The Mountain Meadows Massacre
On September 11, 1857, 140 men, women and children were murdered in cold-blood by a contingent of Mormon Militia. The massacre took place at a place called Mountain Meadows in southwestern Utah, a little north of present-day St. George. The victims were emigrants, members of a wagon train on its way to California from Arkansas. Of the perpetrators of the atrocity only one, John D. Lee, was ever brought to justice. Lee was tried and convicted twenty years later in 1877 and was executed by firing squad on March 23 of that year.
In 1857 Utah Territory was a totalitarian, theocratic dictatorship, with all power concentrated in the hands of one man, Brigham Young, First President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The events of this other 9/11 cannot be understood without some knowledge of the history of that institution.
The founder and creator of the Mormon religion was Joseph Smith, Jr. Born in Vermont in 1805, Smith moved with his family to western New York in 1817. He had his First Vision three years later when he claimed to have been visited by The Almighty and His Son. Smith was a small time grifter and before becoming Prophet, Seer and Revelator, he practiced "gold digging." This was a common scam in those days. The gold digger would claim to have "peep stones," or rocks with magical powers. With the aid of these, and for a fee, the huckster would help farmers discover gold buried on their property. Sometimes they would offer to use their magic to help people find lost property. Sometimes they would steal and hide the property first, thereby increasing the chances of a successful search. Joseph Smith was charged with gold digging in Chenango County, New York in 1826. He had his Second Vision in 1823 when he was visited by an angel with the unintentionally humorous name of Moroni. The Angel Moroni, whose statue adorns the tops of Mormon Temples, revealed to young Joseph the existence of a set of brass plates upon which was inscribed a history of early America. The book had been written and then buried on a hill near Palmyra, New York by Moroni's father, a man named Mormon, the last survivor on one side of a war that had raged across the continent.
In 1827 Joseph recovered the buried plates which had been inscribed with an unknown language called "reformed Egyptian." Fortunately, Mormon had thought to bury some peep stones with the plates which allowed Smith to translate them. The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain described as "chloroform in print," is a long work, over 500 pages. Written in a style that mimics both Old and New Testaments, it describes the settling of the American continent by one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. That tribe's patriarch was called Lehi (LEE-hi). After the scattering of the tribes, Lehi's clan wandered around the Levant for a while before arriving at a place called Bountiful on the seashore, presumably the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Here Lehi's son Nephi (NEE-fi) was commanded by the Lord to build a boat, like Noah. The tribe set sail and, at length, arrived in America sometime around 600 B.C.E. Eventually it came to pass that Nephi and his brother Laman (LAY-man) had a falling out. Their two tribes, the Nephites and the Lamanites had a war. The Nephites were wiped out and the victorious Lamanites were turned brown by the Lord for their wickedness. Native Americans are to this day called Lamanites by Mormons in the belief that they are descended from that tribe. There's much more to the story, of course, including a dramatic New World appearance before the Nephites by Jesus Christ himself, stigmata and all, sometime after his Ascension to Heaven. But that's it in a nutshell.
A Faith Community Is Born
The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830, the title page of the first edition credits Joseph Smith, Junior as Author and Proprietor. In that same year Smith's Church of Christ was formally organized in Palmyra and began to gather adherents. How could a document like the Book of Mormon, which John Stuart Mill called "a palpable imposture," become the basis of a rapidly growing community of believers ? There are two reasons: the tenor of the times and the state of education in America. The early 19th century was a time of dissatisfaction with established religion, it was a time of religious experimentation and innovation. People were searching for something new. Western New York State was known as the "burnt-over district" because of all the revival meetings, traveling preachers and rival sects that contended for followers there. It must also be remembered that universal public education was not yet a reality. Education was for the well-to-do. Joseph Smith had virtually no formal education, John D. Lee attended school for only 3 months and Brigham Young boasted that he had only been to school for 11½ days. Whatever the reason, the new Mormon Church grew rapidly and sent out missionaries to convince people hungry for revelation and hot for the Gospel that theirs was the One True Church. Sometime during this period of evangelizing and rapid expansion, Joseph Smith began to believe his own story.
