This video discusses the somewhat incomprehensible Mountain Meadows Massacre, what led up to it, if Brigham Young ordered the massacre, the aftermath and some lessons we can take from this stunning and horrific event.
So in this video, I want to talk about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Really one of the, probably the most challenging period in the Church’s history. It’s a tragedy. There was a recent memorial service at 150 year anniversary of the massacre, and to pause for a minute, the massacre itself, if you’re not familiar with the specifics, there were 120 unarmed men, women and children who were massacred by 50 to 60 militia men, Latter-day Saints in the Mountain Meadows area, which is about 35 miles southwest of the Cedar City area. Seventeen children were not killed, they were considered too young to to tell down the road, and they were those that were under seven and they were kept alive.
President Eyring shared this at the memorial. This was approved by the First Presidency. This was Elder Eyring at the time in 2007, “What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teachings and conduct. We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here. We express profound regret for the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by the relatives to the present time. A separate expression of regret is owed to the Paiute people who have been unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre. Although the extent their involvement is disputed, it is believed they would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local Church leaders and members.”
There was a recent Gospel Topics essay that was written on this. One section of that essay refers to a recent book published. In the essay it says, “In recent years the Church has made diligent efforts to learn everything possible about the massacre. In the early 2000s, historians in the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scoured archives throughout the United States for historical records; every Church record on the massacre was also opened to scrutiny. The resulting book by the authors Ronald Walker, Richard Turley Jr., and Glen Leonard was published by Oxford University Press in 2008.”
This is the book “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” and there will be a part two. This deals with the crime. The second book, which will be coming out soon, deals with the aftermath and the punishment period. I wanted to talk about how this could have happened, if Brigham Young was involved or gave the order, and then some lessons that that can be learned from this.
First of all, to set the stage, this was during the Utah War. There was concern as this was part of now the U.S. territory. President Buchanan was concerned with an uprising here in Utah, and with Brigham Young being the governor and the prophet of the people, they wanted to put it in a non Latter-day Saint governor, so they were sending Alfred Cummings here and escorting him here with a 1,500 troops from the U.S. Army. They were led by someone named William Harvey, who terrified the saints because of his reputation for brutal violence. He was replaced after two months by Johnston. That’s why we call it Johnston’s army there. Brigham declared Martial Law. He told people to keep their grain, do not sell any of their grain to the immigrants. They were coming through on the wagon trains for people passing through to California on the trails. Also to save your ammunition, to get your guns in good working order, to get the militia ready to protect the territory. That was the environment.
This wagon train, the Baker-Fancher party that was coming through. They were not able to to get their supplies in Salt Lake. As they traveled down to Cedar City, things were getting to a boiling point, and Cedar City was the last stop before you traveled to California. Things really were boiling over with this party, and they were making threats saying they were going to go and join the U.S. Army to battle the saints. Somebody even said they had a gun that killed Joseph Smith. There were rumors of poisoning that had happened up in Fillmore of poisoning of the water streams up there. That may have been fictitious, but these rumors were floating around. Parley P. Pratt had been murdered in Arkansas about a month after this party had had left that area. That may have been news that was involved there. There are a lot of things, a lot of confusion, very heightened tensions that were happening at this time.
Now I want to talk a little bit about what led up to the the attacks. So Isaac Haight was the stake president in Cedar City. He was furious with the behavior of this immigrant train that had come through and wanted to punish them for their threats. He was also the mayor and the militia leader there so ultimate theocracy, a position of power there, and that was part of the problem in what happened here. But he had to go to the militia leader of the overall area, which was William Dame he was down in Parowan. William Dame held a council there. This council came to the conclusion to not do anything. This was the dispatch they sent back to Isaac Haight in Cedar City, “Do not notice their threats, words are but wind-they injure no one; but if they (the emigrants) commit acts of violence against citizens inform me by express, and such measures will be adopted as will ensure tranquility”.
Well, he was still intent on punishing them so he came up with a new plan with John D. Lee, who was the militia person of where the train had gone to now, this Mountain Meadows area 35 miles southwest of Cedar City, and also he was the liaison with the Indians, and they came up with a plan to have Indians be involved in sending a message to them and doing a small attack, creating some pain and taking some of their livestock, et cetera. They presented, and any of the militia that would be involved would be dressed up as Indians. So they presented this plan to a council that Haight organized. The council was stunned and had a ton of resistance to it, and they said, we need to approach the prophet Brigham Young and get his recommendation on what we should be doing. They sent a dispatch, a three day express, that was the quickest to get it up to Salt Lake from Cedar at the time. That went up on September 7th. Well on that very day, Lee and some of the Indians, and you know, any militia that were dressed up as Indians did some small attacks.
