Details of the event, the Mountain Meadows Massacre mentioned in the preceding article, deserved further explanation.
It is one of the most puzzling events that occurred during the settlement of the west and it had its roots in the history of northeastern Oklahoma.
Initially pioneers, citizens of northwestern Arkansas were thought to have been set upon and slaughtered by Paiute Indians in southern Utah, but soon a more ominous story emerged.
The year was 1857 and the hue and cry to go west to the “promised land” was at a fevered pitch.
To be sure, gold had been discovered in California in 1849, but the fertile land and climate were also strong drawing cards. That magnetism was enough to encourage a number of Arkansas residents, many of them Western Cherokee, to organize what became known as the Baker-Fancher Party.
Led by Alexander Fancher an experienced guide, the wagon train consisted of 200 mostly well to-do farmers and their families as well as a herd of 1,000 cattle. Leaving Northwest Arkansas during mid-April of 1857, the wagon train began its journey west following the St. Louis branch of the Texas Road, past Maysville and Old Fort Wayne, then along Spavinaw Creek turning south to Salina on the Grand River.
Lingering in Salina for a few days to repair wagons and replenish supplies the party and the community bonded as pioneers frequently did. In addition to discussing the route they would take, the leadership had reserved extra funds planning to purchasing supplies in Utah for the final leg of the trip to California.
Following their stay at Salina, the Baker-Fancher wagon train proceeded west across the Grand River connecting with what was known as the Cherokee trail.
In northeastern Oklahoma the trail extended westward across Pryor Creek then turned near Chief Clermont’s old village north of present day Claremore. It then followed the west side of the Verdigris River to Coody’s Bluff, six miles east of today’s Nowata. Coody’s Bluff was known as a “staging stop” on the Cherokee Trail where supplies were again replenished for the long journey across the less well inhabited Kansas plains.
Their next immediate destination was McPherson, Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail. West bound following the Trail, the wagon train would then resume their route north on the Cherokee Trail following the front range of the Rocky Mountains north of present day Denver then proceed west to Salt Lake City, Utah, south to Cedar City then on to California.
Westward bound pioneers were aware of the inherent dangers involved with their journey. Many preferred the northern routes because there was less danger from hostile Indian attacks than routes further south although most who died en route, about one in ten, were victims of Cholera.
Scientists had not discovered the deadly risk of drinking impure water and wouldn’t until well after the Civil War. So, for the most part, the Baker-Fancher Party felt somewhat secure in their choice of routes to California. But what they could not foresee was a growing fear among the Mormon leadership in Utah that for political reasons they were about to be invaded by United States military forces.
Consequently, in preparation for this supposed attack, in addition to developing their own militia, the Mormon faithful were ordered by the leadership to stockpile grains, vegetables and other supplies in anticipation of an invasion.
As a result, when the Baker-Fancher party finally arrived in Salt Lake City and even as they proceeded south through Utah they were unable to purchase necessary supplies. With each refusal anger grew and inflammatory remarks were alleged to have been exchanged between the two factions. As the party proceeded south through Utah tension increased.
When the wagon train reached the traditional camping stop of Mountain Meadows near Cedar City disaster occurred. Angry Mormons, most dressed as Paiute Indians attacked the encircled wagon train and for the next five days gunfire was exchanged.
Then, as a ruse for peaceful settlement under a flag of truce Mormons were allowed into the camp where they promptly and systematically killed all members of the wagon train with the exception of 17 children deemed too young to relate the story.
They were taken in by Mormon families. In the aftermath, looting took place and bodies of the slain pioneers were buried in shallow graves.
Details of this horrific event have been examined and re-examined over the years. Many theories have been advanced, but none with a definite conclusion.
The basic issue has been, was this a conspiracy orchestrated by the Mormon leadership or an isolated reaction of a few malcontents? Even as late as the year 2000, no definite conclusion had been reached.
Needless to say, residents of Salina and in fact most of the Cherokee Nation were in shock. Never supportive and mostly circumspect of Mormon doctrine, particularly their stance on polygamous marriages, those with opposing religious beliefs were quick to denounce and condemn local Mormons.
Tensions were high and the Cherokee government reaction was to order all Mormons to leave the Nation. For the next 30 years Mormon presence was nearly non-existent, but as time passed those of the Mormon faith did eventually reappear, building a meeting house at Manard in Cherokee County in 1892.
Today, the Mormon faith has been re-established in northeastern Oklahoma along with others, but details of the mystery of who exactly orchestrated the Mountain Meadows Massacre and why remain unresolved.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.