Perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

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Perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Question: What happened to the perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre?

Some of the principal participants were excommunicated from the Church, while one participant, John D. Lee, was found guilty of murder

Marker at grave site of John D. Lee, in Panguitch, Utah

Eventually, as more information came to light, some of the principal participants were excommunicated from the Church. One participant, John D. Lee, was found guilty of murder in federal court after twenty years and two trials. The first trial occurred in 1875, before the anti-Mormon judge Jacob Boreman. The prosecutor was an even more notorious anti-Mormon named R. N. Baskin. This official failed to properly try the case against Lee, presented very little evidence against him, and instead focused upon an attempt to prove Brigham Young's complicity in the massacre. This trial ended with a hung jury.

Lee's second trial occurred the following year; the prosecutor was U.S. District Attorney Sumner Howard, and Boreman was again the presiding judge. This time around, the case was properly tried; the jury heard overwhelming evidence against Lee, who was duly convicted and sentenced to be executed for his crime. On March 23, 1877, Lee was executed at Mountain Meadows and buried in Panguitch, Utah. Though other Mormons were certainly as culpable as Lee (he did not act alone), he was the only one executed.

The long hiatus between the massacre and Lee's trial is one of the factors which some feel support the accusations of an institutional cover-up. However, the reasons for this delay suggest otherwise. As mentioned earlier, Governor Alfred Cumming believed the massacre was covered by the Utah Amnesty, thus making any investigation pointless. This belief was shared by a number of eminent legal authorities, including some charged with law enforcement in Utah. The attempts by some politically minded judges, such as John Cradlebaugh, to direct the investigation and prosecution of crime in Utah and conduct "crusades" against the Mormon Church actually hindered, rather than helped, prosecutorial and investigative efforts.

An additional claim sometimes put forward is that Lee was a "scapegoat," that some kind of corrupt agreement existed between Church leaders and territorial authorities to not pursue anyone else. However, the historical records do not back this up. After Lee's execution, territorial authorities wanted to continue the investigations with a view to bringing more of the guilty parties to justice. The official correspondence shows a reward was offered for the capture of Isaac C. Haight, William Stewart and John Higbee, all suspects in the planning and/or execution of the massacre, and that this reward remained on offer for at least seven years. Lee was not tried as a "scapegoat" but as an actual participant in the massacre, evidently the leading participant, who had done more than any other person to bring it about, and who had actually killed five people.

Polemical Accounts

Almost as soon as news of the massacre reached the eastern United States, enemies of the Church began exploiting it for polemical purposes. The content of the various polemical accounts of the massacre varies considerably, but the intent of the accounts is always and everywhere the same: to explain the massacre as a consequence of the doctrine, beliefs, practices or culture of the Mormon Church, and thus destructive of its truth claims.

When writing about the Mountain Meadows Massacre in his Comprehensive History of the Church, B.H. Roberts stated that he

recognizes it as the most difficult of all the many subjects with which he has to deal in this History. Difficult because it is well-nigh impossible to sift out the absolute truth of the matter from the mass of conflicting statements made by witnesses and near witnesses of the affair; and equally difficult to reconcile the differences of contending partisans. Anti-"Mormon" writers have been determined to fasten the crime upon the Church of the Latter-day Saints, or at least upon her leaders; and also, as a rule, holding that in some way "Mormon" doctrine and "Mormon" church polity was responsible for the crime. On the other hand, church people who in all good conscience, and justly, resent this imputation against their church and its leaders, have been naturally slow to admit all the facts that history may insist upon as inevitable.[1]

Most scholars and historians are quick to admit they don't have all the facts related to the massacre, and probably never will. That hasn't stopped some writers, for polemical reasons, from using a broad brush to denigrate the Church and its early leaders relative to the crimes of September 11, 1857.