[Mormonism] ... must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen.In Search of a Home
Joseph Fielding Smith,
10th President of the LDS church,
Doctrines of Salvation, 1954
In 1831 Joseph Smith and his first wife Emma moved from Palmyra to Kirtland, Ohio. The next 16 years were filled with trial and tribulation for the Saints, as they were now calling themselves. They had congregations in several different towns but they were seeking a place where they could gather as a people, a new Zion. The first Temple opened in Kirtland in 1836 and around that same time Joseph Smith tried his hand at banking. Denied a state banking charter, Smith opened the Kirtland Safety Society which operated as a bank and issued banknotes. It was an elaborate fraud. The Society's notes were not backed by hard money and the bank failed, leaving throngs of defrauded merchants and angry creditors. In 1837 a writ was sworn out against Smith and his partner Sidney Rigdon for "illegal banking and issuing unauthorized bank paper." Trial was set for October of that year, they would be found guilty. The Prophet had begun to make enemies, receiving death threats and lawsuits. Luckily, he had a revelation. There was already a sizable contingent of Saints in Missouri and it was revealed that Jackson County, Missouri was the new Zion. In fact, it had been the site of the biblical Garden of Eden and nearby Daviess County was where Adam and Eve had fled after their expulsion. The LDS church still owns property in Jackson County where they expect to gather to witness the Second Coming which will take place there.
The Saints had been gathering in Missouri for some time and by the time the Prophet arrived there in 1838 they had taken over much of the state. It may have been religious persecution or it may simply have been that they weren't very good neighbors, but the Latter Day Saints ended up at war with the people of Missouri. They tried to vote as a bloc in the election of 1838 and violence ensued. Earlier that year they had organized an enforcement arm, the Sons of Dan, or Danites, for the protection of the Prophet, who was often in need of protection. They fought it out with the Missourians in the the town square of Gallatin, Missouri on Election Day, August 6. John D. Lee had recently been inducted into the Danites. It was his first fight for the Saints. The Missourians formed vigilantes to fight the Mormons and the Mormons fought back. There were several noted battles, including one where the Saints attacked the State Militia. In October the Mormons looted the town of Gallatin of all its livestock and merchandise and burned it to the ground. The war finally came to an end when the militia massed enough troops to greatly outnumber the Mormons. After an ultimatum from the militia's general, Smith and other church leaders gave themselves up on November 30, 1838 and were jailed to await trial on charges of treason, murder, arson, burglary, robbery, larceny and perjury. The Mormons were expelled from Missouri. They were searched for stolen property as they left, much was recovered. Joseph Smith escaped from jail on April 15, 1839 and went to join his flock on their way to Commerce, Illinois, the new new Zion.
Nauvoo, Polygamy & Martyrdom
The Latter Day Saints descended on the tiny hamlet of Commerce in their thousands. Joseph Smith renamed the town Nauvoo, saying the name had Hebrew origins. The state government of Illinois gave Smith the benefit of the doubt and granted him a state charter that allowed him to appoint his own city government and raise his own militia. A vicious Danite, Hosea Stout, was appointed Chief of Police. Soon Nauvoo was the second largest city in Illinois, only Chicago was bigger. By 1844 the Nauvoo Legion, Smith's militia, had 2,000 soldiers and the Prophet was commissioned Lieutenant-General by the Governor. The General, as he now called himself, even ran for President in 1844 on a platform of "Theodemocracy."
The government of Nauvoo was much more "theo" than "democracy." Nauvoo was effectively a dictatorship, a police state governed by a Council of Fifty appointed by Smith. Membership in the Council was secret. There was no separation of Church and State, they were one. In 1843 the Prophet formally notified the High Council that the Law of Jacob had been revealed to him. Like the Old Testament patriarchs, the Saints were to practice plural marriage. Brigham Young is said to have been reluctant at first, but relented. After all, it was the Will of God.
