Utah Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Execution of John D. Lee

by SPENCER WILLIAM URE

john d. lee

The Salt Lake Tribune covered the execution of John D. Lee. This article was published on the front page of the March 24, 1877, issue.

Between September 7 and 11, 1857, there was a series of attacks on the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah. Will Bagley wrote in Blood of the Prophets, “Alexander Fancher’s Party was said to consist of eleven families with twenty-nine children and sixty-five total members, traveling with eleven well-stocked wagons and large herds of cattle and horses.” (63) But why the Baker-Fancher party? It has been speculated that the attacks occurred because of the supplies individuals were carrying for their journey from Arkansas to California, and because the wagon train was passing through the Utah Territory during a time of civil unrest. Bagley quotes John D. Lee as saying, “As this lot of people had men amongst them that were supposed to have helped kill the Prophets in the Carthage jail, the killing of all of them would be keeping our oaths and avenging the blood of the prophets.” (381) Today, said Steven Lund, these series of attacks have come to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

According to both Bagley and Lund, Major John D. Lee of the Nauvoo Legion, Utah’s territorial militia, “led a ragtag band of 60 or 70 Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, and a few Indian freebooters” in the assault on the wagon train. (Bagley, “Wild West”) The only emigrants who were spared were 17 small children. (Lund)

Bagley writes in Blood of the Prophets, “The murder at Mountain Meadows raise larger questions about the human condition, particularly how decent men can, while acting on their and best firmest beliefs commit a great evil.” (xiii)

The significance of the Mountain Meadows Massacre comes from the scattered facts and myths that have been raised by this event. George Barclay stated in The Life and Confession of John D. Lee, the Mormon, that there is much speculation regarding what was truly the reasoning behind these attacks and what was covered up by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (43)

On August 5, 1857, one month before the massacre, Brigham Young wrote that martial law was declared in the Utah territory. (Proclamation) During this time, there were multiple escalations in the state that likely contributed to the massacre at Mountain Meadows. Most notable was the start of the Utah War. Lund explained that the Utah War is known today as the confrontation that Utah Mormon settlers had with the United States government over disputes in the Utah Territory. Lund states, “In mid-1857, Latter-day Saint leaders heard rumors that the federal government might replace Brigham Young with a new governor of the Utah Territory, who would be backed by large numbers of federal troops.” These facts have shown that through the pressure from the federal government on the newly created Utah Territory, LDS leaders feared that members would again be driven from their home.

It has been said that this attack was an inside job and part of a larger conspiracy within the Mormon church. Barclay wrote in 1910 that the “extermination of these emigrants was duly presented to the priesthood, and was discussed at considerable length.” (Barclay, 40)

John D. Lee, who led the attack on the wagon train, was executed for his crimes two decades after the fact. In 1875 and 1876, he was tried twice and found guilty for his participation in the massacre. During his first trial, there were no witnesses to testify about his crimes. In order to create legal and due process, a second trial was held. Members of the LDS church were able to find additional witnesses who then testified against Lee. (Barclay, 40) A few months later, on March 23, 1877, Lee was executed, though “he denied any intent to do wrong.” (Barclay, 42)

The Mountain Meadows Massacre has many implications for Utah history. The most notable is that the LDS church has taken responsibility for the event. On September 11, 2007, the 150th anniversary of the event, The Salt Lake Tribune quoted a Mormon leader as saying, “What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.” Henry B. Eyring offered an apology for the church’s role and said, “We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here.”

Spencer William Ure graduated in May 2017 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in communication studies.

Sources

George Barclay, The Mountain Meadows Massacre with the Life, Confession and Execution of John D. Lee, the Mormon (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Barclay & Co, 1877).

T. R. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons, from the First Vision of Joseph Smith to the Last Courtship of Brigham Young (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873).

“Message of the President of the United States to the 36th Congress, 1st Session,” May 4, 1860, http://bit.ly/2mf1oC1.

Brigham Young, “Proclamation by the Governor,” August 5, 1857, http://bit.ly/2lUTrRu.

Bagley, Will. Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Bagley, Will. “Wild West: The Legacy of Mountain Meadows,” Wild West, October 2007, http://www.historynet.com/mountain-meadows-massacre.

Lund, Steven E.The Utah War & Mountain Meadows Massacre,” presentation to the members of the Highland Utah Stake in Alpine, Utah, March 10, 2017.

Ravitz, Jessica. “LDS Church apologizes for Mountain Meadows Massacre,” The Salt Lake City Tribune, September 11, 2007, http://bit.ly/2pD7f61.

Advertisements