“The Mountain Meadows Massacre”


A wagon train is attacked by (Mormons disguised as) Indians. They surrender, but are slaughtered the moment they lay down their weapons. The assault is blamed on Brigham Young


Almost from the moment Joseph Smith announced his first revelation, the Mormon Church suffered persecution. After all, they added new sacred scriptures (something no significant sect had tried for roughly 1500 years), and they produced a doctrine of salvation completely unlike anything in orthodox scripture.

And this was even before polygamy became an issue! Gradually, after their colonies headed west; where, in 1833, they became victim of a massacre organized by Missouri's then-Lieutenant Governor Lilburn Boggs (see Fawn M. Brodie, _No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith_, second edition, 1971; I use the 1995 Vintage books edition; pp. 136-137). Moving once again, they had built a city in Nauvoo, Illinois, where leader Smith was lynched. This, even more than the massaacre at Independence, was psychologically very significant; as Wallace Stegner writes (p. 17 of _The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail_, University of Nebraska Press, 1964, 1981), it "made zealots out of men and women who might otherwise have been only die-hards," while Dale L. Walker, _Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West_, Forge, 1997, p. 209, observes that it "set in stone the Mormon hatred for the Gentile and gave the Saints a thirst for revenge that found a slaking thirteen years later."

Smith had also established a dangerous precedent of authoritarianism; although Stegner, p. 24, cites Fawn Brodie to the effect that the problems the Mormons had in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois all arose from different causes, he goes on on pp. 25-27 to tell how Smith harassed and persecuted some of his own follower who disagreed with him. It was one of these internal quarrels that resulted in Smith's imprisonment and thus led to his lynching.

Smith was succeeded by Brigham Young (for whom see "Brigham Young"), and his solution was to head farther west, away from the rest of America, to the Great Salt Lake area, which would become the land of Deseret. The reasoning was that no one would want to follow them there; not only was it a remote and inhospitable land, it was at that time Mexican rather than United States territory.

It wasn't far enough. The Mexican War gave the United States control of that land. And whereas Mexican control had been lax (indeed, non-existent), the United States wanted to use the land. They sent the explorer John Williams Gunnison to survey the area. In the process, he met and observed the Mormons in Deseret. And he published a book: _The Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, In the Valley of The Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition, and Prospects, Derived from Personal Observation, During a Residence Among Them_.

The book came out in 1852 (see Sally Denton, _American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 11, 1857_, Secker & Warburg, 2003, p. 65). Denton believes that Gunnison was relatively sympathetic to the Mormons: If left alone, he expected their church to decay due to its internal contradictions. (Obviously he hadn't met many fundamentalists.)

But Gunnison's book changed the whole debate. The Federal governor had made Brigham Young governor of Utah Territory (Denton, p. 66), but it didn't know much about the Mormons. Gunnison's publication made it clear: Mormons were polygamous. It didn't sit well with the regular population.

Gradually the Mormons and the government started heating up their own cold war. In 1853, the Federal Government sent Gunnison on another surveying expedition in Utah. He thought the Mormons would let him work as before. They didn't. Someone shot him down, along with most of his party, at the Sevier River on October 26, 1853 (Denton, p. 87, has no question that it was the Mormons. However, Harold Schindler, _Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God/Son of Thunder_ (with illustrations by Dale Bryner), University of Utah Pres, 1966, 1983 (I use the 1993 paperback edition), p. 202, attributes the deed to "Pahvant braves." Schindler notes several other sources who, like Denton, attribute the crime to Mormons, citing only one contrary source, but it appears to me that all the claims are a bit vague).

This by itself did not cause war between the Mormons and the United States. But as gory details emerged (some of them perhaps exaggerated), the federal government decided it had to act. With the Mormons giving trouble for other reasons, they became the target: By 1857, federal authority had almost ceased to exist in Utah, and the president Buchanan ordered the army to suppress Brigham Young's government (Denton, p. 108; Walker, p. 210). Unfortunately, the army would prove singularly ill-equipped for this task.

As this was going on, discipline among the Mormons was becoming more vigorous, in part because of bad harvests and the unrest they brought; to backslide was to risk death (Denton, pp. 104-107). And in 1857, Brigham Young declared that he would decide which Federal laws were enforced in his domain (Denton, p. 108). As the government became more insistent, Young would make what amounted to a declaration of independence (Denton, p. 113).

