An 1889 Account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

John Doyle Lee

John Doyle Lee

As soon as the women were close to the ambuscade, Higbee, who was in charge of the detachment, was to give the signal by saying to his command, “Do your duty;” whereupon the militia were to shoot down the men, the Indians were to slaughter the women and children, sparing only those of tender age, and Lee with some of the wagoners was to butcher the sick and wounded.

Mounted troopers were to be in readiness to pursue and slay those who attempted to escape, so that, with the exception of infants, no living soul should be left to tell the tale of the massacre.

Entering the corral, Lee found the emigrants engaged in burying two of their party who had died of wounds. Men, women, and children thronged around him, some displaying gratitude for their rescue, some distrust and terror. The brother played his part well. Bidding the men pile their arms in the wagons, to avoid provoking the Indians, he placed in them the women, the small children, and a little clothing. While thus engaged, one Daniel McFarland rode up, with orders from Major Higbee to hasten their departure, as the Indians threatened to renew the attack. The emigrants were then hurried away from the corral, the men, as they passed between the files of militia, cheering their supposed deliverers. Half an hour later, as the women drew near the ambuscade, the signal was given, and the butchery commenced. Most of the men were shot down at the first fire. Three only escaped from the valley; of these two were quickly run down and slaughtered, and the third was slain at Muddy Creek, some fifty miles distant.

The women and those of the children who were on foot ran forward some two or three hundred yards, when they were overtaken by the Indians, among whom were Mormons in disguise. The women fell on their knees, and with clasped hands sued in vain for mercy; clutching the garments of their murderers, as they grasped them by the hair, children pleaded for life, meeting with the steady gaze of innocent childhood the demoniac grin of the savages, who brandished over them uplifted knives and tomahawks. Their skulls were battered in, or their throats cut from ear to ear, and, while still alive, the scalp was torn from their heads. Some of the little ones met with a more merciful death, one, an infant in arms, being shot through the head by the same bullet that pierced its father’s heart. Of the women none were spared, and of the children only those who were not more than seven years of age.

To two of Lee’s wagoners, McMurdy and Knight, was assigned the duty, as it was termed, of slaughtering the sick and wounded. Carrying out their instructions, they stopped the teams as soon as firing was heard, and with loaded rifles approached the wagons where lay their victims, McMurdy being in front. “O Lord, my God,” he exclaimed, “receive their spirits, it is for thy kingdom that I do this.” Then, raising his rifle to his shoulder, he shot through the brain a wounded man who was lying with his head on a sick comrade’s breast.

The Mormons were aided in their work by Indians, who, grasping the helpless men by the hair, raised up their heads and cut their throats. The last victim was a little girl who came running up to the wagons, covered with blood, a few minutes after the disabled men had been murdered. She was shot dead within sixty yards of the spot where Lee was standing. The massacre was now completed, and after stripping the bodies of all articles of value, Brother Lee and his associates went to breakfast, returning after a hearty meal to bury the dead.

It was a ghastly sight that met them at this Wyoming of the west, amid the peaceful vales of Zion, and one that caused even the assassins to sicken and turn pale. The corpses had been entirely stripped by the Indians, who had also carried off the clothing, provisions, wagon-covers, and even the bedding of the emigrants. In one group were the naked bodies of six or seven women, in another those of ten young children, some of them horribly mangled and most of them scalped. The dead were now dragged to a ravine near by and piled in heaps; a little earth was scattered over them, but so little that it was washed away by the first rains, leaving the remains to be devoured by wolves and coyotes, the imprint of whose teeth was afterward found on their bones.

Historic view of Camp Floyd, Utah

Historic view of Camp Floyd, Utah

It was not until nearly two years later that they were decently interred by a detachment of troops, sent for that purpose from Camp Floyd. On reaching Mountain Meadows, the men found skulls and bones scattered for the space of a mile around the ravine, whence they had been dragged by wild beasts. Nearly all the bodies had been gnawed by wolves, so that few could be recognized, and their dismembered skeletons were bleached by long exposure. Many of the skulls were crushed in with the but-ends of muskets or cleft with tomahawks; others were shattered by fire-arms, discharged close to the head. A few remnants of apparel, torn from the backs of women and children as they ran from the clutch of their pursuers, still fluttered among the bushes, and near by were masses of human hair, matted and trodden in the mold.

