Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
– George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, 1905
There are dark events that stand out in U.S. American history. Pearl Harbor… Custer’s Last Stand… and 911 immediately come to mind.
But there is another lesser known event hidden tucked away in the deep, dark recesses of America’s past. It began on September 11th, 1857. 120 souls were lost. It’s called the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
I learned its terrifying tranquility while driving across Southwest Utah in Spring.
The Fancher Party, emigrants from Arkansas, came to this peaceful place while wagon-bound for California on the Old Spanish Trail.
Little did they know that they were about to be devoured by history. Forces and events beyond their comprehension intersected at this place, at that time, assuring a gruesome atrocity.
Paranoia, driven by long standing religious persecutions and federal government military action in the Utah Territory came to a boil point in a peaceful meadow, at a terrible time.
Looking through the foggy lens of history, details still remain sketchy.
There are three separate memorial sites, yet no explanation to visitors why every man woman and child over 7-years of age were heartlessly murdered while under a flag of truce. 17 children under age 7 were spared.
The 120 who were slaughtered here were left untouched to the ravages of nature.
Passerby John Aiken, after failing to fend off 20 wolves feasting on the carcases, then noted in published reports, “I noticed that the women and children were more generally eaten by the wild beasts than were the men.”
In 1859, two years later, the U.S. Army gathered their scattered remains and buried them in shallow, unmarked mass graves. They put up a makeshift pile of rocks to mark the spot.
Many events conspired to germinate tragic consequence.
In 1847, Mormons were an old-testament fundamentalist religious cult that sought their own promised land. They settled what is now Utah.
Previously, they’d been run out of New York, then Ohio, then Missouri where the Governor branded them enemies and issued an extermination order. Their leader, accused as a common horse thief, was lynched by an angry mob in Illinois.
Utah became a territory in 1850. By 1857, U.S. law encroached on Mormon religious practices, primarily the revival of old testament polygamy. Tensions rose.
In 1857, these events immediately preceded the massacre:
- President Buchanan sent military forces to police the Utah Territory
- The Mormons formed their own militia
- On September 1, Brigham Young encouraged Paiute chiefs to seize emigrant cattle
- Mormon Apostle, Parley Pratt, was murdered in Arkansas
Paiute encouragement to act against emigrants came just 10 days before the massacre. Parley Pratt’s Arkansas murder came just two weeks before the Fancher Party departed Arkansas. After leaving Cedar City, rumors spread that the Fancher Party was involved.
Finger pointing abounds, but this much is known… local settlers, Paiute Indians and the Mormon militia all participated in the attacks.
Fancher circled his wagons in Old West style and fought off three or four separate attacks over five days.
Under a white flag of truce, John D. Lee negotiated a settlement where the emigrants were guaranteed safe, protected passage back to Cedar City if they gave up their arms.
About a half mile march from the wagons, their protectors turned on them and murdered all save for 17 children.
The children were first placed in Mormon homes, but later repatriated back to Arkansas relatives. Today, their descendents maintain the memory of what happened.
John D. Lee is the only man prosecuted for his part in the massacre.
His first trial ended in a hung jury in 1875, eighteen years after the fact.
He wasn’t so lucky second time around. He got convicted.
Lee was executed by firing squad on March 23, 1877… at Mountain Meadows.