Joseph Smith himself had been taking plural wives, in secret, since 1832. Other high-ranking Saints had also. Now it was to be the duty of all Saints who were able.
Plural marriages were not made public. They had to be kept still. A young man did not know when he was talking to a single woman. As far as Brigham Young was concerned, he had no wives at his house, except his first wife, or the one that he said was his first wife.To understand "Celestial Marriage," its justification for the faithful and why the women involved were so compliant, we must take a look at Mormon theology. Polygamy is bound up with beliefs about the afterlife, something that was a real, vital concern to many Americans in those days, not just Mormons. Unlike other forms of Christianity, and Mormons consider themselves Christian, the Mormon religion is not monotheistic. There is not just one God, but many, indeed an infinite number. The one we call "God," or "Jehovah," is a flesh-and-blood man named Elohim who lives near the planet Kolob. Any righteous Mormon may become a God and rule over his own planet, but he must have angels to sustain him and this is where Celestial Marriage comes in. After death, when the man becomes a God, he may take as many of his wives and children, as they die, up to his personal Heaven to be his Angels. Of course, many of the women found the idea distasteful. What made them go along with this new revelation ? Again, the afterlife. No woman could get to heaven without her husband's permission. After she dies, her husband must "lift the veil" in order to admit her to the Celestial Kingdom, like Sleeping Beauty being kissed by her Prince. You can see then, that if a woman was worried about the afterlife, if she believed with all her heart that she could only go to Heaven if her husband let her, well, you can see why she would go out of her way to make sure that he is well pleased.
John D. Lee, Confessions ...
It was the practice of plural marriage that indirectly resulted in the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844. Just as in Missouri, the Saints had begun to make enemies in Illinois. They were stealing again. In 1834 the Prophet had condoned stealing from Gentiles. The Illinois papers were full of stories about "Mormon Thievery." In January of 1844 the Illinois State Legislature revoked Nauvoo's city charter. That summer Smith made his fatal mistake, he tried to marry the wife of one of his former supporters. She was outraged and reported it to her husband, William Law. Word of the Saint's practice of polygamy and adultery had leaked out and was being talked about all over the state. Law had been a member of the High Council and a Major-General in the Nauvoo Legion but, revolted by the scandal of polygamy, he split with Smith in April, 1844 and founded a splinter sect the "Reformed Mormon Church." In June Law and a partner bought a printing press and started a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. They knew the details of the whole sordid mess and were ready to tell all. In its first, and last, issue the Expositor laid it all out; adultery, fornication, abuse of the flock, misuse of church funds and stealing from Gentiles. Smith immediately ordered the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the press and burn all copies of the paper. They did so on June 10, 1844. There were calls for his arrest. Smith declared martial law and fled. He was persuaded to turn himself in. An angry mob had gathered outside the jail where Smith was being held. He sent word to the Legion to protect him to no avail. On June 27, 1844 Joseph Smith was shot while in custody in Carthage, Illinois.
New Leadership & Zion At Last
Joseph Smith had made no provision for his succession and in the summer of 1844 there was a power struggle in the Church similar to the one that occurred in the Bolshevik Party after the death of Lenin. In both cases the biggest SOB came out on top. By August Brigham Young had consolidated his power and declared himself First President. During the next year there was a church sanctioned killing spree as the Danites, now Young's personal hit men, settled old scores and eliminated opposition. One of those killed was Carthage jail guard Frank Worrell whom the Saints held responsible for allowing Joseph Smith's murder. He was taken out by Danite leader and "Destroying Angel" Porter Rockwell on September 16, 1845. Also in September of '45 a group of prominent citizens in the town of Quincy, Illinois wrote a letter to Brigham Young asking him to leave the state. The Saints had worn out their welcome once again.
