MOUNTAIN MEADOWS MASSACRE
Old marker at Mountain Meadows, c. 1900
In April 1857 a California-bound wagon train estimated at 40 wagons, 120
to 150 men, women, and children, and as many as 900 head of beef cattle,
in addition to draft and riding animals, assembled near the Crooked Creek,
approximately four miles south of present-day Harrison, Arkansas. Most of
these emigrants were from northwestern Arkansas and were families, relatives,
friends, and neighbors. Also included in the group may have been some from
Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, and northeastern Texas.
When they began their journey, their wagon train was identified by some
as the Baker train. En route it was known as the Perkins train; in Utah
it became known as the Fancher train. However, there were probably individuals
and perhaps elements of other wagon trains that joined the Fancher train
along the way. The emigrants arrived in Salt Lake City on or about 10 August--a
most crucial stop. There they had to refurbish their equipment, refresh
themselves and their stock, and replenish their supplies. They also had
to decide whether to take the shorter, cooler northern route or the longer,
warmer southern route to California. The lateness of the season was the
determining factor. They started on the northern route and then retraced
their steps to take the southern route.
Their arrival in Utah could not have been at a more critical time. The once
friendly Mormons, usually eager to trade agricultural commodities for manufactured
goods, were now hostile and reluctant to trade. War hysteria permeated the
area. President Buchanan had secretly dispatched an expedition to Utah to
suppress what he believed was a rebellion. Governor Brigham Young subsequently
issued a proclamation of martial law on 5 August (reissued on 15 September)
which, among other things, forbade people from traveling through the territory
without a pass. The citizens of Utah were discouraged from selling food
to immigrants, especially for animal use.
The territorial militia (affectionately, the Nauvoo Legion), which included
every able-bodied man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, was on
full alert. Staff officers, who were also church and civic officials, were
dispatched to every settlement under their command to explain and enforce
militia decisions. George A. Smith, who commanded all of the southern militia
units, arrived in Parowan on 8 August and began the task of preparing the
people psychologically, militarily, and materially for war. The units of
the Tenth Regiment of the territorial militia were mustered and drilled,
and the impending battle plan was explained. Smith, an effective orator
and founder of Iron and Washington counties, made several impassioned speeches
and apparently accomplished his purpose. The people were convinced that
they were in a state of war and were ready to take action.
As the Fancher train moved south without a pass from the Mormons, contact
with the local settlers became more abrasive. Stories of both fact and fancy
were embellished with each telling. By the time the wagon train reached
Cedar City, reports of gross misconduct were believed. The old troubles
in Missouri and Illinois were rehashed. The murder of beloved apostle Parley
P. Pratt in May of that year in northwest Arkansas was also remembered.
Several meetings were held in Cedar City and Parowan to determine how the
"War Orders" should be implemented. The militia decided that the
Fancher train should be eliminated. Cooler heads prevailed temporarily and
an express rider was sent to Salt Lake City to solicit Brigham Young's advice.
The round trip--more than 500 miles--took six days. In the meantime, things
got completely out of hand. Orders and counterorders were misinterpreted,
deliberately or otherwise.
The Fancher train moved westward from Cedar City with hungry bellies, injured
feelings, and jaded stock to Mountain Meadows, a well-known and much-needed
campsite on the old Spanish Trail/California Road used by travelers to and
from California until well into the present century. It was on the edge
of the much-feared desert area between Utah and California. It is located
in the southwest corner of Utah, about thirty-five miles southwest of Cedar
City via the old pioneer road (fifty-four miles via the current paved highway),
and thirty-two miles northwest of St. George. The shape of the meadows area
resembles an elongated diamond, approximately six miles long and one and
one-half miles wide; it is divided into northern and southern halves by
a low bald ridge, which John C. Fémont identified as the south rim
of the Great Basin and measured at 5,280 feet above sea level. This ridge
is almost imperceptible and divides the drainage area--the south half of
which eventually reaches the Pacific Ocean via the Colorado River. Mountains
surround the meadows.