There have been many accounts of the events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre and a small library could be filled with pertinent materials. Perhaps the best-known of the recent polemical accounts are:

  1. Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 1.. This work attempts to argue that Brigham Young actually ordered the massacre of the Fancher Party. Bagley relies upon a strained interpretation of some new evidence, including minutes of a meeting that took place between Dimick Huntington and some Southern Utah Indian chiefs on September 1, 1857, ten days before the massacre. The very brief minutes (actually a diary entry made after the fact) indicate that the purpose of the meeting, as with similar meetings held in the previous few days, was to enlist the Indians as allies against the approaching army, and not against the Fancher party. Although the particular item of evidence is new, the thesis which it is pressed into service to support actually dates to the 19th century; for example, in her book Wife No. 19, Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning accused Brigham Young of ordering the massacre so that he could appropriate the property of the victims.
  2. Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, (Secker & Warburg, 2003), 1. This book attempts to show that no Indians had anything to do with the massacre, but that every part of it was carried out exclusively by white men. This also repeats a nineteenth-century theme; Mark Twain in Roughing It implied that the Indian participants in the massacre were really white men "tricked out" as Indians.
  3. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Anchor, 2004), 1. This work claims that violence is endemic to LDS doctrine and culture, and uses the Massacre as one example.

Certain themes continue to re-emerge in polemical accounts of the massacre. The claim that it was the worst massacre in American history is a common one; accusations of direct complicity on the part of Brigham Young, of subsequent institutional cover-up or of the "scapegoating" of John D. Lee, are common. Perhaps the following comments relative to Brigham Young's involvement may be instructive:

As a lad I worked in the Main Street Store of the United Order Building and Manufacturing Company in Logan, Utah, commonly known as the U.O. The Logan Branch of Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, familiarly known as the Z.C.M.I., was on the corner, one half block down the street. It was one of my duties to take our egg and butter accumulation, commodities of exchange in those days, to the egg and butter house of Z.C.M.I. It was a small building a little to the rear of the large Z.C.M.I. store building. The worker in charge there was a man who to my boyish eyes was old, perhaps in his sixties. His name was James Holton Haslam. He and I became good friends. Eager for knowledge, I discovered that he was the courier who traveled the road between Salt Lake City to Parowan and back to help President Young establish friendly feelings among the emigrant company, the settlers, and the Indians. The Indians were giving chief concern. He described minutely the trip from Cedar City to Salt Lake City riding three hundred miles in three days, to warn President Young that trouble for the traveling company was brewing in the south. Brigham Young was greatly troubled. Within a few hours after his arrival Brother Haslam was again in the saddle to instruct the people at Parowan and neighboring communities to do everything in their power to protect the emigrants. When he reached Parowan, the massacre had already occurred. He had come too late!
He described to me in detail his meeting with President Young. As he recounted the events of the massacre as far as he learned them, and he had every opportunity of knowing them intimately, President Young wept. The President did everything in his power to prevent any tragedy. He knew that if he failed his people, trained to live in peace and to give love for hate, they would be charged with the commission of the crime. He had suffered persecution with his people for many years. Moreover, he understood the horror of taking life.
The Latter-day Saints had been persecuted and driven from place to place since the beginning of the Church. He and the people prayed for peace to continue their work of redeeming the stubborn desert for human use. This terrible massacre would only intensify the hatred against the Latter-day Saints.
In righteous anger Brother Haslam defended to me as he had done in the courts and elsewhere Brigham Young against the charge of being an accessory to the criminal act of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He was very convincing to me; and a boy is not easily fooled.
When later I read Brother Haslam's testimony in the question and answer method, as published in the The Journal, Logan, Utah, December 4, 1874, I became more than ever convinced that he told the whole and absolute truth, and that Brigham Young was wholly innocent of any complicity with those who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Note an extract from the long testimony covering two newspaper pages. Apparently he arrived in Salt Lake City in the forenoon and found President Young in his office holding a council meeting with his brethren. Brigham Young asked him after reading the message, from Cedar City or Parowan, if he could take the trip back, if so, to take a little rest, and start back during noontime. "He (President Young) said that the Indians must be kept from the emigrants at all costs if it took all of Iron County to protect them." He felt the matter strongly. His eyes filled with tears, said Brother Haslam.
It would have been difficult to fool Brother Haslam. I believed him, and the many other supporting evidences, in preference to others who faraway in time are setting up their own theories of explanation. Brigham Young was not responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.[2]