To be fair, his authoritarianism "was strongly approved by the Mormons when they found President Pierce [who served 1853-1857] appointing political hacks of bad personal character, prejudiced and quarrelsome, to executive and judicial offices in the Territory" (see Allan Nevins, in _The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume I: Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos 1857-1859_, Scribner's, 1950, p. 317). But Young's declaration was still an obvious attempt to block enforcement of Federal law in Deseret (Nevins, p. 318). Even Schindler, who thinks the whole thing was a case of Federal misinterpretation, admits that Young said, "Give us ten years of peace, and we will ask no odds of Uncle Sam or the devil" (Schindlet, p. 248.

Many think that Young's declaration was just a negotiating ploy. But Young was too smart to run a pure bluff. Young sent out orders to leaders in other communities to count up their arms and prepare to fight (Denton, p. 116); all able-bodied men were drafted into a militia. Many, including John D. Lee, would take this very seriously indeed, calling the instructions "sacred commands" (Denton, p. 117). The stage was set for the Mormon War (or, as it is also known, the Utah War).

Denton's account of what follows is somewhat confusing, because she describes the Mountain Meadows Massacre before she really explains the Mormon War. But the Mormon War is crucial: At the time of the Massacre, the Mormons were threatened with assault from the east, and any "Gentiles" among them might be spies, and any supplies they gave them would not be available during the coming fight. Indeed, even as the Massacre was starting, Brigham Young was negotiating with a federal officer, knowing full well that the U. S. Army was coming -- and that it had a very big supply problem (Denton, pp. 164-165). On September 15, Young declared a scorched earth policy against the Federals. By the end of the month, Mormon guerillas were attacking army outposts (Denton, p. 168)

It was just too bad that one of the wagon routes to California ran right through the heart of Mormon territory.

One of the wagon trains taking the so-called "Southern Trail" through Mormon territory was the Fancher party, bound from Arkansas to California. The Fancher brothers, Alexander and John, had moved to California as early as 1850 and started a ranch (Denton, pp. 95-96). They made several trips to ferry cattle to California. Alexander's 1857 expedition was expected to be their last.

We don't have exact details on the Fancher party, but it included a number of families, and property estimated to be worth over $2500, plus cash on the order of $100,000 (Denton, p. 100; Walker, p. 213). There were at least 30, and perhaps more than 40, wagons in the train. There are estimated to have been about fifty men, forty women, and fifty chldren (Walker, p. 212), and perhaps close to a thousand cattle.

There were several overland routes to California, all difficult due to the dry and deserted nature of the lands west of the Mississippi. The Fancher party from Arkansas could have taken the "California Trail," but instead chose to head up the Arkansas River, then north to meet the Platte at Fort Kearney, following the North Platte to Fort Laramie, then through South Pass to Salt Lake City and down through the Great Basin. The latter part of the route was all Mormon territory -- which meant, on the one hand, that there was water and forage available, but on the other hand, that there were a lot of chances for conflict. (See the map in Denton, pp. 12-13).

The Fancher party hoped to simply pass through Mormon territory, purchasing supplies along the way -- but quickly found that the Mormons closed their doors (Denton, p. 119). We don't know precisely what happened in this period (and, according to Denton, p. 121, most of the reports we do have are somewhat propagandistic). It appears they were forced to resort to eating the cattle they had hoped to use to make their fortunes in California (Denton, p. 123). They circled their wagons at night to guard against attack, even as some Mormons, frightened of the Church's strict regimentation, tried to join them.

Nonetheless, the party almost made it through. Mountain Meadows is in southern Utah; the area is now a national forest, near the town of Enterprise, just east of the Nevada border and almost due north of Saint George, which is on the Arizona border.

They picked a bad place to camp. Mountain Meadows is just what the name implies, a relatively open field surrounded by high rocks on all sides; there are only two exits, and the rocks provided excellent cover for an attack on a train in the meadow (Denton, p. 129). There is water, but the Fancher train inexplicably camped at some distance from it. The camp simply could not be defended for an extended period (Walker, p. 218).

On September 7, 1857, the Fancher Train was attacked by people who apparently were dressed as Indians. Twenty or so members of the expedition were killed or injured in the first assault. The Fancher party then circled their wagons (Denton, p. 128), but they had no water supply, little food, limited ammunition, and no way to escape. When they tried to send out young girls to get water, the attackers shot them (Denton, p. 130). They tried to send out messengers seeking help; the only result of that was that several ended up dead and one returned to the camp wounded (and, according to Denton, pp. 130, 132, with news that the attackers were Mormons, though it's not clear how she could possibly know this). Those who were left prepared to die; even if one of the messengers made it through, it would be a week or more before rescue arrived.

