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John Doyle LEE






"The Mountain Meadows Massacre"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The most controversial figure in Mormon history
Number of victims: 120 +/-
Date of murders: September 1857
Date of arrest: 1874
Date of birth: September 12, 1812
Victims profile: Men, women, and children (emigrant group known as the Fancher party)
Method of murder: Shooting - Stabbing with knife
Location: Utah, USA
Status: Executed by firing squad on March 23, 1877 on the site of the 1857 massacre
photo gallery

Last confession and statement of John D. Lee


John Doyle Lee (September 12, 1812 - March 23, 1877) was a prominent, early Latter-day Saint (LDS or Mormon) and came to be known as the central figure in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Early Mormon leader

Lee was born in Illinois Territory, and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in 1838.

In 1839 Lee served a Mormon mission with his boyhood friend, Levi Stewart. Together they preached in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It is noteworthy that Lee converted and baptized "Wild Bill" Hickman during this mission.

Lee was a friend of Joseph Smith, Jr. founder of the LDS Church. Lee practiced plural marriage and had nineteen wives and sixty-seven children. Lee was allegedly a member of the Danites, although some have argued there is little or no evidence for his involvement in the group. He was an official scribe for the Council of 50, a group of men who, in the days of Joseph Smith, Jr and Brigham Young, worked together to provide expert guidance in practical matters to the church, specifically the move westward out of the United States of America and to the Rocky Mountains.

After Smith's murder, Lee joined the bulk of the LDS Church's members in what is now Utah, and worked toward establishing several new communities.

In 1856, Lee became a U.S. Indian Agent in the Iron County area, assigned to help Native Americans establish farms. In 1858, Lee served a term as a member of the Utah Territorial Legislature.

In 1872 Lee moved from Iron County and established a ferry crossing on the Colorado River. It is still called Lee's Ferry.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows

The most pivotal event in Lee's later life happened in September, 1857. A emigrant group traveling from Arkansas, known as the Fancher party, was camped in an area of Southern Utah known as the Mountain Meadows. This area was a staging area for groups traveling to California to prepare for the long crossing of the Mohave desert.

There is definite controversy as to who initiated the attack, whether it was the local Mormons or indians, but the party was attacked in a four-day siege that later came to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Despite the controversy as to who started the siege, Lee was among the leaders of the final attack, in which approximately 120 of the Fancher party were killed, leaving only very small children as survivors. For the remainder of his life, Lee maintained that he had acted under orders from his military leaders, and under protest. After the event, Lee remained active in Mormonism and local government for several years.

In the late 1860s, various public questions arose about the exact nature of the 1857 massacre, causing difficulties for Lee and many others of those involved.

Lee was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1870 for his part in the massacre.

In 1874, Lee was arrested and tried for the massacre, with the trial ending in a hung jury. He was tried again in 1877 and sentenced to death for leading the massacre. He never denied his own complicity, but stated he was a vocally reluctant participant and later a scapegoat meant to draw attention away from other Mormon leaders also involved. He specifically stated, however, that LDS President Brigham Young had no knowledge of the event until after it had happened.

There is another account however that should not be eliminated from consideration. It is a document widely used by historians, albeit cautiously. In the Life and Confessions of John D. Lee (p. 225), we find the statement. "I have always believed, since that day, that General George A. Smith was then visiting Southern Utah to prepare the people for the work of exterminating Captain Fancher's train of emigrants, and I now believe that he was sent for that purpose by the direct command of Brigham Young."

On March 23, 1877, Lee was executed by firing squad, on the site of the 1857 massacre. Some of his last words referred to efforts to persuade him to finger Brigham Young as responsible for the massacre: "There's no man I hate worse than a traitor. Especially I could not betray an innocent man."

In May 1961, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posthumously reinstated Lee's membership in the church.


  • Brooks, Juanita and Cleland, Robert Glass, editors. A Mormon Chronicle: The Diaries of John D. Lee. Huntington Library Press, Reissued June 2004 (Paperback, 868pp), 3 Volumes in 1 book. ISBN 0873281780. First published in ( ).

