The Other 9/11
As with the formation of Judaism and the creation of Islam, the earliest years of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were similarly infinitely more interesting than the comparative first years of the Christianity upon which it is based.
Today the world knows this, one of its newest established religions, as the Mormons. However, criminal action, political intrigue, civil unrest among the Saints, and persecutions leading to the murder of its founder, Joseph Smith, as well as many other deaths informed the years of wandering before the Saints found a home in Utah and established a great society there.
But once the Saints’ homeland – their Zion of Prophet Joseph Smith’s revelations – was made real through the leadership of acolyte Brigham Young there was a blood debt to collect. Hostilities with the United States government, and with the people who had wronged the Saints in Missouri and Illinois and other places, came to a head on September 11, 1857, when Mormons (disguised as generally peaceful Paiute Indians) slaughtered, without provocation, an entire wagon train of settlers bound for California.
The only survivors were children that had not yet learned to speak; the Mormon militia killers (part of a mercenary arm of the Church called “Danites”) felt they could be spared since they were young enough to probably not recall specifics of the events or to identify the murderers of their parents.
Today, the Church reluctantly acknowledges this blight on its history. Previously, however, a code of silence and misdirection insured that for decades anyone even remotely aware of the massacre believed Native Americans were solely responsible. In the end, though, only one white man was convicted for his role in the slayings.
In either 1821 or 1822, Smith claimed an angel named Moroni appeared to him. This angel advised Smith there was a trove of ancient, mystical writings conveniently buried in a hill (named Cumorah) near his home. These writings were engraved upon plates of gold and had allegedly been written by ancient prophets. The plates described the migration of lost Israelites to America. Smith said Moroni told him to keep a rendezvous every year at the hill on September 22. Smith allegedly did this and was given further revelations. In 1827, a few years after Moroni first appeared he told Smith exactly where the golden plates of text were buried. Smith was instructed (coincidentally) to show them to no one, however. Moroni directed Smith to translate these plates (written in a lost-glyph language called “Reformed Egyptian”) into English.
One of the most interesting foundations of Mormonism is the claim that Jesus Christ did not die when he was crucified. According to Smith, Jesus found his way to North America and spent the rest of his days preaching to the Native Americans. He created a narrative in which a
Smith’s translation method was a bit unorthodox. He had what he called a “seer stone” that he placed into a hat. By gazing into the hat at the stone he was able to “translate” the writings on the golden plates. The texts, though, he dictated to others for posterity – no one ever saw the plates themselves except Smith (certain editions of The Book of Mormon do contain printed facsimile affidavits claiming the truth of their existence, almost all signed by people surnamed “Smith” – obviously relatives – thus bringing the veracity of the affidavits clearly into question). [Smith’s earliest scribe, Martin Harris, later made the claim he had seen the tablets briefly, “fastened together in the shape of a book by wires
The resultant sacred text, based upon Smith’s “revelations”, pronouncements, and “translation” of the golden plates (which, magically, were taken away from Smith by Moroni
The simple truth is that the religion was most likely founded as a “long con” (a scam of very lengthy time investment but guaranteed to pay off in huge dividends at the end of the con). It was probably created from whole cloth by a self-absorbed, self-centered man with a charismatic personality. He later used his power within the Mormon community to justify multiple affairs with congregant women (some married to other men) creating the polygamous practice for which the Mormon faith has become most notorious. However, the polygamy with which the group has been most identified is not a sanctioned position in Church doctrine today, and it is as embarrassing a chapter to the Mormons as the Mountain Meadows Massacre is.
Regardless of Joseph Smith’s secular motivations for creating it, the fact remains that today the faith has attracted many adherents, has evolved into a legitimately recognized world religion, and globally is one of the world’s fastest growing Christian faiths.
Joseph Smith was strikingly handsome (six feet tall, piercing blue eyes) and was extremely magnetic. However, he was probably fundamentally dishonest. When his followers and he were harassed out of New York State, he settled them – based on a revelation – into a place he thought of as their “Zion”, a village in Ohio. Smith and some of his cronies founded a bank that issued Mormon scrip (this when there was no official federal currency – banks issued their own paper money which was generally only accepted in specific locales). As a way to attract investors to sink working capital into the venture Smith often showed potential backers currency chests filled with gold coins. The reality, however, is that only the tops of the boxes carried the coins – beneath the attractive glitter the chests were filled with nuts, bolts, nails, and sand.
