When Saints Became Sinners

Massacre in the Meadow

After the original frontiersmen came the pioneers, men, women, and children who set out for the western frontier in family groups.  In some cases, these family groups included “extended” relations.  Generally, the pioneers agreed to meet at a pre-designated location near their homes or communities. Before the main body embarked on their westward journey, late comers might appear and petition the original group to join their wagon train. The idea was to have enough people form a wagon train, each of whom could defend or support one another over the long and difficult westward trail.

One of these was the Baker-Fancher Party that formed in Arkansas Ozarks in April 1857 —a consolidated effort consisting of several local origin trains.  When formed, the Baker-Fancher Train consisted of around 220 people [1], including children.  Who were these people?  Within the Baker-Fancher Party, most members were prosperous farmers with relatives and/or friends already living in California.  Others were successful cattlemen —generally successful men who had the financial resources to pull up stakes and finance the westward journey. John Twitty Baker formed his train out of Carroll County, Arkansas.  Alexander Fancher, an experienced frontiersman, formed his train from Benton County.  There were four others: Huff (Benton County), Mitchell, Dunlapp, and Prewitt (Marion County), and Poteet-Tackitt-Jones and Cameron-Miller (from Johnson County). Others may have joined the train in Missouri.

Collectively, Baker-Fancher was a well-outfitted train with solid wagons and carriages, a large herd of cattle (nearly 1,000 head), oxen, and numerous horses [2].  Some of these people California-bound farmers, others were driving cattle for profit, and some were hoping to strike it rich in the California gold fields. Their plan was to stop at Salt Lake City, Utah territory for rest and replenishment —which they did in early August 1857.  By this time, the cattle losses reduced the herd to 800 head (which was not unusual over far-distant efforts) and everyone was low on food stores and other supplies.

The timing of their cross-continental passage was unfortunate. Baker-Fancher arrived in Salt Lake City a few months after the beginning of the so-called Utah War (May 1857-July 1858). The Utah War (also known as Buchanan’s Blunder, the Mormon War, and the Mormon Rebellion) was an armed confrontation between Mormon settlers in the Utah territory and the United States military.

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

In the summer of 1847, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also, LDS Church, Mormons, and Mormon Pioneers) began settling in present-day Utah in the summer of 1847.  What pushed these people out of their homes in Illinois and Missouri were religious conflicts within their communities.  One of these conflicts resulted in the lynching of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, Jr.  Subsequent leaders of the church, particularly Brigham Young (shown right), believed that isolation within the Utah territory would allow members of the church to settle in relative safety, and guarantee them the right to practice their religion as they saw fit without interference from people holding different religious beliefs. The Mormons themselves were hardly tolerant of other Christians and denounced Catholics and Protestants in equal measure.  Mormon sermons often accused non-Mormon Christians of having strayed from the true path. This, when added to the Mormon practice of plural marriage, did nothing to foster good relationships with other religious groups.

At the end of the Mexican-American War of 1848, the United States gained control of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Utah. Young and other LDS leaders knew that they were not leaving the political sphere of the United States by settling in Utah, nor were they interested in becoming a nation unto themselves.  They simply wanted to isolate themselves and create settlements around their own brand of theology.

The discovery of gold in California in 1846 acted as a magnet for thousands of easterners to move west; many of these trails passed through the Utah territory.  The California gold rush was a mixed blessing to Mormon settlements.  On the one hand, wagon trains brought opportunities for trade and profit; it also ended the Mormon’s short-lived vision for a utopian society based on religious isolation.

In 1849, Mormon political leaders proposed the incorporation of their territory [3] into the United States as a new state called Deseret.  They most wanted men of their own faith to govern them, rather than the governance of unsympathetic politicians appointed by the Washington establishment.  Mormon leaders wanted a theocratic government.

Plural marriage became a political issue in the United States during the mid-1800’s.  Historians tell us that in 1850, only around one-quarter of all Mormon households practiced polygamy [4] but plural marriage is what most non-Mormons thought of whenever the question of Mormonism came up.  Most Americans rejected polygamy, and for some, it was a hot-button issue.  Polygamy was immoral and against the teachings of Christ.  In 1856, one key plank in the newly formed Republican Party pledged to “prohibit” the twin evils of slavery and polygamy.

