The ‘Wars’ We Create Among Ourselves

Exploring the cocktail of emotions and ideas that lead to us attacking and hurting the people that live around us.

In my class last night, we were discussing one of the Mass Killings that occurred in American History: the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In this event, around 120 emigrants called the Baker-Fancher party were traveling on a wagon train from Arkansas/Missouri to California in 1857. They had stopped nearby Cedar City, Utah on their way and, in the middle of September that year, were all killed, only 17 children under the age of six surviving the attack. This event is a dark point in my church’s(The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) history as the perpetrator’s of such incredible violence were members, known then as ‘Mormons’.

My teacher mentioned the pattern that must exist for something to be dubbed a Mass Killing in History. There must be:

  1. Hardship and disorganization.
  2. A history of victimization.
  3. Some form of rigidity or lack of flexibility within the society.
  4. A leader who holds too much power and wields it improperly.
  5. An exaggerated fear of the opponent.
  6. A displacement of hostility.
  7. A devaluation of the victims.
  8. A strong respect for authority and an inclination to obey.

All of these factors exist in the event, leading to a series of decisions that ended in the brutal death of over a 100 emigrants as well as an unspeakable trauma given to 17 little children who witnessed the death of their entire family/group happen in such a brutal manner.

But first, some background on the matter: Since its creation in 1830 in the State of New York, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had faced much persecution and tribulation. Many people within the US then looked down on them as foolish people who were overriding or even ruining the status quo of their city/nation. Time and time again the members of the church were forced to flee their homes, traveling from state to state looking for a place to live in peace. They traveled from New York to Ohio to Indiana to Illinois to Missouri in their quest for this place of rest. Missourian’s in particular were incredibly harsh and cruel towards the Mormons, leading to the members having to flee back towards Ohio.

Peace existed here for them for the most part, but after a few years violence erupted once again, climaxing with the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum within Carthage Jail, Illinois. Oftentimes, the members of the church had sought help and referendum from the government, both local and national, yet received little to no help or even justice for the brutal and unjust killing of their leader and founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum by a mob that burst into a small jail and killed them. Instead, they were told that they had until Spring to leave the area or they would face consequences.

To this day, this baffles me, but considering the time this was occurring in it makes sense. There was the religious revival called the Second Great Awakening leading to many ‘wars’ between different denominations, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that made the state a slave state until its repeal in 1854 due to the Kansas-Nebraska act, and the fact that many of the church members were Abolitionists pushing for the destruction of slavery and were moving into a hotbed of the Pro-Slavery discussion. There were Governmental leaders who were more focused on reelection than justice, the idea of a minority fighting and actually winning against the majority, America’s culture of vigilantism that existed as a legacy of the Revolutionary War.

Also, the fact that the nation was officially still less than a century old and still trying to implement the laws of the Constitution and Bill of Rights both nationally and locally as well as the heightening tensions that were growing as Civil War became more and more likely to the public. It all led to a pretty terrible existence for the early saints to the point where, after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, they decided that they could no longer reside in the US. Instead, they would venture West, 70,000 or so Mormons making the trek over time, often as the first to settle in different areas in the Wild West.

Eventually they settled in the area of Utah, having made a trek of over 1,000 miles(2,000 kilometers) to their new home. At the time of their arrival, the area was actually a part of Mexico, though not really populated by anyone other than the natives. Mexico actually owned most of the Western United States at this time and often advertised for US citizens to move to the territory to create settlements- it was this allowance of US citizens that would lead to the Texas War for Independence(1835-36) and its eventual addition to the US(1845, it lived as an independent country, really, for about a decade due to the discussion of slavery, in the end becoming a slave state and joining the South in the Civil War) due to how many US citizens lived there as compared to Mexicans.

The Texas War for Independence led to the Mexican-American War(1846-48) which ended in the passage of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, adding around half a million square miles of territory to the US. Included in this added territory was the territory of Utah. In the years since settling, the Mormons had managed to set up cities throughout the territory and often traded with wagon trains passing by, creating a stable place to live. They had finally found the peace they wanted and were quite content, but this new change in government threatened to upend that. As government officials were sent to the new territory and other people began to pour in, tensions began to rise between them and the Mormons that lived in the territory. For about a decade, peace still reigned.

Around this time, things had begun to shift in the church. Many after all the traveling and hardship, were more focused on surviving and living rather than learning about the gospel and improving themselves spiritually. So, in response, church leaders started what is known as the Mormon Reformation of 1856-57; taking a page from the Second Great Awakening, church leaders gave stirring and powerful speeches urging the Saints to turn to God and to not get led away by mortal problems and issues, mirroring the words of past US preachers like Charles Grandison Finney and Lyman Beecher(fun fact: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, father). Such sermons were meant to wake people up and turn them towards repentance.

