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The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows

September 7, 2003, Sunday

The Great Utah Mystery
By David Haward Bain

The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857.
By Sally Denton.
Illustrated. 306 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

IN October 1857, California newspapers began to recount terrible rumors, followed by eyewitness reports from newly arrived wagon-train emigrants. While following a lightly trodden path across the southern Utah Territory, in a remote and verdant mountain valley, travelers found large piles of bodies, men separated from women and children, many shot but more bludgeoned and with throats cut, all their possessions from their clothing to their wagons and livestock plundered. Packs of wolves feasted on the remains. The Eastern press soon picked up the story of what would be called the Mountain Meadows Massacre -- some 140 victims, most of them members of the California-bound Baker-Fancher party from Arkansas. Newspapers quickly accused Mormon settlers as the perpetrators. From his heavily guarded keep in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young, the fiery leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, denounced the charges as a ''prolonged howl of base slander'' meant to ''excite to a frenzy a spirit for our extermination.''

As Sally Denton amply shows in ''American Massacre'' -- an excellent introduction to one of the most controversial events in Western American history, one that still stirs strong passions today -- the West already was possessed by frenzy that summer and autumn of 1857. The Mormon enclave in the Salt Lake Valley had grown appreciably since Young had led his faithful there in 1847, after a bitter trek from Council Bluffs, Iowa, which had in turn been preceded by a desperate retreat from the Mormon enclave at Nauvoo, Ill., after furious clashes with non-Mormons in Illinois and Missouri, and the violent death of the Mormons' visionary founder, Joseph Smith, in 1844. In remote Utah the Mormons would be free to practice their religion -- especially its most controversial practice, polygamy. Every pulpit and soapbox in the East had, at one time or another, vibrated against the scourge of Mormonism. Young's haughty revelation-tinged isolationism was creeping close to secessionism by the late 1850's, when Southern states were threatening to leave the Union.

Thousands of emigrants were crossing what was still called the Great American Desert for California, off to homestead or hoping to strike it rich in the goldfields. The passage through the Utah Territory, while geographically and socially unpleasant, did not seem mortally risky. Mormons feared and distrusted outsiders and were inclined to hustle them on, but were usually willing to sell them supplies at inflated prices; in previous years, in quieter political climates, wagon trains like the Baker-Fancher party would have crossed Utah unimpeded.

Not so in 1857. Young was struggling to keep his colonists in line, as many began to chafe under strict theocracy and harsh, isolated living conditions. Defectors were hunted down and killed. Edicts, revelations and political proclamations poured out of Brigham Young, not only threatening Mormon apostates with a revived doctrine called ''blood atonement'' -- purifying sinners and enemies by death -- but menacing non-Mormons, too. Young, also territorial governor, greeted the inauguration of President James Buchanan in March 1857 by denouncing federal authority over the people of Utah. Buchanan, besieged by Southern secessionists, chose to deal with the simpler and more politically popular battle in Utah. He appointed a raft of federal officials, from governor on down, and directed about 2,500 soldiers to escort the new government into Salt Lake City and see that order was restored.

Utah seemed almost red hot, fanned by news that an eminent Mormon ''prophet and seer,'' Parley Pratt, had been killed -- in Arkansas. Pratt had recently taken his 12th wife though she was already married to a non-Mormon. He spirited her to Utah, and then they went south to kidnap her children. In the ensuing chase Pratt was stabbed and shot by the enraged husband. The news of his tawdry death was molded by Young into a tale of religious persecution and murder. Knowing that federal troops approached, Young sent messages to his outposts as far away as California, recalling Mormon colonists for the anticipated war in Utah. During a large convocation of the faithful in the mountains east of Salt Lake City, he declared the independence of the Utah Territory from the United States. ''We are invaded by a hostile force who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction,'' Young proclaimed a short time later. He ordered the faithful not to sell a single kernel of grain to any non-Mormon.

Enter the heedless Baker-Fancher wagon train. It was especially prosperous -- 40 solid, well-equipped wagons, ostentatious carriages, carrying precious household belongings and gold and currency worth at least $100,000, along with herds of horses, dairy cows, beef steers and even exceptional longhorn cattle. Members who had previously crossed Utah were shocked by the hostile reception they received in Salt Lake City. They needed to feed their livestock and resupply for the long trek ahead, but they found no help in the Utah capital.

They headed south and west on Aug. 5, 1857, hoping the Mormons ahead would be more hospitable. They were spurned by one community after another during the next month, with rumors and lies stirring like dust: supposedly they blasphemed by insulting Mormons, especially Young; among the travelers were the killers of Parley Pratt. Several Mormon apostates fleeing the ''Avenging Angels'' seem to have joined the wagon train to get out of Utah, which would have only made it worse for those sheltering them.

The most persistent rumor was that the Arkansans quarreled with local Paiute tribal people and repaid them by poisoning springs and carcasses of oxen, which killed several Indians. This story, attributing the Mountain Meadows Massacre to Indians, though full of holes, has been durable enough to be repeated in recent general histories. Brigham Young himself fed this line out to the world -- the emigrants were killed by Indians -- but Denton demolishes the tale. What is eminently clear from the evidence, she says, is that high officials had already decided that the Arkansans were going to be ''used up'' -- killed.

Having been urged by locals to take the Mountain Meadows route, the Arkansans camped up in the lush, tree-shaded grassland the first week of September. An ambush from the cover of surrounding hills turned into a four-day battle and siege. The travelers, thinking their attackers were Indians and sustaining heavy losses, including small children who were deliberately killed by snipers, held them off but suffered from lack of water. The ambushing force grew over several days until most of the actual Indians present departed with stolen cattle.

