Considering all those cinematic or literary occasions in which an emigrant wagon train on the California/Oregon trail was pictured being attacked by a war-party of Indians, it actually happened as represented on very few occasions. That is, a defensive circle of wagons, with the pioneers being well-dug in while the Indians ride around on horseback, whooping and shouting to beat the band, and firing volleys of arrows at them. A little disconcerting for the fan of traditional Wild Westerns to find this out; kind of like discovering that most cowboys didn’t have much actual use for a six-shooter, and that most western towns were actually rather refreshingly law-abiding places. It ruins a whole lot of plots, knowing of these inconvenient verities, but those historians who become passionately interested in the stories of the trail, the frontier, the cattle baronies; they are not terribly surprised. As with everything, the more one looks… the more nuance appears. Of such are books made, non and fiction alike.

Why does this image reoccur, in the face of considerable scholarship to the contrary? Besides the inherent drama in the stories of the westering pioneers and gold-rushers and the desire of those later telling the stories to heighten the drama, probably the biggest reason may be that those who took part in the great transcontinental migrations actually anticipated something of the sort. They had two centuries of bitter history to draw upon, of grudges, warfare, and atrocities on both sides. Of two cultures colliding, of ancient grudges breaking into fresh enmity; why would it be any different west of the Mississippi than it had been east of it?

Amazingly enough, for at least two decades, until well after the Civil War, wagon-train pioneers actually encountered little open hostility from those various tribes whose territories they passed through. Not of the open sort described above, anyway. There was a certain amount of petty thievery, of oxen, horses, and mules stolen or strayed at night, sniping from the badlands along the Humboldt River, and sometimes single wagons and small parties of travelers beset, robbed, or murdered at any point along the way. There are any number of reasons for this, some of them overlapping. In the early years, there were actually relatively few wagon parties venturing over the trail during the course of the trail season. They were transitory, well-armed and usually well led, and had no desire to pick a fight with warrior-tribes like the Sioux, the horse-lords of the upper plains. Other tribes along the route took the opportunity to do business with the wagon-train parties, either trading commodities or labor in helping them to cross rivers, and as historian George Steward pointed out, it must have gotten pretty darned boring in the winter camps in the Rockies and the upper plains. A new set of travelers passing through their lands offered an interruption to the same old routine.

Up until the Civil War there were only a handful of incidents where Indians made a concerted, sustained and ultimately effective attack on a wagon train party; twenty members of the Ward party (including women and children) were overrun and gruesomely massacred near Ft. Hall in 1854, and 44 emigrants of Elijah Utters’ company met a similar fate after being besieged near Castle Butte, Idaho in 1860. Considering the enormous numbers of emigrants and Indians wandering around, fully armed and not particularly inclined to trust each other very much, the length of the trail. and the wide-open nature of the country, this is a very fortunate record indeed.

But there was one single incident which puts the deaths of the Ward and Utter parties into the shade, besides which all the other small incidents pale. There was one particularly brutal and horrendous massacre of wagon-train emigrants which started almost exactly as outlined in all those melodramatic books and movies: the pioneers forted up in a circle of the wagons, and besieged for days while awaiting rescue by the cavalry. And it happened just before the Civil War…

The start of the trail season, spring of 1857 saw a number of prosperous but restlessly ambitious emigrants taking the trail west, many of them linked by ties of kin and friendship: the Bakers of Caroll County, Arkansas, and the Huff and Fancher clans, from Benton County, were joined at some point along the long trail from the jumping-off place at the edge of the sea of grass by families with the prosaic names of Tackett, Jones, Mitchell and Prewitt. Alexander Fancher, the paterfamilias and trail-boss of the Fanchers was experienced in the ways of the emigrant trail, having gone back and forth several times. He and his kin intended to settle for good in California and to that end had bought not only their wives and children, but much of their portable property and savings, and a large herd (estimated at 800-1,000) of long-horned Texas cattle. Some of the party were Argonauts, intending to look for gold, but the Fanchers considered their cattle as their gold, and intended to market them at a profit to the hungry gold miners. They had already registered a brand, for their new ranch and herd.