John D. Lee then came into the camp under a flag of truce. Denton, p. 134, says that he claimed the train needed to appease the Indians, and could survive by surrendering their weapons and cattle. (This even though the local Indians, the Paiutes, were relatively peaceful and ill-armed. The Mormons would later blame them even so. The Indians admit to having taken some of the artifacts, but deny participation in the actual assault. Their actual role remains disputes; Denton seems to think they were not involved, but Walker and others think they were) After much discussion, seeing no alternative, the survivors gave in (Denton, pp. 135-136).

The Mormon leaders, including Lee, broke them up into smaller parties -- and slaughtered them (Walker, p. 221). It was pure and simple murder; the only survivors were children under the age of eight, most of whom saw their parents and older siblings killed before their eyes. Supposedly 121 people were killed (Walker, p. 222). Who gave the order for the murders is not clear -- it may well have been Lee -- but the Mormon soldiers instantly obeyed (Denton, p. 137-143, which gives brutal details of the treatment of the prisoners).

Who was this man who was responsible for what Denton, p. 241, calls "the largest civilian atrocity to occur on American soil" prior to 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing? (A disputed claim, but it probably does qualify as the largest white-on-white civilian atrocity in that time.) John D. Lee (1812-1877) had joined the Mormon church in 1838 after fighting in the Black Hawk War (Walker, pp. 208-209). He was recruited into the Danites, the society of vigilantes who fought the Mormon's enemies (for other tales of the Danites, see "Old Port Rockwell").

Lee was one of Brigham Young's earliest lieutenants, who gave his allegiance to the prophet at the time when Young's power was still uncertain. Lee was in effect Young's adopted son (Walker, p. 214), for a time signing himself "J. D. L. Young." Despite some minor quarrels (e.g. over a woman both wanted as a wife) he would surely obey the prophet almost without question (Walker, p. 215) -- a significant point in assessing the conflicting blame for the Massacre.

When word of the Massacre came out, the government had to figure out how to respond. There were two basic questions: Who was responsible for the initial attack (Indians or Mormons)? And who was responsible for the Massacre (John D. Lee or someone higher in the church)?

There isn't much evidence. Federal officers took testimony from the surviving children, but all were very young, and many were traumatized; it is very likely that their testimony would today be considered tainted. The Mormon participants reportedly swore vows of secrecy.

Opinions have shifted over the years. The very first investigator was appointed by Brigham Young himself, who had promised the incoming governor that he would look into the Massacre (Denton, p. 182) -- but Young chose as his investigator George A. Smith, was one of those who had helped whip up the people behind the Massacre (Denton, p. 186). Smith's report is so far off the mark that it dates the massacre to September 21-25 rather than September 7-11, and it places almost the entire blame on the Indians (Denton, pp. 186-187).

A non-Mormon investigator, Jacob Forney, set out to investigate further. He recovered 17 children and much property in Mormon hands, and his 1859 report placed the blame squarely in the hands of the Mormons (Denton, pp. 192-194). And, indeed, forensic examination from that day to this show that firearms caused most if not all the deaths, confirming that the Indians were not responsible for the slaughter.

As for what historians have written, the earliest description of the massacre in my library is from J. Franklin Jameson, _Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895_, Puritan Press, 1894 (yes, it was copyrighted a year before the last year it allegedly covered!), p. 433, reports that the emigrants "were brutally murdered at Mountain Meadow, Utah, by a band of Indians, who were incited thereto by Lee, a Mormon fanatic." Note the complete absence of mention of anyone other than Lee!

Nevins, p. 322, reports that "In September, a party of one hundred and thirty-seven California-bound emigrants passing through southern Utah had been all but wiped out by a Mormon-Indian attack in the Mountain Meadows massacre." He as in a footnote, "Neither Young nor the Mormon church approved this murderous attack on the Missouri emigrant train."

Stegner, p. 277, comments, "The massacre of the Fancher party at Mountain Meadows in 1857 may have been, though it probably was not, planned with the knowledge of Brigham Young."

Walker's is the strangest account of all: On p. 216, he tells of the killers sending to Brigham Young for instructions, but then going ahead with the killings -- even as Young sent orders to leave the settlers alone. This makes no sense, unless it was a way for Young to establish plausible deniability. Walker, p. 224, adds that Young certainly knew about the massacre before he officially acknowledged guilt.