Old Mountain Meadows Marker

Old Mountain Meadows Marker

Over the last resting-place of the victims was built a cone-shaped cairn, some twelve feet in height, and leaning against its northern base was placed a rough slab of granite, with the following inscription: “Here 120 men, women, and children were massacred in cold blood, early in Sept. 1857. They were from Arkansas.” The cairn was surmounted by a cross of cedar, on which were inscribed the words: “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.”

The survivors of the slaughter were seventeen children, from two months to seven years of age, who were carried, on the evening of the massacre, by John D. Lee, Daniel Tullis, and others to the house of Jacob Hamblin, and afterward placed in charge of Mormon families at Cedar, Harmony, and elsewhere.

All of them were recovered in the summer of 1858, with the exception of one who was rescued a few months later, and though thinly clad, they bore no marks of ill-usage. In the following year, they were conveyed to Arkansas, the sum of $10,000 having been appropriated by Congress for their recovery and restoration.

Judge John Cradlebaugh

Judge John Cradlebaugh

To Brigham Young, as governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, belonged the duty of ordering an investigation into the circumstances of the massacre and of bringing the guilty parties to justice. His reasons for evading this duty are best explained in his own words. In his deposition at the trial of John D. Lee, when asked why he had not instituted proceedings, he thus made answer: “Because another governor had been appointed by the president of the United States and was then on the way here to take my place, and I did not know how soon he might arrive; and because the United States judges were not in the territory. Soon after Governor Cumming arrived I asked him to take Judge Cradlebaugh, who belonged to the southern district, with him, and I would accompany them with sufficient aid to investigate the matter and bring the offenders to justice.”

The Mormons concerned in the massacre had pledged themselves by the most solemn oaths to stand by each other, and always to insist that the deed was done entirely by Indians. For several months it was believed by the federal authorities that this was the case; when it became known, however, that some of the children had been spared, suspicion at once pointed elsewhere, for among all the murders committed by the Utahs, there was no instance of their having shown any such compunction.

Moreover, it was soon ascertained that an armed party of Mormons had left Cedar City, had returned with spoil, and that the Indians complained of being unfairly treated in the division of the booty. Notwithstanding their utmost efforts, some time elapsed before the United States officials procured evidence sufficient to bring home the charge of murder to any of the parties implicated, and it was not until March 1859 that Judge Cradlebaugh held a session of court at Provo. At this date only six or eight, persons had been committed for trial, and were now in the guard-house at Camp Floyd, some of them being accused of taking part in the massacre and some of other charges.

Accompanied by a military guard, as there was no jail within his district and no other means of securing the prisoners, the judge opened court on the 8th. In his address to the grand jury he specified a number of crimes that had been committed in southern Utah, including the massacre. “To allow these things to pass over,” he observed, “gives a color as if they were done by authority. The very fact of such a case as the Mountain Meadows shows that there was some person high in the estimation of the people, and it was done by that authority…You can know no law but the laws of the United States and the laws you have here. No person can commit crimes and say they are authorized by higher authorities, and if they have any such notions they will have to dispel them.” he grand jury refused to find bills against any of the accused, and, after remaining in session for a fortnight, were discharged by Cradlebaugh as “a useless appendage to a court of justice,” the judge remarking: “If this court cannot bring you to a proper sense of your duty, it can at least turn the savages held in custody loose upon you.”

Judge Cradlebaugh’s address was ill-advised. The higher authority of which he spoke could mean only the authority of the church, or in other words, of the first presidency; and to contemn and threaten to impeach that authority before a Mormon grand jury was a gross judicial blunder. Though there may have been cause for suspicion, there was no fair color of testimony, and there is none yet, that Brigham or his colleagues were implicated in the massacre.

