For Mormons living in the Utah Territory in 1857, the end of the world was nigh.
Having fled the United States a decade earlier because of persecution, the Mormons under Brigham Young had settled into what they thought of as their new “Zion.” As the “people of God,” they were so moved during that era by Old Testament images that they even referred to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.”
By all accounts, things seemed to be moving along quite well for a few years, but trouble began in the mid-1850’s when a severe drought descended upon the Utah Territory. Like Old Testament prophets of old, fiery Mormon evangelists blamed the unfortunate weather pattern on sin and immoral living, and a sort of revival took place, with countless Mormons undergoing re-baptism and re-dedication to Mormon principles. In addition to re-baptism, a movement of blood atonement began, championed by no less than Brigham Young in an 1856 sermon, wherein the offending Mormon sinner would voluntarily be slain as a blood atonement to God and to ensure the sinner’s own salvation. It is not clear how widespread this practice ever was, but it is significant to note that it wasn’t officially repudiated by Mormon doctrine until 1978.
By 1857, with the drought beginning to wane (attributed, of course, to widespread repentance and re-baptism), a new and even bigger problem began to form on the horizon, causing the drought and repentance era to seem rather like the days of tribulation promised in the Bible as precursors to the End.
Word of this impending arrival of federal troops seems to have sent the Utah Mormons into a period of religious hysteria. Convinced by rumors and newspaper reports that this “army” was on its way to exterminate them, the Mormons began preparing for a fight. Leaders, including Brigham Young, publicly discussed the possibility of secession from the United States. The Mormon militia, called the Nauvoo Legion (because it had first been summoned in the 1840’s in Nauvoo, Illinois, where Joseph Smith had been assassinated) was commissioned by Brigham Young to protect the Mormon territory. In August of 1857, Young declared martial law in the Territory – securing the borders and disallowing anyone to enter or leave. Mormon leaders went around Utah preaching the end of times and Armageddon, stirring the population into a frenzy, encouraging people to arm themselves, stockpile grain, and prepare for the coming apocalypse.
Into this tinderbox environment came the blissfully naïve party of Arkansas emigrants known as the Fancher-Baker Party. Comprised of some 120 people, they were on a wagon train heading for California, as so many thousands had done before them. In years past, emigrants to California had been provided safe passage through the Mormon territories in Utah. But now, with martial law declared and the Mormon population fired up for Armageddon, the Fancher-Baker Party found itself at the center of a politico-religious firestorm that its members likely didn’t even know existed.
As the party of emigrants passed through what is now southern Utah, they had several run-ins with local Mormon communities that refused to sell or trade with them. This refusal was due to the instructions they had received from various Mormon leaders to stockpile grain and not trade with any “Gentiles” in the area. Later reports from some Mormons in the area claimed that members of the Fancher party were antagonistic and threatening, used abusive language, and promised that the U.S. Army was just days behind them, coming up to Utah to lay siege to everything Mormons held sacred. Later investigators, however, found very little evidence for any of these claims, although it’s certainly not hard to imagine that the Arkansas emigrants did not take very kindly to being rebuffed in their efforts to buy and trade goods. That they may have responded with aggressive or antagonistic language is not hard to imagine.
In addition to this, a rumor began to spread among the Mormons in the area that the Fancher-Baker Party had poisoned an oft-used well in an effort to kill unwitting locals and their cattle. Like the other accusations, later investigators found no evidence to substantiate this claim and ultimately concluded, in fact, that it had been intentionally fabricated by Mormon militia leaders in the area. All the reports these later investigators took from locals and other witnesses suggested that the Fancher-Baker party was well-behaved and was simply a benign party of emigrants passing through to California at just the wrong time.
From these meetings, the Mormon leaders in the area decided to siege the “Gentile” emigrants who had invaded their territory during this period of martial law and coming apocalypse. To placate some dissenting voices, they sent a messenger to Brigham Young to get his opinion, no doubt knowing full well that the deed would already be accomplished long before Young’s response could reach them – which, it turns out, is exactly what happened.
The purpose of this siege was, presumably, to teach the emigrants a lesson – to put the fear of God into them. Cut a few of the “Gentiles” down and then be done with it.
Displaying a certain level of disturbing political savviness, the Mormon leaders conspired with local Paiute Indian tribes to make the siege look like a run-of-the-mill Indian attack of white settlers – effectively covering their own culpability and participation in the event. The Indians would get the blame, the emigrants would be taught a lesson, and the Mormons could get their revenge.
On September 7, 1857, while the Fancher-Baker Party was encamped in a place known as Mountain Meadows, a group of Paiute Indians, together with a number of white Mormons dressed up as Paiute Indians, attacked the wagon train. The emigrant party quickly moved into a defensive position within a circle of their wagons. According to reports, about seven men of the party were killed in the initial attack. After that, the siege ground to a stalemate, with the emigrants slowly running short of provisions and ammunition.
After several days of siege, the local Mormon militia leaders again discussed the issue and initially decided to end the siege and let the emigrants pass through safely. Several of the emigrants had been killed and the lesson, therefore, had been taught. Might as well end it and let them go their merry way at this point. But upon learning that the ruse of dressing up white Mormon militiamen like Paiute Indians had not fooled the emigrants of the Fancher party, the council changed its mind and ordered an all-out massacre. They couldn’t afford for reports to get back that this “Indian” attack had actually been planned and carried out by Mormons.
Two wagon trains were set up for the emigrants, the first carrying wounded men and women, as well as 17 very young children, and the second carrying the remaining women and children. The male emigrants were escorted on foot by Mormon militiamen. As they made their way across the terrain towards Salt Lake City, one of the militia leaders uttered a prearranged command to his troops. At his word, they immediately turned their guns on the emigrant men they were escorting, and shot them down to the last man. Then more militiamen, together with Paiute Indians, emerged from hiding along the trail and attacked the two wagons, slaughtering the remaining men, women, and children.
Only the 17 very young children, intentionally separated from the rest before the massacre began, were spared. Their lives were spared because they were children and because they were deemed too young to represent any threat of revealing the Mormon involvement in the massacre. After being looted for valuables, the bodies of the dead were left to rot in the Utah sun, and the 17 children were dispersed into various Mormon homes around the territory. The Paiute were paid for their involvement with cattle and personal items taken from the emigrants.
On September 13th, two days after the massacre, a letter from Brigham Young arrived telling the militia to allow safe passage for the emigrants. Too little too late, quite obviously.
In any case, the Mormon involvement in the massacre eventually leaked out. Investigations by the federal government were impeded, however, by the Civil War, and it was not until the mid-1870’s that anyone was charged in the crime. Though nine people were originally brought up on charges, only one – John Lee – ever stood trial. He was convicted and executed by firing squad.
The Utah War, which had precipitated this event, eventually ended without a shot fired between the Mormon militia and the federal troops. The emigrants of the Fancher-Baker Party were the only true casualties of this otherwise bloodless war.