Juanita Brooks, probably the most careful historian of the event, admits that we simply can't be certain about what happened; there just isn't enough information.

Yet Denton seems to possess no doubts whatsoever that Mormons did it -- and with the full knowledge of Brigham Young (presenting her arguments on pp. 153-159). This even though she confesses that the local leaders argued long and hard about what to tell him (Denton, pp. 147-148). And the planning seems to have been imperfect; while many of the attackers disguised themselves as Indians, there was no scheme to hide the bodies, except to leave them to the crows and wolves (Denton, pp. 149-150).

(I wonder a bit about Denton's motives. The dust jacket says she is "of Mormon descent" -- but she is not a practicing Mormon. She seems to have a strong prejudice against the church.)

Part of Denton's case seems pretty airtight: The massacre was the action of the Mormons, not the local Indians. Modern examination of the bodies -- though it was quickly halted by Mormon authorities -- seems sufficient to establish this.

The case against Young, though, rests on a very slender basis: The testimony of John D. Lee, published after his death and possibly fiddled with by its editor. There is also a "John D. Lee scroll," which if authentic would seem to confirm his guilt (Denton, pp. 242-243), but all that can be proved about it is that it seems to be the right age.

It is of course possible -- even likely -- that there is additional information in Mormon records, which are not accessible to the public; this would explain why the Mormons seem always to try to quash investigations into the matter. These may even include the journals of John D. Lee, which he reported giving to the church for safekeeping, and which they did not return when asked.

The only conclusion I can make is that it would be very hard to convict Young based on Denton's evidence; at best, he might be labelled an accomplice after the fact. And I would hate to be the prosecuting attorney on that one (even if you ignore the likelihood that Young's followers would have lynched any lawyer who brought the case).

In any case, President Buchanan had offered a near-blanket amnesty for all events of the Mormon War if the Mormons would just back down (Denton, p. 179). Which, for the most part, they did. Buchanan then took away the rights of the military investigators to seek information, stalling any investigation (Denton, p. 202). National dislike of polygamy, and other details, meant that Utah was kept a territory for decades after it had met the normal criteria for statehood, but once the Mormons eliminated polygamy and obtained guarantees of religious autonomy, statehood followed.

Which does not mean that the participants of the massacre were entirely safe. The Mormon church, after all, had every reason to want to clear its name. And once the trasncontinental railroad was completed, it was much easier for journalists and others to head west and see what they could learn. For many years, Brigham Young remained close to John D. Lee (Denton, pp. 209-211), but eventually started to distance himself from Lee and the other leaders of the massacre. Lee and another Massacre leader, Isaac Haight, were excommunicated in 1870 (Denton, p. 214; Walker, p. 224).

Eventually Lee was pushed out of Utah altogether, spending some time with John Wesley Powell as the latter explored the Colorado River. He went on to found and operate Lee's Ferry (yes, the Lee's Ferry of the song of that name; Denton, p. 218). He was forced to sell his property in Utah (Denton, p. 215).

When, in 1874, the federal government took over direct control of justice in Utah (Denton, p. 219), it was the beginning of the end for Lee. He was arrested in that year. Initially, he stated that the Church, and Brigham Young, had no role in the massacre (Denton, pp. 219, 221).

What happened next is fascinating. Even though Lee had been excommunicated, the Mormon Church provided two lawyers for his 1875 trial. Lee himself had three (Denton, p. 221).

Denton thinks these two groups were at cross-purposes. The church lawyers had as their chief purpose to protect the church. Lee's lawyers wanted to keep him alive -- which would be very hard to do unless they could implicate the church. (After all, Lee had already given a partial confession.)

The 1875 trial was defective in many ways. No testimony was taken from Indians. Many Mormons were subpoenaed; fewer than half appeared. One of those who avoided testifying was Brigham Young (Denton, p. 225). There was conflicting testimony about who did what. Eventually the trial went to the jury, which -- being part Mormon, part Gentile -- deadlocked (Denton, p. 226); the Mormon jurors apparently wanted Lee acquitted, the Gentiles wanted him convicted (Walker, p. 226).

If Denton is right (p. 228), the next step was simply despicable. A new U. S. attorney reached a deal with Brigham Young: Young would supply all needed witnesses to convict Lee -- as long as the attorney didn't do anything which would implicate the greater church. Since even Denton admits there are no records of this deal, we can hardly be sure of it. We can be sure that Lee's church-appointed lawyers withdrew from the case, and that the U. S. attorney would earn a reprimand over the matter (Denton, p. 232). We also know that none of the others we know to have taken part in the massacre was ever brought to trial (Walker, p. 226).

