"I studied to make Brigham Young’s will my pleasure for thirty years. Now see what I have come to this day?”
John D. Lee
Those were John Lee’s last words before he was executed in 1877 for his role in the Utah Mountain Meadows Massacre. The massacre is associated with the history of Northeastern Oklahoma because of the close connection with the Baker-Fancher wagon train. The 120 members were nearly all residents of northeastern Arkansas who, after forming their train, spent several days in Salina, then followed the Cherokee Trail northwest to the Verdigris River, past Coody’s Bluff, across eastern Colorado, eventually connecting with one of the trails to California. The wagon train was composed mostly of well-to-do migrants herding nearly 1,000 cattle, as well as carrying a preponderance of gold coins hidden in their bedding.
Arriving in Salt Lake City on August 3, 1857 and low on supplies, members of the train were generally unaware of the acrimony that was developing between the territory of Utah and the United States. Brigham Young, President of the Mormon Church had initiated warnings to citizens to arm themselves and begin stockpiling food for a possible invasion by United States army troops. The troops had not appeared but generally there was a negative attitude toward any outsiders. That, in turn, led to numerous unfounded rumors about migrants.
As a result of this toxic atmosphere, while the wagon train moved south through eastern Utah, the residents became increasingly suspicious and hostile. Old wounds, discussion of their own mistreatment back east, were opened and, as a result of Brigham Young’s decree and the usual problem of migrant’s cattle grazing the precious grassland, many refused to sell supplies or grain to any wagon train.
Arriving in Cedar City early in September the Baker-Fancher train was able to obtain some supplies and then proceeded to Mountain Meadows a short distance away with the objective of spending several days before making the more perilous journey west across the arid Nevada region. Mountain Meadows was a large area where wagon trains frequently stopped, it was approximately five miles across, with lush grassy pasture land and streams, mostly surrounded by mountains.
During the early morning hours of September 7, the party was suddenly attacked by what appeared to be Indians and immediately circled their wagons. During that initial attack seven migrants including Alexander Fancher, the seasoned guide, were killed. The attack turned into a five day stand-off, but on September 11, two Mormon militia men approached the caravan with a white flag, followed shortly by John D. Lee, who informed members that the militia had negotiated a truce with the Indians. In exchange for their weapons and cattle, the Indians had agreed they would be safely escorted back to Cedar City by the militia. Grateful for the assistance, women and children left first, followed by the men, each of whom were escorted by a militia member. Approximately 500 yards after the party exited the wagon train, Mormon Major John Higbee gave the command, “Militia do your duty,” at which time each male was shot, then women and children were killed, their throats cut or skulls bashed in. Seventeen infants age six and under were spared. They would be distributed to live among several Mormon families. In later years some would recall men washing war paint off their faces in a nearby stream. The carnage over, the victims were hastily buried and there was no immediate public reaction or investigation by the Mormon leadership. The following year, Brigham Young issued a statement blaming Paiute Indians. Two years later, United States Army officer James Carleton investigated the site and concluded most of the “Indians” were, in fact, Mormon militia, but events leading to and culminating with the Civil War delayed further investigation. The massacre event was not officially pursued until an 1874 trial of one man, John D. Lee, who had brought the message of truce to the wagon train. The jury could not reach a verdict in that trial, but three years later he was tried again, convicted and sentenced to death, he was the only individual even tried for the crime. The question of “why” justice was never pursued remained unanswered. Finally, in 2007, one hundred fifty years after Mountain Meadows, a Mormon apostle, Elder Henry B Eyring, addressed the massacre in a memorial at the site, the first official recognition by the church, “We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here…no doubt divine justice will impose appropriate punishment.” Still no explanation regarding “why” the massacre occurred, “why” further investigation was ignored or ”why” others were not tried and convicted. The Mountain Meadows Massacre remains a mystery.
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.