The human imagination, while boundless, also seems to prefer a world with boundaries.
Religious fanatics are “over there”. Massacres are perpetrated by external enemies.
Wild-West pioneers were “white”, Indians were “red”, and slaves were “black” – right? Boundaries.
The investigation of history, and American ethnic history in particular, requires us to accept that such a drawing of clear boundaries is in fact impossible.
9/11. Two worlds collide. On one side, citizens of the USA. On the other, an oppressed group claiming to represent a purer form of religion, answerable only to God and His Prophet.
By the end of this day, the lives of many, many innocent men, women and children will be cut brutally short.
September 11. The year? 1857.
In early September that year, multiple wagon trains reached Mountain Meadows in Mormon-controlled Utah Territory, carrying non-Mormon settlers on an arduous trek from Arkansas to Southern California.
Ten years earlier, in 1847, Brigham Young had begun leading the religious followers of New York native Joseph Smith from Illinois to Utah, along with their slaves.
Joseph Smith himself had been shot dead alongside his brother Hyrum while serving as mayor of a Mormon-majority town in Illinois in 1844. An angry mob had forced their way into the jail where the Smith brothers and others awaited trial after declaring martial law and ordering the destruction of a local printing works which had published a newspaper critical of Smith and the Mormon religious “project”.
At the time that Brigham Young (a loyal lieutenant of Joseph Smith) and his “Latter Day Saints” entered the Great Salt Lake Basin, Utah was still part of Alta California, an old Spanish province which had come under Mexican governance following the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain – a long-running conflict which had ended with victory for the Mexicans back in the 1820s.
Many of these Mormons had fought in the Mexican-American War (which was still ongoing in 1847), and chose to see land in Old California as legitimate “spoils of war”, where they might plant a new “Zion”.
By the time the Baker-Fancher wagon train passed through Utah ten years later in 1857, the local Mormon populace was in a state of heightened, vigilant paranoia following two decades of violent persecution back east, and the recent thundering “Reformation” led by their theocratic leader Brigham Young.
A doctrine of “blood atonement” for moral laxity was being regularly preached in Mormon churches, a doctrine in which the wages of sin would now be death…
Almost all representatives of the US Federal government, including judges and US marshals, were fleeing Utah at the time, in immediate fear for their lives and safety.
President James Buchanan responded by ordering an army expedition to the Utah Territory, in order to crush what he deemed to be a full-scale rebellion against US hegemony in the lands annexed from Mexico in 1848.
Adding gunpowder to the mix were the rumors circulating among the Mormon community that a wagon train heading their way included men implicated in the murder of a Mormon back in Arkansas.
This was the volatile cauldron awaiting the Baker-Fancher settlers from Arkansas…
Sunday, the 6th of September, was a day of overwrought public oratory at Mormon services around Utah. In Salt Lake City, Brigham Young chose the occasion to declare that the Almighty himself
“recognized Utah as a free and independent people, no longer bound by the laws of the United States”.
In Cedar City, meanwhile, another member of the Mormon hierarchy, Isaac Haight, told those gathered at the morning service that he was
“…prepared to feed to the Gentiles the same bread they fed to us. God being my helper, I will give the last ounce of strength and if need be, my last drop of blood in defence of Zion.”
That same Sunday evening, the Fancher party and others crossed over the rim of the Great Basin and encamped at the place called Mountain Meadows…
The next morning’s quiet peace at the meadows was shattered by gunfire. A child who survived the attack later recalled:
“Our party was just sitting down to a breakfast of quail and cottontail rabbits when a shot rang out from a nearby gully, and one of the children toppled over, hit by a bullet.”
The shots came from forty to fifty Mormons disguised as Indians, along with some of their Paiute allies and trading partners in the Indian slave trade.
The well-armed emigrants returned fire, and the ensuing gun battle developed into a drawn-out siege.
After five days, the Mormons approached the encircled wagons under a white kerchief of truce. The thirsty and desperate Arkansas families were marched away under guard toward Cedar City, with an agreement that no one would be harmed, provided the party agreed to give up its stock, wagons, arms and stores, and remove themselves from Utah immediately.
Less than a mile down the road, a signal was given, and over 120 unarmed men, women and children as young as four years of age were shot, stabbed, and beaten to death as they ran screaming, trying to escape.
Without the dignity of proper burial, the half-eaten and naked corpses of women and children were visible to passers along this road for months after the event…
Just 17 children, all under the age of seven, survived the bloody massacre, to be taken in by local families for a couple of years, until finally reunited with family back home in Arkansas.
Only after two decades, and much legal horse-trading, did one solitary man eventually stand trial for his part in the outrage.
John Lee was duly executed by firing squad.
Many, many of the Arkansans murdered in Utah came from Johnson and Carroll Counties in Arkansas, at the southern end of the Ozark Mountains. Many had only been there for one or two generations, and many had roots in Eastern Tennessee.
And a great many of them were far removed from the cinematic images of doughty, “white Anglo-Saxon” pioneers in covered wagons of Hollywood fame.
How do we know this?
I myself might have never heard the dark tale related above, but for my own connections to the multi-ethnic Bunch families of Appalachia – people sometimes referred to as Melungeons.
One of the victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a 22 year old girl named Armilda Miller Tackett. Armilda was the niece of one Samuel Thompson Allred, the husband of Anna Bunch, who is in turn a cousin of mine, and President Barack Obama‘s fourth great-grandmother.
Needless to say, my son was faced with looks of sceptical incredulity as a young boy when he told his Irish language teacher here in Ireland that Barack Obama was his 8th cousin…
In an intriguing footnote to history, Mr. Obama came under some heated and howling criticism during his presidency for daring to mention the Christian extremism of the Crusades 1000 years ago in the same breath as Islamist extremism.
But he need not have reached so far back for his analogy – the Christian extremism above took place within the memory of my own great-great-grandmother, on US soil.
“But they were Mormons, that doesn’t count! It’s a sect. Most mainstream Christians didn’t do such things.”
Today’s Muslim extremists are mostly Wahhabists. It’s a sect. Most mainstream Muslims do not do such things, either…
Perspective is a helluva thing.
© 2015 Brian Halpin, revised 2022
#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #mormons #MountainMeadowsMassacre #UtahHistory #MormonHistory