Trail Dust - September 11
On this day in 1857, members of the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train were massacred by a militia made up of Mormon settlers, leading to one of the Old West’s most controversial and disputed incidents.
The emigrants, mostly families from Arkansas passed through the Utah Territory during what became known as the Utah War. It was precipitated by President James Buchannan’s “Utah Expedition” which touched off fear among Mormons.
Mormon leader Brigham Young added to the problem by urging his followers to stock pile grain and declared what amounted to marshal law in preparation for a possible confrontation with federal troops.
Leaving Salt Lake City in late August, the 120 members of the Baker-Fancher party chose to stop and rest the livestock on the good pasture at Mountain Meadows.
Meanwhile members of the Nauvoo Militia led by James Haight and William Dame were busy debating how to enforce Young’s order of marshal law and what to do with the emigrants. One plan suggested disguising militia members as Native Americans and enlisting the aid of members of the Paiute tribe. It did not receive universal approval and reportedly Haight sent a rider to Brigham Young in Salt Lake City seeking his advice.
Apparently Haight didn’t wait to hear from Young, however. On September 6, the militia and a contingency of Paiutes made an initial attack the wagon train.
The emigrants put up an unexpectedly strong defense. Haight, fearing the Mormon involvement would be discovered, decided the entire Baker-Fancher party needed to be eliminated.
Five days later, under a white flag a number of the Nauvoo Militia approached the fortifications the settlers had fashioned, telling them they would escort them safely out of Paiute territory. Accepting the offer, the emigrants were led away from their makeshift fort. The men were shot first and all the women and older children were killed next. Only 17 children under the age of 7 were spared, taken and placed with Mormon families in the area.
The next year Brigham Young sent a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs claiming the massacre was the work of Native Americans. But an investigation by the federal government in 1859 led by Major James Henry Carlton concluded the Mormon militia members were complicit. A federal judge, John Cradlebaugh convened a grand jury in Provo but the jury refused to indict Mormon and Nauvoo Militia leaders.
Following the grand jury, the 17 children who survived the event were located and returned to relatives in Arkansas.
Further inquiry was derailed by the Civil War but in 1871 militia member Phillip Klingsensmith turned state’s evidence against Young, claiming the leader had prior knowledge of the attack.
Militiaman John D. Lee was ultimately convicted in a second trial and was eventually executed.
Mormon historians absolve Young, saying he wrote a letter admonishing the militia for its planned attack which arrived two day after the massacre on September 13. A majority of other historians, however, ascribe at least some culpability to Young. In the rear view mirror, most sources agree the events at Mountain Meadows were brought on by a combination of factors including war hyssteria by the Mormon leadership and the church’s strident teachings during the earlier part of the decade.
Ultimately, in 1990 in a unity move the Mountain Meadows Association made up of descendants of both Baker-Fancher victims and the Nauvoo Militia designed and placed a monument that is maintained by the Utah Sate Division of Parks and Recreation. In 1999 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints replaced a makeshift marker erected by Major Carlton and a memorial wall built in 1932 with new construction.
In 1955, members of the Baker-Fancher party were memorialized with a monument in Harrison, Arkansas, where most members of the wagon train began their ill-fated journey.
The site of the Mountain Meadows massacre was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011.