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The Mountain Meadows Massacre
By Juanita Brooks
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1950 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Into the Wilderness
To understand properly the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one must know something of the stormy history of the Mormon church. This church had its beginnings in western New York during the revivalist period of the early 1800's, when preachers stirred whole counties into frenzy with their lurid eloquence, and sporadic sects sprang up over the countryside like mushrooms. During this time of revival and exhortation and hell-fire preaching, the fourteen-year-old youth, Joseph Smith, claimed to have had his first vision. In it he was told that the true church of Christ was no longer upon the earth and was promised that, if he proved worthy, the time would come when he, himself, would help to establish it. He believed that fulfillment of this promise had begun when, on April 6, 1830, at Fayette, New York, a group of six young men organized the church which was to become known as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Later the members of the church became known as "Mormons," and the church itself as the Mormon church, because of a book published by Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon. This purports to be a history of the ancestors of the American Indians translated from gold plates, the location of which Joseph Smith said was revealed to him by an angel.
So zealous were the proselytes of this new faith that the church membership increased with amazing rapidity, in some cases whole congregations being converted at once. Caught up in the westward movement of the time, the church transferred its headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, near the shore of Lake Erie, a little east of Cleveland.
From here they branched out, in 1831, to Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, then on the extreme western frontier. This place, they believed, God had designated as their center stake and had set apart as their inheritance. Frictions developed with the early settlers —frictions aggravated by both sides and inherent in their fundamental differences. In less than two years some twelve hundred Mormons had moved into Jackson County, had set about clearing land and building homes and towns, had talked too freely of God's promises to them, and had voted as a unit on civic matters. Tensions grew. Skirmishes became minor battles, and both sides made appeals to state officers to defend them.
Many things contributed to the difficulties; political, social, and religious differences were agitated until, in the excitement, mass meetings sometimes became unrestrained mobs who rode through the countryside, pillaging and burning. Some Mormon leaders were tarred and feathered; others were whipped to unconsciousness. In one night ten cabins at Big Blue River were demolished, and families were driven to shelter in the woods. Mormons organized for defense, thereby stirring their enemies to greater atrocities.
Following a clash on November 4, 1833, in which one Mormon and two non-Mormons were killed, the lieutenant governor, Lilburn Boggs, called out the militia to restore order. The commander, Colonel Thomas Pitcher, demanded that the Mormons surrender their arms and give up some of their leaders to be tried in the courts. No sooner had the Mormons complied than the mob gathered and began sacking the Mormon villages, in one night driving twelve hundred people from their homes and forcing them to take shelter in the undergrowth along the river bottoms, exposed to a biting November wind.
Word of this outrage aroused the sympathy of the citizens of adjoining Clay County, so that they offered the Mormons shelter and temporary homes. From here they moved north a little later to the sparsely settled areas of Caldwell County. Again they set about clearing land and building homes; again, when they began to be too numerous, their troubles were repeated. Differences could not be reconciled, and radicalism and extremes on either side led again to violence.
A tragic culmination came in October of 1838, when a band of ruffians fell upon a little settlement at Haun's Mill. Some of the Mormons fled to the woods and took shelter in the brush, but a group hid in an old blacksmith shop, among them a number of children. Of this group, eighteen were killed and a number seriously wounded. When one small boy begged for his life, a mobocrat answered, "Nits make lice," and blew out his brains. That expression was echoed twenty years later on the hillside at Mountain Meadows.
Feeling in Missouri became so intense that whole areas were in a state of civil war. Governor Boggs, petitioned by both sides for support and protection, took his stand firmly against the Mormons. In October, 1838, he issued the order: "The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace." Following the surrender of Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders, General Lucas tried them by court-martial and sentenced them to be shot for treason in the public square at Far West. The man commissioned to carry out the order was Alexander Doniphan, a man who dared to defy a military superior.
"It is cold-blooded murder," he wrote to the General. "I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning at 8 o'clock, and if you execute these men I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God." The order was not executed.
Forced to find another home, the Mormons were described by John D. Lee as a people "stripped and peeled," but, unlike the sapling that dies under such conditions, they sent down roots again. This time, their central city, Nauvoo, was to grow out of a mosquito-infested bog on the bank of the Mississippi River in Illinois. In five years they transformed it into a busy town, the center of a rich farming district—a town where business prospered, a printing press was set up, a temple begun, and a municipal university projected. With a population of fifteen thousand, it was the largest city in the state. Through bitter experience Joseph Smith had learned to protect his people under the law, so he secured for his city a charter which made it almost independent of the state and which gave it an army for its protection.