  • Brooks, Juanita. John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat. Utah State University Press, reissue November 1992 (paperback, 404pp). ISBN 087421162X. First published in 1961.



John Doyle Lee


A man whose life was stained by tragedy, John D. Lee is perhaps the most controversial figure in Mormon history.

Born in 1812 in Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory, Lee had a tumultuous childhood. At age three, his mother died after years of lingering illnesses, leaving Lee to his alcoholic father. From age seven to sixteen Lee was raised in an uncle's family. He worked for a time as a mail carrier before assuming managerial responsibility for his uncle's farm, then worked several years as a store clerk in Galena, Illinois. Finally, Lee moved to Vandalia, Illinois, where he met and married Agatha Ann Woolsey in 1833.

It was in Vandalia that Lee and his wife encountered Mormonism. In 1837 a Mormon missionary converted the couple to the young religion, which had been formally organized only seven years before. Lee's religious passion quickly became the driving force in his life, prompting him to move in 1838 to a homestead near the Mormon town of Far West, Missouri.

The large influx of Mormons into Northwest Missouri caused enormous tensions with the non-Mormon ("gentile") population. Many of the gentiles were hostile on purely religious grounds, but they also resented the political and economic power which the cohesive Mormon community had acquired.

Individual confrontations soon exploded into near warfare involving murder, destruction of property, and cycles of raids and counter-raids between the Mormons and gentiles. Lee played an active role in many of the military conflicts, and soon became a member of the Danite Band, the formally organized Mormon militia. Finally Missouri's governor ordered the Mormons expelled or exterminated, sending an army which surrounded their community and forced the Mormon leadership to surrender.

As the Mormons began preparing for their trek eastward to Nauvoo, Illinois, Lee's religious devotion continued to strengthen. In 1838 he was promoted within the priesthood and made a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, the body which directed the church's extensive missionary activities.

From 1839 to 1844 he spent much of his time winning converts in Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky. His commitment impressed the church leadership, and in 1843 he was chosen to guard the home of the church's founder and prophet, Joseph Smith.

John Lee's religious fervor only grew in intensity as the young religion entered its darkest hour. In June 1844 a mob dragged Joseph Smith and his brother from their jail cell in Carthage, Illinois, and murdered them, causing a crisis of leadership within the church. In addition, there was internal dissension over the doctrine of plural marriage, which had been formally announced within the church in 1843. Lee accepted the new doctrine, soon taking five more wives, and he remained devotedly loyal to the church leadership, especially the new leader, Brigham Young, whom Lee assisted during the Mormon flight to the "Winter Quarters" near the confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers.

Having been persecuted from their religion's birthplace in New York to Missouri and Illinois, the Mormons had by 1846 decided to seek their own Zion in the American West. This journey, the first leg of which was the removal from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters, was to take the Mormons to Utah. By 1847 the first wagons began arriving in Utah's Salt Lake valley. After serving briefly in the Mexican-American War as a member of Brigham Young's "Mormon Battalion," Lee joined the gathering masses of Zion in Utah.

For the next decade, Lee played an important role in expanding the Mormon refuge in the West. He became a prosperous farmer and businessman in Southwestern Utah, helping to establish communal mining, milling and manufacturing complexes. He became the local bishop and the Indian agent to the nearby Paiute Indians. And he continued to be a frequent visitor and trusted confidant of the church leadership in Salt Lake City.

Even in the far West, however, neither Lee nor his co-religionists were beyond the reach of the country whose persecution they had fled. In 1857, prompted by complaints about church power in the territory and a public outcry against polygamy, the United States sent an army to Utah, raising Mormon fears that the final annihilation was at hand. This invasion was the backdrop for the still-controversial Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a wagon train of about 120 gentile immigrants, suspected of hostility toward the church, was destroyed by Mormon and Paiute forces in southwestern Utah.

