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Wiki Deep Dives: A Massacre By The Mormons In Utah

Dive #1: The Soviet Architect of Starvation

Dive #2: Massacre at Katyn Forrest

Dive #3: You've Never Heard of the Most Famous Pirate in History

Dive #4: The Slavic Demon of Evil Fate

Dive #5: The Unreleased Jerry Lewis Holocaust Clown Movie

Dive #6: The 1921 War in West Virginia 

TLDR: In 1857, Mormon settlers murdered 120 men, women and children that were traveling through Utah to southern California

Here is some background ahead of all this. The Utah Territory(which included all of Utah, Nevada, and a big chunk of Colorado) was a Mormon theodemocracy lead by Brigham Young(Yes, the BYU guy). In the 1850s, Young had roads, farms, forts and irrigation built across the mostly uncivilized territory. He also established his own militia. Previously to the massacre we will be talking about, that militia had massacred local Native Americans on multiple occasions. At the battle of Fort Utah, they killed around 100 Timpangogo Natives. Afterwards, they decapitated the 50 of the Native dead, putting their heads up on display in front of the fort. Brigham Young was a big time slavery guy as well, working hard to expand the African slave market in Utah while legalizing Native American slavery in 1852. 

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The Utah Territory 

In 1857, the Mormons started hearing rumors that government troops were going to invade the Utah territory with the goal of deposing Mormon rule and maybe doing worse. Back east, the rest of the country were not fans of Mormon rule, mostly because they were not tolerant of Mormonism in general(specifically the practice of polygamy). In Washington D.C., the Democrats were attempting to protect slavery in the territories by propping up the principle of "popular sovereignty", which is the idea that the territories should basically decide for themselves what they want to do. The Republicans used this against the Democrats, saying that by default their principle also protected the practice of polygamy in Utah(basically accusing the Dems of supporting polygamy, indirectly). This caused the parties to be united in the goal of stopping Mormon rule, albeit for different reasons. The Republicans wanted to stop polygamy and slavery, the Democrats wanted to disassociate popular sovereignty from polygamy altogether so they could keep using it to protect slavery. 

President Buchanan appointed a new governor to the Utah territory in 1857, and sent him to take over for Brigham Young along with 2,500 U.S. Soldiers (1/4th of the entire U.S. Army at the time). Young told his people to prepare for war. They stockpiled grain and weapons, closed down the borders to emigrants and told not to trade with any caravans. The Mormons were understandably scared. They were essentially chased into the West after their founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob in Illinois in 1844. In the 1838 Haun's Mill massacre, Missouri militiamen cornered the men of a Mormon settlement into a building, murdering them all. One man escaped and surrendered, only to be hacked to death with a scythe. Three children that survived, ages 10, 7 and 9, were killed. A militiaman blew one of their heads off point blank, saying  "Nits will make lice, and if he had lived he would have become a Mormon.". 

While this new governor was getting ready to go to Utah, a group of about 140 people in Arkansas called the Baker-Fancher party had put together a wagon train with the goal of settling in southern California. Unaware that Utah was going into a state of martial law, they had to take a route that brought them through the territory on their way there. While going through the territory, they were largely turned away when stopping for supplies in towns on the road. The Mormons would either refuse them outright or charge them insane prices for simple goods. The group non-violently clashed with the locals in Cedar City, the last big outpost before a long stretch of wilderness ahead of California, and left for Mountain Meadows. 

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Location of Mountain Meadows 

After the group left Cedar City, the local Mormon leaders met and considered how they should be implementing Brigham Young's directive of martial law and war readiness. Some of them wanted to call the Militia out to ambush them, others wanted to get their Native American allies to do the attack for them so they had plausible deniability. John D. Lee, who was a Mormon Indian Agent(someone authorized to deal with Native Americans on behalf of the government), began coordinating with local Paiute tribe fighters and set out to ambush the party.

On September 7th, the Baker-Fancher party was attacked by a combination of Native Americans and Mormon militiamen disguised as Native Americans. The party circled their wagons and repulsed the attackers, but remained encircled without access to freshwater. After a couple of days, the leader of the Militia, William H. Dame, was told that the local council had decided to let the party pass. However, he was told confidentially that the emigrants were probably aware at that point that their attackers were Mormons. This lack of deniability may have been the spark for what happened next.

On September 11th, 2 militiaman, out of disguise, approached the party with John D. Lee under a white flag of truce. They told the party that they had negotiated a peace between the party and the natives, and that they would be escorted to Cedar City in exchange for turning over all of their livestock to the natives. The party agreed to the terms, and left after being divided into three groups: Women & Children in 2 of them, and men in the other. Each one of the men was escorted by a militiaman to their right. After a short march, all of the men, women, and older children were murdered by the militiaman and natives who had hidden nearby. Their bodies were left in a gully to be scavenged by wild animals. 17 children were deliberately spared from the massacre, and apparently they were later sold off and bartered to Mormon families.

2 years later, after the Utah War and installation of the new Governor, the U.S. was finally able to conduct a federal investigation into the incident. Major James H Carleton said he found "women's hair tangled in sage brush and the bones of children still in their mothers' arms" He later said it was "a sight which can never be forgotten." He gathered up the bones and erected a rock cairn with a slab engraved "Vengeance Is Mine, Saith The Lord: I Will Repay". It has been claimed that, in 1861, Brigham Young went to this memorial and had the entire thing destroyed, saying "Vengeance is mine and I have taken a little". 

The abducted children were all found by investigators and brought to Salt Lake City to be returned to extended family. The federal government even paid the kidnappers compensation for the children's care. The investigations by the government were paused because of the outbreak of the Civil War, so it wasn't until 1871 that they were able to even try to get any justice. Five men were indicted and warrants were put out for others who went into hiding. Brigham Young excommunicated militia leader Isaac Haight and the Indian Agent I mentioned earlier, John D. Lee, from the Mormon church in 1870. Lee went to trial in 1875, and the prosecution brought 5 eye-witnesses to the killings to the stand. Despite that, the jury of 8 Mormons and 4 non-Mormons could not come to a verdict. They brought Lee to trial again in 1876, and he was convicted and executed. Of the 50 people known to have participated in the massacre, Lee was the only one to even stand trial. 

Personally, I had never heard of this before and it was brought to my attention by a video of a war reenactor of all people. Stories from this period in the west are always interesting and usually brutal. Whether it's the Donner party, the Sioux War, the back and forth battles and massacres between settlers and Native Americans, you're usually in for something shocking.