- Historic Sites
What Happened At Mountain Meadows?
The truth is still emerging about the mass murder of more than 100 California-bound emigrants in Utah in 1857, and about the role of leaders of the Mormon Church in the atrocity.
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
The wall soon fell into disrepair, and within a decade descendants were once again pushing for a new monument. When plans for one got under way, they led to the accidental uncovering of the bones in the summer of 1999. Those examined bones were reburied just a little more than a month later, on September 10, 1999, near yet another plaque installed by the church, which reads in part: “In the early morning hours of September 7,  a party of local Mormon settlers and Indians attacked and laid siege to the encampment. For reasons not fully understood, a contingent of territorial militia joined the attackers. This Iron County Militia consisted of local Latter-day Saints acting on orders from their local religious leaders and military commanders headquartered thirty-five miles to the northeast in Cedar City.”
Through every successive version of the monument, the church has denied any responsibility for the massacre on the part of any of its headquarters authorities in Salt Lake City, including Brigham Young. The original official church version of the incident was that local Paiutes, provoked by depredations by members of the wagon train, had led the attack and carried out the executions. Mormon historians eventually included renegade zealots operating outside the control of the church as participants with the Paiutes, attributing their fanaticism to Utah’s pioneer theocratic distrust of government and fear of an impending invasion by American forces. “That which we the church have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment on the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day,” President Hinckley declared at the dedication of the 1999 marker.
Explanatory inscriptions have always tended to be cast in a vague passive voice, avoiding any indication of who attacked the train, who did the killings, or what came before or after. “The difficulty,” according to the Utah historian Will Bagley, “is how to tell the truth about it without it becoming a divisive and inflammatory issue.” The current monument, he says, “perpetuates an injustice by saying nothing of how these people died.” The New York Times correspondent Timothy Egan has called it “the most cryptic historical marker in the West.” In his 1999 book about the West, Lasso the Wind , Egan observed: “The most pedestrian of roadside historical markers in Utah is crammed with numbing detail about a simple crossing of a river, a first planting of a peach orchard…. But here, site of what was the worst carnage ever inflicted on a single band of overland emigrants in the entire nineteenth century expansion of the West, the stone has nothing to satisfy these questions.” For its part, the state of Utah “is not going to pursue any more interpretation of the site,” according to a State Parks official. “We’re not interested in stirring the pot.”
What really happened? “There is no politically correct way,” a Salt Lake Tribune reporter wrote in 1998, “… to spin historical fact to hide the ugly truth that God-fearing Utah Mormon pioneers, pitched into a religious and military frenzy, posed as rescuers of the wagon train only to summarily execute the emigrants….” As most versions agree, it was the worst butchery of white pioneers by other white pioneers in the whole colonization of America, and it was by definition an elaborate criminal conspiracy of planners, participants, and protectors. The murders were carried out with a grisly swiftness and precision that foreshadowed European and African atrocities of the next century. One of the participants, Nephi Johnson, remembered that the slaughter took no more than five minutes.
To comprehend what happened in those few minutes, one must understand something of the extraordinary emergence of the Mormons. Mormonism, born with one man’s vision and fueled by passions of persecution, was unlike any other creed in the United States. The religion’s founder was Joseph Smith, a farmer from Palmyra, New York, who was 21 when he began writing the Book of Mormon in 1827. His texts were derived, he said, from golden plates he had unearthed by angelic inspiration. In the early-nineteenth-century fervor of evangelical revivals, such supernatural visions were not unusual. According to his, Smith had been designated by God to lead the world’s “only true church,” which he called the Church of Jesus Christ, soon appending “of Latter-day Saints.” His followers became known as Mormons, and Smith himself as a “Prophet.”
“Joseph Smith’s was no mere dissenting sect,” the historian Fawn Brodie writes. “It was a real religious creation, one intended to be to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism….” Prophet Smith would lead the “chosen people” with direct and continual revelations from God; they would follow with a highly disciplined and unquestioning submission. The movement’s clannishness and radical theology were both its strength and curse, drawing the Mormons into a prosperous and cohesive community while arousing the political, economic, and social fears and resentments of those they called “Gentiles.” When Smith’s followers still numbered only 40, an angry mob destroyed his baptism pool near Palmyra, prompting Smith to set his sights on the Western frontier. By the summer of 1831, his missionaries had converted 2,000 souls and migrated to Kirtland, Ohio. There, he was tarred and feathered, so they moved on to western Missouri—the original site, according to the Prophet, of the Garden of Eden—where they were met by a settlement of Mormon missionaries and converts and took on thousands more new converts, as well as the recurring enmity of local settlers. In October of 1838, Gov. Lilburn Boggs called for the Mormons’ extermination, prompting Smith and his followers to move in a mass migration to Nauvoo, Illinois.