On this day September 11, 1857

Mormon settlers and Paiutes massacre 120 Fancher-Baker emigrant at Mountain Meadows, Utah. All of the party except for seventeen children under eight years old—about 120 men, women, and children—were killed.

Emigrant wagon train

Emigrant wagon train

After the massacre, the corpses of the victims were left decomposing for two years on the open plain, their children were distributed to local Mormon families, and many of their possessions auctioned off at the Latter Day Saint Cedar City tithing office.

The Arkansas emigrants were traveling to California shortly before the Utah War started. Mormon leaders had been mustering militia throughout Utah Territory to fight the United States Army, which was sent to Utah to restore US authority in the territory.

The emigrants stopped to rest and regroup their approximately 800 head of cattle at Mountain Meadows, a valley within the Iron County Military District of the Nauvoo Legion (the popular designation for the Mormon militia of the Utah Territory).

Maj. John D. Lee Isaac C. Haight Bishop Philip Klingensmith
John Doyle Lee judge, and Indian Agent Isaac C. Haight Battalion Commander Bishop Philip Klingensmith

Initially intending to orchestrate an Indian massacre, local militia leaders including Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee conspired to lead militiamen disguised as Native Americans along with a contingent of Paiute tribesmen in an attack. The emigrants fought back and a siege ensued. When the Mormons discovered that they had been identified as the attacking force by the emigrants, Col. William H. Dame, head of the Iron County Brigade of the Utah militia, ordered their annihilation.

Intending to leave no witnesses of Mormon complicity in the siege and also intending to prevent reprisals that would complicate the Utah War, militiamen induced the emigrants to surrender and give up their weapons. After escorting the emigrants out of their hasty fortification, the militiamen and their tribesmen auxiliaries executed the emigrants.

Investigations, interrupted by the U.S. Civil War, resulted in nine indictments in 1874. Only John D. Lee was tried in a court of law, and after two trials, he was convicted. On March 23, 1877 a firing squad executed Lee at the massacre site.

Historians attribute the massacre to a combination of factors including war hysteria fueled by millennialism and strident Mormon teachings by top LDS leaders including Brigham Young. These teachings included doctrines about God’s vengeance against those who had killed Mormon prophets, some of whom were from Arkansas. Scholars debate whether the massacre was caused by any direct involvement by Brigham Young, who was never officially charged and denied any wrongdoing.

However, the predominant academic position is that Young and other church leaders helped provide the conditions which made the massacre possible.

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