What Happened At Mountain Meadows?

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“Into this cauldron of suspicion,” a historian later wrote, “came the unfortunate Fancher party en route from Arkansas to California.” A few on the train were affluent, some even wealthy—“livestock growers, drovers, and traders,” as one descendant described them. Others were cattlemen and thoroughbred-horse breeders from northwestern Arkansas. Most of the party were members of large families, the Bakers and Fanchers, heading to join relatives who had migrated the previous year to California’s Central Valley, where the range was free and land grants were available for men with prior military service. Most were newly married young couples; several had newborn infants and toddlers, and some wives were pregnant and destined to give birth on the trail. There were also many unmarried young men and women in their twenties, mostly cousins and childhood friends, and adults in their thirties with older children, along with a handful of aunts and uncles in their late forties. Accompanying them for security were at least 20 hired riflemen. Most of those not related by blood were old friends and longtime neighbors.

 

The company’s thoroughbred mare, One Eyed Blaze, was conspicuous. Another, a “black satin stallion,” as one account described him, was worth almost a million dollars in today’s value. The families were famous for their livestock, the best of which they were bringing with them: a thousand prize beef cattle, dairy cows providing fresh cream, butter, and milk along the way, and a choice herd of Kentucky racehorses. Among the valuables hidden in the floorboards of the wagons or in the ticking of the feather beds was as much as $100,000 in gold coins and other currency. The group carried quality weapons, mostly Kentucky muzzleloaders, and a stockpile of expensive ammunition and had along three elegant carriages, emblazoned with stag’s heads, for women to ride in.

Leading the train was Capt. Alexander Fancher, born the second of three boys in 1812. His elder brother, John, had moved from Arkansas to California in 1856 and urged Alexander and the younger brother, Richard, to join him. While Richard declined, Alexander eagerly prepared to take his wife, Eliza, and their nine children, four boys and five girls ranging in age from 18 months to 19 years. John and Alexander Fancher persuaded their friend John T. Baker, the 52-year-old patriarch of a close-knit clan of around 25, to join them. Baker’s eldest son, Jack, was a superior horseman who would play a key role in leading the train. Joining the Bakers and Fanchers would be the Dunlaps from Marion County: Jesse and his wife, Mary, and their six children, and Lorenzo and Nancy and their five children. One man, William Eaton, joined the group as a friend, with no blood relations. Among the many mysteries of the event are the identities of the dozens of others who left Arkansas with the Bakers, Fanchers, and Dunlaps. There was said to be a sheriff, a Methodist minister who performed services each morning and evening, a physician, two dozen horsemen who handled the livestock, some 50 marksmen, and at least three other families. It was to be Captain Fancher’s third trip to the coast, where he had already staked out a ranch for himself and where he expected to make a 500 percent profit on the cattle he trailed across the Plains, as he had done before.

On March 29, 1857, some 40 wagons carrying approximately 50 men, 40 women, and 50 children rolled out of Arkansas with their 1,000 cattle and 200 horses. They planned to rest their livestock and stock up on provisions in Salt Lake City. The party got there on August 3 and set up camp. But although the fields were obviously brimming, the Mormons refused to sell them any food.

A Mormon emissary approached them, urged them to turn the train south, where there was good pasture and food along the way. The train’s leaders discussed the routes and fell into a disagreement, after which the families in four wagons split off to head west along the well-mapped northern route. The rest of the party pulled out of Salt Lake City on August 5. Eaton, the Fanchers’ Arkansas friend, wrote a cheerful letter to his wife in Indiana before leaving the Utah capital. It would be the last communication from the group.

Seeing bountiful crops under cultivation, the emigrants sought to buy supplies in the town of Lehi. Again, all the farmers refused to sell to them. Later evidence revealed that church leaders had issued orders to the Mormons living in the small communities along the trail not to sell grain to the outfit. They were rebuffed again in the larger city of Provo. They passed through the communities of Springville, Spanish Fork, Payson, Nephi, Buttermilk Fort, and Fillmore, meeting the same refusal at every stop. Finally, at Corn Creek, some Native Americans sold them feed for their cattle. They set off from Corn Creek around August 25 and arrived two days later at the walled city of Parowan, where they would meet up with the Spanish Trail.

Parowan had been built with a Mormon fort against Indian attacks early in the settlement of the territory. But Young had since embraced the natives as fellow persecuted people who had been driven out of their homelands by the despised U.S. government, and by now the Mormons had made peace with them, even baptizing their famous chiefs, Wa-kara and Kanosh.

On Friday, September 4, just before sunset, the Fancher train entered Mountain Meadows, a five-mile-long valley surrounded by piñon-dotted foothills. Opening from a narrow entrance on the east and expanding into an oasis of creeks and cottonwoods, the meadow closed with a bottleneck exit into the rugged Beaver Mountains to the west. The travelers apparently thought the location was safe from Indian attacks, for they did not circle their wagons at night, as they had done throughout the journey.

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