Smith and his followers, ahead of bilked investors, sought safety further west in Missouri. Their lives were no better there than they had been in Ohio, and in fact some of their own behaviors ensured they would be continually persecuted. Under orders from Joseph Smith and another zealous acolyte, bands of Mormon militias (formed for the purpose and named “Danites”) raided and pilfered from their “Gentile” Missouri neighbors. The Danites invaded fields, stole foodstuffs from outdoor root cellars, and occasionally resorted to cattle, chicken, pig, and turkey thefts.
These criminal acts did not endear them to the Missouri roughnecks who were victimized by the thievery. In 1838, after many more skirmishes with locals resulting in several deaths among the Gentiles and the Mormons, Missouri’s governor, Lilburn Boggs, issued an expulsion order that also carried an extermination proviso in its text. All Mormons, except for those in Missouri’s prisons, were ordered out of the state immediately – any who did not voluntarily comply would be hunted and killed. Meanwhile, Smith and two of his henchmen had traveled to Washington, DC, to seek redress against their persecutions from President Martin Van Buren (term of office: 1837-1841). Van Buren refused the Mormons any special protections, and from that moment forward Smith and the Mormon community regarded the United States as enemies.
Leaving Missouri, Smith and his group crossed east into Illinois, stopping very near the Mississippi River’s eastern bank. There, a new Mormon community was founded in Hancock County. It was called “Nauvoo”. [The naming of this town was but more gibberish from Smith. He claimed the word meant “beautiful plantation” in “Reformed Egyptian” or Hebrew; there is no such thing as “Reformed Egyptian”; the Hebrew language has no such word, either. The town still exists under that name, however].
In Nauvoo, Smith’s likes for other women, even the legal wives of other men, led him to finally bring polygamy to the fore as a divinely inspired doctrine.
Originally, the Illinois people near the Mormon community of Nauvoo welcomed their new neighbors. Over time, though, the Mormons alienated the locals. Some Mormons, vehemently disagreeing with the new polygamy doctrine, left the Church. [Later, in Utah under Brigham young’s iron-fisted despotism these people were called “apostates”; the “crime” of apostasy was one that could get a defector killed by a Mormon death squad, quietly and without warning.]
Still stinging from Missouri’s rejection of their community, an unknown assailant attacked Governor Lilburn Boggs at his home on May 6, 1842. He was shot four times (once in the throat, swallowing the slug!) as he sat reading an evening paper. He survived, and although Joseph Smith was believed complicit in the assassination attempt, no proof to bring him in could be found. The weapon, a revolver using ball shot, had been dropped nearby in haste. Within a short time, a Danite militia man and aide-de-camp for Smith named Orrin Porter Rockwell was arrested for the attempt on Governor Boggs’ life. He was held in Missouri without trial for over a year, and when his day in court finally came he was released on a technicality.
There was much disaffection within the Nauvoo community. In 1844, The Nauvoo Expositor, a small-press newspaper run by dissident Mormon’s, ran headlining stories exposing some of Joseph Smith’s more secular and underhanded activities. His polygamy practices were also vilified in the press. Smith was outraged by this continued editorial (and public) assault, and he destroyed the paper’s printing press.
Illinoisans had been looking for a reason to rid themselves of the Mormons in Nauvoo. In the United States at that time a free press was considered inviolate; Smith’s destroying the Expositor’s printing press was taken as an act of sedition. Illinois’ governor issued a warrant for Smith’s arrest, and he and his brother Hyrum were taken into custody and housed in the Carthage, Illinois, jail (about 25 miles southeast of Nauvoo).
A mob stormed the jail, Smith was shot, and he tumbled out a second story window and died. He was 39 years old. His brother Hyrum was likewise killed. Brigham Young took up the mantle of Mormon leadership (after successfully repressing a rival’s claim to the title of Church President and Prophet).
