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The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a very significant event in the American Southwest, primarily because of its affect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This church was founded in New York, but migrated to Utah after conflict in the Midwest arose. The Mormon religion was relatively new and extremely looked down upon in the 1850's because of America's war on polygamy and the Mormon's rebellion against the federal law of monogamous marriage. Because of hostility between the two groups, a terrible tragedy occurred in September of 1857 in which many innocent lives were taken. Few witnesses have documented its mysterious and morbid accounts while many have attempted to keep quiet about the massacre in order to take the blame off of the Mormon religion. The only person of the guilty party ever to be convicted on trial for this occurrence, John D. Lee, was found guilty in 1876 and put to death in the same manner that the 120 passersby experienced. Needless to say, this massacre is something the Church knows well but is very reluctant to speak of.
To go further into detail on what exactly is documented, I begin in the year 1857 when the American Government, under the order of General Harney, ordered troops to go to Utah to “regulate the Mormons” (Brooks, 1950). Animosity between Followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and those who did not adhere had grown tremendously. The practice of polygamy was something non-Mormon American citizens rejected and their dislike for the tradition was something the U.S. government was willing to take on; this sparked rage in the Mormon community and they began to set up militias to fight oncoming American troops. Another factor aiding in the fury of the Mormon people was that a fellow brother, Parley P. Pratt, had been assassinated for partaking in polygamous activities earlier that year; this undoubtedly was the equivalent of putting gas on an open flame. However, during this time the country was expanding and settlements out west in California were growing in popularity. A trail led emigrants to the Golden State to colonize, but an area on the path, referred to as the Mormon Corridor, was something the settlers were required to pass through in order to reach their desired location. This part of the trail passed straight through the Great Salt Lake City, also known as Zion to the Mormon religion. This haven contained the majority of the Church's followers, making the trek an uneasy one for non-follows. Yet, the stop was an essential one in order to pick up supplies and re-stock necessities.
On one fateful day in September of 1857, a group of non-Mormons traveling the trail just so happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The exact date of the incident has been disputed, ranging from the 7th all the way to the 11th. However, it was on that day in September that Indians took a wagon train carrying around 120 people under siege; the standoff lasted five days. It appeared to be that the Mormons allied with the Indians for this attack to steer blame from themselves (McKeever). On the fifth day of the altercation, an unforgiving John D. Lee came to the wagon train with a truce flag in order to deceive the hostages; Lee's revenge for the death of P.P. Pratt came at a cost to the lives of those who had nothing to do with the incident. With times being strenuous and the politics of America being so controversial, many in the Mormon religion were heated and outraged; essentially, they were sick of having to fight the American people for the freedom of their beliefs. Because of their outrage, children, women, and men were convinced to drop their weapons and line up (in the above mentioned order) so that they would be led to freedom... or so they thought. Within minutes, an armed attack was in full force on the 120 innocent travelers; the only lives spared were those of seventeen children under the age of eight years old. This was the largest attack on United States civilians up until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 (Linder, 2006).
Those involved with the massacre attempted to keep quiet about the real events that took place that day. Under the order of Brigham Young, Lee concocted a false explanation of what he claimed to be an Indian attack:
“About the 22d of September, Capt. Fancher and company fell victims to their wrath, near Mountain Meadows; their cattle and horses were shot down in every direction, their wagons and property mostly committed to the flames.” (Lee, 1857)
This artificial justification was then taken by Brigham Young, the prophet for the Church of Latter Day Saints and, then, Governor of Utah; he was replaced that following spring by Alfred Cumming. Cumming was credulous under the influence of Young's testimony in defending the Mormon religion; he believed Young's indication of an Indian attack and became, as an observer once noted, “mere putty” in Young's hands (Linder, 2006).
During this time, America was at the brink of the Civil War and soon lost interest in the Massacre by the year 1860. Another factor leading to the apathy was that, even if a group from the Church of LDS committed the crime, the juries in Utah were entirely Mormon; they could never be fairly tried and convicted.
In order to re-spark interest in the controversy of Mountain Meadows, Philip Klingensmith appeared in a Nevada court on April 10, 1871 and confessed his role in the tragedy. Klingensmith was a former Latter Day Saints Bishop who left the Church and, apparently, assisted in the murders of 120 people and the subsequent cover-up. In order to take his confession to a Utah court ruling and still be able to conduct a fair trial, the U.S. government passed the Poland Act. This act was to restrict the authority of Mormon-controlled courts and to ultimately allow all juries in the state of Utah to let non-Mormon's serve. There was finally a plausible method to convict those involved in the confrontation and the conspiracy.
Bishop Philip Klingensmith was sworn in on Friday July 23, 1875 for the first trial of John D. Lee (Backus, 1995). His account was slow and nonchalant at first, but became heated and passionate once he spoke of seeing the men being shot mercilessly; he recalled that he could not see Lee because he was over the crest of the hill with the women and children. He also gave incriminating evidence that involved the Mormon prophet Brigham Young, stating that Young declared, "What you know about this affair do not tell to anybody; do not even talk about it among yourselves" (Linder, 2006). However, the controversial evidence in this first trial was not enough for the semi-Mormon jury to convict any of the men, leaving the verdict as hung. Sumner Howard soon replaced William Carey as the new U.S. Attorney in April of 1876, and decided there needed to be justice and that a new trial was imperative.
The second trial ran much more smoothly; witnesses began to suddenly recall crucial details, including claims that Lee was the mastermind behind the crime. Those involved in the trial solely placed blame on Lee, leaving the other men to go free regardless of what they had actually done on that disastrous day. It was rumored that Young and Howard had secretly settled out of court that they would charge Lee with full responsibility so that they could put the matter behind them; they knew someone had to pay and he looked like the best candidate. Lee's attorney, W.W. Bishop, was obviously not aware of this deal and was baffled when a Mormon jury convicted Lee. His assumption was that another acquittal would take place in order for the Mormon community to support their fellow brother, however he was fatally incorrect. A quote from Bishop reads:
"I claim that Brigham Young is the real criminal, and that John D. Lee was an instrument in his hands. That Brigham Young used John Lee, as the assassin uses the dagger to strike down his unsuspecting victim; as the assassin throws away the dagger, to avoid the bloody blade leading to his detection, so Brigham Young used John Lee to do his horrid work; and when the discovery becomes unavoidable, he hurls Lee from him...and casts him far out into the whirlpool of destruction." (Linder, 2006)
On September 20, 1876, John D. Lee was found guilty for first-degree murder. The following March he was put to death at Mountain Meadows by gunshot.
This atrocity in the American Southwest is something the Mormon religion hides deep within their souls, not wanting to relive or recall such a horrible episode in their, already rocky, history as an American-born religion. The Mountain Meadows Massacre has even been compared to 9/11; ironically it may have even been on that same day one hundred and forty-four years earlier (McKeever). This is a common theme we have seen throughout history: radical behavior resulting in substantial demise. When we are given the choice to fight for what we believe in, there will always be confrontation and consequence; it's human nature. This was certainly true for the many who battled, died, and conspired their way into a sinful history that lives on, regrettably, today.