Apart from the hearsay evidence of Cradlebaugh and of an officer in the army of Utah, together with the statements of John D. Lee, there is no basis on which to frame a charge of complicity against them. That the massacre occurred the day after martial law was proclaimed, and within two days of the threat uttered by Brigham in the presence of Van Vliet; that Brigham, as superintendent of Indian affairs, failed to embody in his report any mention of the massacre; that for a long time afterward no allusion to it was made in the tabernacle or in the Deseret News — the church organ of the saints — and then only to deny that the Mormons had any share in it; and that no mention was made in the Deseret News of the arrival or departure of the emigrants; — all this was, at best, but presumptive evidence, and did not excuse the slur that was now cast on the church and the church dignitaries.

“I fear, and I regret to say it,” remarks the superintendent of Indian affairs, in August 1859, “that with certain parties here there is a greater anxiety to connect Brigham Young and other church dignitaries with every criminal offense than diligent endeavor to punish the actual perpetrators of crime.”

The judge’s remarks served no purpose, except to draw forth from the mayor of Provo a protest against the presence of the troops, as an infringement of the rights of American citizens. The judge replied that good American citizens need have no fear of American troops, whereupon the citizens of Provo petitioned Governor Cumming to order their removal. Cumming, who was then at Provo, was officially informed by the mayor that the civil authorities were prepared and ready to keep in safe custody all prisoners arrested for trial, and others whose presence might be necessary. He, therefore, requested General Johnston to withdraw the force which was then encamped at the court-house, stating that its presence was unnecessary.

The general refused to comply, being sustained in his action by the judges; and on the 27th of March Cumming issued a proclamation protesting against all movements of troops except such as accorded with his own instructions as chief executive magistrate. A few days later the detachment was withdrawn.

Notwithstanding the contumacy of the grand jury, Cradlebaugh continued the sessions of his court, still resolved to bring to justice the parties concerned in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and in crimes committed elsewhere in the territory. Bench-warrants, based on sworn information, were issued against a number of persons, and the United States marshal, aided by a military escort, succeeded in making a few arrests.

Among other atrocities laid to the charge of the Mormons was one known as the Aiken massacre, which also occurred during the year 1857. Two brothers of that name, with four others, returning from California to the eastern states, were arrested in southern Utah as spies, and, as was alleged, four of the party were escorted to Nephi, where it was arranged that Porter Rockwell and Sylvanus Collett should assassinate them. While encamped on the Sevier River they were attacked by night, two of them being killed and two wounded, the latter escaping to Nephi, whence they started for Salt Lake City, but were murdered on their way at Willow Springs. Although the guilty parties were well known, it was not until many years later that one of them, named Collett, was arrested, and in October 1878 was tried and acquitted at Provo. All the efforts of Judge Cradlebaugh availed nothing, and soon afterward he discharged the prisoners and adjourned his court sine die, entering on his docket the following minute: “The whole community presents a united and organized opposition to the proper administration of justice.”

Mountain Meadows Site

Mountain Meadows Site

This antagonism between the federal and territorial authorities continued until 1874, at which date an act was passed by congress “in relation to courts and judicial officers in the territory of Utah,” and commonly known as the Poland bill, whereby the summoning of grand and petit juries was regulated, and provision made for the better administration of justice. The first grand jury impaneled under this law was instructed by Jacob S. Boreman, then in charge of the second judicial district, to investigate the Mountain Meadows Massacre and find bills of indictment against the parties implicated. A joint indictment for conspiracy and murder was found against John D. Lee, William H. Dame, Isaac C. Haight, John M. Higbee, Philip Klingensmith, and others. Warrants were issued for their arrest, and after a vigorous search Lee and Dame were captured, the former being found concealed in a hog-pen at a small settlement named Panguitch, on the Sevier River.

After some delay, caused by the difficulty in procuring evidence, the 12th of July, 1875, was appointed for the trial at Beaver City in southern Utah. At eleven o’clock on this day the court was opened, Judge Boreman presiding, but further delay was caused by the absence of witnesses, and the fact that Lee had promised to make a full confession, and thus turn state’s evidence. In his statement the prisoner detailed minutely the plan and circumstances of the tragedy, from the day when the emigrants left Cedar City until the butchery at Mountain Meadows. He avowed that Higbee and Haight played a prominent part in the massacre, which, he declared, was committed in obedience to military orders, but said nothing as to the complicity of the higher dignitaries of the church, by whom it was believed that these orders were issued. The last was the very point that the prosecution desired to establish, its object, compared with which the conviction of the accused was but a minor consideration, being to get at the inner facts of the case. The district attorney refused, therefore, to accept the confession, on the ground that it was not made in good faith. Finally the case was brought to trial on the 23rd of July, and the result was that the jury, of whom eight were Mormons, failed to agree, after remaining out of court for three days. Lee was then remanded for a second trial, which was held before the district court at Beaver City between the 13th and 20th of September, 1876, Judge Boreman again presiding.

