A Basic Account
The following narrative of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is drawn from fourteen massacre participants and other militiamen and contains more than seventy key confessions covering all aspects of the massacre. To provide context, we have also included other narration that has substantial support in the evidence. The confessional statements are numbered in parentheses ( ).
- 1 War Atmosphere and Invasion Panic in Southern Utah
- 2 Conduct of the Emigrant Train
- 3 Explosive Encounter in Cedar City
- 4 Planning Hostile Action Against the Emigrant Company
- 5 Inciting Paiute Indians to Assemble at the Mountain Meadows
- 6 The First Attack
- 7 Militia Reinforcement Sent to the Meadows
- 8 The Siege at Mid-Week
- 9 The Richey Springs Incident
- 10 Council Meeting at Mountain Meadows
- 11 The Final Massacre
- 12 The Aftermath of the Massacre
- 13 How Reliable are these Confessions?
War Atmosphere and Invasion Panic in Southern Utah
August 16 - September 11, 1857Major John M. Higbee of the Iron Military District's 3rd Battalion recalled the intense state of alarm or "excitement" among the populace: "[T]he further from [Salt Lake City,] the greater the excitement," Higbee conceded, while the excitement in Cedar City was at "fever heat."
(4) Major John M. Higbee admitted that the militia undertook extensive militia preparations as they considered the best means of "defending ourselves and families against the approaching army." They looked for places of refuge "in case we had to burn our towns and flee to the mountains." Then they dispatched patrols to "prevent any portion of the army from approaching." Speaking of "their endeavors to protect themselves and families from Mob Violence," Major Higbee admitted that people spoke of "Buchanan's Army" as "a mob." Higbee also conceded that local settlers "had to be good friends with the Indians at all hazards" so that "they could be used as allies should the Necessity come to do so."
(5) The threatening atmosphere created by the invasion excitement fanned the fears of an overzealous element within the Iron Military District. Ignoring later legends perpetrated by the purveyors of a sensationalist crime genre that fed on the massacre, there is still ample evidence that even other Mormons perceived this element as a threat to their own safety. In a reminiscent account, Major John M. Higbee avowed that during the "Buchanan or Mormon War" there was among some "a craze of fanaticism stronger than we would be willing now to admit."
Major John D. Lee was one of these. (6) Believing as he did that the Mormons were "at war with the United States," Major Lee of the militia's 4th Battalion opined that it was "the will of every true Mormon in Utah . . . that enemies of the Church should be killed as fast as possible."
Conduct of the Emigrant Train
As we shall see, some settlers in Cedar City accused the Arkansas emigrants of provocative acts. Therefore, it is relevant that other Mormon militiamen from the same military district had encounters with the emigrants that involved no such behavior. Their numerous encounters were at least civil if not cordial. Consider these:
Testifying in the 1875 Lee trial, Silas Smith noted that when some of the emigrant men asked if the Indians would eat a dead ox that lay nearby, it "created suspicion that they would play foul games by some means." Some of them also said "By God!" and similar expressions. They were a "rough lot of people," thought Silas, although he acknowledged that "I could not say that they were a rough set of fellows, but that was my opinion." But as we will see, his reservations were minor. He had two later encounters, each one amicable.
The experiences of many others were similar. Mormon settler John Hawley maintained that he traveled with the Arkansas train for part of three days. Silas Smith saw them again just north of Beaver and "took supper" with them. In Beaver, Edward W. Thompson and Robert Kershaw watched them pass without untoward incident. A hearsay account maintains that John Morgan of Beaver traded a cheese to an emigrant. Traveling south to Red Creek (Paragonah) Silas Smith visited them for the third and last time. A half a dozen miles ahead at Parowan, Jesse Smith traded salt and flour to them. A hearsay account says that Alfred Hadden of Parowan traded them a cow that Hadden was running at Shirt's Creek below Cedar City.
Below Cedar City, the accounts are similar. Near Fort Hamilton, John Hamilton Jr. delivered a cow to them to complete the trade with Alfred Hadden. As the company approached the hamlet of Pinto in the evening of Friday, September 4, Joel W. White and Philip Klingensmith passed them on horseback going and returning without incident.