Then, on Sept. 11, a white man appeared under a flag of truce, telling the wagon train party he was the local Indian agent, and brokered an agreement in which the wagon train gave up its weapons to be escorted to safety. The man was John D. Lee, a member of the secret brute squad, the Danites, and an adopted son of Brigham Young. With their weapons gone, assuming that they were only being robbed, the Arkansans were marched and separated into groups, and, one by one, shot and clubbed down, their throats cut. The apostates with them were summarily ''blood atoned.''

The only eyewitness accounts of Mountain Meadows come from some of the murderers and from survivors -- all of whom were under the age of 7 at the time, deliberately spared by the assailants as having ''innocent blood.'' ''My father was killed by Indians,'' the son of the wagonmaster, Alexander Fancher, would say two years later. ''When they washed their faces they were white men.'' Joining Lee in the ambush and slaughter were at least 100 Mormon men -- civilians, military men and local religious leaders.

Not surprisingly, justice was elusive in Utah. All the Mountain Meadows killers swore a solemn oath of secrecy. The story told in the southern towns as well as in Salt Lake City blamed the Paiutes and the victims. The church appointed Lee to write the official account. In autumn 1857, as the political situation heated up (a Mormon paramilitary unit raided and burned Fort Bridger and the approaching federal army's winter supplies), Mormons in the southern communities began openly sporting clothing, jewelry and other possessions of the massacre victims, appropriating their wagons and carriages and corralling their branded livestock. Lee actually submitted a bill to the federal government for providing cattle and supplies to local Indians, all of it plunder.

With the federals wintering over (and starving) near the Bridger ruins, a desperate President Buchanan agreed in early 1858 that in return for restored peace and order, he would give amnesty for all federal offenses from treason to murder. The Mountain Meadows orphans were rounded up from the homes of their parents' murderers and returned to Arkansas. A promised Mormon internal investigation predictably blamed the Indians. When a newly appointed federal judge arrived in Utah, though, he easily found enough evidence to charge church members with mass murder and robbery, despite flagrant local efforts to derail his work. He issued bench warrants for 38 people, most notably Lee. A trial -- and inclinations to arrest Young as an accessory before the fact -- hit a stone wall. Buchanan, politically besieged by the brewing Civil War, quashed the judge's campaign and ordered Army officers to withdraw. The judge was later exiled to northern Nevada.

The Utah cover-up continued, as Denton writes, until the appearance of a series of anonymous open letters to Young in Utah newspapers. They were written with intimate knowledge of the massacre and cover-up, and as indignation again mounted, Young discreetly sent Lee to hide out in Arizona. Then, finally, one of the murderers stepped forward -- a Mormon bishop, Philip Klingensmith. His testimony hit the Eastern newspapers in September 1872, and in 1874 an outraged Congress reasserted federal jurisdiction over crimes in Utah. A grand jury indicted nine people, including Lee.

He would be the only man tried. Lee steadfastly maintained his innocence and also, strongly, Young's. A monthlong trial resulted in a hung jury, to general local celebration, but a second trial was quickly ordered. Before that occurred in September 1876, a new federal attorney recognized that he would never obtain a conviction without Young's aid. He struck a deal: in return for receiving witnesses and documents to guarantee Lee's conviction, the prosecutor would drop all efforts against other Mormon conspirators and make it plain that Young and the church were not on trial.

Finally Lee realized that he was being made the scapegoat when Mormon Church attorneys and resources were pulled out before the second trial began. His end came speedily. The trial (with an all-Mormon jury) began on Sept. 11, 1876, the 19th anniversary of the massacre, and made it seem that Lee was the only murderer present at Mountain Meadows. Mixing true testimony with false, a parade of witnesses wove a noose around Lee's neck; he collapsed at one point and seemed resigned to death. His lawyers called no witnesses. On Sept. 20 the jury convicted him of first-degree murder in less than four hours. On Oct. 10 he was sentenced to die, but appeals delayed execution until the following spring. He used the interim to write four contradictory ''confessions,'' which continued to blame the Paiutes and exonerate his beloved church and its fearless leader, and led future historians astray for generations. Privately, he railed against Young for the betrayal, but Lee went to his death by firing squad on March 23, 1877.

Young died five months later, and the church began its long growth away from the radical tenets that had made it so hated and feared in the 19th century. But it doggedly maintained into the 1990's that Paiutes were to blame for Mountain Meadows.

''American Massacre'' moves briskly, although in its first third it is marred by clumsy quotations. The book is strongly dependent on secondary sources, most significantly Will Bagley's ''Blood of the Prophets.'' (The pioneer Utah historian Juanita Brooks published the first important study of the incident, ''The Mountain Meadows Massacre,'' in 1962.) Bagley may be the superior scholar -- Denton's book is about half the length, with minimal endnotes -- but as writers they are evenly matched; when Denton, a reporter for newspapers and television, hits her stride the subject takes over and her book becomes gripping. She also adds valuable material to the historical record; she has found diary extracts apparently overlooked by the others, and has interviewed a number of descendants whose oral family traditions shed new light on the subject.

Mountain Meadows seems destined to live on. When Bagley's book was published in September 2002, the Mormon Church was quick to complain about jumping to conclusions with circumstantial evidence. Ronald W. Walker, a history professor at Brigham Young University, has argued that there was no persuasive evidence that Brigham Young orchestrated Mountain Meadows or that John D. Lee was thrown to the wolves as a part of a deal for Utah statehood. Walker has said that the church is cooperating fully with him and two co-authors, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard, in an ''official'' Mountain Meadows history, to be published in 2004, that would ''shed light and understanding on the event.''

David Haward Bain is the author of ''Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad.''

Published: 09 - 07 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 14 , New York Times Book Review

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