The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Mountain Meadows was an important rest stop on the Old Spanish Trail. Good grass and abundant water was to be found there. It was the last such stop for travelers heading for California before they had to cross 400 miles of arid desert. In September 1857, Alexander Francher was leading the Francher-Baker wagon train of about 140 men, women and children from Arkansas, bound for California. Francher, who had made the trip before, chose to stop in Mountain Meadows on the evening of September 6, 1857.

On the morning of September 7, the wagon train was attacked by a group of men pretending to be Indians. Exactly who was in the attacking party is not clear. Some Indians may have participated, but it is commonly believed that most, if not all of the attackers were Morman militiamen. Francher's party defended themselves successfully for five days. On September 11, the attackers broke off their attack and John D. Lee approached the wagon train under a white flag offering, as a Morman Militia leader, to negotiate safe passage to Cedar City if Francher's party would agree to lay down their arms. Running low on ammunition and out of water, Francher agreed. As soon as all of the immigrants were clear of the wagons, the Morman militiamen turned on them and massacred the entire party except for 17 children under the age of seven. The bodies were hastily buried and the children were taken in by various Morman families.

That much of the story is pretty clear to most observers, although a few still maintain that Indians acting alone were responsible for the entire affair. The motivation for the attack is, however, a bit more controversial. Some believe that the attack was purely and simply an act of murder and theft. The Francher-Baker wagon train was said to be one of the richest to make the trip during that timeframe. Another theory ties the massacre to the recent murder of Parley P. Pratt by Hector McLean in Arkansas on May 13, 1857. It is said that rumors were circulating that members of the Francher-Baker party had been involved in the murder. (Pratt was a very important Mormon leader, a personal friend of Brigham Young, and a prominent polygamist. Pratt was enamored of McLean's wife, so McLean shot him.)

A great deal of speculation also exists as to a possible role for Brigham Young in the massacre. Some adamantly hold that he had absolutely nothing to do with it. Others are not so sure, with a few even claiming that Young ordered it. The political situation in the Utah Territory was unsettled at the time. Mormons were fearful that the United States Government intended to attack them in an effort to force them to more closely conform to the laws and practices of the rest of the country. Polygamy was central in this regard. Pratt's murder seemed to many Mormans to be related. In 1874, John D. Lee was tried for leading the massacre. It is said that the government attempted to make the case that Brigham Young was involved. The jury failed to agree and a second trial was ordered. In the second trial, in 1877, there was no mention of Brigham Young and Lee was convicted.

After the second trial, Lee claimed that he had been sacrificed in a cowardly manner and later made some oblique comments that might imply that he had been carrying out Brigham Young's orders. Lee was executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows on March 23, 1877. No one else was ever prosecuted. Understandably, the subject is a very difficult one for Mormans to discuss and even the wording on the memorial that marks the site in Mountain Meadows is parsed carefully.

In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more
than 120 Arkansas emigrants led by Capt. John T. Baker and Capt. Alexander
Fancher was attacked while en route to California. This event is known as
the Mountain Meadows Massacre.