Entering the Mountain Meadows on Saturday evening, September 5, militia private David Tullis observed that they were a "large and respectable-looking company" who "behaved civilly." Samuel Knight and Carl Shirts met them farther down valley. In a statement attributed to Carl Shirts, they were "perfectly civil and gentlemanly."
Thus, contrary to much later rumor and hearsay, credible accounts demonstrate that during the journey from central Utah into the south, local settlers had a remarkable number of encounters with the emigrant train that they would have characterized as civil.
Explosive Encounter in Cedar City
Around Thursday, September 3
But in Cedar City invasion fears were peaking. The result was that perceptions of the passing emigrants were warped by the fog of war. There are a variety of accounts, some first-hand and many second-, third- and fourth-hand, with many contradictions and some obvious exaggerations. What the first-hand accounts have in common is this: Disputes arose in Cedar City among emigrants and settlers over trading and sales; one or more emigrants used profane and threatening speech, possibly toward an elderly Mormon woman; to provoke the Mormons, one or more emigrants may have boasted of killing the Mormon founder Joseph Smith some years before; and, when the local marshal intervened, one or more emigrants threatened the marshal and showed contempt for his authority.
Although the number of "combatants" in this fracas was small, the tenor of the surviving accounts is that this encounter was explosive and that some Cedar leaders and settlers reacted with alarm. Some militia leaders there reacted with hostility.
Senior militia and religious authorities in Cedar City (who in most cases were one and the same) quickly leapt to a conclusion. With the war climate skewing their interpretation of events, they concluded that the emigrants were hostile and in league with U.S. troops then thought to be invading southern Utah. (7) One statement comes from Major Haight's adjutant, the young Welshman Elias Morris. Morris avowed that the emigrants were allied with the advancing troops "as they [the emigrants] themselves claimed."
(8) Cedar City militiaman Charles Willden swore in an affidavit that "the United States troops were on the plains en route to Utah, that they and said [Arkansas] Company would go on to the Mountain Meadows, and wait there until the arrival of said troops into the Territory and would then return to Cedar and Salt Lake [and] other towns through which they had passed in said Territory and carry out their threats. . . ." In the same fashion, militia commanders conflated the threatening U. S. troops they imagined were in the eastern mountains with the emigrants in their midst.
(9) Moreover, the orders they sent to other settlements conveyed their distorted views. Thus, several days later and in response to orders, Mormon southerners from Washington moved toward Mountain Meadows. Riding along, James Pearce later recounted, they discussed the reports that had originated in Cedar City. "The talk was [about] the party, that some of them said they had helped to kill old Joe Smith and they were going to California to raise some troops. They was going down below for a thousand men, going to get men already armed, and would come back and drive the Mormons out and take their means from them."
(10) After the confrontation in Cedar City, Bishop Philip Klingensmith, also a private in one of the militia platoons, confessed that he was present at a council meeting at which the "destruction" of the emigrant train was debated. (11) As a militia leader in the south, Major John D. Lee confessed to believing that "the killing of [the Arkansas company] would be keeping our oaths and avenging the blood of the Prophets." (12) Major Lee averred that the emigrants were so depraved that there was not "a drop of innocent Blood in their whole Camp."
Talk of "no innocent blood" is significant for two reasons, first, it is strong evidence of "devaluing," which some argue is a necessary condition in mass killings. Second, it is an extreme form of denunciation indicating that the actors may be shifting from fighting words to hostile actions.
Planning Hostile Action Against the Emigrant Company
September 4-6, 1857
(13) While some militiamen later acted out of a sense of military or religious compulsion, others' actions were not mere servile obedience to orders but active cooperation and collaborative effort. Thus, in describing the night meeting with Major Isaac C. Haight at the iron works in Cedar City in which they laid plans to incite Indian attacks on the emigrant train, Major Lee confessed, "We agreed upon the whole thing, how each one should act. . . ."
(14) Moreover, Lee admitted to the conspiratorial setting of his meeting with Major Haight in Cedar City: late at night at the iron works, wrapped in blankets against the cold, away from prying eyes and ears. (15) John D. Lee admitted receiving orders to convey to his son-in-law, Carl Shirts, "to raise the Indians south, at Harmony, Washington and Santa Clara, to join the Indians from the north, and make the attack upon the emigrants at the Meadows."
