Mountain Meadows Massacre

lees_cabin_ferryOne 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 John D. Leebetween 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.

grand-canyonHere’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. 

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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

36 thoughts on “Mountain Meadows Massacre”

  1. I’ve never heard of that. When I was young and in school I had absolutely no interest in history. Now that I’m a lot older and have lived through many important times in history I have a better appreciation for it. Wish I could have developed it sooner.

  2. Interesting history lesson, Mary. I, too, had never heard of a Mormon militia or a Utah war. At first I thought this was another example of religious extremism taken too far, but from what what you showed us, the conflict seems to have much more to do with control of the land than religious beliefs.

    How sad that greed and a thirst for power led these people to kill innocent families. I can see a story growing up from one of those children deemed too young to remember who DOES remember and is forced to live among the people who murdered his family. Talk about backstory for a tragic hero.

  3. Mary, this is terrific history. I love that you posted it. I, too, have never heard of the Utah rebellion, or of the massacre — but then, in studying history, I’m learning that our school was pretty much what you might call propaganda — we learned only what was considered politically “correct” and was often not only colored, but oftentimes outright lies.

    I research my history now from things written at the time — at least it gives you a better feeling for real history.

    Thanks for this, Mary. It also fits in with an idea I’ve been toying with, in actual fact.

  4. Thanks to share that bit of history. I did heard of that war. Being mormons we heard and learn about this for many years and try to understand what had happen, which isn’t something that it is easy.
    And I have learn that history is written by those who are in power. there is a lot of thing that are covered and hidden in history class.

  5. The thing that makes writing historical novels so fun, well besides the kissing…is this kind of thing.

    If Brigham Young and co. really were about power and land, besides religion and Pres. Buchanan really launched this war because he thought it would distract people from the growing abolitionist movement, it’s all just greed and abuse of power.

    Our generation didn’t invent that after all. Of course what with Caesar and Napolean and Stalin, I guess we knew that.

  6. Alexandra, one thing that was so interesting trying to write this was all the ‘What ifs’. The whole thing is really shrouded in secrecy. Some people thought it was just this rogue band of friends of John Lee. Others blamed all Mormons, some talked of theft, others of power, others of religion. The motives are so foggy.
    And I seriously considered whether to write it because it might be seen as derogatory to the Mormon faith. But in the end I just tried to write down the facts and NOT speculate overly about the whys and what ifs.
    Just lay out this bit of history.

  7. Mary,

    Yes, I know of this. The Mormon Rebellion or the Utah war was spoke about in AZ when I lived there. It is a horrible part of our history. To know this type of thing happened is unbelieveable. There is a book out there about it. I will see if I can find the name of it.

    Please all fillies get me your interview ASAP


  8. Mary, don’t you just love the serendipitous nature of research? I find all the little side trails I go down asolutely fascinating, even if they never end up in any of my books. Thanks for an interesting glimpse into yet another piece of our history I knew nothing about

  9. Mary, you hit the mark here. As a pretty much lifelong Utah resident, this story is well known history–a horrible event. (For the record, I’m a lapsed Mormon–most of my family is still active in the church; I love them and respect their beliefs). My own ancestry goes back to those early times. Although none of my relatives were involved in the massacre, one of the events that triggered it was the murder of my great, great grandfather, Parley P. Pratt, a prominent and much loved church leader. He was killed in Arkansas, the area where these immigrants came from. Other events added to the tension, and those poor people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is much speculation that Brigham Young ordered the massacre. Whatever happened, John D. Lee took responsibility for what happened and was hanged years later. Modern Mormon leaders have apologized and even erected a monument, but nothing can change the horror of what happened that day.

  10. FWIW, I have a book about Lee’s Ferry, Mary. If anybody wants to know the title and author I can run downstairs and find it. And there have been a number of books written about the massacre.

  11. Interesting blog, Mary. I can see why 11 of Lee’s wives left him! He must’ve been something else. I really hate for people to hide behind religion in an effort to justify their actions when they’re caught. Makes me really mad. I’m glad they finally charged and convicted the man of murder. He deserved what he got.

  12. Mary,

    Your research (and your writing) as ever – amazes me. 🙂 What a great story! I grew up in Arizona, have heard of and seen Lee’s Ferry, but never knew the true story.You’re right. Modern day doesn’t have the final word on terrorism, or horrific acts of evil.

