An 1889 Account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

By Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1889

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

The threat uttered by Brigham Young during his interview with Captain Van Vliet, on the 9th of September, 1857, was speedily fulfilled — so speedily that, at first sight, its execution would appear to have been predetermined. “If, he declared, the government dare to force the issue, I shall not hold the Indians by the wrist any longer.” “If the issue comes, you may tell the government to stop all emigration across the continent, for the Indians will kill all who attempt it.” Two days later occurred the Mountain Meadows Massacre, at a point about three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City.

The threat and the deed came so near together as to lead many to believe that one was the result of the other. But a moment’s reflection will show that they were too nearly simultaneous for this to be the case; that in the absence of telegraph and railroad, it would be impossible to execute such a deed three hundred miles away in two days.

Indeed, it may as well be understood at the outset that this horrible crime, so often and so persistently charged upon the Mormon church and its leaders, was the crime of an individual, the crime of a fanatic of the worst stamp, one who was a member of the Mormon church, but of whose intentions the church knew nothing, and whose bloody acts the members of the church, high and low, regard with as much abhorrence as any out of the church. Indeed, the blow fell upon the brotherhood with threefold force and damage.

There was the cruelty of it, which wrung their hearts; there was the odium attending its performance in their midst, and there was the strength it lent their enemies further to malign and molest them. The Mormons denounce the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and every act connected therewith, as earnestly and as honestly as any in the outside world. This is abundantly proved and may be accepted as a historical fact.

I will now proceed to give the incidents as they occurred. In the spring of 1857 a party of one hundred and thirty-six Arkansas emigrants, among whom were a few Missourians, set forth for southern California.

Wagon train in Utah

Wagon train in Utah

It included about thirty families, most of them related by marriage or kindred, and its members were of every age, from the grandsire to the babe in arms. They belonged to the class of settlers of whom California was in need. Most of them were farmers by occupation; they were orderly, sober, thrifty, and among them was no lack of skill and capital. They traveled leisurely and in comfort, stopping at intervals to recruit their cattle, and about the end of July arrived at Salt Lake City, where they hoped to replenish their stock of provisions.

For several years after the gold discovery the arrival of an emigrant party was usually followed, as we have seen, by friendly traffic between saint and gentile, the former thus disposing, to good advantage, of his farm and garden produce. But now all was changed. The army of Utah was advancing on Zion, and the Arkansas families reached the valley at the very time when the Mormons first heard of its approach, perhaps while the latter were celebrating their tenth anniversary at Big Cottonwood Cañon. Moreover, wayfarers from Missouri and Arkansas were regarded with special disfavor; the former for reasons that have already appeared, the latter on account of the murder of a well-beloved apostle of the Mormon church.

Indeed, it may as well be understood at the outset that this horrible crime, so often and so persistently charged upon the Mormon church and its leaders, was the crime of an individual, the crime of a fanatic of the worst stamp, one who was a member of the Mormon church, but of whose intentions the church knew nothing, and whose bloody acts the members of the church, high and low, regard with as much abhorrence as any out of the church. Indeed, the blow fell upon the brotherhood with threefold force and damage.

He was acquitted; but it is alleged by anti-Mormon writers, and tacitly admitted by the saints, that he was sealed to Hector McLean’s wife, who had been baptized into the faith years before, while living in San Francisco, and in 1855 was living in Salt Lake City. McLean swore vengeance against the apostle, who was advised to make his escape and set forth on horseback, unarmed, through a sparsely settled country, where, under the circumstances, escape was almost impossible.

His path was barred by two of McLean’s friends until McLean himself with three others overtook the fugitive, when he fired six shots at him, the balls lodging in his saddle or passing through his clothes. McLean then stabbed him twice with a bowie-knife under the left arm, whereupon Parley dropped from his horse, and the assassin, after thrusting his knife deeper into the wounds, seized a derringer belonging to one of his accomplices and shot him through the breast. The party then rode off, and McLean escaped unpunished.

Thus, when the Arkansas families arrived at Salt Lake City, they found the Mormons in no friendly mood, and at once concluded to break camp and move on. They had been advised by Elder Charles C. Rich to take the northern route along the Bear River but decided to travel by way of southern Utah. Passing through Provo, Springville, Payson, Fillmore, and intervening settlements, they attempted everywhere to purchase food, but without success. Toward the end of August, they arrived at Corn Creek, some fifteen miles south of Fillmore, where they encamped for several days. In this neighborhood, on a farm set apart for their use by the Mormons, lived the Pah Vants, whom, as the saints allege, the emigrants attempted to poison by throwing arsenic into one of the springs and impregnating their own dead cattle with strychnine.

Mormon Trail Map

Mormon Trail Map

It has been claimed that this charge was disproved, and what motive the Arkansas party could have had for thus surrounding themselves with treacherous and blood-thirsty foes has never been explained. In the valleys throughout the southern portion of the territory grows a poisonous weed, and it is possible that the cattle died from eating this weed. It has been intimated that those who accused the emigrants of poisoning the Pah Vants were not honest in their belief and that the story of the poisoning was invented, or at least grossly exaggerated, for the purpose of making them solely responsible for the massacre. The fact has never been so established, notwithstanding the report of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who states that none of this tribe were present at the massacre.

