An 1889 Account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

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 impanelled 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 were 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 April 2018.

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

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