(16) Returning home to Fort Harmony, probably early Saturday morning before daylight on September 5, 1857, Major Lee encountered some Paiute bands from around Cedar City lead by subchiefs Moquetas and Big Bill. According to John D. Lee, their orders were to "follow up the emigrants and kill them all" and they solicited Lee to "go with them" to the Mountain Meadows and "command their forces." Declining temporarily, Lee told them that he had orders to "send other Indians on the war-path to help them kill the emigrants" and he had to "attend to that first." (17) Lee further admitted telling them, "I would meet them the next day and lead them."
Inciting Paiute Indians to Assemble at the Mountain Meadows
September 4-8, 1857
(18) Arriving at his home at Fort Harmony, John D. Lee found his son-in-law, Carl Shirts, a 2nd Lieutenant in a platoon in Lee's 4th Battalion of the militia. Lee told Shirts "what the orders were that Haight had sent to him." According to Lee, after some initial hesitation Shirt left to "stir up the Indians of the South, and lead them against the emigrants."
(19) Later, Indian interpreter Samuel Knight, a private in Lee's 4th battalion, received similar orders. Knight admitted directing the band of "Piedes" (Southern Paiutes) on the Santa Clara "to arm themselves and prepare to attack the emigrant train." (20) Meanwhile, in Cedar City, 2nd Lieutenant Nephi Johnson admitted attending a meeting with Isaac C. Haight before the massacre in which Haight told him of the plan to "Gather up the Indians And Distroy the train of Emigrants Who Had passed through Cedar. . . ."
(21) The campaign to incite the Southern Paiutes was successful: The estimates of the number of Paiutes at the Mountain Meadows ranged from 300 to 600. Nephi Johnson, an Indian interpreter and 2nd Lieutenant in Cedar City's Company D, estimated that they incited 150 Paiutes to attack in the main massacre. (22) Regarding the priority the militia placed on maintaining solidarity with local bands, Major John Higbee recollected that "every means in right and reason was used to secure the Friendship of the surrounding Tribes of Indians. . . ." (23) In his talks with Major Haight, Nephi Johnson conceded suggesting that the attack on the emigrants should be made farther south at Santa Clara Canyon instead of Mountain Meadows.
The First Attack
Monday, September 7
(24) Several men besides John D. Lee admitted being present in the valley of the Mountain Meadows on the morning of Monday, September 7. At daybreak, Private David Tullis along with Jacob Hamblin's adopted Indian boy, Albert Hamblin, were each in bed in the northern valley when they heard gunfire signaling the first attack on the camp in the southern valley. (25) "After the train had been camped at the spring three nights," Albert recollected, "the fourth day in the morning, just before light, when we were all abed at the house, I was waked up by hearing a good many guns fired. I could hear guns fired every little while all day until it was dark." (26) David Tullis heard the "firing on Monday morning, and four or five mornings afterwards." Tullis and Albert Hamblin admitted that they did not intervene, seek help or notify others.
The first attack was a sudden assault that left seven emigrants dead and sixteen or seventeen wounded; three more would die of their wounds during the siege. (27) John D. Lee admitted that he was "the only white man there [at the siege site]." (28) During one Indian attack, Lee was so close to the action that emigrants' bullets grazed his shirt and hat. (29) Later during the four-day siege, Lee was so close to their camp that he was seen by the emigrants who had raised a white flag. (30) Also Lee was seen at close range by two emigrant children who were sent out to converse with him.
Militia Reinforcement Sent to the Meadows
(31) Meanwhile on Monday morning in Cedar City, Private Joseph Clews was assigned to carry an express to Amos Thornton in the hamlet of Pinto near the Mountain Meadows. Fulfilling these orders, Clews and his companion rode on to the Meadows. Clews was the first Cedar City militiaman to admit that he was at the Meadows on Monday evening.
(32) Back in Cedar that day, Major John Higbee admitted mustering a detachment of militiamen and heading west toward the Meadows. Around sundown that evening, militia private and Cedar City herdsman Henry Higgins, herding the community stock in the common field, observed Major Higbee with a detachment of approximately twenty-five armed men in wagons or on horseback.
