Mountain Meadows

Led by captains John T. Baker and Alexander Francher, a California-bound wagon train from Arkansas 140 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 Latter-day Saints 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 Latter-day Saint 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 Latter-day Saint leader at the massacre, was tried, convicted and executed by firing squad at the site of the killing. 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.

This is one of the saddest chapters in Utah history, and perhaps in all the history of the West.

Today, the site, which is just off state Route 18 as it winds through the foothills of the Pine Valley Mountains an hour north of St. George, is heavy with the judgment of history. It is somber and quiet. 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.

Most today agree that, acting on orders from Latter-day Saint 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 from 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 Latter-day Saint church founder Joseph Smith just before the Latter-day Saints fled west.

For the longest time there was nothing here except a stone cairn erected near the site of the killing. Then came a granite plaque listing the names of the dead but now how they died or who killed them. In 1999 the LDS church came here to restore the crumbling rock cairn. 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.

But the analyzing was abruptly halted when the governor intervened, and eventually the protective wall was completed and dedicated by church leaders.

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