The very prosperity of Nauvoo carried with it the seeds of trouble. The Mormons were already too numerous, and daily their numbers were increasing. They still voted as a unit, playing the Whigs and Democrats against each other for favors and eventually arousing the ill will of both. Proud of their accomplishments and secure in the protection of their charter, they perhaps became overconfident. Joseph Smith even aspired to the presidency of the United States, sending his missionaries out to campaign for him along with their preaching. All this had encouraged more vehement opposition from without, and now there was division within as well. Some members who were out of harmony with the leaders had been excommunicated, and they defiantly set up a paper, The Nauvoo Expositor, which attacked Joseph Smith so vigorously that he, as mayor of the city, pronounced it a nuisance and ordered it destroyed. Public reaction was instant and violent. Mormon leaders were arrested and housed in the jail at Carthage, Illinois, under promise of protection, to await trial. Unwilling to delay for the action of a court, a mob gathered about the jail, their fury mounting until they attacked the prison cell and killed Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Thus, on June 27, 1844, was climaxed more than eleven years of strife between the Mormons and their neighbors of the western frontier.
Contrary to the hopes of their enemies, the Mormons did not scatter at the death of their prophet. Instead, they enshrined him in their hearts as a martyr who had sealed the truth of his testimony with his blood. They would work all the harder to carry out his plans and to maintain his "Kingdom." Seeing this, their enemies determined that they must be driven from Illinois.
Some wit sardonically labeled as "wolf hunts" the series of organized raids upon Mormon homes which followed. Bands of armed bandits scoured the country, driving off stock, breaking windows and furniture, driving out women and children, and then shooting to frighten them further as they ran for shelter into the fields. Then began the burnings. A mob would ride up to a farmhouse, order the family out, give them a generous few minutes in which to salvage such necessities as they could, and allow them to watch the glow of their burning home against the sky, or to compare its blaze with that of the granary and haystack. If the owners resented it or had too much to say, it was sometimes fun to enliven the party by giving the father a taste of the blacksnake in full view of his terrified children or by stripping him and smearing his body with hot tar.
Again both sides appealed to higher tribunals: the natives to have their state rid of the menace of the Mormons, the Mormons for their rights as American citizens. Finally, in October, 1845, a truce was arrived at in which Brigham Young, successor to the martyred Joseph Smith, promised to move his people en masse in the spring, as soon as there should be grass for the cattle. The anti-Mormons agreed not to molest the people until that time.
During the winter, the Mormons worked desperately to prepare for the move—repairing their wagons, building new ones, and securing supplies. By January, the mob had become restless. Would the Mormons really leave, they wondered, or would further encouragement be necessary? A nail spike has goaded many a plodding ox into a gallop; perhaps some pointed reminders would speed up the move. Why not have some fun with them before they got away? Perhaps, also, they could be persuaded to sell their property at a cheaper figure.
Posses led by pseudo-officers began to ride the city in search of arms or apostles, and burnings began again among the farms. Hysteria gripped the Mormons. Sarah Sturdevant Leavitt wrotebitterly of how she and her husband were forced to sell their fine forty-acre farm for a pair of unbroken steers, and forty thousand burned bricks, out of which they had planned to build a new home, for an old bed quilt. For her fancy high-post beds she got some weaving done, while the light cherry stand and the commode and all the pretty dishes were left for the mob—facts which she never forgot to her dying day, nor lost an opportunity to tell. She was only one of the many who were so filled with fear that they left before they were prepared to go. Abandoning their home, she and her husband took temporary shelter, along with other families, in a schoolhouse. One night a heavy foreboding of evil awakened her, and she convinced her husband that they must flee at once if they would save their lives. Hitching up his team in the darkness, he pulled to the banks of the Mississippi River, where other wagons were gathering, all impelled by the certainty that to remain longer would mean death.
On the morning of February 4, 1846, blocks of ice choked the Father of Waters. With the break of day the ferries began running. All day long and until dark at night they ran, carrying first a vanguard of young men organized under competent leaders to prepare the camping place. The families followed, moving as fast as ferriage was available, all preferring the uncertainties of winter to the threats of their enemies. Before night a road had been marked out, a camping place cleared, and some wood assembled on Sugar Creek, nine miles from the landing place. Here rude temporary shelters were erected against a bitter wind.
