The other Sept. 11 tragedy


Long before 2001, Sept. 11 marked the anniversary of a date when Americans going about their business were killed in cold blood by religious zealots.  

It was the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 near Cedar City, Utah. Just about everything except the date and location remain subject to dispute. 

Mormons had been persecuted in Missouri and Illinois, so a party headed by Brigham Young rode west in search of a sanctuary. As the story goes, in July of 1847 Young saw the valley of the Great Salt Lake and proclaimed "This is the place." 

Young was the most successful colonizer in American history. His followers, by and large, were obedient and industrious, and they began implementing a self-sufficient theocracy that was supposed to extend from the Continental Divide in present Colorado west to the Pacific Coast. As a result of the 1846-48 Mexican War, it became part of the United States. 

Mormon theology seemed weird to most Americans, as did the notion of Deseret, theocratic realm. And then there was the alarming matter of plural marriage. In the summer of 1857, President James Buchanan sent the U.S. Army west to install a new territorial governor, as well as insure federal control of the territory. 

Many Mormons, remembering the persecutions of earlier years, feared that the troops were being sent out to annihilate them. However, no shots were fired in the "Mormon War." The Mormons attacked federal supply trains and burned forage, delaying the army long enough for a settlement to be negotiated.

But here was a fearful and edgy Deseret in the summer of 1857, with local militias drilling and organizing. Young, the territorial governor, had declared martial law. Instead of selling supplies to emigrants passing through the territory, Mormons were supposed to build up stockpiles in preparation for the military invasion they feared. 

In the spring of that year, several wagon trains had formed in Arkansas, bound for California on a route that took them to Salt Lake City in early August. History knows them as the Fancher-Baker party which at one time had 200 members ranging widely in age. After replenishing in Salt Lake, some took the California Trail that went almost due west; most headed southwest on the Old Spanish Trail toward Los Angeles. 

They reached Mountain Meadows on Sept. 4, 1857. On Sept. 7, they were attacked by Paiute Indians, or by warriors who were dressed like Paiutes. Seven emigrants were killed in the first assault. The others chained their wagons into a circle, dug ditches to make dirt walls, and otherwise fortified themselves. They had little or no access to fresh water, and a limited supply of ammunition.  

On. Sept. 11, Mormon militiamen appeared and offered to escort the emigrants to safety if they would turn over their livestock to the Paiutes. They agreed. As they walked toward Cedar City, the men, women and older children were killed. The only survivors were 17 very young children, who were turned over to Mormon families to raise. Major efforts were made to cover up the massacre or blame it on the Paiutes, but word soon got out. 

Just how many died remains unknown, with estimates ranging from 80 to 130. Various investigations were interrupted by the Civil War, and the extent of formal church involvement -- that is, did it go clear up to Brigham Young? -- is something historians and history buffs still argue about. 

The only person formally charged in the massacre was John Doyle Lee, local constable and Indian agent. He lived for some years thereafter in a remote spot -- Lee's Ferry in Arizona near Glen Canyon Dam bears his name because he operated it -- but was tried and convicted, then executed by a firing squad in 1877 at Mountain Meadows. 

John D. Lee's great-great-grandsons, Mark Udall and Tom Udall, are U.S. Senators from Colorado and New Mexico. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormons, are running for president of the United States, and the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, is a Mormon. 

So Mormons are pretty much mainstream America these days, 154 years after the first Sept. 11 attack. There have been apologies and ceremonies  of reconciliation. But it does seem to take a while to recover from a Sept. 11 massacre.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colo.