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.
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.
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.