One of the standard topics at Petticoats & Pistols are tidbits of history we find in the course of doing research for our books.
I know I usually do comedy, but this isn’t funny. It was fascinating though. I’d never heard of such a thing. I was researching the Grand Canyon for a book I may or may not write and I came across Lee’s Ferry.
In 1871 Mormon settler John D. Lee was directed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to establish a ferry on the Colorado River. With financing supplied by the church, Lee built the ferry in 1871–1872 near a site with a natural slope from the cliffs to the riverbank, allowing safe crossing over the Colorado River in otherwise impassable terrain.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Lee’s Ferry was the only crossing of the Colorado River by ferry between Moab, Utah and Needles, California; it was heavily used by travelers between Utah and Arizona. that sepia toned picture is an actual photo of Lee’s Cabin and the ferry behind it.
Since Lee traveled frequently, the ferry was managed primarily by his wife, Emma Lee.
Okay, remember that fact. The ONLY crossing of the Colorado River, I mapquested it…for FIVE HUNDRED MILES. This is a pretty firm grip on people trying to pass through the area.
Now we go to something that happened 14 years earlier. John Lee was a personal friend of Joseph Smith and served on a Mormon group called Council of 50 with Smith and Brigham Young. The point here is, Lee was a big shot in the church, very connected. John D. Lee is the picture on the right.
Lee had nineteen wives, eleven of whom left him. We can talk about that if you want. I’m surprised a woman was allowed to leave her husband back then.
Here’s what I found that was so weird and fascinating. I’d never heard of it before. In 1857, Lee lead a mass slaughter of the Fancher-Baker emigrant wagon train in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. All of the party except for seventeen children under eight years old—about 120 men, women, and children—were killed. After the massacre, the corpses of the victims were left decomposing for two years on the open plain, and the surviving children—deemed too young to remember what had happened, were distributed to local Mormon families.
The Arkansas emigrants were traveling to California shortly before the Utah War started. Mormon leaders had been mustering militia throughout Utah Territory to fight the United States Army, which was sent to Utah to restore US authority in the territory.
Utah War? Has anyone heard of this? The Utah War, also known as the Mormon Rebellion was an armed dispute between Mormon settlers in Utah Territory and the United States federal government. The confrontation lasted from May 1857 until July 1858. While it had mainly non-Mormon civilian casualties, the “war” had no pitched battles and was ultimately resolved through negotiation.
I also found a reference to President Buchanan starting the war, in effect declaring war on Mormons, to drown out the rumblings of abolitionists.
Lee conspired to lead militiamen disguised as Native Americans with a few Paiute Indians also in the group. The largely unarmed emigrants fought back and a siege ensued. When the Mormons discovered that they had been identified as the attacking force Lee told the battle-weary emigrants that he had negotiated a truce with the Paiutes, whereby they could be escorted safely the 36 miles back to Cedar City under Mormon protection in exchange for turning all of their livestock and supplies over to the Native Americans. The emigrants were led out of their fortification. The Mormon militiamen turned and executed them
There was an investigation into this event but it wasn’t finished when the Civil War broke out and John D. Lee wasn’t prosecuted and went to take his place as the operator of Lee’s Ferry. The massacre was looked into several times and federal marshals suspected Lee’s involvement but could never prove it. Finally, nearly twenty years later, he was arrested, tried and convicted and executed by firing squad on March 23, 1877.
I read ten different speculative explanations for why the massacre happened. Yes, there was a turf battle between people crossing Utah and the Mormons, hello West Side Story. Yes there was deceit blaming this on Indians, hello racism. But the more I read the more is seemed to really boil down to robbery. The attackers wanted the cattle and supplies on that wagon train.
Again, have any of you ever heard of this? I never have. The modern world seems to be in such a mess sometimes, but we probably haven’t invented much new in the way of evil.