The mid-1800s was a time a rapid westward expansion in the US as settlers migrated en masse to seek their fortune in the Californian gold rush. One of the most frequented transit points to the destination was, of course, Utah, where the Mormons fleeing persecution and violence back east had established as their refuge. Here they were free to follow their beliefs and seek a semi-independent existence.
The tensions between the Mormons and traveling emigrants were quick to escalate. Wagon trains and cattle herds plowed through towns and crops fields, antagonizing the locals, who in turn were quick to harass the new arrivals, as payback for the treatment they or their ancestors faced back in the Midwest.
Following numerous complaints, the then U.S President James Buchanan decided that the best course of action to deescalate the issue was to replace Brigham Young as governor and sent a U.S expedition force to restore order in the territory.
Young and the rest of Mormon leadership saw this move as a means to undermine their state rights and renew the persecution of Mormons. Distrustful of the U.S government intentions, they quickly assembled their militia, stockpiled on necessary provisions and prepared for a full out war.
Rather than engaging the U.S military in the open, the Mormons adopted a policy of indirect harassment, hindering them from receiving provisions, felling trees or destroying infrastructure to block their path and setting fire to grasslands where the camped.
Surprisingly, there were little or no killings throughout the confrontation – that is until the arrival of one unlucky wagon train carrying settlers primarily from Arkansas in September of 1857.
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Like many other traveling groups before them, they had hoped to restock supplies here before making the arduous journey to California. However, given the current state of affairs, this proved to be an impossible prospect. Frustrated and low on supplies, the company made camp at the remote Mountain Meadows Pass to rest and recuperate for a few days.
Distrustful of the newcomers and with false rumors abound of them allegedly poisoning the springs near Corn Creek and engaging in provocative rhetoric against the locals, the Mormon leadership decided to launch a covert attack on the California-bound settlers by dressing up as Native Americans to put the blame on them for the violence. To this end, they even paid some local Piute Indians in cattle to join in on the attack.
The emigrant camp was ambushed by the Mormons militia and their native allies but managed to hold off their attackers for days despite being heavily low on basic supplies including food and water. Eventually, the organization broke down among the Mormons amidst panic that the emigrants had discovered the true identity of the attackers.
The leaders of the militia, Isaac Haight, John Higbee, and John Lee, then gave an order to massacre all of them, leaving no survivors to tell the tale of the event. On the fifth day, John Lee approached the battle-weary emigrants and told them that he had successfully negotiated a truce with the ‘natives’. He stimulated that they had to turn all of their livestock and supplies over to the attacking ‘natives’ and they would be escorted to safely to Cedar City by the Mormons.
The children and the wounded were asked to leave first; women and older children second; and finally, the men were allowed to walk out of their fortification. When the signal was given, the militia mercilessly turned on their helpless captives, killing everyone indiscriminately save the very youngest who were deemed too little to relate to the story. These children were taken in by Mormon families but would later be rescued by the U.S Army and given to their relatives back in Arkansas.
A month later, another massacre would take place, in which six Californians were murdered and robbed of their valuables on the charges of allegedly spying for the U.S military.
Regardless, the truth would eventually surface and the Mormon leadership, in a desperate bid to avoid being implicated in the killings, spun the incident as a local event. Lee was offered as a convenient scapegoat and was the only major participant convicted in the killing. They would be excommunicated, put on trial and executed.
In the end, with the President under considerable pressure by Congress to end the crisis quickly, he sent an official peace commission to Utah. It resulted in a full pardon for all Mormons save for those involved in the massacre. An assurance was also given that the government would not interfere in their religion. In return, the Mormons agreed to the transfer of Utah’s governorship from Young to a non-Mormon Alfred Cumming and the peaceful entry of the U.S forces into the territory.
Of course, the Mormon leadership did everything they could to bury the memory of the killings. In 1859, the U.S military erected a massive monument in tribute to the victims of the Mountains Meadows massacre. It was destroyed just a few months later, apparently on the orders of Brigham Young himself. The U.S officials had it rebuilt but the Mormons destroyed it again.
The Federal government too eventually found it convenient to have the matter swept under the rug. The whole affair had been an embarrassment for the U.S authorities and with their attention occupied by the Civil War and then the Reconstruction in the South, the peculiar episode was all but forgotten in the annals of history.