This is the first in a series of essays that I wrote for Martin Willett’s Debate Unlimited. Martin does not seem to be using them at his new site so I am reprinting them here.
The hungry, tired, Fancher-Baker emigrant wagon train had stopped in the Mountain Meadows area to rest and to graze their cattle. It was the last stop before the hard desert crossing. They had come from Arkansas and were headed to California under the leadership of Colonel Alexander Fancher who had already made the trip twice. The 140 member party was fairly prosperous and very well-equipped. They had originally planned to resupply at Salt Lake City and they arrived low on supplies. They waited outside Salt Lake City for about a week as other groups caught up with them. Here the groups huddled up to decide which route to take across the Great Basin to California. If they went north they had to cross the Sierra Nevadas. This put them in danger of getting stuck in the snow, in the mountains as the infamous Donner party had. If they went south they had to go through the Mohave Desert to get to California. The party was unable to resupply in Salt Lake as planned, though. Instead of trade, the party was met with an attitude of paranoia and anger in the Mormon settlements. So they continued south.
Beginning back in 1851, a number of federal officers, fearing for their safety, left their Utah appointments. This made President Buchanan think that the Mormons were near rebellion. President Buchanan said, “…there no longer remains any government in Utah but the despotism of Brigham Young.” The general public didn’t like the nature of the theocracy under Young, either. The Army was sent to re-establish order. The Mormons, filled with apocalyptic mania from the preaching of the Mormon Reformation, prepared for siege. The settlers were ordered to abandon their homes and fields and consolidate with the main body of the church in northern and central Utah. All LDS missionaries serving in the US and Europe were recalled. Young issued a statement,” Martial law is hereby declared to exist in the Territory….and no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, through or from this territory without a permit from the proper officer.” Young said, ”If they persist in sending troops here I want people in the west and in the east to understand that it will not be safe for them to cross the plains.” The settlers were ordered to sell no goods to any emigrants and to begin stockpiling.
The Fancher Baker party left Salt Lake empty-handed and went on to Cedar City. Cedar City was the last “stop for gas” so to speak on the road to California. They needed grain ground and supplies and had money to buy it. Again the emigrants were told no. It was in Cedar City that someone claimed to have recognized a member of the party as being in on the murder of the popular Mormon leader Parley Pratt. Pratt had been killed in Arkansas a few months earlier by one of his wives’ former husband, Hector McLean. Eleanor, the wife in question, had taken the couple’s children and fled with the Mormon, yet the Mormon community still viewed his death as martyrdom. The angry and highly paranoid Cedar City leaders were not willing to let the matter go. They planned to call out the local militia to pursue and arrest the men.
The Mormons had been listening to the blood atonement preaching of the Reformation. The idea of blood atonement, is that in cases of serious personal sin it is the murder of the sinner and the literal mixing of his blood with the earth that results in forgiveness. Young preached the idea of blood atonement fervently,“I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands….” Then in September 1856, he said, “I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood,” and, “…suppose that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of that exaltation which he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed he will atone for that sin, and be saved and exalted with the Gods, is there a man or woman in this house but what would say, ‘shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods’ ? Will you love your brothers or sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant. He never told a man or woman to love their enemies in their wickedness, never. He never intended any such thing..” In another sermon he says, “I could refer you to plenty of instances where men, have been righteously slain, in order to atone for their sins. I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better. That is the way to love mankind.”
By the time the party had made camp in the Mountain Meadows region they were tired, they hadn’t even circled the wagons, to start with. The local Native Americans, the Paiutes, were generally peaceful. Although they occasionally picked off emigrants’ stock for food; they didn’t make large attacks. Early on the morning of September 7th the party was attacked. They circled the wagons and hunkered down to defend themselves against what they thought were Native Americans.
As Mark Twain wrote:
“The whole United States rang with its horrors. A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrant wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons, and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for “Indians” which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them. At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy. They retired to the upper end of the ‘Meadows,’ resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleaguered emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer….”
That pretty much tells it all as only Twain could. On Friday, September 11, two Mormon militiamen approached the Fancher wagons with a white flag. One of them, John D. Lee, was a high profile Mormon. Brother-in-law to Brigham Young, he served in the LDS’s secret police force, the Danites, back in Missouri and in the Council of Fifty. He was also an influential Indian agent and militia officer. When he told the party he had negotiated with the Paiutes so they could be escorted to safety in Cedar City in return for their livestock and supplies being given to the Indians, the scared emigrants took him at his word. They debated what to do; the men did not want to lay down their weapons. However, in the end, they accepted the terms. The Arkansas men reluctantly and with heavy hearts laid their guns in a wagon. They were certain this would mean their deaths, but they didn’t know what else to do, they had been under siege for five days with little water and the wounded were dying.
