- 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
Adding polygamy to their controversial doctrine, the Mormons fared little better with their new Illinois neighbors. The church now claimed to have as many as 200,000 members, with Smith the general of a 4,000-man army and commander of an elite military unit. As a presidential candidate in 1844, he advocated the polemical policies of abolishing slavery and putting the entire nation under theocratic rule. In June of that year, he was shot to death by anti-Mormon militiamen in Carthage, Illinois. The atmosphere of persecution and insularity, piety and spiritual supremacy, zealotry and vengeance that Smith’s death and martyrdom heated up would culminate in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Brigham Young, an uneducated but charismatic New York carpenter, succeeded Smith as the new Prophet and led the growing congregation for the next three decades. George Bernard Shaw called Young the American Moses; his exodus ended in July 1847 in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Young and his followers waged over the next decades a bitter struggle with the U.S. government to establish a theocracy apart from the rest of the nation.
With the 1849 California gold rush, Salt Lake City became a busy stopping-off point for wagon trains heading west. Utah’s Mormons at first welcomed the migrants, trading livestock and provisions for coveted household furnishings and other luxuries. But as the traffic thickened, in the early 1850s, the frictions between the Mormons and the “Gentile” world, especially the U.S. government, grew steadily.
President Zachary Taylor, the Mexican War hero elected in 1848, was avowedly hostile to the Mormons as both religious fanatics and a rival power center in the West. But after he died in 1850, his successor, Millard Fillmore, legitimized the Mormon theocracy, naming Young governor of the new Utah Territory. Following Fillmore, Franklin Pierce’s administration let the Mormon regime fasten its hold still tighter on Utah politics and society. By the time James Buchanan was elected, in 1856, the Mormons were defying every federal authority, from judges and U.S. marshals to Indian agents. Territorial officers were fleeing Utah. There followed increasing reports of Mormon clashes with emigrant parties headed to California, as well as with the government surveyor Capt. John W. Gunnison, who, along with members of his party, was massacred in south-central Utah while mapping a route for the transcontinental railroad. Church militia—“blue-eyed, white-faced Indians”—were said to be masquerading as Utah Paiutes in these confrontations. As the attacks became widespread, pressure mounted in Washington to take some action. At the same time, the emerging Republican party designated Mormon polygamy a “relic of barbarism” it would equate with slavery in its first national platform.
The Mormon Church has always denied any responsibility for the massacre on the part of its headquarters authorities in Salt Lake City.
But perhaps even more relevant to the later events at Mountain Meadows was the role of a church doctrine more secret, sacred, and controversial than polygamy. The belief in “blood atonement”—that there are certain sins that can be forgiven only when the sinner’s own blood spills on the ground—was a reality not even the most sympathetic chroniclers of the church have been able to deny. “It would be bad history to pretend that there were no holy murders in Utah,” Wallace Stegner wrote gingerly but candidly in his classic book Mormon Country , “…that there was no saving of the souls of sinners by the shedding of their blood during the ‘blood atonement’ revival of 1856, that there were no mysterious disappearances of apostates and offensive Gentiles.”
By the winter of 1856–1857, Young was tormented by defections in his ranks. Responding with his “Mormon Reformation,” he had his church elders sweep through the communities of the territory “in an orgy of recrimination and rebaptism.” He instructed that backsliders were to be “hewn down.” His enforcement arm, called the Danites, for Sons of Dan, and commonly referred to as the Avenging Angels, gained especial notoriety.
By the spring of 1857, Young was flaunting his secessionist leanings, often whipping his audiences into an antigovernment frenzy as fervid as anything in the pre-Civil War South. Only a few months after taking office, Buchanan responded to the mass exodus of government agents—the “runaway officials,” as Washington called them—by ordering a punitive expedition to enforce the federal writ in Utah. By late that summer, troops under the command of U.S. Bvt. Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston were marching from Fort Leavenworth toward the remnants of Fort Bridger near the Wyoming-Utah border, a post the Mormon militia had burned down. Young prepared his followers for what was being called the Utah War. “We are invaded by a hostile force who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction,” he declared in a broadside proclamation on August 5, 1857.