America’s overland emigration trails in the 1840s and 1850s were rife with danger. Families moving to California or Oregon fell victim to disease, injury, weather, cholera and Indian attacks. There were also charlatans pitching a shortcut or quicker way. Gullible and trail weary, some emigrants took the bait and fell into pitiful circumstances. The most tragic stories still resonate today.
Religious fanaticism had overridden the better judgment of what were otherwise decent men.
In 1845, mountain man Stephen Meek promised to guide more than 1,200 emigrants to the Willamette Valley in the Oregon country via an alternate route. Meek assured them he knew the way, but they got lost and ran out of water. By the time the pioneers reached the trail again, nearly 50 had died, mostly children. The Donner Party wagon company chose Lansford Hastings’ ill-advised shortcut in the Wasatch Mountains, a tortuous trail that wasted time and decimated their supplies. When they became trapped for the winter by deep snow at Donner Lake, 36 of the 81 people in the group starved to death. Twenty-five of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism to survive.
READ MORE: Read Part I of Mark’s column
Yet, these misfortunes were not the worst losses of life by overland emigrants. On Sept. 11, 1857, a large California-bound wagon train, organized by the Fancher clan from Arkansas, was ambushed in southern Utah Territory by Mormon militiamen and their Indian allies at remote Mountain Meadows. To cover their crime, the Mormons disguised themselves as Indians. The pioneers fought for five days before surrendering, believing false promises of safe passage. Once they relinquished their guns, however, they were summarily shot. There were about 40 men, 30 women and 70 children in the party — slaughtered by Mormon militia members and their Paiute accomplices. Only 17 children were spared —all under the age 6 — because “they could tell no tales.” Though nearly forgotten today, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was called “the darkest deed of the 19th century.”
The attack on the Fancher Party was the result of a constellation of events and circumstances that had been building for nearly two decades. Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in 1830, had been killed by an armed mob in Missouri in 1844. For years, LDS members had been fleeing from state to state searching for safe haven from persecution. The church formed its own private army, the Nauvoo Legion, to protect themselves from “religious terrorists.”
When armed conflict between the LDS and local citizens broke out, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs called up 2,000 militiamen to exterminate the Mormons or banish them from the state. Smith countered by trying to have Boggs assassinated.
Many Americans at the time found early LDS church tenets, such as polygamy and the collective ownership of private property, abhorrent. The LDS belief that obedience to religious authority was a First Law of Heaven didn’t square with the traditional respect for democracy and the constitutional separation of church and state. And Mormons voted as a single political bloc that could swing elections in small towns.
Shortly before his death, Smith’s behavior became more reckless. Although charged with high treason, he announced his candidacy for U.S. president. He also began marrying young girls and the wives of friends and associates, further alienating Americans and even his inner church council.
Three years after Smith’s murder, Brigham Young was ordained President of the Church. In 1847, Young led his people to remote Great Salt Lake in present-day Utah where the LDS founded Salt Lake City. The arduous journey to safety earned Young a nickname — the American Moses. In the lead-up to the Mountain Meadows incident, U. S. army troops were preparing to invade Utah and force Young and his disciples to obey the command of a new, non-Mormon governor appointed by President James Buchanan. In response, Young threatened to kill the soldiers and burn Salt Lake City to the ground. Mormon doctrine held that Native Americans were a lost tribe of Israel and were allies of the LDS in their coming war, or End of Times, against gentiles.
Young warned that all emigration into Utah Territory would be stopped at the Sierra and Rocky mountains. The fiery prophet ordered LDS members to stop selling food and supplies to California-bound pioneers already traveling through the territory. All crops were to be stockpiled and cached for the coming war with the United States. Vitriolic rhetoric from the pulpit whipped many Mormons into a frenzy for revenge of past wrongs against them.
The Fancher Party reached Salt Lake City in August 1857, a time when tensions were at a fever pitch and war seemed imminent. The Arkansas emigrants were among the wealthiest and best equipped on the trail that year, with many cattle and horses. Agitators in the Nauvoo Legion circulated rumors that members of the wagon train had poisoned a local stream to kill livestock and Indians. Other allegations purported that men in the party ridiculed and threatened Mormons in Salt Lake City. Despite lack of proof, several LDS leaders in southern Utah decided to exterminate the group before they left the territory. Religious fanaticism had overridden the better judgment of what were otherwise decent men.
A warning letter was sent to Young the week before, alerting him to the possibility of an attack by church members on a wagon company. Young’s reply to “not meddle with the wagons” arrived too late to prevent the grisly slayings. Historians still debate that final detail: What exactly did Young know and when did he know it?
After intensive investigation by the U.S. government and the Mormon Church, John D. Lee, a major in the Nauvoo Legion, was the only person convicted for the heinous crime. There were others deeply involved in the planning, execution and cover-up of one of the largest mass murders of civilians in U.S. history, but only Lee faced a firing squad. He was executed March 28, 1877, at the scene of the crime.
In 1874, nearly two decades later, the atrocity was still so shocking that Truckee journalist Charles McGlashan traveled to Utah to interview church members, including recently arrested John D. Lee, in a quest for the truth. McGlashan’s conclusions are described in “Give Me a Mountain Meadow,” written by his daughter Nona.