Lee's involvement in the massacre -- the extent of which is still vigorously disputed and will probably never be known -- was to haunt him for the next two decades, and would ultimately lead to his execution. He had written a letter to Brigham Young shortly after the massacre which laid the blame squarely on the Paiute Indians, but even among his own neighbors rumors of Lee's guilt abounded.

In 1858 a federal judge came to southwestern Utah to investigate the massacre and Lee's part in it, but Lee went into hiding and local Mormons refused to cooperate with the investigation. Folk songs dating back to this year blamed Lee for the massacre. A warrant for his arrest remained outstanding.

Although the church sought to lower Lee's profile, by removing him as a probate judge, the Mormon leadership continued to return his immense loyalty. In 1860, Brigham Young visited one of Lee's mansions and publicly praised his personal industriousness and communal economic contributions. In 1861 the residents of Harmony, Utah, elected him as their presiding elder.

But Lee could not escape the legacy of Mountain Meadows. By the late 1860s, his diary, and letters from several of his wives, speak of persistent harassment by his Mormon neighbors for his connection with the massacre, including threatening letters and the ostracization of his children. In 1870 a Utah paper openly condemned Brigham Young for covering up the massacre. That same year Young exiled Lee to a remote part of northern Arizona and excommunicated him from the church, instructing his former confidant to "make yourself scarce and keep out of the way."

The next several years brought a continued decline in Lee's fortunes. He had several episodes of severe illness; drought followed by torrential rains destroyed many of his buildings and crops; former neighbors preyed upon his livestock and otherwise took advantage of his absence; several of his wives deserted him. Nevertheless, he was managing to eke out a living in a homesteader's cabin near the Colorado River in Northern Arizona (at one point hosting John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition before their trip through the Grand Canyon) when a sheriff captured him in November 1874.

Lee's first trial ended inconclusively with a hung jury, probably because of the prosecution's misguided attempt to portray Brigham Young as the true mastermind of the massacre. A second trial, in which the prosecution placed the blame squarely on Lee's shoulders, ended with his conviction. The trials were the subject of enormous public attention and gave rise to many accounts of the massacre and of Lee's life.

These accounts, naturally, vary widely in their factual accuracy, but many contain the classic elements of anti-Mormon paranoia: fear of Mormon political and economic power and horror at the sexual depravity assumed to be implicit in plural marriage. Most play up the fact that Lee had numerous wives and emphasize the plight of the women and children killed and captured at Mountain Meadows. Lee himself continued to profess his innocence.

Nearly twenty years after the massacre, Lee was executed at Mountain Meadows. Although angry at Brigham Young's treatment of him, Lee's final words maintained the deep religious faith that had marked his entire adult life:

I have but little to say this morning. Of course I feel that I am at the brink of eternity, and the solemnities of eternity should rest upon my mind at the present... I am ready to die. I trust in God. I have no fear. Death has no terror.


The Mountain Meadows massacre

The Mountain Meadows massacre was a mass slaughter of the Fancher-Baker emigrant wagon train at Mountain Meadows, Utah Territory, by the local Mormon militia on 11 September 1857. It began as an attack, quickly turned into a siege, and eventually culminated in the execution of the unarmed emigrants after their surrender. All of the party except for seventeen children under eight years oldóabout 120 men, women, and childrenówere killed. After the massacre, the corpses of the victims were left decomposing for two years on the open plain, their children were distributed to local Mormon families, and many of their possessions auctioned off at the Latter Day Saint Cedar City tithing office.

The Arkansas emigrants were traveling to California shortly before the Utah War started. Mormon leaders had been mustering militia throughout Utah Territory to fight the United States Army, which was sent to Utah to restore US authority in the territory. The emigrants stopped to rest and regroup their approximately 800 head of cattle at Mountain Meadows, a valley within the Iron County Military District of the Nauvoo Legion (the popular designation for the Mormon militia of the Utah Territory).