Brigham Young complied with the request and issued a formal declaration promising that the Latter Day Saints would leave Illinois in the spring of 1846. In December of 1845 U.S. Marshals tried to arrest Young for counterfeiting. Counterfeit coinage called "Nauvoo Bogus" had been circulating. Young went into hiding. Plans for the Saints' departure were accelerated. They went to Council Bluffs, Iowa, called Winter Quarters in Mormon history, where they prepared to leave the United States for good once the weather was good enough to travel. On December 7, 1846 Illinois Governor Thomas Ford declared that "the people called Mormons have been removed." In April of 1847 Young and 143 followers left for the West. They reached the Great Salt Lake and on July 22 Young claimed nearly the entire western US for his own fiefdom. Young had thought that he was claiming Mexican land. Although no Mexicans lived in Utah, Mexico still believed the land to be theirs by virtue of long-standing Spanish claims. It must have vexed the new Prophet to learn that the Mexican government had ceded Zion to the U.S. as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The Saints were once again forced to deal with the hated U.S. Government when Utah was declared a United States Territory in 1850. Conflict was inevitable.
The Reformation & Blood Atonement
Believers from all over the country flocked to Utah and began to make the desert bloom. The called the place Deseret, meaning honeybee, and busy bees they were. Of course, it was a totalitarian state. The Church owned all the real estate and Saints were urged to consecrate all they owned. Church Authorities controlled every aspect of their subjects' lives. They doled out the land and the women as they saw fit. There was no independent judiciary and no law but the word of the Prophet, God's representative on Earth. On September 14, 1856 Brigham Young began a Reformation of the Church with a sermon warning the faithful about backsliders and traitors in their midst. Attendees were terrified. Who had not committed some small transgression, who would be punished ?
Young's Reformation was the closest thing to a Stalinist purge ever seen in the United States. Church members were interviewed by Church Authorities about their past deeds and present loyalties. Sinners were everywhere it seemed and a serious effort was made to root them out. It was a true Reign of Terror. Many were murdered. The Church had ordered killings before, but never on this scale. Although many means of execution were used, slitting the victim's throat was the preferred method, in keeping with the Doctrine of Blood Atonement. In the Mormon belief system, some sins were so grave that they could not be forgiven or atoned for in life. The sinner could not enter Heaven unless his blood had been spilled on the ground. By this reasoning, it was doing the sinner a favor to spill his blood since this would allow him to atone for his sins and enter Heaven.
Utah vs. The Federal Government
Brigham Young had been appointed Governor upon Utah's admission to the U.S as a Territory. This suited him fine since he was, in reality, Utah's absolute dictator. The presence of Federal officials in Utah was a different matter. Federal judges, tax collectors and surveyors were beaten, intimidated and prevented from doing their jobs. The Church leaders despised the United States Government and its functionaries. On March 28, 1857 President James Buchanan ordered 3 regiments of the U.S.Army to march on Utah to restore Federal authority.
The Events of 9/11
So that's the back story. I've presented, as briefly as possible believe it or not, the history necessary for some understanding of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. We have a renegade religious sect with recent memory of having been persecuted and chased from place to place by the Gentiles. We have a terrified population in the grips of a bloody purge fueled by religious fanaticism. We have a an absolute dictator who recognizes no earthly authority in possession of both an armed militia and a ruthless secret police. We have church authorities accustomed to bloodshed. We have an actual invasion underway and a population prepared to meet that invasion with armed force. Wrong place, wrong time seems inadequate to describe the situation of the Fancher-Baker party, hopeful emigrants from Arkansas on their way to a better future in California.
The wagon train was spotted and orders came down to attack it. Some believed that it was an advance party from the invading U.S. Army. The original plan was to have the local Paiute Indians do the dirty work under the Supervision of members of the Militia. Brigham Young was also the Indian Agent in Utah Territory and although, like many Indian Agents, he cheated the tribe at every opportunity, he was on fairly good terms with this band of Lamanites. The Indians were told that the "Mericats," their term for Americans, were coming to take their land and kill them all and that if they would attack the emigrants they could keep their livestock.
