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Meditation 1101
Mountain Meadows Massacre

by: John Tyrrell

All images by JT - photographed August 22, 2013

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Thanks to Norman Lambert's comment, I reread Dan Shanefield's Meditation 614 in which he mentioned, in passing, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. And that reminded me that this incident was something I had intended to write about.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre was something I'd vaguely heard of, but did not know the details. But this summer, taking a back highway through Utah from Nevada on the way to St. George, I came across the site, and stopped for a while to see what it was about.

Overlooking the valley where this outrage occured is a plaque providing brief details.


Led by Captains John T. Baker and Alexander Fancher, a California-bound wagon train from Arkansas camped in this valley in the late summer of 1857 during the time of the so-called Utah War. In the early hours of September 7th, a party of local Mormon settlers and Indians attacked and laid siege to the encampment. For reasons not fully understood, a contingent of territorial militia joined the attackers. This Iron County Militia consisted of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) acting on orders from their local religious leaders and military commanders headquartered thirty-five miles to the northeast in Cedar City. Complex animosities and political issues intertwined with religious beliefs motivated the Mormons, but the exact causes and circumstances fostering the sad events that ensued over the next five days at Mountain Meadows still defy any clear or simple explanation.

During the seige, fifteen emigrant men were killed in the fighting or while trying to escape. Then late Friday afternoon, September 11th, the emigrants were persuaded to give up their weapons and leave their corralled wagons in exchange for a promise of safe passage to Cedar City. When they were all out of the corral and some of them more than a mile up the valley, they were suddenly and without warning attacked by their supposed benefactors. The local Indians joined in the slaughter, and in a matter of minutes, fourteen adult male imigrants, twelve women, and thirty-five children were struck down. Nine hired hands driving cattle were also killed along with at least thirty-five other unknown victims. At least 120 souls died in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Seventeen children under the age of seven survived the ordeal and were eventually returned to Arkansas. One or more other children may have remained in Utah.

Initially, the Territorrial Governor, Brigham Young (also, the head of the LDS Church) was able to downplay the event after conducting an investigation, blaming it solely on the Indians.  Given Young's role in both Church and State, it is hard to believe that local religious officials would have made a decision to attack and murder a large body of people without his blessing. It was many years later before any of the individuals responsible for this shameful mass murder were brought to justice, and even then, it was only a handful.

Below the overlook, in the place beside a stream where the emigrants were camped at the time of the seige, a memorial has been built, well designed so as not to be overly intrusive in the landscape.

Prominent signage at this memorial gives credit for creating and maintaining this memorial to the LDS Church.

A second sign gives the history of the various grave memorials erected over the years.

Notice how the LDS Church takes credit for involvement in all the Utah monuments, but the very first.* But they actually had involvement in that one, involvement other than being the direct cause of the massacre – under the supervision of Brigham Young shortly after it was erected, the original monument was destroyed.

OK - all that it is a century-and-a-half in the past. Today's Mormons are as appalled when they hear of this bloody event as non-Mormons. But should this event really still defy any clear or simple explanation? Or is the truth buried in the LDS Church archives?

Earlier this month, the LDS Church came clean on the origin of their policy of official discrimination towards blacks – black people were not allowed to enter the priesthood. They laid it firmly upon an 1852 decision by Brigham Young, perhaps influenced by the racial climate at the time, but pointing out that blacks were considered equal in the Church before that decision.

If the LDS Church is now prepared to suggest that such a revered leader as Brigham Young made a such profound theological error as rejecting racial equality in the Church, perhaps it is time to set the historical record straight on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. How responsible was Brigham Young?


* Perhaps wisely, they take no credit for the Arkansas memorials, homeplace of the victims.

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