- 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
On Sunday, September 6, the emigrants held a Sabbath service in a big tent they had faithfully transported across the country. Late that night, according to subsequent trial testimony, John D. Lee and his accomplices, some of them Indians, painted their faces and hid in the low hills surrounding the campsite. They took up strategic positions to prevent escapes, controlling access to the meadow from all sides. At dawn on Monday, the emigrants awakened and began their morning routines. Suddenly they heard shots. In the barrage that followed, 6 or 7 men from the wagon train were killed, 15 more wounded, and the other side suffered an unknown number of casualties. The pioneers had driven the enemy back, and they now dragged their wagons into a circular barricade. Apparently assuming they had been attacked by Paiutes, they dug a rifle pit while awaiting help from the neighboring Mormons.
The next day seemed to be a standoff, and the emigrants burrowed in further. Each time they ventured to the stream for water, they were turned back by bullets. On the fifth day of the siege, Friday, September n, Lee and a fellow Danite came into the camp carrying a white flag. They were greeted with cheers. Lee told the party that he had learned of the ambush, hastily recruited Mormons to come to the rescue, and gotten the Paiutes to agree to a truce. “When I entered the corral, I found the emigrants engaged in burying two men of note,” Lee would later write. “The men, women and children gathered around me in wild consternation. Some felt that the time of their happy deliverance had come … my position was painful, trying and awful, my brain seemed to be on fire.” If they relinquished their arms to the Mormons, he told them, they would be escorted safely out of the meadow.
The desperate emigrants agreed. All the children under eight—the age of “innocence,” according to Mormon doctrine —were placed in one wagon. The wounded men were placed in a second wagon, and both wagons rolled north out of the campsite. All the women followed, some carrying infants, and all the children over eight, who walked a few hundred feet, smiling and waving, as they caught a glimpse of the militia they thought had come to save them. Then came the men in single file, spaced several feet apart, each accompanied by an armed Mormon.
Lee told the travelers he had recruited Mormons to escort them to safety. Then at a shout of “Halt! Do your duty!,” each Mormon shot the man beside him.
Suddenly, on a hill overlooking the site, another Danite raised his hand and shouted: “Halt! Do your duty!” At that command, each Mormon shot the man beside him, as others, including Indians, hiding in the embankment ahead, butchered the women and children.
The 18 surviving children, ranging in age from 18 months to 8 years, were weak from thirst, their skin and clothing smeared with the blood of their parents, brothers, and sisters. The killers spared these few and distributed them to local families. Over the next 75 years, some of them would tell the story often, even testifying in detail, but what they had seen always seemed unbelievable. Federal authorities rescued 17 of them in 1859, two years after they had been captured, and returned them to relatives in Arkansas.
By maneuvering politically with the backstage help of a figure who would be the Mormons’ most important defender, Young managed to stave off a federal investigation of the massacre for years. Thomas Leiper Kane, a wealthy Pennsylvanian who had met the Mormons during their exodus from Illinois, was Young’s lobbyist and veritable secret agent in Washington both before and after the Civil War. Kane first negotiated personally with General Johnston and ultimately concluded a deal with the Buchanan administration that forestalled any further federal invasion or punishment of past Mormon crimes in return for Young’s stepping down as territorial governor.
By 1859, stories about the massacre had been published in California and in underground Utah papers, covering Major Carleton’s discovery of skeletons, his initial investigation and report, and the rescue of the children. As the early accounts proliferated, the evidence of Mormon culpability grew, including eyewitness testimony from older surviving children, who had watched as white men washed off war paint in a stream, and reports of the rich spoils dispersed among local farmers or sent to Salt Lake City. This gathering evidence triggered a new wave of outrage and anti-Mormon sentiment throughout the country, but the atrocity was soon eclipsed by the tumult of Lincoln’s election and the outbreak of war.
In the post-Civil War period, the now-aging issue of the massacre surfaced again, during a renewed push for statehood. To appease antistatehood forces in Congress demanding some acknowledgment of and punishment for the incident, John D. Lee was the single Mountain Meadows culprit arrested. He went through two trials. At the first, in 1875,the jury of eight Mormons and four Gentiles predictably deadlocked, with all the Mormons voting for acquittal. Following a public outcry, Lee stood trial again the next year. Previously unavailable Mormon witnesses appeared with vivid testimony that marked him and absolved all higher church officials. He was convicted by an all-Mormon jury and ordered executed.
On the cold, windy morning of March 23, 1877, the condemned man wore a hat, coat, and muffler to the place of his execution, not far from the ground where he had given the order to execute his victims. Overgrazing and torrential floods in 1861 and again in 1873 had ravaged the rich emerald grass, but the slope and bend of the valley were much the same as when Lee and his men had ridden in nearly two decades before. Now he sat patiently on his coffin and waited as a photographer set up his equipment for the official pictures of the scene.