The larger issue, however, was the concept of popular sovereignty, a key component of the Compromise of 1850.  Initially, Stephen A. Douglas, a leader of the Democratic Party, was a staunch supporter of the LDS community.  He later denounced Mormonism in order to preserve the notion of popular sovereignty as it related to the issue of slavery.  Douglas was an astute politician and he, along with many other East Coast politicians (James Buchanan among them) expressed alarm by the theocratic dominance of the Utah territory under Brigham Young.  In Utah, more than a few LDS leaders received appointments to territorial and federal posts that in many ways coincided with their ecclesiastical positions, including appointments to the judiciary.  These appointments required confirmation by the territorial legislature, of course, but the legislature itself was largely composed of members of the LDS Church.

Over time, increasing numbers of Washington politicians came to believe that an LDS majority in Utah threatened the idea of American republicanism. It didn’t help allay these fears when James Strang, an LDS rival to Brigham Young, proclaimed himself a king on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan after the main body of the LDS members relocated to Utah.  There was some justification for their concerns: Brigham Young maintained his power in Utah by organizing a paramilitary organization called the Danites. Eastern politicians believed that Young kept the Mormon community in line through armed tyranny.  The evidence for this at the time seemed to be rooted in the fact that a considerable number of non-LDS settlers in Utah didn’t remain there very long.

Non-LDS federal appointees embraced the long-held position that as a federal territory, only the President of the United States (with the advice of the Senate) could appoint territorial governors and federal judges —and do so without any input from the general population.  So much for popular sovereignty, but it was a temporary measure pending successful statehood.  Presidential prerogative was a standard applied to all newly acquired US territories. Apparently, however, federal appointment became an issue within the LDS community —even to the extent of causing Mormons to stand in defiance of federal rulings.

In fear for their own safety and that of their families, some federal appointees abandoned their posts and moved back east —circumstances that fueled the notion of armed tyranny, but whether this was true, Mormon communities were in constant dispute with federal appointees and this fact led the President to conclude that the Mormons were approaching a state of rebellion against the lawful authority of the United States.  One federal judge by the name of William W. Drummond, in his letter of resignation, opined that the power wielded by Brigham Young effectively denuded the rule of law in Utah; that the Mormon leadership ignored the laws of Congress and the US Constitution, and that male Mormons acknowledged no law at all beyond the Mormon priesthood.  A Territorial Chief Justice agreed, offering specific examples where Brigham Young had perverted the judicial system in Utah.  Justice Kinney went so far to request that the president permanently assign an army regiment to the Utah territory.

Dr. John M. Bernhisel, a Mormon, served as Utah’s delegate to the US Congress.  As claims and counter-claims went back and forth between Utah and Washington, he twice suggested (1852 and 1857) that Congress convene an impartial committee to evaluate the actual conditions within the Utah territory.  In 1857, newly elected President James Buchanan was under a great deal of political pressure to do something about conditions in Utah; rather than waiting for a committee report, as suggested by Bernhisel, Buchanan decided to act.  He replaced Brigham Young as territorial governor with Alfred Cumming [5] and ordered 2,500 army troops to Utah.  The Army’s mission was to suppress armed lawlessness within the territory when ordered to do so by the new territorial governor.

Under orders from General Winfield Scott, the US Army dispatched soldiers from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in July 1857.  Ultimately, command of these soldiers fell to Colonel Albert S. Johnson [6].  The Mormons understood that the Army was en route, but they did not have good information about its mission in Utah.  Mormon mail agents in Missouri informed Brigham Young that the US Army was “marching on the Mormons.”  This made the Mormons somewhat apprehensive and led them to begin preparations for the defense of their territory and their rights as citizens.