Initially intending to orchestrate an Indian massacre, local militia leaders including Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee conspired to lead militiamen disguised as Native Americans along with a contingent of Paiute tribesmen in an attack. The emigrants fought back and a siege ensued. When the Mormons discovered that they had been identified as the attacking force by the emigrants, Col. William H. Dame, head of the Iron County Brigade of the Utah militia, ordered their annihilation.

Intending to leave no witnesses of Mormon complicity in the siege and also intending to prevent reprisals that would complicate the Utah War, militiamen induced the emigrants to surrender and give up their weapons. After escorting the emigrants out of their hasty fortification, the militiamen and their tribesmen auxiliaries executed the emigrants. Investigations, interrupted by the U.S. Civil War, resulted in nine indictments in 1874. Only John D. Lee was tried in a court of law, and after two trials, he was convicted. On March 23, 1877 a firing squad executed Lee at the massacre site.

Historians attribute the massacre to a combination of factors including war hysteria fueled by millennialism and strident Mormon teachings by top LDS leaders including Brigham Young. These teachings included doctrines about God's vengeance against those who had killed Mormon prophets, some of whom were from Arkansas. Scholars debate whether the massacre was caused by any direct involvement by Brigham Young, who was never officially charged and denied any wrongdoing. However, the predominant academic position is that Young and other church leaders helped provide the conditions which made the massacre possible.


Fancher-Baker party and early interaction with Mormons

In early 1857, several groups of emigrants from the northwestern Arkansas region started their trek to California, joining up on the way to form a group known as the Fancher-Baker party. The groups were mostly from Marion, Crawford, Carroll, and Johnson counties in Arkansas, and had assembled into a wagon train at Beller's Stand, south of Harrison, Arkansas to emigrate to southern California.

This group was initially referred to as both the Baker train and the Perkins train, but after being joined by other Arkansas trains and making its way west, was soon called the Fancher train (or party) after "Colonel" Alexander Fancher who, having already made the journey to California twice before, had become its main leader. By contemporary standards the Fancher party was prosperous, carefully organized, and well-equipped for the journey. They were subsequently joined along the way by families and individuals from other states, including Missouri. This group was relatively wealthy, and planned to restock its supplies in Salt Lake City, as did most wagon trains at the time. The party reached Salt Lake City with about 120 members.

At the time of the Fanchers' arrival, the Utah Territory was organized as an ostensible theocratic democracy under the lead of Brigham Young, who had established colonies along the California Trail and Old Spanish Trail. The Fanchers chose to take the southern Old Spanish Trail, which passed through southern Utah.

In August 1857, Mormon apostle George A. Smith, of Parowan, set out on a tour of southern Utah, instructing Mormons to stockpile grain. While on his return trip to Salt Lake City, Smith camped near the Fancher party on the 25th at Corn Creek, (near present-day Kanosh, Utah) 70 miles north of Parowan.

They had traveled the 165 south from Salt Lake City and Jacob Hamblin suggested that the Fanchers stop and rest their cattle at Mountain Meadows which was adjacent to his homestead. Brevet Major Carleton's report records Jacob Hamblin's account that the train was alleged to have poisoned a spring near Corn Creek (near present-day Kanosh, Utah) that killed 18 head of cattle and resulted in the deaths of two or three people (including the son of Mr Robinson) who ate the dead cattle. Most witnesses said that the Fanchers were in general a peaceful party whose members behaved well along the trail. Among Smith's party were a number of Paiute Indian chiefs from the Mountain Meadows area.

Conspiracy and siege

The Fancher party left Corn Creek and continued the 125 miles to Mountain Meadow, passing Parowan and Cedar City, southern Utah communities led respectively by Stake Presidents William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight. Haight and Dame were, in addition, the senior regional military leaders of the Mormon militia. As the Fancher party approached, several meetings were held in Cedar City and nearby Parowan by local LDS ("Latter-Day Saints") leaders pondering how to implement Young's declaration of martial law. They decided, over the objections of some present, to "eliminate" the Fancher wagon train. Those who objected were placated with the promise of sending a rider, James Haslam, to Salt Lake City with a message to Brigham Young asking for confirmation of their decision.