(33) In the enveloping crisis, many militiamen and Indian interpreters were compelled to obey military orders or face severe repercussions. They feared punitive measures from the military officers in Cedar City if they disobeyed. (34) Thus, Nephi Johnson resisted entreaties from Indian runners that he go to Mountain Meadows to interpret in place of Lee's Indian boy who "Lied to them so Much" that "they were tired of [him]." But when militia couriers arrived at his ranch, "they said to me that [Major] Haight said to them that I must come whether I Wanted to or Not. That He Would tell me what He wanted when I arrived at Cedar City."
(35) Some militiamen understood that they were being assigned as a burial detail to bury the dead. Others, however, had a different understanding. According to the reminiscent account of Private Ellot Willden, when he and the unidentified members of his party first rode to Mountain Meadows "they were to find occasion or something that would justify the Indians being let loose upon the emigrants. . . ." (36) Later that week, Indian interpreter Nephi Johnson, was given a reasonably accurate account of white-incited Indian attacks on the emigrants and that his mission was "to settle a difficulty between John D. Lee and the Indians. . . ."
(37) Philip Klingensmith, the bishop in Cedar City and a militia private, admitted that the local militia was called out "for the purpose of committing acts of hostility against [the emigrants]." Further, he conceded that this call was "a regular military call from the superior officers to the subordinate officers and privates of the regiment at Cedar City and vicinity."
(38) Over the weekend, Samuel Knight had taken an express from the Meadows to Fort Clara (and possibly Washington). He admitted that on Monday evening as he and other militiamen from Washington and Fort Clara rode toward the Meadows, they met the battalion commander of their region, Major John D. Lee. On Tuesday, Knight and the others from the two southern settlements arrived at Mountain Meadows.
(39) Meanwhile on Tuesday morning, as Private Joseph Clews rode east toward Cedar City from Mountain Meadows, he encountered Major John M. Higbee and his contingent headed west to Mountain Meadows. Higbee ordered Clews to fall in with his unit. They arrived at the Meadows that afternoon. (40) After assessing conditions and meeting in council to deliberate, Major Higbee admitted that he returned "at once to Cedar [City]" and "reported to Major Haight that [the] emigrant company was not killed as Lee['s] express had stated the day before, but were fortified and were under a state of siege. . . ." Although Higbee did not see Colonel Dame, he conceded that the purpose of his express was "to inform Col. William H. Dame, Commander of [the] Iron Military District, [of] the conditions of things at [Mountain Meadows]."
The Siege at Mid-Week
During the week, Major John M. Higbee recalled, he observed that two or three militiamen were "painted like Indians." (41) At least one of the two militia camps was within sight and earshot of the emigrant camp. From that militia camp, Sergeant Samuel Pollock admitted, he and other militiamen observed Indians firing on the emigrant camp but took no action to intercede.
(42) After the sudden attack on Monday morning, September 7, the emigrants had taken defensive action to afford themselves better protection. They circled their wagons, dug holes around their wagon wheels, lowered their wagon boxes and built other crude defensive fortifications. Observing these fortifications and the Indians' ineffectual fighting on Wednesday, September 9, Major Lee reluctantly concluded that the Indians and the emigrants were at a standoff. (43) The impasse created a crisis for militia commanders. "We knew," Major Lee admitted, "that the original plan was for the Indians to do all the work, and the whites to do nothing, only to stay back and plan for them, and encourage them to do the work. Now we knew the Indians could not do the work, and we were in a sad fix."
The Richey Springs Incident
Wednesday, September 9
(44) On Wednesday evening, September 9, several miles east of the Meadows at a place called Richey Springs, an incident occurred between three escaping emigrants and a small group of Mormon pickets, reportedly Captain Joel White, 2nd Lieutenant William C. Stewart, and Sergeant Benjamin Arthur.
Two emigrants were killed but one was only wounded and fled to the emigrant camp at the Meadows to recount the episode. Or so the Mormons believed.
Council Meeting at Mountain Meadows
Thursday evening, September 10
(45) Fourteen militiamen or Indian interpreters recounted that they had mustered to the Mountain Meadows by Thursday, September 10. These were Majors Lee and Higbee, Captain Joel White, Captain's Adjutant Daniel Macfarlane, 2nd Lieutenant Nephi Johnson, Sergeants Samuel McMurdie and Samuel Pollock, and Privates William Edwards, Joseph Clews and Philip Klingensmith from the area surrounding Cedar City; Privates William Young, Ellott Willden and James Pearce from Washington; and Private Samuel Knight from Fort Clara.