Day after day the ferries ran; people landed on the west bank and moved on to the camp at Sugar Creek, where within a few weeks nine babies were born—nine new lives ushered in amidst misery everywhere, hunger and cold and fear. On February 14, a heavy snow fell. "There were many families that night in our camp in waggons without covers, who were receiving the driving snow amid their women and children & also their goods which rendered their condition truly uncomfortable," Hosea Stout wrote the next day from the shelter of his tent.
On the twentieth of February the temperature fell to twenty degrees below zero, freezing the mighty river all the way across. As ancient Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry land, so this modern Israel now crossed the Mississippi River on a bridge of ice, a special providence of God, they told each other. At the end of ten days, three hundred wagons made up the settlement along Sugar Creek; on March 28, Brigham Young, writing to the governor of Iowa to ask for clemency for his people as they traveled west, reported that the company now consisted of "400 wagons, very heavily loaded."
With most of the Mormon leaders out of Nauvoo, tensions were eased so that other members could live in their homes "until the water runs and the grass grows," according to the agreement made the fall before. April and May saw a constant stream of wagons across the prairie. The poorest of the Saints were last to get away—families without wagons or teams, orphaned children, people old and infirm. During July, eight men caught harvesting crops near Nauvoo were mercilessly whipped with long switches as a warning to all. By September, guns and cannon were brought into play in an exchange "battle," and the remaining Mormons were driven to the riverbank on foot, taking along only such things as they could carry. Ferried across, they must wait for wagons to come back for them. Brigham Young had declared that all who wished to stay with the Saints should do so, which meant that those more fortunate must assume responsibility for those who had nothing. Only a great cooperative effort could have carried out this promise.
The first wagons inched along through the mud and slush of a wet spring, taking five months to cover the four hundred miles across Iowa to Council Bluffs on the Missouri River, a distance which the later emigrants traveled in less than half the time. En route the first groups established two temporary settlements, Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah, where some families remained to build cabins, clear land, and plant crops for the use of those who should come later. The headquarters and general gathering place was at Winter Quarters on the west bank of the Missouri River, where a community of small cabins and dug-outs was built.
At all these places exposure and malnutrition took a heavy toll. The Jonathan H. Hale family lost both parents and two daughters within a week; George A. Smith's third wife and four children all died of scurvy; Hosea Stout lost one wife and four children between the departure from Nauvoo and the departure from Winter Quarters—to cite only a few instances. The total Mormon deaths for this year are estimated at well over six hundred.
While the Mormon church was scattered in temporary camps the width of Iowa, events were shaping in the nation's capital which were to affect its members vitally. The Mormon representative there, Jesse C. Little, had been alert to try to secure contracts for building mail posts or forts, or performing any service by which the Saints could earn money to help with their enforced migration. With the declaration of war upon Mexico, it was decided to call five hundred young men from the Mormon ranks to march with the troops to California. While this would weaken the Mormons somewhat, it would transport this number at government expense, and their advance pay would help purchase necessities for needy families.
So strongly had the Mormons felt regarding the treatment they had received and the failure of the government to protect them in their rights, that when Captain James Allen arrived to enlist them, none wished to volunteer. Only after Brigham Young had preached and exhorted and commanded was the required number raised.
For years the eyes of the church leaders had been turned to the West. Brigham Young had taken pains to seek out all the information he could from trappers and explorers, so that he might select a place where his people could live unmolested. In the spring of 1847, he led a band of pioneers toward the mountains to mark out a route, to take measurements and make calculations, and to select the location for the permanent home of his people. In July, 1847, when he looked over the valley of the Great Salt Lake, he knew that he had found the place.
After exploring the country round about, tentatively marking out the city, planting crops, and making some provision for the safety and comfort of those who were to remain, the Mormon leader took a few scouts and started, late in August, back to the body of the Saints on the Missouri.
In the meantime, one detachment of the Mormon Battalion had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, and several companies from Winter Quarters had followed on the heels of the pioneer group, so that some eighteen hundred people wintered in the embryo city. The next year four thousand more arrived. In 1849 the Mormon emigrants were caught up in the great rush of gold-seekers on the plains, but they were not materially affected by the hysteria that drove others to seek their fortunes. They wanted only to gather with their people in the new Zion.
Excerpted from The Mountain Meadows Massacre by Juanita Brooks. Copyright © 1950 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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