“The scene was one too horrible and sickening for language to describe. Human skeletons, disjointed bones, ghastly skulls and the hair of women were scattered in frightful profusion over a distance of two miles.” – A traveler passing through the area in 1859
No effort was made to give the bodies a decent burial and over the next two years, foraging animals scattered the bones over a great distance.
The two wagon loads of children who had not been killed were adopted into Mormon homes.
Appalled by what had been done, and in fear of possible repercussions, Brigham Young led a church cover-up, saying that the Paiutes were responsible for the massacre. He wrote that the pioneers had caused the death of a number of Indians by giving them poisoned meat, and by poisoning some of their wells. The cover-up continued to be maintained for the next few years in the face of outside outrage and investigation.
A rock cairn was erected with a carved stone and the words “Here lie the bones of one hundred and twenty men, women and children from Arkansas, murdered on the 11th day of September, 1857.” An officer painted a cross-line beam above the cairn with the words “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. I will repay.” Captain James Lynch of the U.S. Army took possession of the young survivors and returned them to relatives in Arkansas. The children arrived in Carroll County on September 15, 1859, two years after the massacre.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre stands without a parallel amongst the crimes that stain the pages of American history. It was a crime committed without cause or justification of any kind to relieve it of its fearful character… When nearly exhausted from fatigue and thirst, [the men of the caravan] were approached by white men, with a flag of truce, and induced to surrender their arms, under the most solemn promises of protection. They were then murdered in cold blood. – William Bishop, Attorney to John D. Lee
Although there were many investigations, no punishment was handed out for the crime until 20 years later. John D. Lee, Major of the Fourth Battalion of the militia at Harmony, was excommunicated from the Mormon Church and later made the scapegoat in the entire affair. Tried twice, he was finally convicted and executed by firing squad at the siege site on March 23, 1877 for his role in the affair.
Before his death, Lee wrote out a full confession admitting his reluctant complicity. He claimed he was a scapegoat for the many Mormons, including leaders George A. Smith and Isaac C. Haight at the least, responsible for the massacre. In May 1961, the Mormon Church posthumously reinstated Lee’s membership.
The entire truth of the matter will probably never be known because most of the documents and diaries of the participants were destroyed. The extent of Paiute participation in the massacre is a point of disagreement among researchers. Some allege that some of the Mormon militia were dressed as Native Americans. The extent of Mormon participation is also a point of disagreement. Some say the ordering authorities in Cedar City had sent a messenger to Salt Lake City seeking direction from President Brigham Young, and his belated response would allegedly have averted the massacre. Others are unconvinced that even this would absolve Young from responsibility, given the extent of his authority and influence as the leader of the Mormons.
In 1999 a new memorial to the pioneers was erected in Mountain Meadows, Utah and is maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
From Cedar City, north of St. George on Highway15, go west on state highway #56 about 35 miles to the intersection of state highways #56 and #18. Turn south on #18 and go about 11 miles to Enterprise. Continue on south approximately 5 more miles to the Mountain Meadows Massacre site. The monuments are on the south end of the valley.
“I had many to assist me at the Mountain Meadows. I believe that most of those who were connected with the Massacre, and took part in the lamentable transaction that has blackened the character of all who were aiders or abettors in the same, were acting under the impression that they were performing a religious duty. I know all were acting under the orders and by the command of their Church leaders; and I firmly believe that the most of those who took part in the proceedings, considered it a religious duty to unquestioningly obey the orders which they had received. That they acted from a sense of duty to the Mormon Church.” – Life and Confessions of John D. Lee
Gibbs, Josiah F., The Mountain Meadows Massacre; Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co., 1910.