A great example of the foundation of these types of religious speeches is in Jonathan Edwards(another fun fact: Aaron Burr, US politician and the man who shot and killed founding father Alexander Hamilton, was this man’s grandson) speech ‘Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God’. Though from the First Great Awakening in the 1700s, this is probably the most prominent of all the American religious speeches made back then and is absolutely stunning(I’m tempted to make a post on this topic at some point). Here is a link to it:

It was during this Mormon Reformation that the scene for this mass killing began to take place. In 1857, tensions grew so high that the government official of the Territory of Utah(not a member) sent word for help from the federal government. In response, President Buchanan sent a large portion of the US army to help him deal with the matter, only leading to a greater sense of panic and fear. The Mormons had been without true strife and violence for so long that the idea of an army marching towards them to attack them or control them brought back memories of their past in the Eastern United States. In response, the members began to hoard their belongings instead of trading with the wagon trains that passed by, in case they would need it for when the army arrived.

As this was going on, in May early church leader and prominent figure Parley P. Pratt was killed while on a Mission to Arkansas, devastating the church as he had been with the church since its beginning in 1830. Then, just a few short months later, the Baker-Fancher Party that derived mostly from Arkansas(with a few from Missouri, the state that had treated them so badly in the past) arrived in the area, more than likely unaware of what was brewing. When the Saints refused to trade badly needed items with them, tensions grew between the two groups. Words were said, threats were made, and divisions were created.

My teacher made a comment that struck me last night, “When you can’t see the real threat, you pick a nearer target”. That truly explains this whole situation; in their panic about the approaching US army, their memory of past traumas, and the death of Parley P. Pratt in Arkansas, these innocent emigrants became their target. I’m sure that the Baker-Fancher Party had no idea what they were getting themselves into due to their long travel and focus on reaching California, so when the Mormons refused to trade with those who more than likely badly needed more supplies, they verbally retaliated. In enters the main instigator of this Mass Killing: Issac C. Haight.

Many people in the past have tried to pin the event on the Prophet Brigham Young, saying that he perpetrated or planned the event, but the facts just do not add up to that. The man was 300 miles away in Salt Lake City and information took a while to arrive. By the time Brigham had learned of the rising tensions, sent off a letter, and then later departed himself(arriving in three days which is incredible considering the time they were in), the mass killing had already occurred. No, it is clear that Issac C. Haight was the main perpetrator and leader of this event. Some background on the man: Haight had joined the church early on when it still resided in New York, he had traveled with the Saints through the Middle States of the US until they arrived in Utah. He had proven himself to be a dependable person and so rose up the ranks in the church.

In Utah, Haight was made the mayor of Cedar City, Utah and even became the area’s first Stake President(a prominent religious position over various congregations of the church in the area). He was even the creator and directory of the Southern Utah Iron Works, an important financial enterprise of the area. He was also a militia major. So, in short, this man had power over the political, religious, financial, and militaristic areas of the community. It was due to the rising tensions, the growing panic and hysteria, that on September 11, 1857, around 50 or so ‘Mormon’ militiamen along with some Native Americans, rounded up and killed 120 of the emigrants from the Baker-Fancher Party, leaving only 17 children behind in a valley called Mountain Meadows which is just outside of Cedar City, Utah.

The horror of the event is striking- especially considering the fact that the victims were just a group of people trying to start a new life in California, were in dire need of fresh supplies, and in their push against the Saints, were all slaughtered. In his two part Youtube series on the event, Saints Unscripted details the events. He speaks of how drunk men from the Party had gone to Haight’s house and yelled threats questioning his manhood and threatening to call an army from California to arrest the church leaders and deal with the Mormons. Considering what they were already facing from the East, I have no doubt that this threat about a call for military from the West added to Haight’s fear and anger.

Wishing to arrest these men, Haight called a council together to discuss it. William Dame(the militia commander) and others urged peace, but Haight wanted retribution as did others. In the process of it all, Haight and others created their plan. Their first plan was to get the Native Americans to attack the wagon train so it wouldn’t fall back on them and would be written off as ‘just another Native American attack’, but that didn’t quite work out in the end so they decided to instead pin the attack on them. While working on his plan, another council was convened Sunday night in which they decided to send word to the Prophet Brigham Young wondering what they should do about the situation.

It was early the next morning, though, that Haight, John D. Lee, and others enacted their plan on September 6th. In the process, though, they ran into two men from the party who were cattle herding. They killed one, but the other managed to escape and tell the Baker-Fancher Party that they were being attacked by white Mormons. This was when things took a turn for the worse: now the emigrants knew they were behind this and, once they reached California, the news would spread, bringing even more retaliation against their church. Days passed and a council met to discuss the matter. In it, they decided that they would help the emigrants gather their cattle and help them continue on to California. Haight wasn’t pleased with this decision and so spoke with Dame after the meeting.