Whether the Mormons feared annihilation by federal troops is questionable, but what is almost a certainty is that the Mormons believed that they faced renewed persecution for their religious beliefs.  Young, fearing the worst, sent conflicting messages to Mormon communities: prepare for evacuation, stockpile food [7] and livestock, begin the local manufacture of firearms and ammunition.  He recalled LDS missionaries serving outside of the territory and dispatched George A. Smith to supervise the preparation for war among the LDS communities in southern Utah.

Forming an alliance among local Indians was another of Young’s strategies.  In late August 1857, Young met with a delegation of Indians and gave them his permission to take Mormon livestock from Utah into California [8].  He hoped to gain Indian support for an anticipated war with the US Army. Despite these efforts, Indians continued to attack Mormon settlements, including raids near Salt Lake City and along the Salmon River in the Oregon territory.  Subsequently, also in August 1857, Brigham Young activated the so-called Nauvoo Legion, a Mormon militia, which he placed under the command of Daniel H. Wells.  The force consisted of males, aged 16 to 60 years of age.  He ordered Wells to begin a series of skirmishes with approaching Army units to delay their advance.

In late August, Brigham Young declared martial law in the Utah Territory. The written declaration forbade “all armed forces of every description from coming into this Territory under any pretense, whatsoever.”  Important to the Baker-Fancher Party, Young’s order included these instructions: “…no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, though, or from this territory without a permit from the proper officer.”

These were the circumstance in Utah when the Baker-Fancher Party arrived at Salt Lake City for rest and refit, and, consequently, the Mormons refused all hospitality and ordered Baker-Fancher to move on.  At this juncture, Baker-Fancher departed for the Old Spanish Trail which would take them south and west.  At the same time, Smith (one of the so-called LDS apostles) was traveling in company with Jacob Hamblin (Mormon president of the Santa Clara Indian Mission) and Thales Haskell.  Smith’s mission was to order Mormon settlements to stockpile their grain in the eventuality of a conflict with the US Army.  On their return trip to Salt Lake City, on 25 August, the three men camped at Corn Creek (near present-day Kanosh), not far from the Baker-Fancher party, which by this time, had traveled 165 miles from Salt Lake City.  Hamblin advised the train to continue along the trail and rest their cattle at Mountain Meadows where they would find good pasture and water. Mountain Meadows was not far from his own homestead.  Acting on Hamblin’s advice, the train moved on during the next morning.

Smith, Hamblin, and Haskell continued to Salt Lake City where Hamblin remained for about a week conducting Indian business and searching for a new plural wife.  His Indian business included a meeting with a delegation of Southern Paiute [9] and other LDS Church officials.


Isaac C. Haight

The wagon train continued 125 miles to Mountain Meadows, passing the Mormon communities at Parowan and Cedar City, led by Stake [10] Presidents William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight. Dame and Haight were also the leaders of the regional militia.  The approach of the train prompted the Mormon communities to hold meetings.  On 6 September, the question before the town committees was how they might implement Brigham Young’s martial law order.  A plan for an “Indian attack” was discussed, but not everyone agreed that this was a proper response to Young’s order, that “no person shall be allowed to pass.”  The council resolved to take no action until Haight sent a messenger to Young asking for his advice.  The rider was James Haslam.  The trip to Salt Lake City and return would take six days.  After the council adjourned, Haight sent another rider to John D. Lee [11]; we do not know what was in Haight’s message; only that he sent one.

The Baker-Fancher Party arrived at Mountain Meadow as a somewhat dispirited lot.  They anticipated being able to remain at that location for several days to water and feed their livestock.  The next leg of their journey would take them out of Utah.  On 7 September, Mormon militia attacked the Baker-Fancher train dressed as Paiute Indians.  Baker-Fancher circled their wagons and defended themselves by digging trenches and returning fire.  Seven pioneers died during the initial assault, sixteen more received serious wounds. The attack continued for another five days.  The siege prevented members of the Baker-Fancher train from accessing water or hunting for game food.  Ammunition was soon depleted.

Over these five days, the Mormon militia leadership broke down; fear spread among the militia that some of the Baker-Fancher party had caught sight of the “white man.”  They worried that the wagon train party may have discovered who their attackers were. The militia reconciled their situation by resolving to kill everyone in the party, excepting small children.

