Day 148: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

originally published May 27, 2012

American history is chock full of blood, battles, and stories so unbelievably shocking they almost make Howard the Duck seem plausible. Like the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

In the late 1850s, while the northern and southern states were gearing up for a bloody scrum that would inspire future generations of reenactors, Utah was undergoing its own crisis. The Utah War, which wasn’t really a fighty, deathy kind of war, was a cold war of tension between the Mormon settlers and the American government. Not yet a state, Utah was being governed as a theocratic democracy under Governor Brigham Young. Young and the other Mormon honchos in the state were worried that US troops were on their way to deMormonize the government. That whole church-and-state separation thing wasn’t big on Young’s to-do list.

Meanwhile over in Arkansas, a group of cattlemen and farmers who weren’t keen on the prospect of running a homestead in the midst of a North-South bloodbath, decided to head out to California gold country. Led by John T. Baker and Alexander Fancher, they rounded up their families and friends, loaded some carts full of food, water, and whatever passed for good beer back then, and pointed west. It was kind of like the original Muppet Movie, except that it did not end like The Muppet Movie at all.

Around the time the Baker-Fancher gang arrived in Salt Lake City to stock up on supplies, the locals were growing restless. They’d heard that President Buchanan had dispatched a batch of troops to Utah. Most people who met the newcomers described them as a peaceful, easy-going bunch, but it was clear that they were outsiders and not to be trusted.

Two high ranking Utahans in particular, battalion commander Isaac C. Haight and Major John D. Lee, were suspicious of this group of easterners. Brigham Young had just declared martial law in anticipation of the US troops’ arrival. It was never determined whether Governor Young was complicit, but Haight, who was the mayor of Cedar City, apparently gave the order that the emigrating Baker-Fishers needed to be terminated. John D. Lee happened to be the liaison between the Mormon Militia and the local indigenous peoples, and he put the plan in motion to make it look like an Indian attack.

The Baker-Fanchers had settled down for a breather at Mountain Meadows. There was grass and water for the livestock, so it was the perfect place to rest up for the final forty-mile trek out of Utah.

The Mormon Militia had arranged a deal with the local Native tribes. The white folks would make themselves up to look like the Natives, then they’d all attack together. The Mormons would see their enemies vanquished and the Natives would get to keep the livestock as a reward.

The reason for launching this attack stems from a few sources. First off, the Mormons themselves had been persecuted back east, which is why they packed up their gear and headed out to Utah in the first place. Some believed Jesus was on his way back pronto, and that the US would be punished for having treated the Mormons like crap. A lot of Mormons simply felt that the Americans were the enemy, and whether or not the Baker-Fanchers had anything to do with Buchanan’s forthcoming troops, they still had to go.

So, on September 7, 1857, the attack commenced. The Baker-Fanchers dug trenches and circled their wagons. A few of them were killed, several were wounded, but they hung on. The real damage occurred in the leadership ranks of the Mormon Militia.

A number of the leaders felt that they had been made, meaning the emigrants spotted a bunch of suspiciously white people among the attacking Native hordes. They became disorganized, fractured in intent. Finally, it was decided that the emigrants didn’t need to learn a lesson, and they didn’t need to be chased out of the territory.

They needed to die.

It wouldn’t do for word to get back to President Buchanan that the Mormons were murdering peaceful Americans. So on the morning of September 11 (yeah… I know…) a pair of militiamen approached the Baker-Fanchers waving a white flag. Major John D. Lee showed up and explained that he had negotiated a truce with the attacking Paiute Indians, and that they were personally going to escort the emigrants back to Cedar City to tend to their wounds and help them prepare for the rest of their journey. What a guy.

Lee had the men and women separated, militiamen escorting each group. On the signal of Major John H. Higbee, the militiamen stopped the male convoy, then turned and murdered every single one of the mostly-unarmed emigrants where they stood. Remember that scene in the third Star Wars prequel when the Jedi are suddenly butchered by their own troops mid-battle? It was like that, but the blood was not CGI.

The women were no luckier. More troops emerged from ravines and bushes, and every last one of the Baker-Fancher group’s women were slaughtered. The kids too, apart from those under seven who would probably block out the memory and never tell the tale. Those seventeen kids were taken in by Mormon families, and the massacre was to be blamed on the local Natives. In total, between 120 and 140 people were murdered in cold blood.

Just for passing through.

Because of the cold war between Utah and America, no official US investigation took place until almost two years later. By then the main perpetrators of the attack had mostly vanished, probably because it didn’t take too long for the decent people of Utah to point fingers at the militant lunatics who had organized this mess. Luckily for them the Civil War intervened, and a proper investigation couldn’t be completed.

Then in 1871, former militiaman and former Mormon Philip Klingensmith turned state’s evidence against his former brethren, and spilled the beans. A number of arrests were made, but the only person who was formally charged, tried and convicted was John D. Lee. Brigham Young, who claimed he had no part in this massacre, expelled a number of the assailants from the church, including Isaac Haight and John Higbee. But only Lee was sentenced to death by firing squad.

The Church of Latter-Day Saints has publicly condemned the attack, revealing it to be the brain-child of a handful of lunatic local leaders and not a church-sanctioned affair. There is a hefty monument on the site of the massacre, which no doubt attracts a fair number of tourists who had no idea such a deplorable act was carried out on US soil.

Like I said, American history makes for fascinating reading.

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