By 1857 the emigrant trail was not the long and desperate march through unsettled wilderness that it had been ten years before. The US Army had managed to spottily garrison and patrol the Platte River Valley, and the Mormon settlements spreading out from Salt Lake City offered one last and often life-saving chance at rest and resupply before the final calculated leap into the desert and over the sheer mountain wall of the Sierra Nevada. The Fanchers and the Bakers and the other families arrived in the Salt Lake City area at the end of August, and after consultation decided that they were too late in the season to venture the northern trail, following the Humboldt River into the desert where it sank eventually into the sand, and up the long rocky climb up the Truckee River to the steep mountain pass named after the emigrant party which had so famously left their own traverse too late. Experienced and sensible, Alexander Fancher and his fellows would not chance being trapped in the snow; not with their long train of wagons, their herd of cattle and their horses. They would take the southern route, the old Spanish Trail that led down through the Mojave Desert, through the less precipitous passes farther south. (Roughly following present-day I-15, from Salt Lake City, Los Vegas and San Bernardino) It would be a long haul through various deserts, and a couple of hard pulls through mountainous terrain, but nothing like the cruel snows which had doomed the Donner-Reed Party ten years before.

By early September they had reached Cedar City, the last outpost for resupply before descent of the Virgin River George and the long desert crossing below. They met a cold reception from the Mormon settlers there, and were not able to purchase any supplies. Doubtless shrugging it off, they moved on south and camped in a pleasant mountain valley at the foot of the Iron Mountains and adjacent the Spanish Trail. This camping place offered generous pasturage and water, but on the morning of September 7th the emigrants began to be attacked by a large war-band of Piute Indians. Dismayingly, it soon became clear that the Indians were unusually persistent; this was no quick smash and grab ambush, a sudden screaming foray at dawn, with a handful of casualties and a few cattle or horses stolen in a few minutes. This was a deadly, concerted siege. The Fanchers and the Bakers and the others swiftly forted up, chaining their wagons together and digging hasty trenches; they held out for five days. Seven of them were killed outright, another twenty or so wounded, and dismayingly, they began to run low on ammunition, and were tormented by an inability to reach water without being repeatedly sniped at. Of two men who attempted to fetch water from the spring closest to the encampment, one was shot down, and the other escaped … but not before seeing that the man who shot them was not an Indian.

This was not unusual in itself; there were brigands all over the west who pretended to be Indians as a cover for robbery and murder, and there were whispers of white turncoats among the various tribes. Still and all, when the cavalry appeared on the horizon, probably everyone in the besieged encampment took a deep breath of relief. Here was rescue at hand; well armed frontiersmen like themselves. Not actually the cavalry, for this was still Mormon territory – it was the local militia, their leaders advancing under a white flag, with good news for the emigrants.

They could leave, the militia leader said; they had been able to call off the Piutes and negotiate some kind of truce with them. But they would have to disarm, leave their wagons and cattle and horse herd, and walk back under escort of the militia to Cedar City. Oh, the children and the wounded could be taken in wagons, but everything else would have to be left behind. No doubt the Fanchers and the Bakers, the Prewitts and the Tacketts and their wives and older children did not like the idea much … but they had their lives and what they could carry on them. So they left the wagon encampment in three parties, trusting the men who had come to their rescue. First came some wagons with the wounded, some of the women with babies and small children in it, then another group of women with the older children on foot, and then the men, each of them escorted by a militiaman.

And when a prearranged signal was given by the militia leader, they turned and executed the men, and all of the women and children but for seventeen of them who were babies or assumed to be too young to ever remember what they had seen at the place called Mountain Meadows.

