Over the next few weeks there will appear here a series of stories taken from the transcripts of the trials of John D. Lee for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. September is the anniversary of the tragedy.
The problems at Mountain Meadow were undoubtedly the worst event in the history and lore of Southern Utah. Over 120 Fancher wagon train immigrants died at the hands of Mormon settlers and their Native American allies.
The total story of the events leading up to that massacre, the massacre itself, and the after mat have been the subject of many research efforts by historians for the past one hundred years. Juanita Brooks began this inquiry with her book “The Mountain Meadows Massacre” published in 1950 by Stanford University. Many historians have followed with added information and insights to the event. In the next five articles I’ll add what I can to help clarify the tragedy.
To my mind, that’s just what it was – a tragedy in the classic Greek sense: the emotions on all sides being stirred up by rhetoric and events that seemed to spiral out of control.
For more than a century the Mormons of Southern Utah have spun stories of the atrocities and problems allegedly carried out by some members of the wagon train. On the other hand, defenders of the emigrants point out that the Mormon’s, fearing a pending war with the United States’ Army incursion, called Johnston’s Army, had been instructed not to trade vital supplies with people passing through the Territory on their way to California. The emigrants, who needed such goods, became angry with the settlers for withholding those supplies. So, as they passed through the settlements in 1857 on their way to San Bernardino on the “California Trail” they cursed the residents and even were accused of stealing what they desperately needed.
One of the events that started the southern Utah friction took place at Corn Creek, the current location of the town of Kanosh in Millard County, Utah. This was a natural stopping point for travelers on the “San Bernardino Corridor” a roadway set up by Brigham Young to extend Mormon influence into California.
As the Fancher wagon train pulled into the shade of cottonwoods along the banks of Corn Creek, they met a number of people traveling north: locals on their way to Salt Lake City. The interchanges between the two groups seemed friendly enough.
Elisha Hoops of Beaver was one of the men traveling north. In the first trial of John D. Lee, he testified about what he observed the following morning as the emigrant train was preparing to leave for their next leg south.
John D. Lee’s attorney asked Hoops if anyone in his group had talked with any of the emigrants that morning.
“Hoops: We did. We talked about an ox in the morning. There was an ox lying dead in the corral. There was a little German doctor along with the emigrants. After we got in the wagons not quite ready to start [toward Fillmore], I saw him take a knife from his pocket and stick it in three separate times and pour something into the ox carcass – and just as we was leaving – there was two or three Indians – I can’t tell – came up. They gave him two buckskins for the ox. He took the buckskins and went on.”
Whether this incident happened or not is in question, but the Paiutes claimed later that the flesh of the ox had been poisoned by the German doctor and the result was that a Native American mother and her son died because of eating meat from the ox. This is the reason, according to the Mormon statements, that the Southern Paiutes went on the war path, had caught up with the train at Mountain Meadow and began the attacks.
Thus, the animosity began to spiral downward toward tragedy. Next: John D. Lee at the Meadows.