The court-room was crowded with spectators, who cared little for the accused, but listened with rapt attention to the evidence, which, as they supposed, would certainly implicate the dignitaries of the church. They listened in vain. In opening the case to the jury, the district attorney stated that he came there to try John D. Lee, and not Brigham Young and the Mormon church.

He proposed to prove that Lee had acted in direct opposition to the feelings and wishes of the officers of the Mormon church; that by means of a flag of truce Lee had induced the emigrants to give up their arms; that with his own hands the prisoner had shot two women, and brained a third with the but-end of his rifle; that he had cut the throat of a wounded man, whom he dragged forth from one of the wagons; and that he had gathered up the property of the emigrants and used it or sold it for his own benefit.

These charges, and others relating to incidents that have already been mentioned, were in the main substantiated. The first evidence introduced was documentary, and included the depositions of Brigham Young and George A. Smith, and a letter written by Lee to the former, wherein he attempted to throw the entire responsibility of the deed upon the Indians. Brigham alleged that he heard nothing about the massacre until some time after it occurred, and then only by rumor; that two or three months later Lee called at his office and gave an account of the slaughter, which he charged to Indians; that he gave no directions as to the property of the emigrants, and knew nothing about its disposal; that about the 10th of September, 1857, he received a communication from Isaac C. Haight of Cedar City, concerning the Arkansas party, and in his answer had given orders to pacify the Indians as far as possible, and to allow this and all other companies of emigrants to pass through the territory unmolested. George A. Smith, who had been suspected of complicity, through attending a council at which Dame, Haight, and others had arranged their plans, denied that he was ever an accessory thereto. He also deposed that he had met the emigrants at Corn Creek, some eighty miles north of Cedar, on the 25th of August, while on his way to Salt Lake City, and that when he first heard of the massacre he was in the neighborhood of Fort Bridger.

The first witness examined was Daniel H. Wells, who merely stated that Lee was a man of influence among the Indians, and understood their language sufficiently to converse with them. James Haslem testified that between five and six o’clock on Monday, September 7, 1857, he was ordered by Isaac C. Haight to start for Salt Lake City and with all speed deliver a letter or message to Brigham Young. He arrived at 11 A. M. on the following Thursday, and four hours later was on his way back with the answer. As he set forth, Brigham said to him: “Go with all speed, spare no horse-flesh. The emigrants must not be meddled with, if it takes all Iron county to prevent it. They must go free and unmolested.”

Samuel McMurdy testified that he saw Lee shoot one of the women, and two or three of the sick and wounded who were in the wagons. Jacob Hamblin alleged that soon after the massacre he met Lee within a few miles of Fillmore when the latter stated that two young girls, who had been hiding in the underbrush at Mountain Meadows, were brought into his presence by a Utah chief. The Indian asked what should be done with them. “They must be shot,” answered Lee; “they are too old to be spared.”

“They are too pretty to be killed,” answered the chief. “Such are my orders,” rejoined Lee; whereupon the Indian shot one of them, and Lee dragged the other to the ground and cut her throat.

On the testimony which we have now before us, I will make but one comment. If Haslem’s statement was true, Brigham was clearly no accomplice; if it was false, and his errand to Salt Lake City was a mere trick of the first presidency, it is extremely improbable that Brigham would have betrayed his intention to Van Vliet by using the remarks that he made only two days before the event. Moreover, apart from other considerations, it is impossible to reconcile the latter theory with the shrewd and far-sighted policy of this able leader, who well knew that his militia was no match for the army of Utah, and who would have been the last one to rouse the vengeance of a great nation against his handful of followers.

