A Shameful Chapter in Mormon History

Times Staff Writer

The Mountain Meadows Massacre took place in southern Utah nearly 150 years ago, but it touched Southern California’s history too, leading to the demise of a fledgling Mormon community in San Bernardino.

Early on a Monday morning in September 1857, about 140 men, women and children on a California-bound wagon train were slaughtered under a flag of truce by Mormons who apparently considered the act a long-delayed vengeance, or “blood atonement,” for persecution of their faith.

In the 1830s and ‘40s, Mormons were often tarred and feathered or even killed, and their homes and businesses were burned. Their founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered in 1844 in Illinois, and Mormons retreated into the western wilderness.

When the 1857 massacre occurred at a popular resting place for wagon trains in a valley on the emigrant trail, the Mormon Church blamed Paiute Indians.


It was not only the number of dead that horrified a westward-moving nation; it was the gruesome butchery. Army troops visiting the site almost two years later reported finding skulls, scraps of clothing and clumps of hair still strewn around.

As evidence emerged over time -- most recently in an excavation in 1999 -- the massacre was shown to have been the handiwork of about 50 Mormons, many of them disguised as Indians. They were commanded by John Doyle Lee, a prominent and wealthy Mormon and a friend of Brigham Young, who was Joseph Smith’s heir and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lee, considered by many to have been a scapegoat for Young, was convicted for his role in the murders and executed by firing squad 20 years later at the Mountain Meadows Massacre site.

Sally Denton tells the story in horrifying detail in her new book, “American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857.” She draws on official reports of the time, including interviews with witnesses, and on the evidence from the 1999 dig.


In 1846, Young led his people from Illinois to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, a place no one else seemed to want. Young figured it was far enough from the boundaries of the United States to proclaim a new Zion, where Mormons could make their own laws and keep multiple wives.

In 1851, Young sent 437 pioneers from Salt Lake City on an arduous 800-mile trek across harsh desert to settle at the base of the Cajon Pass. Within a year, the Mormons had agreed to buy the 40,000-acre Rancho San Bernardino.

Among the pioneers was Biddy Mason, a slave who would become one of California’s richest women and founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. She fought her Mormon owner to win her freedom.

The pioneers built a boom town free of liquor and gambling. It served as a major link in the church’s supply line between San Pedro’s harbor and Salt Lake City, and as a way station for missionaries and converts heading to Salt Lake. The town’s population soon swelled to 3,000.

In 1853, San Bernardino broke away from Los Angeles County, becoming a county in its own right. The town was incorporated a year later.

By early 1857, almost a decade after the Mexican-American War had allowed the United States to expand its territory to include Utah, Mormons in Salt Lake were under pressure from the federal government, whose authority they defied.

President Buchanan declared Utah in open rebellion and sent troops to replace Young with a non-Mormon territorial governor. Young responded by placing Utah under martial law and preparing to go to war.

Against this backdrop, about 200 prosperous and optimistic emigrants left Arkansas for California by wagon train. They passed through Cedar City, Utah, and made camp 35 miles beyond, at Mountain Meadows.


Local Mormons, angry over the recent killing of one of their “apostles” near Arkansas and by the approach of Army troops, viewed the wagon train as a hostile force and refused to sell food to the travelers.

On Sept. 7, 1857, the emigrants were basking in the early morning sun when gunfire rained down upon them. Seven men were killed in the first volley. The others quickly moved the wagons into a barricade. But snipers began picking off settlers one by one, wounding 46 others that day. A bullet tore through the earlobe of a 3-year-old girl.

On the third day of the siege, desperate for water and “hoping to appeal to the humanity of their enemies, the emigrants dressed two little girls in ‘spotless white’ and sent them with a bucket toward the spring,” Denton wrote. “Both were shot dead in an instant.”

On the fourth day, a Mormon with a white flag approached the weary, hungry and thirsty immigrants. The travelers were being attacked by Indians, he said; Lee was a federal Indian agent who could escort them safely through Indian territory if they would lay down their weapons and hand over their possessions.

The settlers agreed, only to be betrayed. The men were slaughtered first -- shot, stabbed and clubbed. Then the killers fell upon the women and children.

Two teenage sisters who promised to love and obey Lee in exchange for their lives were stripped of their clothes, raped and brutally murdered.

Seventeen children younger than 8 were allowed to live because the killers believed they were too young to tell credible tales. All were placed in Mormon homes. Some remembered their new “relatives” wearing the clothes and jewelry that had belonged to their slain mothers.

Two children, Rebecca Dunlap, 6, and her sister, Louisa, 4, would be among the first witnesses to report having watched the Mormon killers, disguised as Indians, wash off their war paint in a stream. Rebecca later recounted that they were taken to a ranch with a little boy who had been shot in the leg. He was crying. “The men stopped the wagon. One got out ... took the little boy by the feet and knocked his brains out against the wagon wheel.”


Before returning home, the killers pledged to stand by one another and promised to maintain that the massacre had been the work of Paiute Indians.

“This was the advice of Brigham Young too,” Lee wrote in a tell-all book while awaiting execution. The book, “Mormonism Unveiled or Life & Confession of John D. Lee,” was published in 1877 and became a best-seller.

Paiutes had witnessed the siege but denied any role in it.

Despite the vows of secrecy, word of what had happened spread through the tightly knit Mormon communities. Many Mormons, shocked by what they heard and saw -- such as fellow Mormons wearing the finery of the dead -- packed up and left.

By October, word of the massacre began to filter out to California. The Los Angeles Star newspaper quoted witnesses who had seen two piles of nude bodies. One said, “I saw about 20 wolves feasting upon the carcasses of the murdered.”

In late October, as anti-Mormon fury spread in California, San Bernardino colonists were recalled to Utah. Two-thirds of the members obeyed.

The rest refused, not wanting to leave the prosperous and comfortable settlement, yet knowing they would be excommunicated for staying. Some would later join a splinter branch of the church that bore no allegiance to Young. It would be another 60 years before Mormons established an official presence in San Bernardino.

In January 1858, word of the massacre reached Arkansas. The victims’ families appealed to the government to investigate the crime and find the surviving children. Eventually, 15 of the orphaned children were found and returned to their Arkansas relatives. An investigation showed enough evidence to put Lee and 37 cronies behind bars but, with the Civil War looming, the massacre was almost forgotten.

Finally, in 1875, the federal government prosecuted John Doyle Lee, trying him in Utah. His trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted in a second trial and executed in 1877. He was the only participant brought to justice.

The church denied any official involvement in the crime, but church officials seemed at best insensitive to the victims. A memorial erected two years after the massacre was pulled down in 1861, by Brigham Young himself.