Vagneur: Recalling the Mountain Meadows massacre |

Vagneur: Recalling the Mountain Meadows massacre

The event, taken on visceral level, leaves one with chilled bones and a turned stomach. Or as Mark Twain said, “The whole United States rang with its horrors.”

One of the descendants of the only person ever convicted of the crime put it in a historical light over a century later: “Any attempt to recreate the human dynamics that were at work in southern Utah in the fall of 1857 can only leave us bewildered as to how rational human beings at any time, in any place, under any circumstances could have permitted such a tragedy to occur,” said Brigham Young University President Rex E. Lee, a descendant of John D. Lee, in a 1990 speech.

Death was no stranger to those who crossed the country in covered wagons, but this was different. In the spring of 1857, several groups of emigrants left Arkansas bound for California. Dreams of a better life, fertile farms, land ownership and the implied freedom that the West offered were all in the heads of these folks. Eventually, the groups banded together and called themselves the Baker-Fancher party, more than 100 strong.

They were called emigrants because, in those long-ago times when they left Arkansas, or any other part of the U.S. to head west, they were leaving the United States and were, indeed, emigrants.

Coincidence is the catalyst that generally changes the path of history, and the fluke of coincidence in 1857 Utah was the belief by the Mormons that President James Buchanan was sending troops to Utah, for what they weren’t sure, but surmised that it could only mean trouble for the Mormons and their settlements. Brigham Young had declared martial law, Mormons began to withdraw into themselves, outsiders were suddenly considered suspect and there was a general belief that wagon trains passing through Utah could only mean trouble.

Thus, when the Baker-Fancher train arrived in Salt Lake City, seeking replenishment of their provisions (as many wagon trains had over the years before them), they were refused. Getting low on supplies, including drinking water, the train turned south on the Old Spanish Trail, headed to a place called Mountain Meadows near Cedar City, reputed to have plentiful grass for livestock, cool, clear drinking water for all and was an excellent place to rest up for a few days.

The Mormons in Cedar City, unsure how to enforce Young’s martial law as it applied to the wagon train, decided on a drastic plan of action — they would convince their neighbors, the Southern Paiute Native Americans, to attack the Baker-Fancher party, and put them out of business. To add size to the small number of available Paiutes, Mormons dressed like the Natives, including war paint, and joined in the attack.

The Mormons and the Paiutes underestimated the toughness and resiliency of the Arkansas settlers, and what was hoped to be a quick battle raged on for four days. Additionally, some of the Mormons became fearful that the wagon folks had surmised that there were white people aiding the Paiutes, and decided a different course of action was needed to save them from implication in the disaster. There must be no witnesses.

On Sept. 11, 1857, five days after the attack on the Baker-Fancher group began, the Mormons called off the Paiutes and several members of the Mormon militia approached the wagon train, carrying a white flag of truce. The settlers, having been holed up for the duration, were out of food, low on water, and most seriously, out of ammunition.

The militiamen represented to the settlers that they had arranged a peace with the Paiutes and that the Mormons could give them safe passage back to Cedar City. However, the settlers would have to sign over their cattle and other personal possessions to the Paiutes and would have to walk back to Cedar City.

After being battered, bruised, out of ammunition and totally demoralized by what they considered a vicious and unwarranted Indian attack, the wagon train accepted these conditions. They assumed they were dealing with reasonable and helpful men.

After walking about a mile toward Cedar City, one of the militia leaders hollered, “Men, do your duty.” Men hiding in bushes and low-lying draws rushed forward and 120 men, women and children were summarily shot to death or otherwise killed in the welcoming expanse of Mountain Meadows. Seventeen children, believed to be too young to make potential witnesses, were spared and taken in by Mormon families.

Brigham Young had sent a letter to his militiamen, advising them to let the wagon train pass, but it arrived too late, well after the bodies lay cold and lifeless in the middle of Mountain Meadows, their dreams and hopes shattered by an undeserved and unjustified death.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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