The youngest children and wounded left the wagon corral first, driven in two wagons, followed by women and children on foot. The men and older boys went last, each with an armed Mormon escort. They followed the Mormons out of the fortifications and began the march to their deaths. When the signal, a shot fired in the air, was given, each Mormon turned and executed the unarmed man next to him. The Mormons with the two wagons in front murdered the wounded. In the end 120 people including 50 children lay dead. The bodies were then looted for valuables and left to rot. The cattle, cash, and wagons were divided among the Mormons.
According to Mormonism, children are not accountable for their sins until after the age of eight, so seventeen children under eight were spared and given to Mormon families. The children were taken to the home of Rachel Hamblin. She later described how the children arrived “in the darkness of night, two of the children cruelly mangled and the most of them with their parents’ blood still wet upon their clothes, and all of them shrieking with terror and grief and anguish.”
Sara Baker, a survivor later wrote, “you wouldn’t forget it, either, if you saw your own mother topple over in the wagon beside you, with a big red splotch getting bigger and bigger on the front of her calico dress.” In 1859, a young survivor told his playmate, “My father was killed by Indians, when they washed their faces they were white men.”
Plans to blame the Paiutes began almost immediately. Pratt had actually been killed two weeks after the party left Arkansas, and people were horrified as word of the massacre traveled. It became impossible to maintain secrecy. Young concealed evidence from the beginning. He stated after the massacre that god had taken vengeance on the Fancher-Baker party. In Cedar City, Utah, the church leaders told members to ignore dead bodies and go about their business. It was 1859, before the children were returned to their relatives. The Mormons also gave back a bill for $7000, for their care. The first major report was also done in 1859, by Brevet Major Carleton of the US Army. He reported his findings to Congress and buried the remains and marked it with piled rocks topped by a wooden cross on which he inscribed, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.” Brigham Young and his men tore down the monument, and over the next century, it would be rebuilt and destroyed several times.
The 1872, confession of Philip Klingensmith (pictured, right), a Mormon bishop at the time and a private in the Utah military was significant. It probably resulted in the 1874 indictments of nine men for the massacre. Needless to say, Brigham Young was not among them, in fact he continued his shadowy, theocratic government for some time. Only John D. Lee was tried. He was convicted by an all Mormon jury looking to put the matter to rest. He was executed by firing squad in accordance with their blood atonement doctrine. Another indicted man turned state’s evidence, and others spent years on the run. Faithful LDS members took an Oath of Vengeance against the murderers of the prophets. So these Mormons considered it their religious duty to kill the prophets’ murderers when they came across them. Lee was not the only person responsible for the massacre, not by a long shot. Isaac C. Haight, the stake president (a stake is an administrative unit comparable to a diocese in Catholicism) and senior regional militia leader of the Mormon militia, was in on it. In Lee’s 1877,Confession he says George A. Smith was sent to southern Utah to direct the massacre. They wanted no witnesses or reprisals.
The belief in blood atonement continues. Although, the LDS denounced it in 1978, FLDS, leader Warren Jeffs expects to be able to perform it in the future. Rulon Jeffs, father of Warren Jeffs, told his followers in 1997, “This is loving our neighbor as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it.” The cover-up attempts by the church continue as well. In August of 1999, a backhoe accidentally scooped up the bones of 28 of the massacre victims. Utah state law says they have to be studied. Forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak from the University of Utah and her colleagues did study them. She found entrance and exit holes in the skulls of men that could only have come from gunshots fired at close range. The women and children found died of blunt force. Of more than 2,600 bone fragments none had evidence of knives used to scalp, behead, or cut the throats, or trauma from arrows. This would seem to clear the Paiutes. “Prior to this analysis, what was known about the massacre was often based on second-hand information, polemical newspaper accounts, and the testimony of known killers,” said Novak. “Furthermore, what had come to be merely an abstract historical event, the ‘tragedy at Mountain Meadows,’ now became a mass murder of specific men, women, and children with proper names and histories.” Novak’s work was stopped by order of the governor, Mike Leavitt, whose grandfather participated in the massacre. Leavitt ordered the bones re-interred before the study was finished.
Religious terrorism is not new to our time and the attack on the World Trade Center was not our first 9/11. In fact, the massacre of the emigrants by the Mormons was the worst incidence of terrorism on American soil until the Oklahoma City bombing.
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Bagley, Will, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, 2002, University of Oklahoma Press
Brown-Hovelt, Luscinia and Himelfarb, Elizabeth J. Mountain Meadows Massacre, 1999 Archaeological Institute of America
Fisher, Alyssa, A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten, September 16, 2003, Archaeological Institute of America
Gibbs, Josiah, Mountain Meadows Massacre, 1910, Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co.
Najacht, Norma, FLDS reinstituting blood atonement, Custer County Chronicle, May 2006
Turley, Jr., Richard E., The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Ensign, 2007,