LEE JD 002

John D. Lee

On 11 September, John D. Lee [12] and two others approached the wagon train under a flag of truce.  Dr. Lee was a federal Indian agent and a militia officer.  Lee informed the battle-weary Baker-Fancher party that he had negotiated a truce with the Paiute Indians and that the Indians would allow the wagon train to return to Cedar City under the protection of the Mormon militia.  Lee further explained that as part of this negotiation, the emigrants would have to give up their cattle and supplies to the Indians.  Baker-Fancher accepted these terms relinquished their fortification.

Mormon militia separated adult men from their women and children.  One militia man took charge of two pioneer men. Then, at a pre-arranged signal, the militia shot the male emigrants from close range.  During stage two, Mormon militia ambushed the defenseless women and children.  In total, Mormon militia murdered 120 men, women, and children.  In the aftermath of the massacre, Mormons blamed local Indians for the carnage.  Because the youngest children could not later tell what happened, the militia farmed them out for adoption by local Mormon families.  The US Army later reclaimed seventeen children and returned them to their relatives in Arkansas.

According to Mormon historians [13], James Haslam delivered his message to Brigham Young on 11 September.  Young answered that Mormon settlements must not molest the Baker-Fancher Party.  Unhappily, Haslam’s return message arrived two days too late.

Local Mormons reported that Indians stole most of the Baker-Fancher property, but this wasn’t true: Southern Utah Mormons, including Dr. Lee, seized most valuables and cattle from the slain pioneers.  Mormons sold or traded the cattle in Salt Lake City, and personal property was auctioned off to local Cedar City Mormons.

Brigham Young conducted one of the earliest investigations of the massacre. Young interviewed Dr. Lee on 29 September.  The next year, Young sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asserting that the massacre was the work of native Americans.  The Utah War delayed a federal investigation until 1859.  The primary federal investigators were Jacob Forney and Brevet Major James H. Carleton.  Carleton made a thorough investigation, uncovering forensic evidence that included human remains.  After providing a proper burial of these remains, he interviewed local Mormons and Paiute tribal chiefs.  He concluded that Southern Mormons participated in the massacre.  Carleton forwarded his report to the United States Assistant Adjutant-General; copies of the report went to members of the US Congress. Carleton labeled the killings a “heinous crime” and assigned blame to local and senior church leaders for organizing and carrying out the mass killings.

Jacob Forney, then the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah, retrieved many of the surviving children of the massacred victims.  He concluded that the Paiute did not act alone, and the massacre would not have occurred without the urgings of white settlers.

John H Higbee

John H. Higbee

Federal Judge John Cradlebaugh undertook this case in March 1859; he convened a grand jury in Provo, Utah … but the jury refused to return any indictments.  Mormons refused to hold their brethren accountable.  Undeterred, Cradlebaugh conducted an inspection of the Mountain Meadows region.  A military detachment was necessary to protect him during his investigation.  The judge attempted to arrest Dr. Lee, Isaac Haight, and John Higbee (shown right), but forewarned, these men fled.  Subsequently, Cradlebaugh charged Brigham Young as an instigator to the massacre and therefore, as an accessory before the fact.

Mormon Territorial Probate Court Judge Elias Smith arrested Brigham Young under a territorial warrant.  Historians believe that Smith intended to divert any subsequent trial to a friendly Utah courtroom, but when no federal charges were filed, Smith released Young.

Phillip Klingensmith

Blacksmith Phillip Klingensmith

The American Civil War circumvented any further inquiries, but investigations continued in 1871 when prosecutors obtained an affidavit from militia member Philip Klingensmith —a church bishop and the blacksmith from Cedar City (shown right).  By this time, Klingensmith had left the church and moved to Nevada.  Subsequent to Dr. Lee’s arrest on 7 November 1874, a grand jury issued indictments on the charge of murder, naming Klingensmith, Elliot Wilden, and George Adair, Jr.  The court issued warrants for the arrest of Haight, Higbee, William C. Stewart, and Samuel Jukes —all of whom had gone into hiding.  Klingensmith avoided prosecution by agreeing to testify as a witness to the events of the Mountain Meadows massacre.