The somewhat dispirited Fancher party found water and fresh grazing for its livestock after reaching grassy, mountain-ringed Mountain Meadows, a widely known stopover on the old Spanish Trail, in early September. They anticipated several days of rest and recuperation there before the next 40 miles would take them out of Utah. But, on September 7 the party was attacked by a group of Native American Paiutes and Mormon militiamen dressed as Native Americans.

The Fancher party defended itself by encircling and lowering their wagons, wheels chained together, along with digging shallow trenches and throwing dirt both below and into the wagons, which made a strong barrier. Seven emigrants were killed during the opening attack and were buried somewhere within the wagon encirclement. Sixteen more were wounded. Nearly 12 hours after the attack was initiated, Haslam was sent to Salt Lake City to inform Brigham Young. The attack continued for five days, during which the besieged families had little or no access to fresh water or game food and their ammunition was depleted.

Meanwhile, organization among the local Mormon leadership reportedly broke

Killings and aftermath of the massacre

On Friday, September 11, 1857, two Mormon militiamen approached the Fancher party wagons with a white flag and were soon followed by Indian agent and militia officer John D. Lee. Lee told the battle-weary emigrants that he had negotiated a truce with the Paiutes, whereby they could be escorted safely the 36 miles back to Cedar City under Mormon protection in exchange for turning all of their livestock and supplies over to the Native Americans.

Accepting this, the emigrants were led out of their fortification. When a signal was given, the Mormon militiamen turned and executed the male members of the Fancher party standing by their side. According to Mormon sources, the militia let a group of Paiute Indians execute the women and children. The bodies of the dead were gathered and looted for valuables, and were then left in shallow graves or on the open ground. Members of the Mormon militia were sworn to secrecy. A plan was set to blame the massacre on the Indians. The militia did not kill 18 small children who were deemed too young to relate the story. These children were taken by local Mormon families. Seventeen of the children were later reclaimed by the U.S. Army and returned to relatives, while one (a girl) was not returned and lived out her life among the Mormons.

Leonard J. Arrington, an author, academic and the founder of the Mormon History Association and a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reports that Brigham Young received the rider at his office on the same day. When he learned what was contemplated by the members of the Mormon Church in Parowan and Cedar City, he sent back a letter that the Fancher party be allowed to pass through the territory unmolested. Young's letter supposedly arrived two days too late, on September 13, 1857.

Some of the property of the dead was reportedly taken by the Native Americans involved, while large amounts of cattle and personal property was taken by the Mormons in Southern Utah. John D. Lee took charge of the livestock and other property that had been collected at the Mormon settlement at Pinto. Some of the cattle was taken to Salt Lake City and traded for boots. Some reportedly remained in the hands of John D. Lee. The remaining personal property of the Fancher party was taken to the tithing house at Cedar City and auctioned off to local Mormons.

Brigham Young, appalled at what had taken place, initially ordered an investigation into the massacre but in the end it must be acknowledged that through his own unwillingness to work with Federal authorities contributed both directly and indirectly to the blunder of justice, and was part of the reason two trials were necessary.

Investigations and prosecutions

An early investigation was conducted by Brigham Young, who interviewed John D. Lee on September 29, 1857. In 1858, Young sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs stating that the massacre was the work of Native Americans. The Utah War delayed any investigation by the U.S. federal government until 1859, when Jacob Forney, and U.S. Army Brevet Major James Henry Carleton conducted investigations. In Carleton's investigation, at Mountain Meadows he found women's hair tangled in sage brush and the bones of children still in their mothers' arms. Carleton later said it was "a sight which can never be forgotten." After gathering up the skulls and bones of those who had died, Carleton's troops buried them and erected a cairn.