In perhaps the most rousingly successful of all westward migrations the well-oiled machinery of Mormon industry insured that the masses traveling to their new Zion arrived not only at a leisurely pace but were well provisioned and well protected en route. The exodus from 1846 to 1848 proved beyond any doubt the tenacity and spirit of this group of outsiders was a sincere force with which not to trifle.
Advance scouting groups and migrants, led by selected elders, moved ahead into Iowa and established what the Mormons called “Winter Quarters” (until 1852, known as Kanesville, and now Council Bluffs, Iowa). This was the Mormon jumping off point for their trip to The Promised Land. Advance parties moved ahead and built cabins along the trail the group
The site chosen as the new Zion by Brigham Young was in the high-mountain desert, an unwanted scrubland in the Wasatch Mountain Valley, a place believed secure from the Gentiles. Nearby was a dying lake and inland body of salt water many times saltier than the oceans. The lake was named for its obvious feature – Salt Lake. The industrious Mormons, under Brigham Young’s increasingly despotic fist, built an oasis on the shores of that lake called Salt Lake City. It was their homeland.
The territory into which the Mormons had moved was an amorphous region they originally called Deseret (a “word” from The Book of Mormon that allegedly translates into “honeybee”, the symbol of hard work and industry adapted by the Mormons). In 1849, the Mormon leaders had presented the US Government with a proposed definition of the Deseret
In 1852, the practice of polygamy (“unofficially” sanctioned by the Church since 1842) was officially made public as part of the Mormon faith. By 1857, animosity between the Mormons and what they called “the States” and their “Gentile” population reached a peak of hostilities. The United States Government had developed an intolerance for the unofficial practice of polygamy. Also, Brigham Young’s little kingdom in the Utah desert was increasingly perceived by Washington, DC, as potentially treasonous – the Mormons were said to be stockpiling foodstuffs and armaments to wage a war against the United States. [The Mormons truly were stockpiling, but it was from fear of an invasion by the US Army to make them suppliant.]
President Franklin Pierce furthermore refused to hear a petition for the Utah Territory being granted statehood which left the Mormons fearful their lands and properties would be taken from them. Matters came to a head in early 1857. Having just taken office on March 4 of that year, President James Buchanan began receiving reports that federally appointed judges and some Indian agents in the Mormon territory had been driven from their posts or were otherwise thwarted in their efforts to work within Young’s theocracy. Rumors spread quickly, and Buchanan’s belief that the Mormons were now in full-blown and open rebellion against the United States (when, at the same time, South Carolina had already started rattling the saber of secession that would lead to the Civil War) he took a disastrous course of action. He planned to send troops to Utah to remove Brigham Young from office and restore order, order that was not in disarray as reports of insurrection were falsely exaggerated.
Within the higher ranks of the Church was an Indian agent (appointed by the federal government to that position) named John D. Lee. Lee, a true believer in “building his kingdom” through polygamy (the directive given by the Church to all men) ultimately had 14 wives and 64 children. He was also the head of the Mormon militia group, the Danites, and he took orders directly from Brigham Young.
On August 5, 1857, Young learned the US Army was coming to Utah (1500 troops had been mobilized in the summer of 1857 by President Buchanan and were en route). In conjunction with this news he learned that a large wagon train headed toward the territory, too. One captain of the immigrant train was a man named Alexander Fancher; another was named John T. Baker. The group came to be called the Baker-Fancher Parry. Young’s first inclination was to believe this train was a cover for a US Army invading force, but he found out soon enough it was exactly what it claimed to be: a wagon train headed to California.
Travelers westward had come to rely upon the Mormons as fair dealers and as the last people from whom to obtain quality and quantity in supplies sufficient to finish the trip west. The Mormons benefited as well, trading for otherwise unobtainable goods from the East. Most travelers, knowing the Mormons always were well-stocked in all things, had taken to only gathering up enough supplies to get them as far as Salt Lake City. There, normal procedure was to buy or trade for enough material to sustain the party for the balance of the westward trek.