The wagon train had stopped for the night in Mountain Meadows on September 3. The next morning the emigrants were surprised by gunfire. Shots rang out from all directions. Seven men were dead within minutes. During the night the train had been surrounded by Paiutes and Mormons in war paint masquerading as Indians. The party circled the wagons, dug a rifle pit and prepared to defend themselves. They were well-armed and competent marksmen. The Paiutes took some casualties and decided not to rush the defenses. It became a siege. There was no water source inside the encampment. Water had to be fetched under fire. Two men volunteered to go for help. One was killed by Mormons, his companion was wounded but was able to return to the wagon train.
John D. Lee, head of the local militia, watched the siege from a hill. Seeing the resolve of the besieged emigrants, he decided to lure them out of their camp by subterfuge rather than continue the siege. He and some others approached the camp carrying both an American flag and a white one. He told the emigrants that he was on good terms with the Indians who were besieging the camp and that he could guarantee their safety only if they surrendered their weapons and allowed themselves to be escorted from the Valley by Mormons. They agreed and their weapons were loaded into a wagon. The order of evacuation was to be as follows: first the youngest children in a wagon, then women and older children would march out escorted by militiamen, finally the men would march out, each with a militia member at his side.
And so it came to pass. The wagon with the children rolled out. These were to be spared as innocents who were too young to talk. The women were marched out and, after an interval, the men. At John D. Lee's signal, "Mormons do your duty," each militia member shot the emigrant next to him at close range. Most were killed instantly. At the sound of the gunfire the terrified women and older kids began to run for their lives. They were chased down and killed by Mormons and Indians waiting in the hills. The camp was ransacked for anything of value. The Indians drove off some of the cattle and horses, the Mormons took the rest. All Mormon participants swore an oath never to talk about it, not to anyone ever, not even their favorite wives.
The U.S. Army marched into Salt Lake City on June 26, 1858. The Saints did not resist. The Mormons insisted for years that the massacre had been the Indians' doing. John Lee and other Mormons who had been implicated in the affair were tried but Mormons bound by oath to secrecy made prosecution impossible. They were acquitted. The small children who had been saved and adopted into Mormon households were returned to relatives in Arkansas. Some of them were able to remember and to talk. They told of seeing their Mothers' jewelry on Mormon women and their fathers' wagons on the streets of St. George. John D. Lee, still an intimate of Brigham Young, was told to make himself scarce.
Sometime in 1870 Brigham Young decided to quiet all the talk and to put the thing behind him once and for all. John D. Lee was to be offered up as a scapegoat, thrown under the wagon, so to speak. In February of that year Young ordered Lee to sell his prosperous homestead in Harmony, Utah and leave. In September, Brigham Young formed an expedition to go south into Arizona to find a crossing on the Colorado River. John D. Lee joined that expedition. Lee was formally excommunicated by the Church in October but remained on good terms with Young. In 1871 he finally sold his outfit in Harmony and on December 23 moved with his two remaining wives and 13 children to that spot in Arizona that he and Young had scouted earlier to operate a ferry service. His wife Emma named the place Lonely Dell. Today it is called Lee's Ferry. Lee was tried for a second time for the Massacre beginning on September 11, 1876. This time he was convicted. He tried the Nuremberg defense, that he was only following orders, but the Church could not allow anything to tarnish Young's reputation. Lee was represented as being solely responsible. He was sentenced to death and dictated his Confessions to his wife while awaiting execution.
The whole study, aim and design of Brigham Young is to disrobe the Saints of every vestige of their remaining constitutional rights, and take from them all liberty of thought or conscience. He claims, and has claimed, since he became the head of the Church, that the will and acts of the people must all be dictated by him. ... In a word, he makes himself out to be as infallible as the God of the universe and delights in hearing the apostles and elders declare to the people that he, Brigham Young is God. ... The followers of Brigham Young are serfs, slaves and willing instruments to carry out the selfish demands of the man that disgraces the seat once occupied by God's chosen Prophet, Joseph SmithSources
John D. Lee, Confessions ...
The main sources for this diary were:
Mormonism Unveiled: The Life and Confessions of John D. Lee and the Complete Life of Brigham Young, John D. Lee
One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, Richard Abanes
American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857, Sally Denton