Carleton interviewed a few local Mormon settlers and Paiute Indian chiefs, and concluded that there was Mormon involvement in the massacre. He issued a report in May 1859, addressed to the U.S. Assistant Adjutant-General, setting forth his findings. Jacob Forney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah, also conducted an investigation that included visiting the region in the summer of 1859 and retrieved many of the surviving children of massacre victims who had been housed with Mormon families, and gathered them in preparation of transporting them to their relatives in Arkansas. Forney concluded that the Paiutes did not act alone and the massacre would not have occurred without the white settlers, while Carleton's report to the U.S. Congress called the mass killings a "heinous crime", blaming both local and senior church leaders for the massacre.

A federal judge brought into the territory after the Utah War, Judge John Cradlebaugh, in March 1859 convened a grand jury in Provo, Utah concerning the massacre, but the jury declined any indictments. Nevertheless, Cradlebaugh conducted a tour of the Mountain Meadows area with a military escort. Cradlebaugh attempted to arrest John D. Lee, Isaac Haight, and John Higbee, but these men fled before they could be found.

Cradlebaugh publicly charged Brigham Young as an instigator to the massacre and therefore an "accessory before the fact." Possibly as a protective measure against the mistrusted federal court system, Mormon territorial probate court judge Elias Smith arrested Young under a territorial warrant, perhaps hoping to divert any trial of Young into a friendly Mormon territorial court. When no federal charges ensued, Young was apparently released.

Further investigations, cut short by the American Civil War in 1861, again proceeded in 1871 when prosecutors obtained the affidavit of militia member Phillip Klingensmith. Klingensmith had been a bishop and blacksmith from Cedar City; by the 1870s, however, he had left the church and moved to Nevada.

During the 1870s Lee, Dame, Philip Klingensmith and two others (Ellott Willden and George Adair, Jr.) were indicted and arrested while warrants were obtained to pursue the arrests of four others (Haight, Higbee, William C. Stewart and Samuel Jukes) who had successfully gone into hiding. Klingensmith escaped prosecution by agreeing to testify.

Brigham Young removed some participants including Haight and Lee from the LDS church in 1870. The U.S. posted bounties of $500 each for the capture of Haight, Higbee and Stewart while prosecutors chose not to pursue their cases against Dame, Willden and Adair.

Lee's first trial began on July 23, 1875 in Beaver, Utah before a jury of eight Mormons and four non-Mormons. This trial led to a hung jury on August 5, 1875. Lee's second trial began September 13, 1876, before an all-Mormon jury. The prosecution called Daniel Wells, Laban Morrill, Joel White, Samuel Knight, Samuel McMurdy, Nephi Johnson, and Jacob Hamblin. Lee also stipulated, against advice of counsel, that the prosecution be allowed to re-use the depositions of Young and Smith from the previous trial. Lee called no witnesses in his defense. This time, Lee was convicted.

At his sentencing, as required by Utah Territory statute, he was given the option of being hung, shot, or beheaded, and he chose to be shot. In 1877, before being executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows (a fate Young believed just, but not a sufficient blood atonement, given the enormity of the crime, to get him into the celestial kingdom). Lee himself professed that he was a scapegoat for others involved.

Criticism and analysis of the massacre

Media coverage about the event

The first published report on the incident was made in 1859 by Brevet Major J.H. Carleton who had been tasked by the U.S. Army to investigate the incident and bury the still exposed corpses at Mountain Meadows. Although the massacre was covered to some extent in the media during the 1850s, the first period of intense nation-wide publicity about the massacre began around 1872, after investigators obtained the confession of Philip Klingensmith, a Mormon bishop at the time of the massacre and a private in the Utah militia.

In 1867 C.V. Waite published "An Authentic History Of Brigham Young" which described the events. In 1872, Mark Twain commented on the massacre through the lens of contemporary American public opinion in an appendix to his semi-autobiographical travel book Roughing It. In 1873, the massacre was a prominent feature of a history by T.B.H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints. National newspapers covered the Lee trials closely from 1874 to 1876, and his execution in 1877 was widely covered.

