on top of our specific blood sins as a people. The Fancher-Baker party will have to wait patiently in the mea culpa queue for their turn.

    Citing Bagely alone is like citing Robert Fisk alone on the Israeli-Palestinian fracas. I doubt you habitually lean on leftist polemicists on other topics. I might say doing so here is equally objectionable but that would only reveal me as the cold, calculating, and deliberate Mormon that I am. I have to go now to indulge my private hysteria.


  10. Assumptions are inevitable. You bring yours. I bring mine.

    Points made and points missed are irrelevant. You bring yours. I bring mine.

    History is fable agreed upon. Agreement on morals drawn and points made is, historically, a matter of debate, a continuation of current political concerns with an admixture of past sources. As such, fable has no end. It has no scientific assumptions and no empirically precise points. As such, debatable matters are equal opportunity scrums. As such, circumstance as much as argument determines which assumptions matter and which points are debatable. With fashion as with fables, ’tis ever thus.

    You introduced a source with known assumptions about what matters in the debate and whose point about what the moral of the story is quite clear. I introduced a source with with known assumptions about what matters in the debate and whose point about what the moral of the story is quite clear.

    120 men, women, and children are dead. The use made of those deaths is not. Your source presents one use, which has consequences. My source presents another answer, which has consequences. Those interested will examine one or the other, perhaps both. They will come with assumptions. They will leave with assumptions. They will come with points. They will leave with points. ‘Tis ever thus. Caveat emptor.

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