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A Mormon encampment in Provo, 1858 (Granger Collection, New York)

The Brink of War

One hundred fifty years ago, the U.S. Army marched into Utah prepared to battle Brigham Young and his Mormon militia

But by 1857, non-Mormon newspapers from New York to California had begun reporting that the Mormons were seeking the Indians' allegiance in case of a clash with the United States. Some accounts were based on briefings from officials who had returned to Washington; others, based on gossip, tended toward a more alarmist tone. For example, on April 20, 1857, the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, put the number of the Mormons' Indian allies at 300,000, even though the total Indian population of the Utah Territory appears to have been 20,000 at most. Young would characterize press coverage generally as "a prolonged howl of base slander."

Ultimately, none of the missions lasted. The southeast mission collapsed within four months after a skirmish with Utes; the Las Vegas mission followed, having shifted its focus from conversion to an abortive attempt at mining lead. The northern mission, called Fort Limhi, operated among the Bannock, Shoshone and others until March 1858.

By the time Young led his senior aides on an expedition there in April 1857, almost every federal official had left Utah. In Washington, a new president faced his first crisis.

James Buchanan, a Democrat, had defeated the Republicans' John Frémont and the Know-Nothings' Millard Fillmore in the 1856 election. He assumed the presidency in March 1857 preoccupied with the fight over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. But within weeks, reports from those who had fled Utah and strident petitions from the territorial legislature for greater influence over the appointment of federal officials turned his attention farther west.

Brigham Young's term as territorial governor had expired in 1854; he had served on an interim basis since. Buchanan, with his cabinet likening the Utah petitions to a declaration of war, decided to replace Young with Alfred Cumming, a former mayor of Augusta, Georgia, who was serving as an Indian-affairs superintendent based in St. Louis. He ordered troops to accompany the new governor west and to enforce federal rule in Utah—but, for reasons that are not clear, he did not notify Young that he was being replaced.

Young found out in July 1857, a month that brought a series of shocks to the Mormons. The Deseret News reported that Apostle Parley Pratt had been killed in Arkansas by the estranged husband of a woman Pratt had taken as his 12th wife. Rumors circulated that federal troops were advancing, prompting Apostle Heber C. Kimball to declare, "I will fight until there is not a drop of blood in my veins. Good God! I have wives enough to whip out the United States." Mormons traveling from the Kansas-Missouri frontier brought word that federal troops were, in fact, headed for Utah, leading to Young's announcement on the tenth anniversary of his arrival in the Great Salt Lake Valley.

It was in this heated atmosphere that, six weeks later, a California-bound wagon train that included 140 non-Mormon emigrants, most of them from Arkansas, made camp in a lush valley known as Mountain Meadows, about 40 miles beyond the Mormon settlement of Cedar City. Just before breakfast, according to an account by historian Will Bagley in Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, a child among the emigrants fell, struck by a bullet. As a party of men with painted faces attacked, the emigrants circled their wagons.

After a five-day siege, a white man bearing a white flag approached the emigrants. Mormons, he told them, had interceded with the attackers and would guarantee the emigrants safe passage out of Mountain Meadows if the Arkansans would turn over their guns. The emigrants accepted the offer.

The wounded and the women and children were led away first, followed by the men, each guarded by an armed Mormon. After half an hour, the guards' leader gave the order to halt. Every man in the Arkansas party was shot from point-blank range, according to eyewitness accounts cited by Bagley. The women and older children fell to bullets, knives and arrows. Only 17 individuals—all of them children under the age of 7—were spared.

For decades afterward, Mormon leaders blamed Paiute Indians for the massacre. Paiutes took part in the initial attack and, to a lesser degree, the massacre, but research by Bagley, Juanita Brooks and other historians has established that Mormons were culpable. Last September, on the 150th anniversary of the event, Mormon Apostle Henry B. Eyring, speaking for the church, formally acknowledged that Mormons in southern Utah had organized and carried out the massacre. "What was done here long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct," Eyring said. A "separate expression of regret," he continued, "is owed to the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre."

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