Cut by a little creek, peaceful meadows surrounded by wooded hills in southwestern Utah belie the horrific events that occurred there in 1857 when 120 California-bound emigrants died during the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Both battlefield and graveyard, the 2,500-acre site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also seeks to have the site memorialized as a national landmark, a lengthy process.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre Site lies just off Highway 18, 32 miles north of St. George, Utah, about 150 miles from Las Vegas. Follow Interstate 15 north 120 miles to St. George, exiting at Bluff Street. Turn left to reach Highway 18, a scenic route that parallels one branch of the historic route called the Mormon Trail or the Old Spanish Trail. Head north through Veyo and past the turnoff to Pine Valley. The well-marked turnoff to the massacre site lies on the left side of the highway, reached by a paved spur to a parking lot.
Near the parking lot, pause near the start of a paved trail to read an exhibit that explains the connection to a related memorial in Arkansas. The ill-fated Fancher-Baker wagon train included emigrant families from Arkansas, as well as a few from Missouri and Illinois. Representatives of the LDS church and descendants of the massacre victims gathered recently to observe the 150th anniversary of the army’s reinterment of the remains of men, women and children hastily buried following the massacre.
A short paved trail takes visitors to an overview on a wooded knoll. A stationary viewer trains your eyes upon the campsite below where the emigrants paused to rest and graze their livestock before tackling the next part of the trail across the desert. Another viewer points out the spot to the north where most of the killings occurred. When the U.S. Army surveyed the site in 1859, soldiers interred many remains at that site, erecting a stone cairn to mark it. A formal marker installed in the 1930s replaced the cairn.
Set into the side of the knoll, an inscribed stone slab erected in 1990 lists the known dead and 17 children saved from slaughter. During the massacre, Mormon settlers and local Native Americans executed everyone in the train over the age of 5. Mormon families all over the region took in the youngest emigrants. In 1859, the army returned all but one child to the Arkansas families.
To visit the wagon train’s last campsite, return to the paved road and follow a graded side road. A flag lighted at night flies near a memorial dedicated in 1999. Fenced and landscaped, the large square memorial holds the reburied bones of many of the fallen. This memorial results from cooperative efforts of the church and the descendants of the victims and survivors of the massacre.
The Fancher-Baker party entered Utah while a federal army gathered to subdue the theocracy peculiar to Utah, also called Deseret. War fever disturbed the generally peaceful tenor of life throughout the territory. Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City instructed frontier settlements to leave the wagon trains alone.
Some of the group may have contributed to their own disastrous end when they threatened to bring back an army from California and bragged upon misdeeds against the Mormons before church members moved west. Trouble with native groups followed them through Utah and evidently broke out when they reached Mountain Meadows. Under siege from Sept. 7-11, the emigrants fought from behind their wagons. The hostile natives reportedly threatened to attack pioneer settlements if the Mormons did not help them. Local officials feared attack on two fronts, the approaching army and the enraged natives.
Eighty settlers, led by Indian agent John D. Lee, rode from Cedar City to the embattled wagon train. They promised safe passage if the emigrants laid down their weapons. Complying, the emigrants walked north away from their wagons, where they were attacked and annihilated. Their wagons, goods and livestock ended up at auction in Cedar City. A code of silence disguised events, but news leaking out enraged the nation against the Mormons. After hiding out for years, Lee was captured and tried. He was shot at the massacre site in 1877.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.