The massacre has been treated extensively by several historical works, beginning with Lee's own Confession in 1877, expressing his opinion that George A. Smith was sent to southern Utah by Brigham Young to direct the massacre.

In 1910, the massacre was the subject of a short book by Josiah F. Gibbs, who also attributed responsibility for the massacre to Young and Smith. The first detailed and comprehensive work using modern historical methods was The Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950 by Juanita Brooks, a Mormon scholar who lived near the area in southern Utah. Brooks found no evidence of direct involvement by Brigham Young, but charged him with obstructing the investigation and for provoking the attack through his rhetoric.

Initially, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) denied any involvement by Mormons, and was relatively silent on the issue. In 1872, however, it excommunicated some of the participants for their role in the massacre. Since then, the LDS Church has consistently condemned the massacre, though acknowledging involvement by local Mormon leaders. In September 2007, the LDS Church published an article in its official publications marking 150 years since the tragedy occurred.

Historical theories explaining the massacre

Historians have ascribed the massacre to a number of factors, including (1) strident Mormon teachings in the years prior to the massacre, (2) war hysteria, and (3) alleged involvement of Brigham Young.

Strident Mormon teachings

Mormons, such as John D. Lee, who participated in the Mountain Meadows massacre, felt justified by strident Mormon teachings during the 1850s. However, historians debate whether or not that justification was a reasonable interpretation of Mormon theology.

For the decade prior to the Fancher party's arrival there, Utah Territory existed as a "theodemocracy" (a democratic theocracy) led by Brigham Young. During the mid-1850s, Young instituted a Mormon Reformation, intending to "lay[ing] the axe at the root of the tree of sin and iniquity", while preserving individual rights. Mormon teachings during this era were dramatic and strident.

In addition, during the prior decades, the religion had undergone a period of intense persecution in the American Midwest, and faithful Mormons moved west to escape persecution in midwestern towns. In particular, they were officially expelled from the state of Missouri during the 1838 Mormon War, during which prominent Mormon apostle David W. Patten was killed in battle. After Mormons moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, the religion's founder Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother Hyrum Smith were assassinated in 1844. Just months before the Mountain Meadows massacre, Mormons received word that yet another "prophet" had been killed: in April 1857, apostle Parley P. Pratt was shot in Arkansas by Hector McLean, the estranged husband of one of Pratt's plural wives, Eleanor McLean Pratt. Mormon leaders immediately proclaimed Pratt as another martyr, and many Mormons held the people of Arkansas responsible.

In 1857, Mormon leaders taught that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent, and that God would soon exact punishment against the United States for persecuting Mormons and martyring "the prophets" Joseph Smith, Jr., Hyrum Smith, Patten and Pratt. In their Endowment ceremony, faithful early Latter-day Saints took an Oath of Vengeance against the murderers of the prophets. As a result of this oath, several Mormon apostles and other leaders considered it their religious duty to kill the prophets' murderers if they ever came across them.

The sermons, blessings, and private counsel by Mormon leaders just prior to the Mountain Meadows massacre can be understood as encouraging private individuals to execute God's judgment against the wicked. In Cedar City, Utah, the teachings of church leaders were particularly strident.

Thus, historians argue that southern Utah Mormons would have been particularly affected by an unsubstantiated rumor that the Fancher wagon train had been joined by a group of eleven miners and plainsmen who called themselves "Missouri Wildcats," some of whom reportedly taunted, vandalized and "caused trouble" for Mormons and Native Americans along the route (by some accounts claiming that they had the gun that "shot the guts out of Old Joe Smith" They were also affected by the report to Brigham Young that the Fancher party was from Arkansas, and the rumor that Eleanor McLean Pratt, the apostle Pratt's plural wife, recognized one of the party as being present at her husband's murder.