After it all, Haight did the unspeakable: He decided that in order to protect himself and those around him, all who could tell the story would have to die. It was with that decision that, on September 11th, 120 people were brutally massacred. Even worse, John D. Lee approached the Party under a white flag, stating they were there to help them, yet were instead leading them to their deaths. The saddest part, for me, is that they didn’t just spare the kids under six because they were young and innocent, but because they were too young to understand what was going on. Those children were saved, but would have to live on having witnessed such a terrible event at so young an age to the people that mattered most to them(the children were later raised by nearby families until they were able to be sent back East to other family members). Two days later, Prophet Brigham Young’s letter arrived pushing for peace and tolerance, asking that the saints let them continue on safely to California, but it was too late: Haight reportedly sobbed while reading the letter, muttering this two word phrase.

Afterwards, the guilty tried to cover the matter up, though, saying that it was the Paiute Natives that were responsible for the attack. Investigations were slow due to the guilty trying to hide the truth. Additionally, an Amnesty Proclamation by President Buchanan to the Mormons pardoning them for past actions created confusion as they didn’t know if the Mountain Meadows Massacre fell under this as well, halting investigations even further. Even more, as truth began to be revealed, the American Civil War started just a few years later, stopping the investigation in its tracks for about a decade or so. Over time, though, many of these men would be excommunicated from the Church. Nine were indicted for the mass killing, but only one man was put on trial, found guilty, and hanged for the crime and that was John D. Lee in 1875. Most of the time, people were trying to pin the crime on the church and Brigham Young himself instead of going after the actual perpetrators of the crime, effectively letting them avoid trial. Many of the guilty spent the rest of their lives in hiding, though, fearful that they would one day end up like John D. Lee. Issac C. Haight himself spent the rest of his life in exile in Arizona until his death in 1886.

As for what caused this rise in tensions in the first place? The deployment of US troops to Utah ended in what many call ‘The Utah War’ or ‘Buchanan’s Blunder’. Really, it was a lot of misunderstandings all to find a new non-Mormon governor for Utah, ousting Brigham Young who held that position. Believing that Young and the Mormons would fight against this change, President Buchanan sent a portion of the US army that combat that, only serving to ramp up tensions and lead to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Brigham Young and other church leaders spoke of fleeing to new places in order to avoid the army so as to not risk death, wishing for the army not to come so they could live in peace. They planned to abandon Northern Utah, burn what they left behind, and move South. Thousands and thousands of people began this trip down south to the Provo area even.

Finally, though, negotiations began- Prophet Brigham Young gave up his position and actually got along well with Alfred Cumming who replaced him even as an army still marched West towards them. Due to criticisms, President Buchanan sent an amnesty proclamation to the Church, forgiving them for past grievances if they would go along with the new reinstatement. In the end, the US troops went through Salt Lake City and ended up continuing on to build Camp Floyd, ending the ‘Utah War’. It really is sad that the thing that started this all in the first place and led to the deaths of 120 innocent American citizens and the excommunication and single convicted death of the perpetrators of the event was the result of so much miscommunication and really didn’t need to happen in the first place…

In fact, after all the insanity, Governor Cumming actually got along better with the Mormons then he did with the military forces that were sent there to protect him, especially as the Civil War began. Over the centuries, a stone mound on a hilltop, a bronze plaque, and a name wall have marked the spot where the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred and in 1999 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints came to restore that mound and protect and repair the site whenever it needs it, other plaques and memorials set up around the site as well. It is marked as a National Landmark as well and the hill serves as a cemetery for the victims of the incident, standing as a symbol that this event must never be forgotten, that the victim’s deserve to be remembered always.

Though a sorrowful event indeed, it teaches us something important. That every one of us needs to be the ruler of our own minds, but we must not become tyrannical in the process. We can’t allow ourselves to get so caught up in our worries, fears, and beliefs that we risk being led to participate in such a terrible event. We also must be careful with who we give our obedience to and just how far we are willing to go to obey them. We must not let the ideas and words of others destroy our conscience. We can’t get so caught up in our own minds and perspectives that we make the innocent our targets and, even worse, feel justified as we act against them. This goes not just for physical things, but verbal, intellectual, and emotional things as well. Many of the perpetrators of this event showed no signs of ever being capable of such a massacre, before or after the event, and yet they still accomplished it and hid it afterwards. We must be aware of how easy it can be to be led along down a path of darkness, blinded by our emotions. Every life, no matter their circumstances, has worth and nothing- not politics, not power, not others, not even religion -has the right to be placed above the sanctity of life.


my class notes