The execution of approximately a hundred and twenty men, women … and yes, children also … of the Fancher-Baker wagon-train party stands out particularly among revolting accounts of massacres in the old West, and not just for the number of victims. The most notorious 19th century massacres usually involved Indians and either settlers or soldiers in some combination, overrunning a settlement or encampment, or ambushing a military unit or a wagon-train and slaughtering all in it or after a brief and bitter fight. Sometimes this was the overt intent of the aggressor, or just customary practice in the long and bitter Indian Wars; ugly deeds which can be given some fig-leaf of rationalization by attributing them to the heat of battle. But Mountain Meadows was carefully planned beforehand and committed in the coldest of cold blood. How it came to happen is a story almost unknown and incredible to modern ears; bitter fruit of a poison tree which had its roots in the persecutions of earlier Mormon settlements in what is now the mid-West. A recitation of the events and reasons for this would make this account several times as long. Sufficient to say as did the character of Dr. Sardius McPheeters, that the Mormons came to realize that they could only get along with their immediate neighbors if they had no neighbors, and they decamped en masse for the wilds of Utah Territory.

There they set about building their new city, on the shores of a salt lake at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. Driven by zeal, missionaries for the Church of Latter Day Saints traveled and proselytized fearlessly and widely. Eager and hardworking converts to the new church arrived in droves, ready to build that new and shining society in the desert wilderness. It has been no mean accomplishment, outlasting all of the other 19th century social-religious-intellectual communes: Brook Farm and the Shakers, the Amana Colony and any number of ambitious and idealistic cities on the hill. Most of these places barely survived beyond the disgrace or death of their founder, and the disillusion of their membership.

That the mid-19th century Mormons did so must be credited to the iron will, organizational abilities, and dynamic leadership of Brigham Young. President of the church, apostle and successor to murdered founder Joseph Smith, Young was also appointed governor of the Utah Territory by then president of the US, Millard Fillmore. Essentially, Utah and the Mormon settlements were a theocracy to a degree not seen since the very early days of the Puritan colonies. Young and his church continued to have a contentious relationship with the US government as to who would actually be in charge; the civil authorities represented by the US Government, or the religious establishment, personified by Young, in his position at the apex of LDS authority? Church-approved polygamy rattled mainstream Americans to no end, since many suspected that it was a wholly self-serving justification for the indulging of male lusts. (The Victorians generally entertained lively suspicions about male lusts, which would today not disgrace a modern university women’s studies department.) On their side, memories among the Mormon settlers of their persecutions in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas were still raw, even as more American settlers continued to move westwards to California and Oregon. Isolation in the far West turned out to be less absolute every year.

By 1857 rumors were flying thick and fast, shouted from every meeting place of Mormons in Utah that an American military invasion of the Utah Territory was on the way, with the stated intention of deposing the theocracy, murdering every believing Mormon and laying waste to the settlements they had built with so much heartbreaking labor over the previous decade. And early that spring, shortly after the Bakers and the Fanchers had departed Arkansas, a popular and much-loved Mormon missionary, Parley Pratt, had been murdered there by the estranged former husband of one of his plural wives. As historian Will Bagley wrote in his account of the massacre, Brigham Young may have been respected – but Parley Pratt was loved. And when there were rumors passed around that some of his murderers were among the men in the Fancher-Baker train, there was stirred up a perfect storm of paranoia and millennial fears. Brigham Young had ordered that a number of outlaying Mormon colonies in California, Wyoming and Nevada to immediately withdraw, and for his people to stockpile supplies and steel themselves for all-out war.

The Fancher-Baker party were nearly the last large emigrant party of that year. They had the astounding ill-luck to be traveling south as tensions in the Utah settlements mounted in anticipation of an all-out apocalyptic war between the Saints and the forces arrayed against them. Brigham Young had declared martial law, sealing the borders and outlawing travel through out the territory without a permit. Having already departed Salt Lake City by the time this requirement had been made public, the Fanchers and their party had no such permit, and were probably not even aware that such was required of them. They were probably aware, since they had not been able to purchase supplies from Mormon settlers, that such necessities were being stockpiled in anticipation of a war.

