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What Happened At Mountain Meadows?

June 2024
24min read

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.

On August 3, 1999, a backhoe operator powered his shovel into a hard-packed mound of earth at a remote site in the southwestern corner of Utah, and to the shock of those watching, the bucket emerged with more than 30 pounds of human skeletons. The excavation, part of a renovation of a crumbling monument, had not only uncovered an old burial site but also exposed anew one of the enduring controversies in American history.

Nearly a century and a half before in that spot, as many as 140 men, women, and children, traveling in one of the richest California-bound wagon trains ever assembled, had been attacked, besieged for five days, persuaded to surrender under a flag of truce and a pledge of safe passage, and then murdered. According to contemporaneous accounts, including the evidence presented at the trial of the one figure held legally responsible for the murders, John Doyle Lee, the attack on the train and the ensuing killings were carried out by a combined force of Paiute Indians and members of a local militia of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons. Lee was an adopted son and longtime intimate and military commander of the Mormons’ leader, Brigham Young, and the atrocity he was part of, known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre after the pastoral valley where the murders took place, was the worst in the annals of the West. Now, as then, however, the full story of what happened on September 11,1857—who was responsible, and why, how the tragedy unfolded, and, not least, its restless legacy embroiling one of the richest and fastestgrowing religious movements in the world—has remained one of history’s most stubborn mysteries.

Before the backhoe incident took place, the Mountain Meadows Association, a group the Salt Lake Tribune has described as “an unusual mix of historians and descendants of massacre victims and perpetrators,” had expressed concern about “the deplorable condition of the site” and appealed to the owners of the land, the Mormon Church, to rebuild an old memorial rock cairn. LDS officials had agreed in 1998 to restore the gravesite. The church hired Shane Baker, an archeologist from Brigham Young University, to examine the area before any earthmoving equipment was sent in. “There are a million different stories about how many victims there were and where their bodies are buried,” Christopher Smith, a Tribune journalist, later explained, “and the last thing the church wanted was to dig up any bones and set off a public controversy.” Most experts believe the cairn marked the burial site of only some of the victims; the remains of the rest have never been located, nor, strangely, has any physical evidence of the event itself, such as bullets or wagon parts.

In 1999 scientists working on behalf of the church used aerial photographs, metal detectors, core soil sampling, and ground-penetrating radar for a noninvasive study of the location. Forensic geologists and geophysicists searched for anomalies in the soil pattern: chemical concentrations of calcium, for instance, that would indicate where burials had taken place. All the while, church leaders went to great lengths to keep the renovation secret from public and press. Then, on August 3, church officials announced that the digging could go ahead without disturbance. Baker had found that “the archaeological evidence was 100 percent negative,” as he told a reporter, so the excavation began.

On making their grim discovery, the men at the backhoe that August morning were first inclined, one of them admitted later, to dump the shovel’s load right back in the hole and swear one another to secrecy. But discovering that there were specific state laws about handling excavated remains, they eventually decided to call Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith, who drove out to the cairn. “It was a very humbling, spiritual experience,” Sheriff Smith recalled. “I saw buttons, some pottery, and bones of adults and children. But the children—that was what really hit me hard.”

After a flurry of meetings, discussions, and phone conversations, the Utah state archeologist, Kevin Jones, explained that state law required that any unidentified human remains found on private property be forensically examined and that failure to comply would be a criminal felony. Jones issued a permit to allow scientists to determine the age, sex, race, stature, health condition, and cause of death of those whose remains had been found, and to segregate them for individual and proper reburial. Utah’s governor, Mike Leavitt, who happened to be a descendant of a participant in the massacre, was in the discussions and asked that the bones be quickly reburied, ordering state officials to find administrative or other means to do so.

Teams of anthropologists, archeologists, and other scientists around Utah began working long hours poring over the remains as fast as possible. They were intrigued by the discovery and well aware of what one newspaper editor called Utah’s “unique church-state tango.” “This [kind of work] is giving the dead a chance to speak,” said Shannon Novak, a University of Utah forensic anthropologist whose analysis of a mass grave in Croatia had helped lead to the prosecution of Serbian war criminals. But neither Novak nor her colleagues were prepared for what they would find among the victims at Mountain Meadows.

Reconstructing some 18 different skulls from 2,605 pieces of bone from 28 victims, including women and children, the scientists produced the first physical evidence in a long and disputed history. The investigation “suggests the killing of women and children may have been more complicated than [in previous] accounts,” Dr. Novak wrote in her final study, presented last October to the Midwest Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology Association. Among other revelations, the examinations disclosed that some of the victims, including several women and at least one child, had been killed while facing their executioners head-on, by point-blank gunshots between their eyes, rather than by being shot in the back while fleeing, as earlier accounts had claimed.

Further, it became evident that the murders had been committed by white men rather than by the Paiute Indians commonly blamed for all the attacks on the women and children. And it was especially clear that John D. Lee, the one man ever held accountable for the crime, could not possibly have acted alone in a mass murder of this magnitude. Paiute leaders say the new forensic evidence supports their own oral histories that the tribe has been wrongfully blamed.