In 1876, Lee's second trial began -- this time with an all-Mormon jury. It was a much briefer trial: Seven prosecution witnesses, all Mormons, all of whom testified voluntarily. The defence called no witnesses at all (Denton, p. 229). Not surprisingly, Lee was found guilty of first degree murder, with the jury needing only three and a half hours to convict. The judge sentenced him to execution (Denton, p. 230; Walker, p. 226); Lee chose a firing squad as a method of execution (Walker, p. 227).

Denton notes the interesting point that, at this time, the Mormons practiced beheading as a means of "blood atonement" -- a sort of release from sin. She thinks that Lee, by rejecting the option of beheading, was stating that he did not think his actions needed atonement. In support of this, we note that Lee would write while in prison, I have been treacherously betrayed and sacrificed in a most cowardly manner by those who should have been my friends" (Walker, p. 227).

(I must admit to extreme disquiet about the whole affair. There can be no doubt that Lee was a mass murderer, and that he defiled the names "Christian," "American," and "human being." So Lee deserved everything the law could do to him, and more. Still, the Mormon practice of "blood atonement" -- ritual beheading -- surely made it easier to induce the attackers to massacre their victims; a church that's run like a Mafia shouldn't be surprised that its people turn into barbarians! Certainly Lee's trial should not have been conducted in Utah, there should have been no Mormons on the jury, and the parties involved should have taken real testimony. If there is a Hell, I can only hope Lee and the prosecuting attorney are confined together....)

Lee would write various statements about his actions as the appeals process worked itself out. Eventually, he delivered a large manuscript to his lawyer W. W. Bishop; in it, Lee would aim the blame directly at Brigham Young (Denton, p. 237). Lee was executed March 23, 1877 at the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

In an interesting coincidence, Lee predicted before his end that Brigham Young would die within six months of his own execution. On August 23, 1877, Young took sick with an illness that killed him six days later (Denton, p. 238).

Fred W. Allsopp, _Folklore of Romantic Arkansas_, Volume II (1931), pp. 323-324, does not offer a text of this song, but reports the Arkansas belief that the Massacre was "the sequel to the killing in Arkansas of the Mormon Elder, Parley P. Pratt." Pratt had become involved with an already-married women, Elenore McLean. After a long and complicated pursuit across the country, McLean's husband succeeded in killing Pratt near Van Buren, Arkansas. It was extrajudicial -- but it was also popular; the locals had already hauled Pratt before the law on trumped-up charges (Denton, pp. 110-111). The basic reason for the hullabaloo was polygamy, but Denton, p. 112, says that the Mormons viewed it as religious persecution. Hence their particular anger with the Arkansans of the Fancher party.

(Denton does not say so, but this is, I think, an argument against the guilt of Brigham Young. He was too smart a politician to let things like that influence him.)

This song appears to be generally accurate in its details: The Fancher train of "thirty wagons" was attacked by "Lee's Mormon bullets" and by people "In Indian garb and colors." ?While Lee... his word to them did give That if their arms they would give up He'd surely let them live." "When once they had given up their arms... They rushed on them." "Their property was divided Among this bloody crew." The one interesting element is found in what is the final stanza of Burt's and Fife's texts: "By order of their president This awful deed was done... His name was Brigham Young." This, of course, is the point still in dispute -- but this verse has been sung by Mormons themselves!

Sundry references appear in the literature to a song, "The Ballad of John D. Lee." Denton, for instance, has a scrap of it on pp. 209-210. But almost all of her words are found in either the Burt or the Fife text of "The Mountain Meadows Massacre." Until something clearer comes along, I am assuming these are the same song. - RBW

Historical references

  • Sept 11, 1857 - The assault at Mountain Meadows. All members of the caravan except 17 small children are said to have been killed. John D. Lee, reported to have led the assault, was executed Mar 23, 1877

Cross references


  1. Laws B19, "The Mountain Meadows Massacre"
  2. Burt, pp. 117-120, "Mountain Meadows Massacre" (1 composite text, 1 tune, plus a loose stanza about the punishment of Lee)
  3. DT 386, MTMDOW
  4. Roud #3240
  5. BI, LB19


Alternate titles: “The Ballad of John D. Lee”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1958 (Burt)
Found in: US(NW,Ro,SW)