(46) By Thursday evening, the militia and the Paiutes were in some sense allied. Thus, Major Lee observed, "our total force was more than fifty-four whites and more than three hundred Indians."
(47) Also on Thursday evening, Cedar City's leading men held a military council on the grounds of the Meadows to discuss the fate of the emigrants. Contentiously they explored options and contingencies. (48) According to Majors Higbee and Lee and Privates Klingensmith and Pearce, those in the meeting disputed and quarreled about a course of action.
The partisan views ranged between two extremes: releasing the emigrants versus "using them up." Those arguing for killing the emigrants justified the action with simple logic and an argument based on absolute necessity: The emigrants knew that Mormons were involved because of the incident at Richey Springs the previous evening. Since the Indians clearly were not strong enough to rout the emigrants, the Mormons had to finish the job. If not, the escaping emigrants would send an army from California to destroy them. Since a United States Army detachment was thought to be invading southern Utah and reconnaissance patrols were, as they spoke, scouting the eastern mountain for the army's advance parties, this possibility was intolerable.
(49) According to John D. Lee, the view that prevailed was that the emigrants knew full well that "the Mormons had interposed." That is, in the Wednesday evening episode at Richey Springs the wounded emigrant had retreated to the emigrant corral and revealed that Mormons were behind the Indian attacks. An additional factor for Lee may have been that he, too, had been seen: first, from a distance by the emigrants and second, at close range by two emigrant boys.
The Final Massacre
Friday, September 11
(50) Thirteen militia informants -- Majors Lee and Higbee, Captain Joel White, Captain's Adjutant Daniel Macfarlane, 2nd Lieutenant Nephi Johnson, Sergeants Samuel McMurdie and Samuel Pollock and Privates Philip Klingensmith, Joseph Clews, William Edwards, William Young, James Pearce and Samuel Knight -- confessed to planning and/or executing a strategy to decoy the emigrants from their fortifications in order to attack them.
(51) The plan, Lee and Klingensmith admitted, was to eliminate all men, women and older children. If they barred the emigrants' escape to California, the militia reasoned, military forces in California could not be sent against southern Utah's already precarious defenses. (52) Lee and Nephi Johnson admitted that the plan included killing women and older children and that Paiutes were to dispatch them. (53) Nephi Johnson admitted that on the morning of the massacre, he translated orders to the Paiutes to conceal themselves. He also translated the order for the subsequent attack.
(54) John D. Lee admitted going to the emigrants' wagon circle and delivering deceptive terms of surrender to the emigrants to induce them to surrender their arms and abandon their wagon circle. (55) At least twelve men confessed to being present at the Mountain Meadows during this deceptive ploy.
(56) Eleven militiamen admitted that the emigrants were formed into a northbound column of march and separated into three groups with small children and a few wounded adults at the head of the line, women and older children (from seven or eight years of age and above) in the middle, and men in the rear. (57) Albert Hamblin conceded that on the day of the massacre he and fellow Indian boy, John Knight, observed the emigrants leave their fortified wagon corral. They also saw "where the Indians were hid in the oak bushes and sage right by the side of the road a mile or more on their route." Albert said to his companion that he "would like to know what the emigrants left their wagons for," as they were going into "a worse fix than ever they saw."
(58) Three militiamen admitted being in one of the two militia camps within sight of the emigrants during the ruse and subsequent massacre. These were Sergeant Samuel Pollack of Cedar City and Privates William Young and James Pearce of Washington.
(59) At the time of the massacre, some militiamen acknowledged their particular role or location on the ground. Nephi Johnson had acted as Indian interpreter and was positioned on the flank of a hill overlooking the northbound caravan.
(60) Two men -- Captain Joel White and Private Philip Klingensmith -- admitted being present in the militia guard alongside emigrant men at the end of the column leaving the emigrant camp. (61) As the massacre commenced, Private Philip Klingensmith confessed to firing on an emigrant beside him in the column with intent to kill him. (62) Further, the clear implication of Klingensmith's testimony was that he had killed his man. (63) Many militiamen recalled the crack of the first gunfire while Samuel Pollock recalled the pall of smoke that rose over the field.
