The tragedy of the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857 cannot be understated. The build-up of animosity between the Mormon settlers of southern Utah and factions of the Fancher wagon train from Arkansas and Missouri had its origins long before the train arrived at the Meadows. During the summer of 1857 the Mormons, who had been driven from Missouri and Illinois by mobs less than ten years earlier, faced a new threat as the United States sent an army to quell a fictitious “Mormon insurrection” – a rebellion that was fabricated by enemies of the Mormons in the eastern states. This time, however, the leadership of the Church was determined that the members scattered throughout the Utah Territory would not be driven from their homes again.
The militias organized to protect the settlements in various parts of the Territory were put on a war footing and given specific instructions and training on how to fight a guerrilla war if necessary. One aspect of that preparation was to hoard the storage of food supplies – including meat, vegetables, corn and grain, and not sell any to immigrants passing through the area.
This angered members of the wagon train who needed supplies to face the barren deserts of Nevada and California before them, and they expressed this frustration by causing problems in almost every Utah community they passed through on their journey southwestward.
The Mormon settlers, on the other hand, spread rumors that some members of the train boasted they had been involved in some of the atrocities the “saints” had endured in Missouri – including a display of the pistol they said was used to kill Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder and prophet.
The “triggers” that caused the emotional spiral to escalate beyond control were 1) an attack by Native American tribes on the train while they were encamped at Mountain Meadows, and 2) the killing of a member of the wagon train named William Aiden at Leach Springs near Pinto by a Mormon settler.
This escalation came to a head at the Meadows where the Mormon militia from the Cedar City area, aided by their Native American allies, massacred more than 120 members of the wagon train.
During the years following 1857 a number of leaders of the militia were indicted on federal charges relating to the killings: Isaac C. Haight, the ranking Colonel of the militia from Cedar City; William H. Dame, also a Colonel, from Parowan; John M. Higbee, a Major, Phillip Klingensmith, a Major, and John D. Lee, a Major. Of these men, only Lee was arraigned. The rest fled into hiding for many years and either died before they could be tried or were eventually exonerated of any crimes associated with the event.
John D. Lee was tricked into returning to Utah after spending nearly two decades at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River in Arizona shuttling people and wagons across the river at the only crossing point in the stream for hundreds of miles.
Lee was tried twice for his leadership in the massacre – once in July, 1875 (a two-week trial) and in September, 1876 (a two-day trial).
In the first trial the Federal attorneys attempted to tie the LDS Church leadership in Salt Lake City to dominance in the event. John D. Lee became the symbol of that connection. A jury of twelve men was selected from residents of southern Utah. The federal judge assigned to the case, Judge Jacob S. Boreman, polled the jury to make sure it was not stacked with faithful Mormon men. The clerk noted in the trial transcript that “eight list themselves as Mormons, three as gentiles, and one jack-Mormon.” With such a make-up it would be difficult to convince the jury that Lee (or by extension, the Church) was guilty. After days of deliberation, the jury was hopelessly deadlocked. It would take a second trial to find a conviction.