Three Corners of Earth, Part 2 of 3
History Demands Our Attention
This is the saddest place in Utah. It may even be one of the saddest places in the West. It is called Mountain Meadow. Topographically, it is just that, a mile-high sloping meadow bounded by mountain peaks frosty this morning with new snow and sub-freezing temperatures.
It was in this spot on a morning towards the end of summer in 1857 that a group of Mormons and Indians turned on a band of immigrants headed for California and killed them. It was an act which to this day generates fierce controversy in the state, not to mention heavy emotions. And it is one moment in Utah, defining or not, that we can't seem to collectively shake.
Led by captains John T. Baker and Alexander Francher, a California-bound wagon train from Arkansas 140 members strong camped near the present day site of Enterprise, towards the end of summer in 1857. Early on Sept. 7, a group of Indians and local Mormon Indian missionaries attacked the circled wagons of the Baker-Fancher party without warning. The wagon party fought off the attackers until a contingent of Mormon territorial militia, acting on orders from local church leaders, joined the attack. The battle lasted for four days and 15 emigrant men were killed either in battle or while attempting to escape. On the afternoon of Sept. 11 Mormon forces persuaded the emigrants, who were low on ammunition, food and water, to surrender in exchange for safe passage back to Cedar City. Segregated into groups of children, women and teens, and adult males the group, under heavy guard, was led out of the encircled wagons and northeast up the valley. Upon a pre-arranged command, with the parties now strung out as much as a mile apart across the valley, the Mormons and Indians turned on the emigrants. Of the original 140, including nine cowhands hired to drive the party's cattle, only 17 children under the age of seven survived the trick. Twenty years later John D. Lee, a Mormon leader at the massacre, was tried, convicted and executed by firing squad at the site of the massacre. He considered himself a scapegoat. No one else was ever officially held responsible for the crime. The orphans, except for the possible exception of one, were sent back to Arkansas.
Today, the site, which is just off state Route 18 as it winds through the foothills of the Pine Valley Mountains, is heavy with the judgment of history. It is somber, and quiet. On this frigid morning in mid-March 50 cows bellow in the valley, scraping new snow from spring grass, a car passes on the road, sun comes over the mountains. The public memorial is actually on a low bluff overlooking the valley. The short winding trail has several explanatory plaques along it. At the top is a granite memorial listing the names of the dead. Viewing scopes, cold to the touch, direct the eye to the site of the attack, the encampment, the killing.
This is a site, a period in history, that Utah is just coming to grips with. For the longest time there was almost nothing here mentioning the 1857 event. Then came the granite memorial, but even that did not say who did the killing why. Most today agree that, acting on orders from Mormon church leaders in Cedar City, years of fears, madness and political frustrations motivated the event but, as one of the plaques say, 'the exact causes and circumstances fostering the sad events--still defy clear or simple explanation.' Some suggest the Mormons simply acted on orders form church leaders. Others say the wagon train antagonized Mormon settlers as they passed through the state, poisoning water and shouting epithets. Some believe a group of the emigrants had been in a contingent called the 'Missouri Wildcats,' a group reported to be working with the Illinois mob that killed Mormon church founder Joseph Smith.
Last year, the church came here to restore the crumbling rock cairn that marked the remains of those killed. The cairn sits down in the valley, and when crews working to erect a protective wall around it accidentally dug up some of the graves--which meant anthropologists had to analyze the remains--Utah, again and in a very public format, had to face the act anew.
I tell you this not because I think Mountain Meadow is a great, fun place to visit. It is not really on the way to anywhere, there are no restaurants nearby and the emotions it elicits from its visitors is not exactly the ingredients for a great vacation. But I think being able to place Mountain Meadow in the context of Utah today is an important part of understanding the state and its people. Think of its equivalents in America's history.
That the Mountain Meadow massacre occurred at all, many say, is because Jacob Hamblin was in Salt Lake City at the time.
Born in 1819 in Ohio, Hamblin's family homesteaded in Wisconsin but moved with him to Utah, reluctantly, when he converted to Mormonism. Hamblin lived in Tooele where he learned Ute and Paiute languages and became a great friend to Indians. During a skirmish with Indians, Hamblin's gun refused to fire and the event impressed him to stop fighting Indians and instead live and work with them. He was soon known as a peacekeeper who could settle disputes between Mormon pioneers and uprooted Indians with understanding and compromise rather than violence.
It was that reputation that earned him a calling from the church's president and prophet Brigham Young to accompany settlers in southwestern Utah. Part of the region's 'Indian Mission,' Hamblin helped build a fort in Santa Clara, a small community just up-river from St. George and about 30 miles down-valley from Mountain Meadow. Despite the area's current resort lifestyle and quickly-sprouting retirement communities, southwestern Utah then was a truly difficult environment to homestead. With less than 10 inches of rain annually, blazing sun and summertime temperatures that can approach 110 degrees on a regular basis, early settlers faced difficulties at nearly every turn. Hamblin helped ease Indian-settler relations both in southwestern Utah and across the region. Known for the red bandanna he always wore Indians, themselves struggling with drought and heat, appreciated his arrival and obeyed the deals he struck. And with his reputation as peacekeeper, many historians speculate that his calming presence in southwestern Utah might have kept the Mountain Meadow from occurring.
