Mormon Murderers – Story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

In September of 1857 a group called the Baker-Fancher wagon train traveling from Arkansas to California was intercepted by a band of Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and Native American instigators who murdered about 120 people over the course of a five day (Sept. 7-11, 1857) siege of the wagon train’s circled and barricaded wagons. The killing party was comprised of members of the Utah Territorial Militia and a number of Paiute Indians who had been persuaded to take part in the massacre. In the end it was revealed that the Mormon instigators had tried to make the entire fiasco appear to be the work of the Indians to avoid any potential fault. Luckily things did not go as they had planned and history is now uncovering the facts of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

How It All Started

Three things have been attributed to the historical account of potential circumstances that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  • Stringent Mormon teachings
  • War hysteria
  • Brigham Young
Path of the Baker-Fancher wagon train.

Path of the Baker-Fancher wagon train. Click to enlarge.

During the 1850s, Brigham Young had led what was to be called the Mormon Reformation which was instituted to “lay the axe at the root of the tree of sin and iniquity.” The teachings of the Mormon church during this time followed suit with extremely harsh and rigid teachings. A number of issues had arisen over the past couple of decades that led those of the Mormon faith to be on guard. In Missouri for example, after the 1838 Mormon War, the Mormon people were expelled in an official manner from the state. Similar instances occurred in Illinois and other mid-western states which, as you may imagine, created a situation where Mormon believers felt persecuted and threatened. A number of important Mormon Apostles were also killed around this time, creating more suspicion of the wickedness and evil that people outside of the Mormon faith could bring with them if permitted to enter the Utah territory, Mormon home soil.

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All of this collectively added to the tension the Mormon people had about settlers from outside their faith entering the Utah region. Historically, this makes a plausible argument for a potential reason the Mountain Meadows Massacre could have been started. It is easy to see how a group of settlers moving through the territory could be seen as a potential threat of outside evil invading the pure kingdom of the Mormon Church. This is only one possible explanation of the massacre, but I think it’s a good one.

Monument in Yellville, Arkansas next to the Masonic Lodge where the surviving children were housed as they were reunited with family.

Monument in Yellville, Arkansas next to the Masonic Lodge where the surviving children were housed as they were reunited with family.

Circumstances surrounding The Utah War (March 1857 – July 1858) also potentially led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The US Government had sent soldiers to the Utah area in a peaceful manner. However, the Mormons believing that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent, felt that the military presence surely meant that apocalyptic events must be unfolding which would of course try to overcome them with sin and iniquity and destroy the church. Although no direct battles were fought, the Mormon militia called the Nauvoo Legion, sought to disrupt any military activity possible. They worked to break military supply lines, burn military camps and drive the soldiers out of the region if possible. It didn’t work, but the tension being at a fever pitch during the time that the Baker-Fancher wagon train came through, could be seen as a direct cause for the hostilities toward these emigrants from the outside. Other groups of people were arrested as spies for the US Government, and some were also murdered. You can see that this would be a similar fate as those of the Baker-Fancher group as they sought to make their way through the Utah region and on to California at this extremely tense and conspiracy-driven time in Mormon history.

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Brigham Young

Brigham Young

The participation of Brigham Young in the events that led up to the Baker-Fancher massacre are sketchy. He wasn’t present, that is known, but many historians point to his inflammatory rhetoric in the months preceding the Mountain Meadows Massacre as setting the overall tone of how Mormon followers should interact with and treat people from the outside. Although he was contacted via courier about what to do with the Baker-Fancher wagon train after they resisted and the siege began, his letter of direction arrived too late to stop the violence. In the end it is unknown what facts are real and what information is fabricated as much of the information regarding Brigham Young’s role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre was not well documented and some documentation has been found to be falsified. The investigation of the massacre took many years and was disrupted a number of times by national events including the Civil War. Eventually however, most historians believe that at very least Brigham Young was a contributor to the outcome of the Mountain Meadows Massacre if nothing else, than by setting the tone within the region of how to view outsiders as potential threats and evildoers bent on destroying the church. Despite this, it is fair to say that this was probably more of a local Mormon action than a church-wide effort. There is also some evidence to show that a council of elders decided to allow the wagon train to be safely on its way, but that the conspirators evidently disobeyed that order and carried about the massacre anyway.

