Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Mountain Meadows Massacre

John Doyle Lee
John Doyle Lee
On Friday, September 11, 1857, John Doyle Lee, following the Trojan Horse plan to take the immigrants unawares by waving a white flag, took advantage of a lull in the fighting to ride into the immigrants makeshift stockade. Entering the redoubt, Lee interrupted the burial of two of the ambush victims.

As I entered the fortifications, men, women and children gathered around me in wild consternation, he confessed. Some felt that the time of their happy deliverance had come, while others, though in deep distress, and all in tears, looked upon me with doubt, distrust and terror.

Knowing that it was his job to convince the immigrants to drop their arms and walk willingly (albeit unknowingly) to their deaths, Lee described his conflicting emotions. I knew that I was acting a cruel part and doing a damnable deed. Yet my faith in the godliness of my leaders was such that it forced me to think that I was not sufficiently spiritual to act the important part I was commanded to perform. My hesitation was only momentary.

Promising the immigrants their lives, Lee told them that if they left their weapons and walked away from their belongings -- everything they owned in the world -- they would at least be allowed to live. The Indians, he claimed, demanded no less, and the Mormons could not convince the Paiutes otherwise. The only other choices the party had, he explained, were to die of thirst or eventually be shot down.

Denton reports that faced with this choice, the immigrants still debated the question for three or four hours. Lee sweetened the deal somewhat. Some sixty members of the Mormon militia were waiting to escort them to Cedar City, the nearest community, where some of their belongings might be returned. In the end, the weary and wounded immigrants acquiesced.

Their ammunition was about all gone -- I do not think there were twenty loads left in their whole camp, Lee said. If the emigrants had had a good supply of ammunition they never would have surrendered, and I do not think we could have captured them without great loss, for they were brave men and very resolute and determined.

Single-file, the immigrants marched out of their haven. Marching beside them was a group of about 30 armed Mormons. When the women had gone about 500 yards, the men who were still able to walk followed them out, each man with a bodyguard next to him. The youngest children and the wounded men were loaded into a wagon driven by a Mormon.

Gibbs provides some of the best insight into the mood of the procession and the thoughts the immigrants must have had as they walked to their doom. The arrangements were made and carried out with all the precision of a legalized execution. There can be not the slightest doubt that the men knew the meaning of the peculiar formation of the procession. If there were danger of an attack by the Indians why was it, they thought, that they were not permitted to retain their firearms and aid in the protection of their wives and children? But, through unparalleled treachery, they were then powerless, and there was probably the hope that those so dear to them might be spared. That no word of protest was spoken is the strongest commendation of their heroism and evidence of their resignation.

Engraving of Massacre
Engraving of Massacre

The final massacre took a surprisingly short time, considering so many people had to be killed individually. The macabre parade marched nearly a mile before Major Higbee halted the procession and ordered Do your duty! Immediately, shots rang out as each Mormon turned on the immigrants who had given themselves over for protection.

(Samuel) Knight then shot a man with his rifle; he shot the man in the head, Lee recalled. Knight also brained a boy that was about fourteen years old. The boy came running up to our wagons, and Knight struck him on the head with the butt end of his gun, and crushed his skull. By this time many Indians reached our wagons, and all of the sick and wounded were killed almost instantly. I saw an Indian from Cedar City, called Joe, run up to the wagon and catch a man by the hair, and raise his head up and look into his face; the man shut his eyes, and Joe shot him in the head. The Indians then examined all of the wounded in the wagons, and all of the bodies, to see if any were alive, and all that showed signs of life were at once shot through the head.

Survivors, witnesses, and participants all told similar stories of cold-blooded murder, cruelty, and inhumanity. The Mormon apostate refugees...were blood atoned by the ritual slitting of throats, Denton writes in her book. I wouldnt do this to you, a wounded apostate pleaded with the man he recognized as a Cedar City elder. You would have done the same to me or just as bad, she reports the man saying as he drew his knife across his victims throat.

Two sisters, Rachel and Ruth Dunlap, attempted to flee and made it about 30 yards to a copse of trees, where they hid. An Indian participating in the slaughter saw them and brought them back to Lee, who ordered them slain.

Divining the sentence pronounced by Lee, the elder girl dropped to her knees and with clasped hands cried out: Spare me, and I will love you all my life! But she died, as her sister had died, and at Lees hands, Gibbs wrote. For the rest of his life, Lee vehemently denied killing the girls.

Within a matter of minutes, the extermination of more than 120 men, women and children was over.

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