    Frankly, I love the fact that eleven of his wives left him. I wish the others had been as lucky (if I can say that without offending any of our Mormon friends).

    I agree, the tangents that we find ourselves on while researching are often fodder for future stories. I have a drawer full of stories to get back to after All or Nothing, with regards to the Camp Grant Massacre, in 1871–the cause of my hero’s inner turmoil.

    Thanks for your descriptive tale, and your take on this horrific event. Lest we forget! And, can’t most battles be narrowed down to money? or love?


  13. Mary,

    Yes… would you believe the citizens of Tucson STILL argue about what happened at Camp Grant? I had an interview with a columnist from the paper, and she had the most heated response to any editorial following her breakdown of the events of that day.

    Amazing what some folks will do in the name of “protecting the greater good.”

    By the way, I just got your “Cowboy Christmas” to read/review. I love it after page 1, chapter 1! I’m hooked! 🙂


  14. It’s funny what will spark passion.

    It sounds really premeditated to me. Blaming other Indians. Participants in the massacre laying back to pick off people who ran and got through the lines.

    I hope you enjoy Cowboy Christmas. My husband is reading it. I always want him to read the books before I send them in, to get a feel for how they affect men, but he doesn’t want to. He likes to wait until he can hold them in his hands.

  15. Hi Mary,
    Fascinating blog! You just know there are stories behind the story. The only river crossing within 500 miles would be a valuable piece of real estate. People do some terrible things when they’re motivated by greed, etc..

    I’d never heard of the Utah War before. It’s a black mark on US history, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. We can all learn from the past.

  16. Never heard of this “war,” Mary! Or Camp Grant!
    Thanks for today’s lesson and information! I am
    about to believe that there is not a whole lot
    that is new in the world.

    Pat Cochran

  17. Mary, the book is LEE’S FERRY, DESERT RIVER CROSSING by W.L. Rusho, Tower Productions, Salt Lake City, St. George, 1998.

    It’s a great book, taking in the whole history of the ferry. Since it’s a regional book it may be hard to find. If you need it and can’t get a copy, I trust you enough to lend mine.

    P.S. The older I get the more books I accumulate. I have a LOT of books.

  18. Mary, I have heard of this War. I tried to find more information about Mountain Meadows a number of years ago and had a hard time.
    I love the history I learn by research. All the other stories that come from getting ‘sidetracked’ in a good way. I will have to look up the one on Camp Grant.

  19. There was segment of History Channel’s Investigating History TV program about this massacre a few years ago. PBS also did a program on the Massacre. If I remember correctly, some of the children that had been parceled out to Mormon families did remember the attack and related information years later. I’m not certain which of the two we watched, but it was very well done. We were surprised we had never heard of it before.
    Thanks for another interesting piece of history.

  20. Diane Noble’s The Veil, a novel about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is being released by Waterbrook again. When Diane visited FHL, I asked how LDS members had reacted to her book. She said mostly positively.
    A woman running a ferry? The West offered so many opportunities for women!

  21. I love the history of our west. I had read of the Utah war but do not remember where or when. Love though to read more facts about something.

  22. I just finished reading a book on the Mormons starting at the beginning – I’m sorry I can’t remember the title and it was a borrowed book but the massacre was in there and oh my goodness, quite a bit more. I really wonder if most people know how some religions were started. It was quite shocking in my opinion.

  23. What happens on the trail…stays on the trail. How many lives were lost and left laying on the way West? So many precious family treasures abandoned on the trail, dead weight and useless when food and water dwindled down to nothing. A raw, primitive time in American history. Life and death decisions made in the blink of an eye and the quick draw of a gun.

  24. Mary, wow, very informative. You know, I was in Denver in the spring and visited the Colorado History Museum. Colorado has a very rich history but I did not know about Lee Ferry and the rebellion and such. Thank you for the research and sharing it with your readers.

  25. John Lee was a bastard of the first degree, many knew it but were too scared of him to do anything about it. His wives left him because he was inherently self righteous and cruel. But he hid it well. Give some men any power at all, they loose all sense of propriety. I met him, and couldn’t get away from him fast enough. He liked to kill. He didn’t push me, he knew better. But he was scum.


  26. I caught the story on this tragic incident last night on the History Channel. I came across your site when I was trying to find out what happened to the surviving children. I found on two other sites that the children were returned to family members in Arkansas by the Cavalry in 1859.

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