Cattle at waterhole

Cattle at waterhole

Continuing their journey, the emigrants proceeded to Beaver City, and thence to Parowan. Grain was scarce this year, and the emigrants were unable to purchase all they desired for their stock, though for their own immediate necessities they obtained what they required at this place. Arriving at Cedar City, they succeeded in purchasing about fifty bushels of wheat, which was ground at a mill belonging to John D. Lee, formerly commander of the fort at Cedar City, but then Indian agent, and in charge of an Indian farm near Harmony.

It is alleged by the Mormons, and on good authority, that during their journey from Salt Lake City to Cedar the emigrants were guilty of further gross outrage. If we can believe a statement made in the confession of Lee, a few days before his death, Isaac C. Haight, president of the stake at Cedar City, accused them of abusing women, of poisoning wells and streams at many points on their route, of destroying fences and growing crops, of violating the city ordinances at Cedar City, and resisting the officers who attempted to arrest them. These and other charges, even more improbable, have been urged in extenuation of the massacre; but little reliance can be placed on Lee’s confession, and most of them appear to be unfounded. It must be admitted, however, that rather than see their women and children starve, they perhaps took by force such necessary provisions as they were not allowed to purchase.

Near Cedar City, the Spanish trail to Santa Fe branched off from what was then known as Frémont’s route. About 30 miles to the southwest of Cedar, and within 15 miles of the line of the route, are the Mountain Meadows, which form the divide between the waters of the great basin and those that flow into the Colorado River. At the southern end of the meadows, which are four to five miles in length and one in width, but here run to a narrow point, is a large stream, the banks of which are about ten feet in height. Close to this stream the emigrants were encamped on the 5th of September, almost midway between two ranges of hills, some fifty feet high and four hundred yards apart. On either side of their camp were ravines connected with the bed of the stream.

Mountain Meadows Massacre, T.B.H. Stenhouse, 1873

Mountain Meadows Massacre, T.B.H. Stenhouse, 1873

It was Saturday evening when the Arkansas families encamped at Mountain Meadows. On the Sabbath, they rested, and at the usual hour, one of them conducted divine service in a large tent, as had been their custom throughout the journey. At daybreak on the 7th, while the men were lighting their camp-fires, they were fired upon by Indians, or white men disguised as Indians, and more than 20 were killed or wounded, their cattle having been driven off meanwhile by the assailants, who had crept on them under cover of darkness.

The survivors now ran for their wagons, and pushing them together so as to form a corral, dug out the earth deep enough to sink them almost to the top of the wheels; then in the centre of the enclosure they made a rifle-pit large enough to contain the entire company, strengthening their defenses by night as best they could. Thereupon the attacking party, which numbered from three to four hundred, withdrew to the hills, on the crests of which they built parapets, whence they shot down all who showed themselves outside the entrenchment.

The emigrants were now in a state of siege, and though they fought bravely, had little hope of escape.

All the outlets of the valley were guarded; their ammunition was almost exhausted; of their number, which included a large proportion of women and children, many were wounded, and their sufferings from thirst had become intolerable. Down in the ravine, and within a few yards of the corral, was the stream of water; but only after sundown could a scanty supply be obtained, and then at great risk, for this point was covered by the muskets of the Indians, who lurked all night among the ravines waiting for their victims.

Four days the siege lasted; on the morning of the 5th a wagon was seen approaching from the northern end of the meadow and with it a company of the Nauvoo legion. When within a few hundred yards of the entrenchment, the company halted, and one of them, William Bateman by name, was sent forward with a flag of truce. In answer to this signal a little girl, dressed in white, appeared in an open space between the wagons. Half-way between the Mormons and the corral, Bateman was met by one of the emigrants named Hamilton, to whom he promised protection for his party on condition that their arms were surrendered, assuring him that they would be conducted safely to Cedar City. After a brief parley, each one returned to his comrades.

By whose order the massacre was committed, or for what reasons other than those already mentioned, has never yet been clearly ascertained; but as to the incidents and the plan of the conspirators, we have evidence that is in the main reliable. During the week of the massacre, Lee, with several other Mormons, was encamped at a spring within half a mile of the emigrants’ camp; and, as was alleged, though not distinctly proven at his trial, induced the Indians by the promise of booty to make the attack; but, finding the resistance stronger than he anticipated, had sent for aid to the settlements of southern Utah. Thus far the evidence is somewhat contradictory. There is sufficient proof, however, that, in accordance with a program previously arranged at Cedar, a company of militia, among whom were Isaac C. Haight and Major John M. Higbee, and which was afterward joined by Colonel William H. Dame, bishop of Parowan, arrived at Lee’s camp on the evening before the massacre.

Salt Lake City, Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah

It was then arranged that Lee should conclude terms with the emigrants, and, as soon as they had delivered themselves into the power of the Mormons, should start for Hamblin’s rancho, on the eastern side of the meadows, with the wagons and arms, the young children, and the sick and wounded. The men and women, the latter in front, were to follow the wagons, all in single file, and on each side of them the militia were to be drawn up, two deep, and with twenty paces between their lines. Within two hundred yards of the camp the men were to be brought to a halt, until the women approached a copse of scrub-oak, about a mile distant, and near to which Indians lay in ambush. The men were now to resume their march, the militia forming in single file, each one walking by the side of an emigrant, and carrying his musket on the left arm.

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