War hysteria

The Mountain Meadows massacre was caused in part by events relating to the Utah War, an 1857 deployment toward the Utah Territory of the United States Army, whose arrival was peaceful. In the summer of 1857, however, the Mormons expected an all-out invasion of apocalyptic significance. From July to September 1857, Mormon leaders and their followers prepared for a siege that could have ended up similar to the seven-year Bleeding Kansas problem occurring at the time. Mormons were required to stockpile grain, and were enjoined against selling grain to emigrants for use as cattle feed. As far-off Mormon colonies retreated, Parowan and Cedar City became isolated and vulnerable outposts. Brigham Young sought to enlist the help of Indian tribes in fighting the "Americans", encouraging them to steal cattle from emigrant trains, and to join Mormons in fighting the approaching army.

In August 1857, Mormon apostle George A. Smith, of Parowan, set out on a tour of southern Utah, instructing Mormons to stockpile grain. Scholars have asserted that Smith's tour, speeches, and personal actions contributed to the fear and tension in these communities, and influenced the decision to attack and destroy the Baker-Fancher emigrant train near Mountain Meadows, Utah. He met with many of the eventual participants in the massacre, including W. H. Dame, Isaac Haight, John D. Lee and Chief Jackson, leader of a band of Pah-Utes. He noted that the militia was organized and ready to fight, and that some of them were eager to "fight and take vengeance for the cruelties that had been inflicted upon us in the States."

While on his return trip to Salt Lake City, Smith camped near the Fancher party on the 25th at Corn Creek, (near present-day Kanosh, Utah) 70 miles north of Parowan. They had traveled the 165 south from Salt Lake City and Jacob Hamblin suggested that the Fanchers stop and rest their cattle at Mountain Meadows which was adjacent to his homestead.

Brevet Major Carleton's report records Jacob Hamblin's account that the train was alleged to have poisoned a spring near Corn Creek (near present-day Kanosh, Utah) that killed 18 head of cattle and resulted in the deaths of two or three people (including the son of Mr Robinson) who ate the dead cattle. Most witnesses said that the Fanchers were in general a peaceful party whose members behaved well along the trail. Among Smith's party were a number of Paiute Indian chiefs from the Mountain Meadows area.

When Smith returned to Salt Lake, Brigham Young met with these leaders on September 1, 1857 and encouraged them to fight against the "Americans" in the anticipated clash with the U.S. Army. They were also "given" all of the livestock then on the road to California, which included that belonging to the Fancher party. The Indian chiefs were reluctant, and at least one objected they had previously been told not to steal, and declined the offer. Some scholars theorize, however, that the leaders returned to Mountain Meadows and participated in the massacre. However, it is uncertain whether they would have had time to do so.

Alleged involvement of Brigham Young

Historians agree that Brigham Young played a role in provoking the massacre, at least unwittingly, and in concealing its evidence after the fact; however, they debate whether or not Young knew about the planned massacre ahead of time, and whether or not he initially condoned it, before later taking a strong public stand against it. Young's use of inflammatory and violent language in response to the Federal expedition added to the tense atmosphere at the time of the attack. After the massacre, Young stated in public forums that God had taken vengeance on the Fancher party.

It is unclear whether Young held this view because he believed that this specific group posed an actual threat to colonists or because he believed that the group was directly responsible for past crimes against Mormons. According to historian MacKinnon, "After the [Utah] war, U.S. President James Buchanan implied that face-to-face communications with Brigham Young might have averted the conflict, and Young argued that a north-south telegraph line in Utah could have prevented the Mountain Meadows Massacre." MacKinnon suggests that hostilities could have been avoided if Young had traveled east to Washington D.C. to resolve governmental problems instead of taking a five week trip north on the eve of the Utah War for church related reasons.


Starting in 1988 descendants of both the Fancher party victims and the Mormon participants collaborated to design and dedicate a monument to replace the neglected and crumbling marker on the site. There are now three monuments to the massacre. Two of these are at Mountain Meadows. Mountain Meadows Association built a monument in 1990 which is maintained by the Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation. In 1999 the Mormon Church built and maintains a second monument.

A monument placed in the central square of Harrison, Arkansas is a replica of Carleton's original marker maintained by the Mountain Meadows Massacre Monument Foundation.



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