My father was George Baker, a farmer who owned a fine tract of bottomland on Crooked Creek, near Harrison, Arkansas. He and my grandfather, like a lot of other men folks at that time in our part of the country, had heard so much about the California gold rush of 49 that they got the itch to go there. So my father and some of the other men from our neighborhood went out to California to look over the lay of the land and they came back with stories about gold that would just about make your eyes pop out.
There wasn’t anything to do but for everybody in the family to pack up, bag and baggage, and light out for the coast. Everybody but Grandma Baker. She wouldn’t budge. She put her foot down and said:
“Arkansas is plenty good enough for me and Arkansas is where I’m going to stay.” Her stubbornness saved her life, too, because if she had gone along she would have been killed, just as were all the other grown-ups, including my grandfather, my father and mother, and several of my uncles, aunts, and cousins. Our family joined forces with other settlers from neighboring farms under the leadership of Captain Alexander Fancher, and the whole outfit was known as Captain Fancher’s party.
It wasn’t made up of riff-raff. Our caravan was one of the richest that ever crossed the plains and some people have said that that was one of the reasons the Indians attacked our folks to get their goods.
We traveled in carriages, buggies, hacks, and wagons and there were 40 extra teams of top-notch horses and mules, in addition to 800 head of cattle and a stallion valued at $2,000. Altogether, the property in our caravan was valued at $70,000.
Captain Fancher’s party spent the Winter getting ready and when Spring came and everything was all set to go, John S. Baker, who was related to us, was sick with erysipelas and couldn’t travel. So he and his family, along with some of his wife’s relatives, waited a few days and then set out to overtake us. A number of times they came across places where we had camped and found the coals from our campfires still warm, but they never did catch up with us, and that’s why they missed the Mountain Meadows Massacre but they ran into the tail end of the trouble, just the same, and had a terrible time themselves.
A lot has been said, both pro and con, about what caused the massacre. It wasn’t just because we had a lot of property the Indians figured was well worth stealing. There were several other things that entered into it.
In the first place, the members of our party came from a section of the country not far from the district in Missouri and Illinois where the Mormons had been mighty badly treated. If you’ve been reading Mr. Robinson’s articles in the American Weekly, you’ll recall how the Mormons were driven out of Missouri into Illinois, where Joseph Smith, their Prophet and the founder of their religion, and his brother, Hyrum, were assassinated. Then they were driven out of Illinois and, after suffering all sorts of hardships crossing the plains, they finally got themselves established in Utah.
So, it is only natural that they should feel bitter about anybody who came from anywhere near the part of the country where they had had so much trouble. I’m sure nobody in our party had anything to do with the persecution of the Mormons in Missouri and Illinois or anything to do with the assassination of Joseph Smith and his brother. But that didn’t make any difference. The word got around, somehow, that somebody in our party was bragging about having in his possession the very same pistol that was used to kill the Mormon Prophet, and that he even said he aimed to use it on Brigham Young, who had taken over the leadership of the Mormons.
So far as I know there wasn’t a word of truth in that, but the rumor got around, right after we reached Utah, and it made a lot of Mormons see red. Then somebody started working the Indians up against us, by telling them our party had been poisoning springs and water holes, to kill their horses. Now that just isn’t so, nobody in our party would do a thing like that. Even if they had been mean enough, they wouldn’t have been such fools as to do a thing like that in a country filled with Indians that were none too friendly to begin with. Then there was the fact that our party came from the same general district where Parley Pratt, a Mormon missionary, had been murdered by J. H. McLean because Pratt had run away with McLean’s wife and two small sons.
McLean didn’t live in Arkansas. That just happened to be the place where he caught up with Pratt, after tracking him back and forth across the country. The McLeans lived in New Orleans, and in the Summer of 1854 Parley Pratt went there, hunting for new recruits, married women or unmarried women, it didn’t seem to make much difference, so long as they would drop everything and follow him. I don’t know why she did it, but Mrs. McLean listened to his arguments, took up with him, and ran away with him taking her two children with her.
Mrs. McLean took charge of the funeral. She got Blacksmith Wynn to order some boards, all planed and dressed, from a sawmill run by the father of John Steward, who was 16 at the time and afterward became deputy sheriff of Crawford County, and the coffin was made out of them. Then young Steward hauled the body in the coffin out to the burial grounds in his daddy’s ox cart. They didn’t have any preacher. Mrs. McLean did the only talking that was done and among other things she said Pratt had been crucified.
After that, she went on to Salt Lake City, and nobody in our part of the country ever heard anything more about her. But early in 1857, just before our party set out for California, two Mormons showed up at Wynn’s blacksmith shop and asked him a lot of questions. Then they turned back north, along the same route our party followed a few weeks later, and it certainly looks like those two Mormons found out that we were figuring on passing through Utah on our way to California and told the Danites, or Destroying Angels of the Mormons, to be on the lookout for us, because we were from the same district where Pratt was murdered.
At any rate, we sure did get a mighty unfriendly reception when we finally did reach Utah. By that time, the Mormons didn’t have much use for anybody who wasn’t a Mormon.
Off and on, ever since they took over Utah, the Mormons had been bickering with the Federal Government, insisting that they had a right to run everything to suit themselves. It finally got so bad President Buchanan issued an order removing Brigham Young as governor of the territory, and appointing Alfred Cumming to take his place. And just before we landed in Utah, the Mormons heard that Cumming was on his way out, backed up by an army of 2500 men. That made the Mormons mad as hornets, so mad, in fact, that Brigham Young issued a proclamation defying the Federal Government and proclaiming martial law, but the members of our party didn’t know anything about that, and walked right into the hornet’s nest.
When our caravan reached Salt Lake City in August, our supplies just about out, everybody tired and hungry, and our horses and cattle lean and badly in need of rest and a chance to graze, we were told to, move on and be quick about it. On top of that, the Mormons refused to sell us any food, that’s what I was told when I was growing up and I’ve always believed it was so.
So we had to move on, down to Mountain Meadows, in what is now Washington County, Utah. Mountain Meadows was a narrow valley, lying between two low ranges of hills, with plenty of freshwater, supplied by several little streams, and lots of grass for our stock to graze. So it looked like a good place for our party to rest up before tackling the 90-mile desert that lay just ahead. A lot has been written about what was going on among the Mormons while our party was resting at Mountain Meadows. Both sides of the question have been gone into pretty thoroughly, with a lot of arguments and evidence on each side, so anybody who wants to form his own opinion can take up the books on the subject and make his choice.