John Lee first went to trial on 23 July 1875 in Beaver, Utah.  He appeared before eight Mormons and four non-Mormon jurors.  The trial resulted in a hung jury on 5 August.  A second trial began on 13 September 1876.  The prosecution called seven Mormon witnesses who testified before an all-Mormon jury.  Lee called no witnesses and the jury found him guilty as charged.  At sentencing, the Court permitted Lee to choose the method of his own demise: hanging, firing squad, or beheading.  Lee decided on a firing squad.  Moments before his death, arranged at Mountain Meadows, Lee claimed that he was a scapegoat for others who escaped prosecution.

John D. Lee was the only Mormon convicted of the massacre. Additionally:

  • George A. Smith died in 1875, aged 58 years.
  • Jacob Hamblin died in 1885, aged 67 years.
  • Isaac Haight died in 1886 while living in Arizona.
  • John H. Higbee escaped prosecution.
  • Philip Klingensmith escaped prosecution by turning state’s evidence.
  • Brigham Young died on 29 August 1877. He suffered in death from cholera morbus and inflammation of the bowels, which may have precipitated a ruptured appendix. His pain in the final moments of his life may have been the only justice served as a result of the Mormon massacre at Mountain Meadows.


  1. Bagley, W. Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
  2. Krakauer, J.  Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Doubleday, 2003.
  3. Denton, S.  American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows,Alfred A. Knopf., 2003.


[1] The number of participants cited is an estimate because several families split off from the train, while others joined up along the way.  There is no precise number of participants in this wagon train.

[2] In this sense, it was a westward moving cattle drive, as well.

[3] The Utah territory was part of the Compromise of 1850; Brigham Young its first governor.

[4] Mormons removed polygamy from church dogma in 1890, although some people do continue its covert practice.  Whenever discovered, it becomes an instant press item with sensational headlines.  The fact is that most Islamists living in America’s inner cities also practice polygamy but receives no attention at all.

[5] Brigham Young did not know that the president had replaced him as territorial governor until Cumming arrived in Salt Lake City.

[6] Originally from Washington, Kentucky, Albert Sidney Johnson (1803-1862) served as Adjutant General and Secretary of War in the Republic of Texas.  He served as a general officer in three separate armies: Texian Army, US Army, and Confederate States Army.  He served in combat during the Black Hawk War, Texas War of Independence, Mexican-American War, Utah War, and the American Civil War.  Johnson died at the Battle of Shiloh on 6 April 1862.

[7] Stockpiling food continues to be a Mormon tradition.

[8] Mormons established colonies along the California Trail and Old Spanish Trail.

[9] Paiute Indians consisted of three separate groups of native Americans, all of which were related to the Numic group of Uto-Aztecan languages.  These were the Northern Paiute (Northeastern California, Northwestern Nevada, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Idaho), Southern Paiute (Northern Arizona, Southern Nevada, and Southwestern Utah), and Mono people (East-central California).

[10] An intermediate level in the LDS Church organization which consisted of several congregations of around 3,000 members.

[11] John Doyle Lee was born in Illinois in 1812.  When Lee was 3-years old, his mother died, and his alcoholic father became abusive. Relatives removed him from the home and put him to work on their farm.  Lee became a Mormon while still in his twenties.  In 1833, he married Agatha Ann Woolsey, the first of his nineteen wives. Lee was a member of the Mormon militia and had participated in several incidents of violence against non-Mormons. He relocated to the Utah territory in 1848.

[12] Maj. John D. Lee served the Mormon community as a constable, judge, and Indian Agent.  Having conspired in advance with his immediate commander, Isaac C. Haight, Lee led the initial assault, and falsely offered emigrants safe passage prior to their mile-long march to the field where they were massacred.

[13] John Lee told a different story.  Although he initially claimed that Young was unaware of the massacre until after it took place, he later claimed that the massacre occurred “… by the direct command of Brigham Young.”  See also: Life and Confessions of John D. Leeby his attorney, William W. Bishop (1877).

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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