When devastating floods in 1862 washed away three walls of the Santa Clara fort, Hamblin and his wife dismantled the one standing wall and built nearby what today is called the Jacob Hamblin Home. Completed in 1863, the two-story adobe, sandstone and ponderosa pine home is one of the few remaining examples of early pioneer-era home-building in southwestern Utah. The Hamblin home, which is fronted by an immense green lawn, fallow wine orchards and a towering cottonwood, features a small formal mid-house entryway, flanked on either side by two bedrooms. Hamblin brought one wife from Tooele but married a second in Santa Clara. Each wife took one bedroom and Hamblin moved between the two. Each bedroom features a small, steep, narrow stairwell that leads upstairs to a broad, impressive common area. Used for school-teaching, community meetings and family activities--Hamblin's community stature meant he was a father figure to many--this house-wide room has a vaulted ceiling, fireplace and a porch.
Utah's First Snowbird
Hamblin's stay in Utah was short, though it likely paved the way for Young to come to nearby St. George and move into a winter home--Young suffered from arthritis--which today sits downtown. Today, the exquisitely restored Hamblin home is open for free guided tours performed by Mormon missionaries.
Today, St. George is a veritable paradise in the desert. Growth is fast, retirees are everywhere, and golf is king. Each winter weekend thousands of winter-weary escapists from northern Utah, southern Idaho and even southwestern Wyoming come here, to the Mojave Desert, to get reacquainted with the sun and green grass. But today's strips of fast food joints, new hotels and outlet malls hardly suggest the struggle St. George's first residents faced to make a livable place out of this hot redrock desert. Just years after its 1861 settling, the original inhabitants of St. George, sent here by Mormon church leadership in Salt Lake City, were ready to leave. It was hot, very dry and what water there was was in the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers, both flood prone and nearly unmanageable. Sensing the need for St. George to endure, both for its geographic importance and its warm-weather climate, then-president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Brigham Young instigated a public works project to help residents. In a food-for-labor program, Young set St. George residents to work on public works projects and northern Utah residents donated or tithed food and living supplies to workers. Over a 13-year period, settlers constructed St. George's tabernacle, courthouse and Mormon temple. When Brigham Young himself moved into the James Chesney home in 1869, the community's destiny was sealed.
The original portion of the Young home was begun in 1869 and completed in 1871. The front addition, which is what visitors today call the main part of the house, was finished two years later. Made from adobe, plaster and local rock, the two-story home is indicative of homebuilding in Utah at the time, where homes had large wrap-around front porches, thick insulating walls, a vegetable storage room in the basement, and three or more bedrooms. Young's home also had a detached office with telegraph station, a large office-style master bedroom upstairs and an ingenious ventilation system where warm air flows out from the ceiling into the attic and out of the house. Orchards and gardens surrounded the home on three sides.
The house has several pieces of original furniture, some of it likely made by Young himself, plus period pieces. Securing materials for the home showed the ingenuity and perseverance of early Mormon settlers. Baking adobe from local mud and hauling logs first from the Pine Valley Mountains then from Mount Trumbull--several days' journey to the south--local building materials tended to be a mix of happenstance and scientific experimentation. Even today, visitors to the Young home can see where the adobe bricks contain the outlines of the sagebrush used to stabilize it, as opposed to the typical straw. What could not be made locally had to be shipped in from outside the region, and maybe even from the East Coast. The bulwark piano in the first floor sitting room was brought across the Plains in a wagon.
What impressed me most about the Young home was its hard-wood imitation furniture. Raised on the hard-woods common to the eastern half of the country, Mormon carpenters were often unhappy with the way the local soft-woods took stains. Rather than import hard-woods halfway across the country, Mormon carpenters instead actually painted grains simulating hard-woods onto the soft-wood. This astounding though nearly dead art can be seen on many of the doors, windowsills and tables in the Young home.
The Young home sits in a neighborhood of pioneer homes, many of them wonderfully restored. Some homes are open to the public, others offer tours, and some are not open to the public. A few, such as the Seven Wives Inn kiddy-corner from the Young home, are businesses. More than two-dozen of St. George's finest historic homes and buildings can be seen on a walking tour of the downtown area.
Relaxing at the Park
How therapeutic did I say the smell of sun block was at the end of winter? I've been camping two days now and smell like the mountains and desert and can smell the accumulation of two days' worth of sunblock on the tip of my nose. In the city park in St. George I lay back on the green grass, the tender green grass of winter, and gaze up at the snowy Pine Valley mountains, where I was trying to ski the other day. Even with all the new snow the skiing wasn't too good--it's a fair-sized range and I think more than anything I just chose the wrong spot. Porter, who is on a leash, scratches the grass and rolls over on his back. I'm sipping a Dr. Pepper with ice, unopened book in hand. I keep the book closed, look out at the park with families picnicking and throwing balls, and lay back on the grass.
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