It did start a five day siege and essentially the immigrant camp formed a circle to protect themselves and were buckled down there. Then there was a critical issue that happened. There were several immigrants that had wandered off. There were two militia men on horses that saw them and went and attacked them. A shot killed one of them. The other escaped and came back to the camp. That created sheer paranoia because now they knew that the immigrants would know that the saints were involved in this. It wasn’t just the Indians. They were fearful that when they got to California, they would tell this to the federal government, which would then come in. They were already on their way, so they thought this would create a very serious situation for everyone in Utah with the impending army approaching. That sent Haight back. He actually went to Parowan to visit Dame again.
They had a second council there in Parawon, and they actually had the same response. No, let them go if they’ll go in peace. Haight later lamented. He said, “I would give a world if I had it, if we had abided by decision of the council.” Here is where the Mountain Meadows Massacre was basically decided at this moment. Haight and the counselor that he brought with him met with William Dame after the meeting, pulled him aside, got him alone and told him two things they had not told the council. One was that they knew that the saints were involved now, that the white man was involved in this. Two, that most of the immigrants had already been killed, which was a complete fabrication, but this got Dame to change his mind, and Haight viewed it as the opportunity now to call in the militia.
He got John D. Lee to to go in on September 11th, a bad omen day. We’ve had another tragedy in our history of this country on that day. September 11th John D. Lee goes in with a white flag of surrender, essentially saying a peace treaty. They’ll let them come back to Cedar, they’ll escort them past the Indians and protect them if they’ll leave all their weapons, so they were unarmed. Then a pre-designed signal after about a mile, there was an ambush. All the militiamen and the Indians that were hiding came in and wiped out everybody but the youngest children, those who were under seven. There were 17 of them that were actually adopted then by the local people there. The government, federal government, several years later got them back to their extended families in Arkansas. The sheer, very challenging situation. Brigham Young’s letter arrives. It was written on September 10th. It arrives on September 13th two days after the attack.
Let me share with you the letter. His letter reported recent news that no U.S. Troops would be able to reach the territory before winter and then here’s the quote. “So you see that the Lord has answered our prayers and again averted the blow designed for our heads. In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of. If those who are there will leave, let them go in peace. While we should be on the alert, on hand and always ready, we should also possess ourselves in patience, preserving ourselves and property ever remembering that God rules.” When Haight read Young’s words, he sobbed like a child and can manage only the words “Too late, too late.”
Those invovled realized, especially after this letter that they had to provide a cover up, and there were lies and stories that were told. John D. Lee actually went up to meet Brigham Young 18 days later, came in, panting essentially as though he was reporting on what had just happened and said there were no white men involved. It was all the Paiute Indians that occurred with this massacre, but slowly over time, lots of details on this video I can’t get into, but things began to unraveled and the real story did come out eventually. Isaac Haight and John D. Lee were both ex-communicated. There were nine that were indicted. John D. Lee did get executed for the crime and I will say on the excommunication there has been a lot of controversy about this. There were no records in the local area there. Juanita Brooks wrote a famous book on this back in the 50s and said that the excommunication was a sham. It’s because it happened at the general church level. It was actually by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. The minutes actually were burned up in a fire that in the 1880’s, but this was recorded in three different journals of the participants in the council, the excommunications. It’s very clear evidence that it did in fact happen.
Now as far as some lessons just to close a couple of lessons. There was an interview that was done with Richard Turley Jr., one of the authors in the book here, but I’ll link in the resources for the video here. At the end he gives a couple of lessons from the writing of the book and thinking about this. First of all, if you want to just pause the screen, you can look at the full quote, but he talks about the slippery slope.
“… otherwise good people can end up committing an atrocity unless they make decisions that pull them off the slippery slope and back onto firmer ground.” There was bad judgment after bad judgment, cover up after cover up that happened throughout this process that led to the great atrocity. The second lesson he talks about, and I’d love for you to pause it and read this quote, but basically it’s that there is safety in councils. If they had followed the advice from any of the councils, none of this would’ve happened. No matter how bad the people were or if any of the rumors were true, even if they were all true, it wouldn’t have justified what happened there at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. That’s it for this one.
Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Glen Leonard by Richard Turley Jr and Ronald Walker
Church statement read by then Elder Eyring at 2007 memorial service recognizing 150 yr anniversary of the massacre: https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/articl…
Gospel Topics Essay discussing the Massacre: https://www.lds.org/topics/peace-and-…
Ensign Article on the Massacre: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2007/09/th…
Interview with Harold Turley Jr on LDS Perspectives Podcast: http://www.ldsperspectives.com/2017/1…
Mountain Meadows Massacre website with excellent resources: https://mountainmeadowsmassacre.com
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.