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In the end, it seems that parts of all of the above possible causes are in the mix. No single factor ever does much of anything. Most human instances are the combination of multiple factors and I have zero doubt that the circumstances that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre are no different.

The Key People Involved

1Major John D. Lee – the only person convicted in the trials that followed the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Lee was the area’s Indian Agent and he was also a constable and judge. Lee led the party that conducted the initial altercation that led to the five day siege of the Baker-Fancher wagon train. He conspired days in advance with Isaac C. Haight to gather the support of local Indians in an effort to make it look like an Indian attack. To end the siege, under a flag of truce, Lee assured the Baker-Fancher party that they would be allowed safe passage. Once he was able to get them out from behind their barricades, he had his men murder the emigrant men, women and children sparing only those deemed too young to be able to recount the events. He was executed for his crimes.

2Isaac C. Haight – conspired with John D. Lee in the days leading up to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He served as battalion commander. Haight was an influential man in the Mormon community and served in the legislature as well as serving as Mayor of Cedar City, Utah. Interestingly, Haight was the first Mormon to learn of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s death in Carthage, Illinois. He died in Thatcher, Arizona at age 73. He was indicted for the massacre but was not convicted.

3Major John H. Higbee – claimed to only have helped bury the dead following what he called an “Indian attack.” However, he is believed to be the individual responsible for giving the initial order to attack as he is reported to have yelled, “do your duty!” He fled from the law for a time but as interest in the case faded, he returned to Cedar City. He died there at age 77. He was also indicted for his role in the massacre but was not convicted.

4Philip Klingensmith – participated in the siege and murders of the Baker-Fancher party, but left the church and in the years that followed, as the investigations resumed, he informed on the others who were involved. He was a blacksmith and Bishop of Cedar City, Utah. It is unknown where and when he died. Although he was indicted for his role in the massacre, he was never convicted.

Survivors

17 children survived the Mountain Meadows Massacre. They were thought to be too young to accurately recount the events and therefore were spared by the murderers. They had no belongings as everything from their families had been stolen following the massacre and was either kept by the murderers or sold for profit. For about two years the children were housed and cared for by local Mormon families. Eventually US Government troops came and took the children, transported them to Arkansas and helped to reunite them with their extended families.

Legacy and Memory

To its credit, it does seem that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) has owned up to their member’s involvement and guilt in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. Although all the details are not known, the modern church has reportedly embraced the idea that this massacre did take place as indicated in this article and that the legacies of the members who were involved are not being protected or denied.

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Click to enlarge.

There are some accounts however, to indicate that this was not always true. For example, just this week, I was driving through northern Arkansas and stopped off at a Masonic Lodge in Yellville, Arkansas. It just so happens that this lodge was the place where the surviving children from the Mountain Meadows Massacre were taken as they were being returned to their families in Arkansas. At this site is a memorial designed after the original memorial erected by US Government troops in Utah. The sign at this monument tells and interesting part of the story that I had not seen anywhere else. Upon visiting the memorial erected by the troops, this memorial sign claims that in 1861 Brigham Young and his assistants visited the Utah memorial site when he read the words inscribed on the cross that said, “vengence is mine, thus saith the Lord. I shall repay.” Allegedly Brigham Young responded saying, “vengence is mine and I have taken a little” just before signaling his followers to destroy the original memorial leaving no trace of it behind.

Replica of the original headstone from the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Replica of the original headstone from the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Location: Yellville, Arkansas.

A number of memorials to those who were murdered at the Mountain Meadows Massacre exist around the United States. An organization called The Mountain Meadows Association which is comprised of decedents of both the Baker-Fancher party and their Mormon murderers have erected a memorial at the original site of the event and the Mormon Church has also maintained a site nearby as well. The town square in Harrison, Arkansas has a small memorial to the Mountain Meadows Massacre as does the small community of Yellville mentioned above where I took a number of the photos for this article.

I hope you found this story interesting. It’s certainly not one you will learn about in most history classes as in the grand scheme of things it’s relatively insignificant. However, I found it interesting that I had never even heard of it and decided to research it a bit. The present situation concerning the Mountain Meadows Massacre seems to be one of reverence, acknowledgement and remembrance and I think that’s just about as good of a situation as one can expect.

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