Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Arkansas Travelers

By 1857, the trails across the plains to Salt Lake City had the appearance of modern highways. The trek was still arduous and danger-filled, but the number of emigrants making the trip was so large that a day rarely went by when some train did not set out from Arkansas, Missouri or Kansas en route to the Golden State. Because of the frequency of departures and arrivals at places like Fort Leavenworth or the Platte River crossings or Fort Smith, news among emigrants traveled fast. Thus, the Baker-Fancher wagon train was well aware that it could expect hard times in Utah, thanks to the impending arrival of the U.S. Army and the murder of Parley Pratt.

The Baker-Fancher train was one of the richest wagon convoys ever to make the trip out west. The emigrants from Harrison County, Arkansas, a place not far from Van Buren, where Hector McLean was lauded as a hero for his slaying of Parley Pratt, brought with them hundreds of cattle they intended to sell to the hungry California gold prospectors.   It was rumored that the Fanchers alone carried thousands of dollars in gold pieces in a compartment in their specially adorned Conestoga wagon.

Many of the trains leaders were experienced trailhands, having made the trip to California and back to Arkansas before. The party was a solemn and taciturn lot, filled with Mexican-American war veterans and their wives and children, a Methodist minister, and other similarly sober travelers. They were not a joyless group, but most historians report that they were not boisterous, obnoxious or prone to troublemaking. In keeping with the practice of the time, the party was exceedingly close-knit and very familiar with each other.

Most of the party were members of large families, the Bakers and Fanchers, heading to join relatives who had migrated the previous year to Californias Central Valley, where the range was free and land grants were available for men with prior military service, wrote Sally Denton in American Heritage magazine. Most were newly married young couples; several had newborn infants and toddlers, and some wives were pregnant and destined to give birth on the trail. There were also many unmarried young men and women in their twenties, mostly cousins and childhood friends, and adults in their thirties with older children along with a handful of aunts and uncles in their late forties. Accompanying them for security were at least 20 hired riflemen. Most of those not related by blood were old friends and longtime neighbors.

Led by Captain Alexander Fancher, the Fancher-Baker train left Arkansas in March 1857 and reached Salt Lake City in August. The harvest was near and the fields were filled with a bountiful crop, but when the Fancher train encamped near the Mormon capital and tried to trade stock for supplies, the Saints refused to sell to them. The original plan had been to follow the well-marked and still accessible northern route across Utah and Nevada, but the Mormons warned the Arkansas travelers that the Indians along the northern trail were angry with the whites and that the safety of the train could not be guaranteed. In addition, Denton reports that a Mormon guide told the train that the southern route was grassy and flat, with a lush meadow in the foothills of the Iron Mountains just east of the desert that would allow the train to rest and build up stamina for the trek across the Mojave. Although some emigrants had encountered difficulty with the Indians along the northern route, Mormon agitators and immigrants were blamed for the attacks. It is possible, most historians believe, that the Fancher train, which was well-equipped with quality firearms and experienced hands and which did not look for trouble from anyone, could have made the northern traverse with little difficulty. Unfortunately, with little dissent, the leaders of the party took the Mormons at their word and opted to take the southern route.

Two days after arriving in Salt Lake City, low on supplies and already experiencing the icy reception by the Saints, the Fancher-Baker train packed up its belongings and headed south toward its doom.

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