What they did not realize – possibly not until that last horrifying moment when the words “Do your duty!” was shouted and the men of the party were gunned down by the militiamen escorting them – they had become the enemy, the “other”, the white-hot focus for hatred, and thus elimination. For that was what they were transformed into, during the week since departing from Salt Lake City. They had become identified with the advancing US Army, with the persecutors of the Saints in Missouri, the murderers of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the murderer of Parley Pratt. Rumors – most of them concocted after the fact as justifications for the massacre and therefore unlikely to be true – had them leaving poisoned food for the Indians, boasting of rape and murder, allowing their cattle to trample crops, and numerous other offensive incivilities. It is fairly certain that the local Piutes were encouraged to steal cattle from emigrant trains by no less than Brigham Young himself, who had built strong ties between his church and the local tribes. The Indians were also encouraged to attack Americans, which appears to have baffled the tribes somewhat, since they had been discouraged from doing so before. In the meantime, an emissary from Salt Lake City, one George Smith, visited the southern hamlets of Parowan and Cedar City, steeling those militia units for battle, encouraging residents to resist an American invasion, and telling them that they might not be able to wait for orders … but to use their own initiative.

At this late date, and because all witnesses who gave testimony afterwards were up to their necks in the matter, it is impossible to deduce whose idea it was to attack the Fancher-Baker train, only that it seemed to be a course of action simultaneously agreed upon. There were meetings held by various authorities in Cedar City and Parowan. It was falsely reported at one of those meetings on September 6th that men in the Fancher train had boasted of being among the mob that had killed Joseph Smith, and that they would wait at Mountain Meadows for the approaching Army and join in on the resulting attacks against Mormons in Utah. A messenger was sent to Salt Lake City asking for Brigham Young’s advice, but it was a six-day round trip journey. Another messenger was sent to the south, where the LDS Indian Agent John D. Lee had already gone to assemble the Mormon’s Indian allies. But by the next day, the Piute had already begin skirmishing with the Fancher train at Mountain Meadows. Brigham Young did not even receive the message from the dispatch rider until the night of the 10th. His instructions to allow the Fancher Party to pass unmolested – although he allowed that the Indians might do as they pleased as regards emigrant trains – was not received until too late. Of the local authorities who had taken some part in the massacre, only John D. Lee was convicted and sentenced. He was the one who had carried a white flag into the Fancher encampment and told them that their safety had been negotiated with the attacking Indians. He was executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows in 1877, twenty years afterwards … to the end acknowledging that he was a scapegoat for others involved.

The seventeen surviving children, all under the age of seven – presumed to be young enough that they would not remember anything of the massacre (although the older among them recalled most vividly) were retrieved from the local families who had fostered them after the murders of their parents in 1859 and returned to their kin in Arkansas. Nothing of the property and possessions of their parents was ever recovered. While they were living in the Utah settlements, several children observed men driving their fathers’ ox-teams, and women wearing their mothers’ dresses and jewelry.

A dreadful story, of murder and sanctioned looting, committed by Americans against other Americans. But within three years of it happening, the armies of the Union and the Confederacy would be doing much the same on American soil, to American citizens who were their cousins, brothers and friends, on a degree that would put what happened in a meadow in Southern Utah far into the shade.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mark Twain devoted a few chapters of Roughing It to Utah and the Mormons. In “110 Tin Whistles”, a satire on the domestic life of Brigham Young, he has Young utter “By the slaughtered body of St. Parley Pratt, whom God assoil…”

    I think the worst aspect of the Mountain Meadows massacre was that it was perpetrated by white men in cold blood, by fraud. One might compare it to the Fort Dearborn massacre, which also followed a promise of safe-conduct.

  2. Celia

    Yep – in cold blood and by fraud … and the entire party, save the small children and babies.