At that time, the Meadows were covered with a variety of grasses fed by
numerous springs of clear water, and the area was considered by Parley P.
Pratt to be one of the most delightful places on the entire route. The Fancher
train, and other travelers who may have joined or followed them, arrived
there the first week in September, anticipating a few days of recuperation.
Some of the emigrants probably continued another four and one-half miles
south to Cane Springs, the site of present-day Central. At dawn the following
Monday, 7 September, the Fancher train was brought under siege by Indians
and militiamen disguised as Indians. Those camped at Cane Springs were also
attacked and evidently retreated to the Mountain Meadows. The wagons were
drawn into a circle with their wheels chained together, and then were lowered
to the ground; firing pits were dug and the dirt thrown under and into the
wagons, making a strong defensive barrier. Seven were killed and sixteen
wounded in the first assault; however, the party resisted the siege for
five days although they were pinned down and isolated from firewood, water,
game food, and outside help. By Friday, 11 September, low on water and ammunition,
they were in a helpless condition.
Under a flag of truce and led to believe the militiamen had arrived to save
them, the emigrants were made an offer to leave all of their possessions
to the Indians and be conducted safely back to Cedar City. They accepted
the conditions and began their trek. Seventeen children too small to walk
to Cedar City, some mothers, and the wounded were placed in the wagons.
These wagons were followed by the women and older children walking in a
group; they were followed by the men, walking alongside their armed militia
After traveling approximately 1.5 miles, strung out and separated by a small
rise in the ground and shrubbery, isolating each group from the others,
the emigrants were massacred by Indians and militiamen. The only known survivors
were the seventeen small children, who were taken into Mormon homes. The
remains of the victims were hurriedly thrown into shallow depressions and
ravines and covered with whatever was available. These remains were subsequently
scattered over the immediate area by storms and wild animals.
The messenger so urgently sent to Salt Lake City for Young's advice returned
on Sunday, two days after the massacre, with Young's advice to let the wagon
train pass and not molest them. The estimated number of victims ranged from
100 to 150; the exact number may never be known. Appalled by what had been
done, and in fear of possible repercussions, an effective cover-up plan
was put into force. It blamed the entire episode on the Indians, and continued
to be maintained for the next few years in the face of outside outrage and
Eighteen months after the massacre, prompted by relatives in Arkansas demanding
an investigation, an army payroll escort passed through the area and reinterred
the remains of the victims that could be found and erected stone cairns
over the mass graves--at least two at the massacre site and one at the siege
site. The U.S. Army forces at Camp Floyd helped return the seventeen small
children to relatives in Arkansas; the children arrived in Carroll County
on 15 September 1859, two years after the massacre. The federal government
prosecuted only one man, John D. Lee, major of the Fourth Battalion of the
militia at Harmony. He was convicted, some say unjustly, and executed at
the siege site on 23 March 1877 for his role in the affair. The Mormon Church
earlier excommunicated Lee and a few others believed to have been responsible.
Unsuccessful attempts were made by various groups and individuals to erect
a more suitable monument at Mountain Meadows but no one assumed maintenance
responsibility. The most enduring was a wall which still stands at the siege
site. It was erected in 1932 and surrounds the 1859 cairn. On 23 July 1988
a bipartisan meeting was held at the siege site to discuss the possibility
of erecting a more adequate memorial to those who lost their lives. Two
independent and parallel efforts resulted--one by people in southern Utah
and one by Francher party and John D. Lee descendants. Eventually these
two groups merged and cooperatively completed a new granite memorial. It
was financed by the state of Utah and by contributions from private sources.
It is situated near the highway (U-19) and overlooks the siege and massacre
sites; and it was dedicated 15 September 1990. The Utah State Division of
Parks and Recreation is now responsible for its maintenance.
See: Nels Anderson, Desert Saints (1966); Juanita Brooks,
Mountain Meadow Massacre (1950); Norman F. Furniss, The Mormon
Conflict, 1850-59 (1960); John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled
and Confessions of John D. Lee (1892).
Morris A. Shirts