Novak’s examination was still not completed in crucial aspects, including DNA testing, when the bones were reburied, under orders from Governor Leavitt. Marian Jacklin, a U.S. Forest Service archeologist, was one of the many who fought the state’s decision to halt the inquiry. “Those bones could tell the story and this was their one opportunity,” she said. “I would allow my own mother’s bones to be studied in a respectful way if it would benefit medicine or history.”

The brief episode of revelation and suppression sparked heated charges and countercharges. Hundreds of victims’ relatives around the country petitioned the state of Utah to retrieve the remains of their ancestors; some demanded DNA testing. More than 28,000 hits were recorded on a once obscure Internet Web site about the massacre. The governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, speaking for descendants living in his state, requested federal stewardship of the site, which would remove it from church control. “It’s like having Lee Harvey Oswald in charge of JFK’s tomb,” said Scott Fancher, a descendant of one of the leaders of the wagon train.

The contemporary conflict is only the latest episode in the often stormy 144-year aftermath of the massacre. It all comes down to a still-unfinished search for meaning and responsibility. Bvt. Maj. James H. Carleton summed up the problem in a special report to Congress in 1859: “In pursuing the bloody thread which runs throughout this picture of sad realities, the question how this crime, that for hellish atrocity has no parallel in our history, can be adequately punished often comes up and seeks in vain for an answer.”

Carleton, commanding a troop of U.S. dragoons from California, had been among the first federal officers to investigate the incident, two years after it happened. According to his official report, his men found 34 exposed skeletons and buried them in a grave marked with a rough stone cairn. They placed a 24-foot cedar cross on top with the defiant inscription “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.”

Neither Novak nor her colleagues were prepared for the evidence of brutality they’d find—or for the political tug-of-war that would follow.

Carleton’s epithet set off a checkered history of monuments. When the Mormon Church leader Brigham Young visited the site two years later, he pronounced his own imprecation: “Vengeance is mine, and I have taken a little.” He then lifted his right arm, according to Mormon histories of the event, and a band of Mormon men, including Governor Leavitt’s ancestor, destroyed the cairn and the cross and scattered the rocks. U.S. Army soldiers rebuilt the monument a year later, and once more Mormons tore it down. In 1932. the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association erected a nearly inaccessible stone marker two miles off the highway and atop a steep climb; it survived until 1990, though the church removed every road sign indicating it.

In the late 1980s, a group of John D. Lee’s descendants, including former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, began working to clear their ancestor’s name. Simultaneously, descendants of the Fanchers and Bakers—two of the families on the wagon train—began pressing the federal government for a new memorial. Responding to the descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators, the state of Utah built a granite wall on Dan Sill Hill, overlooking the site and bearing the etched names of 120 of the slaughtered pioneers and an inscription that read: “In Memoriam: In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants led by Capt. John T. Baker and Capt. Alexander Fancher was attacked while en route to California. This event is known in history as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

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, [1857] 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.

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.

“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.

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.

When the camera was ready and the five-man firing squad in place, anonymous behind covered wagons, Lee rose. “I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner,” he said. His accusers hoped that to spare himself in the final moment, he would at last incriminate Young, who government prosecutors believed had ordered him to commit the atrocity. Instead, Lee shook hands with a few men standing nearby and methodically removed his hat, coat, and muffler. Blindfolded, he gave the riflemen a final order: “Center my heart, boys. Don’t mangle my body.”

At the volley he fell back silently onto the rough-hewn coffin, his blood spilling into the ground in symbolism all Mormons understood. Two of his 64 children, by 18 wives, took his body to nearby Panguitch, with his temple robes under his corpse. Of the dozens, if not hundreds, of men complicitous in the massacre at Mountain Meadows, Lee was the only one ever brought to justice.

The story, it would seem, had been laid to rest. The markers at the site remained obscure and hard to reach, the history texts vague and exonerating of the Mormons. Despite all the agitation over the last 144 years, despite the volatility of the issues, and despite the connection with a religion of 11 million adherents, amazingly little has been written on the subject, and the event has been dealt with literarily mainly in fiction and in a handful of nineteenth-century anti-Mormon screeds. The original 1871 edition of Mark Twain’s Roughing It contained an appendix about the massacre that was deleted from most later editions. A few authors wrote of the “Avenging Angels,” most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in A Study in Scarlet , but without mention of the massacre.

In 1945 the historian Fawn Brodie wrote a controversial biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History , for which she was excommunicated, and it encouraged Juanita Brooks to write her benchmark 1950 book, Mountain Meadows Massacre . That volume was an original attempt at exposing the massacre and its cover-up and resulted in the 1961 reinstatement of Lee into the Mormon Church. But only last year was it revealed that Brooks, herself a descendant of one of the participants, had admitted to burning crucial historical documents because “they were just too incriminating” of the church. The last critical study of the event was publishe a little-known nonfiction book written by a chill William Wise.