The Baker-Fancher Party approaching the Mormon’s lands in late summer 1857, however, had several things that insured it was not going to merely cross the desert without incident. It had the misfortune to be very well stocked in terms of personal wealth in ways most were not. It consisted of 137 or 138 emigrants, including Alexander Fancher (the wagon master) and his family. There were almost a thousand head of cattle being driven along with the train. There were several hundred horses as well, including one stallion valued at $2800 (an enormous sum in the 1850s). . The women carried their jewels on their person. The wagon train’s value has been estimated at about $70,000 in mid-19th Century money (exceeding $1.8 million dollars by today’s standards).
In addition to the wealth they carried, the settlers in the train were from Missouri, Illinois, and Arkansas. The Mormons still held grudges against Missourians and Illinoisans for their persecutions years earlier. The Arkansawyers came in for a special kind of vendetta: a popular Mormon elder named Parley P. Pratt had been killed in Arkansas recently after Pratt convinced his killer’s wife to run away with him. Death came for Pratt at the hands of the woman’s legal husband (a man named McLean) – he knifed Pratt in the stomach by ambush.
Brigham Young issued a directive to all Mormons to neither sell to nor trade with this group moving into the Utah Territory. He did not explain that this was to keep their own supplies as a hedge against an expected invasion from the US Army; he just made it clear no one was to offer the incoming train with any comestibles or other trade goods. This puzzled many as normally the Saints expected to traffic with transients passing through. However, knowing what the punishment might be for disobedience they obeyed; the wagon train masters were shocked to find that not only would they receive no help in Salt Lake City, no amount of money or other goods could entice the merchants there to give them any supplies. Furthermore, they were told they could not stay in Salt Lake City – they were unwelcome and forced to move on.
The hundreds of head of cattle being driven along with the settlers were in desperate need of feed. There was not enough grazing land available along the route and watering holes were in short supply. Fancher held out hope for the Mormons of Cedar City (at about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City it was the last stop on the regular California trail) to supply them sufficiently to make it over the mountains of Nevada and into California.
At Cedar City, Fancher was thwarted as he’d been in Salt Lake City. The local merchants refused to sell or trade. One miller, however, did agree to grind up some wheat for the party – the price for his beneficence of a few bushels was a whole cow. Disgusted at this treatment members of the train began agitating against the Mormons. They made threats
The train tried to camp near town but they were told to keep moving as they were unwelcome. They were directed, instead, to an area a few miles southwest of Cedar City. Fancher was told there was a freshwater spring there; the place was called Mountain Meadows, and it sounded as if it would be an ideal spot for the immigrant train to settle in for a few days, rest, regroup, and try to figure out how to survive the rest of the way.
Watching them leave, two members of the Mormon Militia from the area, Col. W.H. Dame and Lt. Col. I.C. Haight, decided the party should never leave Utah.
In preparation for their last leg to California the group had conducted an inspection the night before their planned departure. On the early morning of September 7, 1857, however, all sense of normal plans were laid to waste when gunfire from the ridges above the valley floor were heard, and almost immediately random members of the emigrant group dropped dead. In a panic, Fancher and the rest of the drivers managed to arrange the wagons into a rough rectangular enclosure, leaving their cattle and horses outside to mill about. They believed they were under attack by Native Americans (in this case, the Paiutes of Southern Utah). Closer conning of the ridges revealed Natives in war gear hanging about on the craggy ridges, taking potshots into the wagon fortress.
Fancher had all the wagons’ wheels locked into place, chaining them together and to other wagons. Furthermore, he and many of the men threw up a breastwork, digging out an area in the center of their lockdown spot and throwing the dirt against the wagons’ wheels, raising a dirt shield to keep Natives from firing beneath the wagon beds.
Fancher and the group watched helplessly as some Natives swarmed down from the ridges and culled cattle and horses from the settlers’ herds. Emigrant sharp shooters took up positions where they could and sniped several Paiutes. The Natives dragged their dead away and continued raiding cattle.
The biggest problem was water. Under siege the emigrants ran low soon enough. In desperation after a few days of being pinned down, one woman took it upon herself to range forth and milk a cow milling just beyond the safety of the wagon fast hold. She was shot almost as soon as she left the safety of the makeshift fort.
The travelers thought this a fluke – Native Americans were not known for their random killing of women when fighting. Two little girls, both under ten years old, dressed in white (the universal symbol of non-aggression) were given some buckets and charged with making for the nearby spring to get water. Surely, they would be allowed to complete their mission without molestation.
They were shot dead as soon as they cleared the wagon train – it was then the travelers knew their persecutors were not Native Americans.
Their answer arrived on horseback a day later: September 11, 1857. A contingent rode up outside the makeshift wagon stockade under a white flag of truce. It was led by the Mormon Indian agent, John D. Lee, with another man, William Bateman, as his second-in-command.
Lee advised them of his role as an Indian agent, and he told them they had been targeted for massacre by the local Indians who wanted their livestock. He claimed he had negotiated an agreement with the Indians to allow the settlers to leave peaceably under escort from Lee and his men.
There were two conditions for this flight, though: the emigrants had to leave their cattle and horses behind for the Indians in exchange for safe passage, and had to turn over their firearms to Lee and his men. Though somewhat suspicious of the second condition, the men, relieved to be so cordially treated and with the hope of rescue decided to go along with the demand. In desperation the settlers agreed to these terms. One wagon carrying young children and another with a few wounded men aboard set out ahead of the pack. Behind it came the women and older children on foot. Lastly, the disarmed men, each accompanied by an armed Mormon, were marched out into the meadow lands.
Suddenly, a shouted command – “Halt! Do your duty!” – signaled each armed Mormon man to shoot the emigrant man at his side. Natives hiding in the brush were directed to kill the women and older children – only children believed not old enough to talk and recount details were spared (though one child was summarily dispatched en route to Salt Lake City when the toddler began recalling details of the massacre and asking for its mother). Most of the men were killed in the first volley; Lee and the drivers of the two wagons finished off the few wounded.
Bodies were left on the prairie, others were gathered up and buried in a common grave marked by a cairn and the few surviving children were taken back to Salt Lake City. They remained in the care of the Mormons until arrangements were made to send them back to Arkansas. Meanwhile, not a word of who had committed the atrocity was breathed – inference led to a commonly held belief, once word of the massacre leaked, that the Indians were solely responsible.
In the wake of the massacre Brigham Young still waged a war on the Gentiles of the United States and their representatives, the United States Army. He reacted to the Army’s action by calling up the Mormon militia. They engaged in a two-week scorched earth sweep over the territory. They destroyed wagon trains, any Army property in their path, and oxen used as draft animals by passing Gentiles. President Buchanan sent in a negotiator who worked out a peaceable solution and a new governor was installed, thus ending the Utah War in 1858. He gave amnesty to all combatants on the Mormon side, and he withdrew US troops from the area for the rest of his administration.
Federal Judge John Cradlebaugh, acting on behalf of the Buchanan administration, however, could find no compelling or cooperative witnesses to bring a case against anyone for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Rumors of Mormon involvement in the massacre circulated, but no one
In 1870, with public pressure being brought to bear, Mormon leaders excommunicated both Haight and John D. Lee, the instigators of the massacre. This started the machinery rolling for further inquiries and ultimately John D. Lee in 1876, after two trials, was scapegoated into being the only person prosecuted for the massacre.
On March 23, 1877, Lee was taken out to the massacre site and executed by firing squad. This meant at least there was a public acknowledgment of Mormon involvement, but the final truth would not be known for several more decades.
Diligent research revealed that though Lee and Haight were the real initiators of the ruse leading to the massacre, Mormon Territorial Governor Brigham Young was aware of the action and aided in the subsequent cover-up. As a result, the Church readmitted Lee posthumously in 1961, realizing that he alone was not the sole party responsible for the massacre.
Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints enjoys a respected place in the pantheon of the world’s Christian religions. This particularly ugly skeleton in their closet has been belatedly acknowledged on the landscape out in the Mountain Meadows with a memorial, though the passive wording on the monument unfortunate is vague and does not clearly define who the aggressors were:
The oblique nature of the wording probably leaves most visitors inferring that Native Americans, and not white men, were solely responsible for the “massacre”. That would be an incorrect reading.