Today is the anniversary of one of the most shocking events in American history. On September 11 religious militants murdered a large number of innocent citizens on American soil.
The date was 1857 and the place Mountain Meadows in the Utah Territory.
The victims of this attack were the settlers of the Fancher-Baker Party, one of the richest wagon trains to ever strike west. The settlers were from Arkansas and they were quite the prize. They had a sizeable herd of cattle, large sums of gold, many modern weapons, and a trove of household goods. As many wagon trains had done before them, they planned to rest and resupply in Mormon territory. Their timing, however, couldn’t have been worse. The Mormon church was in one of its periodic disputes with the American government. Although Brigham Young was the appointed governor of the Utah Territory and the superintendent of Indian Affairs there as well, he had proclaimed that he would decide which American laws would be obeyed in Utah. President Buchanan appointed a new governor and other officials and ordered 2500 troops to escort them west.
The Fancher-Baker Party had no knowledge that Utah had turned into a bubbling cauldron of discontent. When they arrived, they were surprised at the hostility that met them. Communities had been barred from selling them food. They had hoped to spend up to a month resting and resupplying. They soon realized that they’d get no supplies and decided to pass on through. They were quite careful, circling the wagons every night and posting regular guards. Finally they passed through Mormon territory and reached a verdant area known as Mountain Meadows. Here they hoped to rest up before they final push through the desert and on to California.
Feeling the worst was behind them, they were lax in their security that night. They did not circle the wagons, they did not post armed guards, and did not set up camp adjacent to a water source. They next morning, September 7, gunfire erupted all around the camp and in minutes seven settlers were dead. They reacted quickly, circling their wagons and setting up defenses. At this point they likely suspected Indians were attacking them. They were quite wrong. It was in fact the Mormon militia, though many had painted their faces in Indian war paint.
A siege developed over the next few days. Water soon ran out and ammunition began to run low. The settlers tried dressing two young girls in bright white dresses and sending them with buckets on a mad dash for water. The girls were gunned down in sight of the whole party.
On September 11 a man named John D. Lee (a relative of Robert E. Lee) came into camp under the white flag of truce. He said Indians surrounded them but that he and the Mormons had negotiated a settlement for them. If they gave up their arms and marched out with the Mormons, they’d be allowed to leave in peace. The settlers argued furiously about the offer. Many were convinced that giving up their arms would be a mistake. Others pointed out that their situation was dire and they wouldn’t hold out much longer. Eventually, they decided to trust John D. Lee. It was their last mistake.
The men were separated from the women and children and each marched off with a militiaman at his side. When the men had gone some distance, the women and children were allowed to follow. Then a command was given and each militiaman shot the man beside him at point blank rank. Over the next three minutes most of the remaining members of the Fancher-Baker Party were killed. They were shot, bludgeoned, bayoneted, and run through with swords. Others had their throats slit. All told over 140 settlers were murdered. Less than 20 children survived. All of them were less than 8 years old. Older children died with their parents.
The bodies were then stripped of clothes and valuables. The cattle were seized and re-branded, the wagons and goods confiscated, the gold taken. The nearly naked bodies were left to rot unburied. The children were parceled out to local families like prizes. And when the Mountain Meadows Massacre was discovered, the men who perpetrated it said, “It wasn’t us, it was the Indians!”
Within a year it was widely understood that it was not in fact the Indians who did it. Soon, however, the Civil War overtook America and the fate of a wagon train in distant Utah was forgotten. John D. Lee was eventually put on trial and executed 20 years later. None of the other participants or the men who gave the orders were ever punished. In fact, many of them testified against Lee as part of a face-saving political deal.
If you’d like to read more about this very different September 11, I highly recommend American Massacre by Sally Denton. It’s a very well researched book that tells a powerful story.