(64) Meanwhile, at the front of the column, Major John D. Lee, Sergeant Samuel McMurdie and Private Samuel Knight, admitted being with the wagons of small children and the wounded at the head of the column of march. (65) Sergeant McMurdie implicitly confessed to killing one or more of the wounded in the wagons. (66) Shortly before his own execution, Lee confessed to killing several wounded emigrants in or around the wagons.
(67) Many of the militiamen admitted the fact of the massacre through the combined efforts of detachments from the Iron County militia and allied Indians.
The Aftermath of the Massacre
The following day, a militia party including Colonel William H. Dame of Parowan and Major Isaac C. Haight of Cedar City arrived at the scene of the massacre. Major Lee briefed Colonel Dame and Major Haight and these two immediately fell into quarreling with one another. (68) Majors Haight and Lee and Private (also Bishop) Klingensmith enjoined secrecy on those from Cedar City because "they didn't want it to get out."
(69) Returning to Fort Harmony, John D. Lee and his adopted Indian son, Clem, overtook a band of Paiutes leaving the Meadows for their traditional lands. They exchanged greetings. Then, Lee admitted, the Paiutes said "I was their Captain, and that they were going to Harmony with me as my men." (70) Captain Joel White, 2nd Lieutenant Nephi Johnson and Privates Philip Klingensmith and Thomas T. Willis admitted that much of the emigrants' wagons and livestock was taken to the tithing office at Cedar City and later sold at auction.
(71) As the years passed and the panic surrounding the Utah War receded in memory, prejudice grew among all, non-Mormon and Mormon alike, against the perpetrators of the massacre, particularly the militia leaders. Major John M. Higbee came to feel ashamed because of "the cowardly part" they had played.
(72) Even some of those whose role was limited to carrying expresses and who were not even present during the final massacre, showed a consciousness of guilt: For example, nearly two decades later, Joseph Clews wrote: ". . .[O]h! what a horrible remembrance of those five days! They have been the bane of my existence, have kept me in the back ground and in the shade, have kept me out of society and away from people I should like to have associated with. Such has been my lot or strange fatality."
Nephi Johnson's tortured dreams on his deathbed in 1919, more than six decades after the massacre, bear silent but eloquent witness to how some militiamen were devastated by what they saw and did.
How Reliable are these Confessions?
How do these statements hold up against the usual measures of historical reliability, credibility and verification? Ideally, each primary witness would provide a first-person account or his account would be recorded verbatim by a third person. Here virtually every matter being recounted comes from a primary witness. Many of these were first-person accounts or their substantial equivalent. For each such statement, we have established that it is a reliable primary witness account.
Establishing the credibility of the account, however, requires that we first consider witness competence. We have satisfied ourselves that these witnesses had adequate senses, intelligence and memory to observe, interpret and recall that to which they testified. But what about the witnesses' character, motives and biases? Each of the militia participants was involved in an atrocious massacre, so the motivation to suppress, distort or justify was great.
Yet in each case we have concentrated on the areas of their testimony in which they have acted exactly contrary to their motivation to suppress the truth. Those are the areas in which the witnesses confessed their involvement in crimes. Such "confessions against interest" are the most reliable elements in the accounts. Furthermore, in uncovering confessional elements in witness narratives, we have implicitly weighed their internal coherence. We have also noted many instances in which the evidence provided by one witness was corroborated by others.
There are, however, limitations. Although many elements of the massacre narrative are verified by multiple witnesses, not all of them are. Further, for some key witnesses -- Isaac C. Haight and William H. Dame, for instance -- we have no statements at all. For some key events -- the emigrant-settler confrontation in Cedar City, for instance -- we have inadequate accounts of what actually transpired. Then there is the matter of the reminiscent nature of many accounts.
Yet the ultimate test of any historical narrative is coherence. Coherence embraces internal consistency of a witness's statement, consistency of that statement with the witness's other statements, and consistency among all the witnesses. From these confessions all the major elements of the massacre have emerged as a largely coherent whole.
While they are not the whole truth about the massacre (something we may never fathom), these corroborated confessions are highly reliable. When a consensus emerges among historians of the massacre, these confessions will be central to that consensus. They form the bedrock of what we can know about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
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