Lee was convicted of murder in the first degree, and being allowed to select the mode of his execution, was sentenced to be shot. The case was appealed to the supreme court of Utah, but the judgment was sustained, and it was ordered that the sentence should be carried into effect on the 23d of March, 1877. William H. Dame, Isaac C. Haight, and others who had also been arraigned for trial, were soon afterward discharged from custody.

A few days before his execution, Lee made a confession, in which he attempts to palliate his guilt, to throw the burden of the crime on his accomplices, especially on Dame, Haight, and Higbee, and to show that the massacre was committed by order of Brigham and the high-council. He also makes mention of other murders, or attempts to murder, which, as he alleges, were committed by order of some higher authority. “I feel composed, and as calm as a summer morning,” he writes on the 13th of March. “I hope to meet my fate with manly courage. I declare my innocence. I have done nothing designedly wrong in that unfortunate and lamentable affair with which I have been implicated. I used my utmost endeavors to save them from their sad fate. I freely would have given worlds, were they at my command, to have averted that evil. Death to me has no terror. It is but a struggle, and all is over. I know that I have a reward in heaven, and my conscience does not accuse me.”

John D. Lee Execution

John D. Lee Execution

Ten days later he was led to execution at the Mountain Meadows. Over that spot the curse of the almighty seemed to have fallen. The luxuriant herbage that had clothed it twenty years before had disappeared; the springs were dry and wasted, and now there was neither grass nor any green thing, save here and there a copse of sage-brush or of scrub-oak, that served but to make its desolation still more desolate. Around the cairn that marks their grave still flit, as some have related, the phantoms of the murdered emigrants, and nightly re-enact in ghastly pantomime the scene of this hideous tragedy.

About ten o’clock on the morning of the 23d a party of armed men alighting from their wagons approached the site of the massacre. Among them were the United States marshal, William Nelson, the district attorney, a military guard, and a score of private citizens. In their midst was John Doyle Lee. Over the wheels of one of the wagons blankets were placed to serve as a screen for the firing party. Some rough pine boards were then nailed together in the shape of a coffin, which was placed near the edge of the cairn, and upon it Lee took his seat until the preparations were completed. The marshal now read the order of the court, and, turning to the prisoner, said: “Mr. Lee, if you have anything to say before the order of the court is carried into effect, you can do so now.” Rising from the coffin, he looked calmly around for a moment, and then with unfaltering voice repeated in substance the statements already quoted from his confession. “I have but little to say this morning,” he added. “It seems I have to be made a victim; a victim must be had, and I am the victim. I studied to make Brigham Young’s will my pleasure for thirty years. See now what I have come to this day! I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner. I cannot help it; it is my last word; it is so. I do not fear death; I shall never go to a worse place than I am now in. I ask the Lord my God, if my labors are done, to receive my spirit.” A Methodist clergyman, who acted as his spiritual adviser, then knelt by his side and offered a brief prayer, to which he listened attentively.

After shaking hands with those around him, he removed a part of his clothing, handing his hat to the marshal, who bound a handkerchief over his eyes, his hands being free at his own request. Seating himself with his face to the firing party, and with hands clasped over his head, he exclaimed: “Let them shoot the balls through my heart. Don’t let them mangle my body.” The word of command was given; the report of rifles rang forth on the still morning air, and without a groan or quiver the body of the criminal fell back lifeless on his coffin. God was more merciful to him than he had been to his victims.

 

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2020.

About the Author: This account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre was Chapter 20 of  Hubert Howe Bancroft’s book, History of Utah, 1540-1886, published in 1889 by the San Francisco History Co. Though the context remains the same, the text is not verbatim, as grammatical, spelling and other minor changes have been made. Bancroft was born in Ohio and later moved to Buffalo, New York, where he worked in a bookstore. Later he relocated to San Francisco, California, where he managed a bookstore from 1852 to 1868 and began his own publishing house. Accumulating a large library of historical material, he eventually he gave up the book store business to devote himself entirely to writing and publishing history. Though his many works were well received he was often criticized as as lacking preparation and reflecting personal opinions and enthusiasms. He died in 1918 and is buried in Colma, California.

Also See:

Mountain Meadows Massacre

Primary Assassins

Wagon Train Members, Victims & Survivors

Historical Accounts and Testimony

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *