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LDS Restorationaist movement including the Mormon churches

The 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre

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  • "If any miserable scoundrels come here, cut their throats." Brigham Young 1
  • "The Mountain Meadows Massacre stands without a parallel amongst the crimes that stain the pages of American history. It was a crime committed without cause or justification of any kind to relieve it of its fearful character... When nearly exhausted from fatigue and thirst, [the men of the caravan] were approached by white men, with a flag of truce, and induced to surrender their arms, under the most solemn promises of protection. They were then murdered in cold blood." William Bishop, Attorney to John D. Lee. 2


The early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS church) was fascinating and sometimes chaotic. The Mormons found themselves heavily oppressed because they:

  • Insisted that their faith group was the true Christian church and that other Christian groups had deviated from the original teachings of Jesus.
  • Used the Book of Mormon and Doctrines & Covenants as a supplement to the Bible.
  • Were perceived by Gentiles (non-Mormons) as trying to form a theocracy.
  • Introduced polygyny by implementing the Law of Abraham, (a.k.a. the Patriarchal Order of Marriage, or Celestial Plural Marriage).

For these and other reasons, their relationships with other Christians were always strained and often violent. They were expelled from a succession of settlements. In 1838, 17 Mormon settlers were murdered in the Massacre at Haun's Mill, MO. Their founder, Joseph Smith, and his brother were assassinated by a mob while in prison.

In 1846, most of the Mormons relocated to the Great Salt Lake, UT, and established a theocracy under Brigham Young. Mormon anger against the Gentiles (non-Mormons) remained high for many years. The year 1857 was a time of particularly high tension. The Mormons were expecting an attack by the U.S. Army. It was in the fall of that year in what is now southwestern Utah that the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place.

What happened?

Author Juanita Brooks has concluded:

"The complete --t he absolute -- truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it are all very inadequate at best." 3

A group of men -- variously described as Southern Paiute Indians, Mormons dressed as Natives, or a combination of Natives and Mormons -- deceived and attacked a group of 137 pioneers whose wagon train was traveling from Arkansas, through Utah, and on to California. There are allegations that Mormons in the Mountain Meadows area created unrest among the Native population by spreading a rumor that the the pioneers were planning go to California and return with an army to attack the Natives and Mormons.

Apparently, many people on both sides died in the initial conflict. The pioneers then surrendered. Under a flag of truce, they were disarmed, and then slaughtered in cold blood. In all, 120 men, women and children of the wagon train were killed. 17 children under the age of 7 were considered "too young to tell;" their lives were spared. Brevet Jamor J.H. Carleton noted in his investigation of the tragedy "that about one third of the skulls were shot through with bullets and about one third seem to be broken with stones." 4

There was "a popular and widespread impression that John D. Lee was the leader and arch criminal of the massacre." 5 He was made the scapegoat, tried twice, and executed in 1877. There are allegations that the massacre was perpetrated by an underground Danite group. This theory appears to be a hoax since no such group existed in Utah at the time.

Brigham Young led a church cover-up, saying that the Natives were responsible for the massacre. He wrote that pioneers had earlier caused the death of Natives by giving them poisoned meat, and by poisoning some of their wells.

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Who was responsible for the massacre?

There are two main theories concerning the mass murder:

  • It was perpetrated by an isolated community of Mormons acting independently. Author Brooks writes that Mormon residents in the Cedar City area sent a rider to Brigham Young for advice. She reports that Young replied:

"In regard to the emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them."

Unfortunately, she reports that the massacre had already occurred by the time that the messenger returned. 6,7

Professor Gene Sessions, a Mormon, historian and authority on the massacre has concluded:

"... some 50 Mormons taking orders from local ecclesiastical leaders actually went out and tricked these 120 people out of their encampment with a white flag and then proceeded to murder them in cold blood with the exception of 17 small children. ...

"It's an awful story, you can't put a smilie face on it. This was cold-blooded murder of innocent people. Occasionally someone will come up to me and say, 'Well don't you think they deserved it?' And, no I don't think they deserved it. I don't care how many of the stories you believe about whatever the immigrants did to get killed, nothing they did came anywhere close to justifying the murder of little children and the oldest child saved was six-years and 11 months old. Everyone older than that was murdered. In fact most of the murdered people were women and children. So there's no justification. Even if you wanted to make some justification for killing the men, it breaks down pretty fast. It's just- there's no justification for the murder of these people. ..."

"I also believe without any question, even though the Paiutes might deny loudly that they were involved, that there indeed were. At the beginning of the attack; at the beginning of the week somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred Paiutes--there may have been only a handful left by the end of the week when the actual murders took place--but they were involved from the beginning and anyone who suggests otherwise is just missing enormous amounts of evidence." 14

  • It was ordered by the church's prophet and president, Brigham Young. AuthorWill Bagley implicates Young directly in the massacre. Bagley's book "Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows " has generated considerable controversy since it was first published in 2002-OCT. He concludes that Brigham Young knew that the attack was imminent and, according to legend, sent the message "Brethren, do your duty." Bagley provides some circumstantial evidence in support of this assertion. 8,9 

The after-effects:

The children who survived were initially placed with Mormon families in the area. All but one was later gathered up by Federal officials and returned to their relatives in Missouri.

According to reporter Mark Havnes:

"The massacre still haunts nearby communities, where descendants of some of the participants are divided between those who wish the atrocity would disappear and those who insist that justice demands that unresolved questions be answered." 7

On 2003-JAN-23, Bagley addressed a gathering at Southern Utah University and

"... spoke of the agony many massacre participants suffered after the deed and how requests to LDS Church President Brigham Young for spiritual guidance in dealing with pain were met with ridicule, threats or silence." 10

The site of the massacre:

In 1859-MAY, the U.S. Army buried the remains of 34 bodies in a rifle pit, and erected a cairn on the location.

In 1998, Mormon president Hinckley decided to build a new monument at the location of the original cairn. The Dan Sill Hill monument has the names of the people who are known to have been killed there. One year later, a second monument was built at the bottom of a draw at the meadows.

Gene Sessions commented:

"In the course of preparing to put that new monument there, we made every effort in the [Mountain Meadows] Association to discover where the remains were because we knew that cairn had migrated a bit over the years--farmers had knocked it down, vandals had carried off rocks and so forth. Brigham Young ordered it knocked down once according to Dudley Leavitt, he was there with a party in the 1860s and they came up to it and he ordered it destroyed."

Suggestions of a cover-up:

In 2000-MAR, Chris Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote a series of articles on the massacre. He suggested that the bones recovered at the site were full of secrets which would have been revealed if the archaeologists had more time to study them. He alleged that the Mormon Church conspired with the governor to have the bones reburied quickly. This was picked up by the news services and widely disseminated.

Many people now regard this story of a Mormon Church cover-up as the truth. A 2005-MAY television program on the History Channel called "Investigating History" reported that:

" 1999, a backhoe operator unearthed a mass grave, and forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak made astonishing discoveries--until the governor (one of the murderers' descendants) ordered the bones reburied. But it was too late, the ghosts had spoken and a new story emerged, implicating religious authorities in the mass murder." 13

There appears to be little or no evidence of a cover-up. In reality, the rush to rebury the bones was the result of pressure from the victims' descendents in Arkansas. Sessions commented:

"... the descendants in Arkansas became very angry. They wanted them reburied immediately and enormous pressure began to come upon us in the [Mountain Meadows] Association to try and keep this whole thing afloat--to get the Church and the state and whoever else we could to get those bones back in the ground--so we worked hard to get that done."

"... the week before the dedication of the new monument which was to take place on September 11, a Saturday, 1999, a man in Harrison, Arkansas named J.K. Fancher who is friends with Dixie Leavitt the governor's father, got on the phone and called Dixie and said, 'Your son's got to intervene.' So the governor called the state archaeologist and within a few hours the bones had been removed from the University of Utah and brought altogether and on Friday morning, the day of the funeral that had been scheduled for the bones, they were brought to St. George and brought to a funeral parlor where they were placed in four small little caskets and buried that afternoon in a Baptist funeral." 14

The lead plate hoax:

There were allegations that during 1998 or 1999, a lead plate was found by a park service worker in southern Missouri, close to the homeland of the massacre victims. It was allegedly written by John Lee, and said that Brigham Young had ordered the massacre. Later handwriting analysis revealed that the message was not in Lee's handwriting. It made for an exciting story, though, and has been widely accepted as accurate by the anti-Mormon community.

A search of inventory for books relating to the massacre:

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The following book comes highly recommended:

Book cover "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store


  • "A vivid, gripping narrative of one of the most notorious mass murders in all American history, and a model for how historians should do their work. This account of a long-controversial horror is scrupulously researched, enriched with contemporary illustrations, and informed by the lessons of more recent atrocities." --Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848."
  • "Three Mormon scholars have thoroughly researched one of the most shameful events in Mormon history. They have produced a very detailed, insightful and balanced account of the events leading to the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 9/11, 1857." --Robert V. Remini, Professor Emeritus of History and the Humanities, University of Illinois, Chicago
  • "An institutional effort at truth telling in service to reparation, this book provides in unflinching detail and with scholarly transparency the story of one of the West's most disturbingly violent moments. The authors tell the story well and get the history right, in no small part because of LDS Church sponsorship that underwrote a level of professional staffing and research that is impossible, even unimaginable, to the most diligent of lone writers. This uniquely well-documented account of a highly contested event may make obsolete previous studies and without doubt will constitute the necessary starting point for all future ones." --Kathleen Flake, author of The Politics of American Religious Identity
  • "The authors of Massacre at Mountain Meadows have written the best researched, most complete, and most evenhanded account of the Mountain Meadows incident we are likely to have for a long time. Above all they tell a gripping tale. Though I knew the end from the beginning, I began to sweat as the narrative approached its fatal climax. The authors won't let us turn our gaze away from the horrors of that moment." --Richard Bushman, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, Claremont Graduate University


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. From Brigham Young's "red hot blood atonement" sermon. Journal of Discourses, Vol. II., Page 311.
  2. "Mountain Meadows Massacre," at:
  3. Juanita Brooks, "The Mountain Meadows Massacre," University of Oklahoma Press, (1991), Page 223.  Read reviews or order this bookfrom
  4. Brevet Major J. H. Carleton, "Special Report on the Mountain Meadow Massacre; 1859-MAY-25," at:
  5. Sterling Allan, "Mountain Meadows Massacre: A Pain that Only Truth, Honesty, Recognition, and Repentance Can Heal," at:
  6. Op Cit, Brooks, Page 63.
  7. "Mountain Meadows Massacre," LDSfaq, at:
  8. C.G. Wallace, "New history book prompts Mormon debate: Controversy centers on Brigham Young's role in 1857 massacre," Associated Press, 2002-OCT-12, at:
  9. Will Bagley, "Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows," University of Oklahoma Press, (2002). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  10. Mark Havnes, "Historian Speaks on Mountain Meadows Near Site of Incident," Salt Lake Tribune, 2003-JAN-24, at:
  11. Josiah F. Gibbs, "Mountain Meadows Massacre," at:
  12. Carrie Moore, "Mountain Meadows debate still smolders: Oral histories of descendants rife with controversy,", 2003-JAN-9, at:
  13. Bill Curtis, "Investigating History: Mountain Massacre," History Channel, Repeat showing, 2005-MAY-28, 03:00 hr.
  14. Gene Sessions, "Shining new light on the Mountain Meadows massacre, Fair Conferences, (2003) at:

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Latest update: 2008-AUG-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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