Historical Healing

The events that transpired during the Mountain Meadows Massacre have rightfully lived in infamy; there is no explanation that can justify the murders of those five days in September, and we cannot fully understand them. In the words of one scholar, "the complete—the absolute—truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it are all very inadequate at best."[3]

In spite of the tragedy, efforts have been made to heal the wounds gouged into the collective American psyche 150 years ago. In the 1980s descendants of the victims and the perpetrators met together to start bridging the divide and make peace with the past. In a series of meetings, the seeds of trust were planted and a hopeful sense of accord started to bloom. On September 15, 1990, many of these descendants gathered together at Mountain Meadows to dedicate a memorial and marker to those who died there. The new memorial was a rendition of the original rock cairn constructed at the site by a military expedition under the direction of Major James H. Carleton about two years after the massacre.

Cultural and social considerations

Nothing can excuse the actions of those who perpetuated the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It may be possible, however, to better understand how basically good, law-abiding people (both before and after the massacre) could have been induced to carry out the massacre's actions.

Researchers have described a "culture of honor" which prevailed in the American South both before and after the Civil War, and illustrate how real or perceived insults or threats from the Fancher party might have moved some to violence:[4]

"The book is about “a singular cause of male violence – the perpetrator’s sense of threat to one of his most valued possessions, namely, his reputation for strength and toughness. In many of the world’s cultures, social status, economic well-being, and life itself are linked to such a reputation." (xv}
"The South was settled by herdsmen from the fringes of Britain. “Herdsmen the world over tend to be capable of great aggressiveness and violence because of the vulnerability to losing their primary resources, their animals."(xv)

(Note that the false belief that the Fancher party was guilty of poisoning water supplies could have stirred the same worries in the LDS settlers.)

"Cases of southern violence often reflect a concern with blows to reputation or status – with ‘violation of personal honor’ – and the tacit belief that violence is an appropriate response to such an affront." (2)
"Thus the southern preference for violence stems from the fact that much of the South was a lawless, frontier region settled by people whose economy was originally based on herding."

(Note that LDS settlers in southern Utah were in a similar setting, depending on a similar economic model. They were, furthermore, threatened by the coming U.S. Army).

"A key aspect to the culture of honor is the importance placed on the insult and the necessity to respond to it. An insult implies that the target is weak enough to be bullied. Since a reputation for strength is of the essence in the culture of honor, the individual who insults someone must be forced to retract; if the instigator refuses, he must be punished—with violence or even death." (5)
The stereotype of the southern woman is that she was highly feminine. Thought there may be some truth to that stereotype, there is a competing one, that she was a ‘steel magnolia,’ a superficially soft and melting woman who was quite capable of toughness and the wielding of power. ... Whatever plantation women were like, it is clear from all sorts of evidence that in the backcountry, women were very tough indeed. (87)

The threat to honor would have been particularly profound if the Mormons believed that their plural wives were being offended or insulted by being called "whores" by the immigrant party:

A key aspect to the culture of honor is the importance placed on the insult and the necessity to respond to it. An insult implies that the target is weak enough to be bullied. Since a reputation for strength is of the essence in the culture of honor, the individual who insults someone must be forced to retract; if the instigator refuses, he must be punished—with violence or even death. A particularly important kind of insult is one directed at female members of a man’s family.
In the Old South, as in the ancient world, ‘son of a bitch’ or any similar epithet was a most damaging blow to male pride....To attack his wife, mother, or sister was to assault the man himself. Outsider violence against family dependents, particularly females, was a breach not to be ignored without risk of ignominy. An impotence to deal with such wrongs carried all the weight of shame that archaic society could muster. (138)

With their history of being repeatedly driven, at least Mormon settlers were surely afraid of appearing weak and vulnerable, which would invite further attacks. That they were weak and vulnerable to the approaching federal army would have only made matters worse.

We emphasize that this does not excuse the massacre, but it makes the decisions and actions of those involved perhaps more explicable.


  1. Roberts, 139.
  2. John A. Widtsoe, "Was Brigham Young Responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre?," Improvement Era (August 1951), ?.
  3. Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Revised Edition, (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 223.
  4. Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996), pages as noted after each citation.