Now descendants of the slain
and sons and daughters of the slayers
come, arm in arm, to end the tragic story,
to share a burial rite, perform a
ceremony of atonement.
But how to cleanse the stained earth?
To erase old griefs and grievances?
To quench long-dying embers of anger?
To forgive unforgivable acts?
The balm they bring is love,
the only ointment God offers
to heal wounds too deep for healing.

—by Stewart Udall, great-grandson of John D. Lee.Read at the reinterment in 1999.

What happened here that will not die? The Mountain Meadows Massacre is an American tragedy in a West full of atrocities. If the bones found in 1999 have been reinterred by official fiat, and most of the relics of the massacre remain undiscovered, the valley is still littered with the debris of unsettled history. For all the reconstructions of the scene, the precise site of the massacre has never been established. Nor do we know, except for the first fragments of evidence assembled by the scientists in 1999, exactly how the victims were killed and where more than a hundred bodies were disposed of.

This is an American mystery, and inextricably tied to that mystery is the question of Brigham Young’s part. Whatever other motives or circumstances shaped the terrible events of that September week, the extermination of the Fancher train was undeniably an act of religious fanaticism unparalleled by any other event in the country’s history. At the new millennium, the tragedy at Mountain Meadows was as hotly debated on the Internet and in e-mailed letters to the editor as it had been by telegraph and post during previous centuries. Today, as before, the conflict centers on the role of the religion’s revered Prophet Young, whose own reputation is in many ways indistinguishable from the institutional legitimacy of Mormonism. Brooks’s history leaves no doubt as to Young’s participation in the cover-up, but whether or not he officially ordered the deaths remains uncertain.

As a “Prophet, Priest, and Revelator” of the church, Young is deified and therefore considered not subject to the scrutiny or judgment of other mortals. “There has been no realistic handling of Young by Mormon scholars,” says the historian Will Bagley, himself a Mormon. “To continue to blame it on the Paiutes is disgraceful.” At stake is not only the esteem of the church within its own ranks of 11 million souls and as a $25 billion financial empire, but how it is seen by an outside world with which it has fashioned a respectable truce since overcoming the fears and suspicions of the nineteenth century.

At stake is not only the esteem of the church within its own ranks but how it is seen by an outside world with which it has fashioned a respectable truce.

Oddly enough, the most significant new contribution to the literature of the episode is the oldest published record. In the spring of 2000, the Western historian R. Kent Fielding compiled and edited all the Salt Lake Tribune ’s reports on the trials of John D. Lee, a comprehensive collection that presents an unmistakable portrait of Lee as a scapegoat and of Brigham Young as an active and impassioned participant camouflaging his own role in the massacre. The newspaper’s contemporaneous summaries of the trial transcripts show the involvement of dozens of Mormon leaders—from Philip Klingonsmith to William H. Dame, Isaac C. Haight, John M. Higbee, and many others—to have constituted an unbroken chain from church officials to their Prophet in Salt Lake City. The official concealment and subterfuge began, according to Lee’s later confession, the day after the massacre: The “brethren involved were sworn not to talk of it among themselves, and each one swore to help kill all who proved traitors to the Church or the people. … It was then agreed that Brigham Young should be informed of the whole matter.”

Fielding’s work, on the heels of a similarly revealing history of the massacre of Captain Gunnison and his party, establishes conclusively Brigham Young’s role in many depredations of the era, including Mountain Meadows, albeit most conclusively after the fact. The transcripts make clear that “the cause of justice in the Lee trials,” as Fielding wrote, “had been manipulated.”

Will Bagley takes it further. After a painstaking re-evaluation of original nineteenth-century sources and a fresh examination of supporting evidence in church documents, he contends that Young participated in the earliest decisions to slaughter everyone on the train. “He not only engineered the cover-up but gave orders to the Paiutes prior to the massacre about the distribution of the wagon train’s livestock,” Bagley concludes in his forthcoming work, The Blood of the Prophets , to be published next year by the University of Oklahoma Press. “Young was operating with a political purpose. He was in a terribly weak position with the U.S. government and had a ragtag militia and a ragtag group of Indians. His only hope against the federal government was to close the overland road to California.”

These events occurred at a time in history when instructions by cautious leaders were almost always oral. But it was also a time when an extraordinary amount of evidence was committed to writing. Young rarely met alone with any of his followers, and church records detailed every meeting with meticulous exactitude. “If the LDS church really wants to ‘heal,’ it will throw open its archives,” a dissident Mormon historian recently said. Such candor seems unlikely, however.

The backhoe incident, as the Tribune described it in a probing three-part series in March 2000, was “another sad chapter in the massacre’s legacy of bitterness, denial, and suspicion.” That series of articles prompted what The New York Times described last January as a “formal dressing-down” of the paper’s publisher by the church president Gordon Hinckley and has been cited as a primary reason behind the church’s intervention in a convoluted business transaction in which the rambunctious Tribune was sold to a company expected to be more congenial to church interests. Founded in 1871 by dissident Mormons who were then excommunicated by Brigham Young, the Tribune has been the independent voice of Utah’s non-Mormon minority for more than a century. But like the reburied remains, that voice just might be stifled as well.

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