The execution of approximately a hundred and twenty men, women… and yes, children also… of the Fancher-Baker wagon-train party stands out particularly among revolting accounts of massacres in the old West, and not just for the number of victims. The most notorious 19th century massacres usually involved Indians and either settlers or soldiers in some combination, overrunning a settlement or encampment, or ambushing a military unit or a wagon-train and slaughtering all in or after a brief and bitter fight. Sometimes this was the overt intent of the aggressor, or just customary practice in the long and bitter Indian Wars; ugly deeds which can be given some fig-leaf of rationalization by attributing them to the heat of battle. But Mountain Meadows was carefully planned beforehand and committed in the coldest of cold blood. How it came to happen is a story almost unknown and incredible to modern ears; bitter fruit of the poisoned tree which had its roots in the persecutions of earlier Mormon settlements in what is now the mid-West. A recitation of the events and reasons for this would make this account several times as long. Sufficient to say as did the character of Dr. Sardius McPheeters, that the Mormons came to realize that they could only get along with their immediate neighbors if they had no neighbors, and they decamped en masse for the wilds of Utah Territory.
There they set about building their new city, on the shores of a salt lake at the foot of the Wasatch mountain range. Driven by zeal, missionaries for the Church of Latter Day Saints traveled and proselytized fearlessly and widely. Eager and hardworking converts to the new church arrived in droves, ready to build that new and shining society in the desert wilderness. It has been no mean accomplishment, outlasting all of the other 19th century social-religious-intellectual communes: Brook Farm and the Shakers, the Amana Colony and any number of ambitious and idealistic cities on the hill. Most of these places barely survived beyond the disgrace or death of their founder, and the disillusion of their membership.
That the mid 19th century Mormons did so must be credited to the iron will, organizational abilities and dynamic leadership of Brigham Young. President of the church, apostle and successor to murdered founder Joseph Smith, Young was also appointed governor of the Utah Territory by then president of the US, Millard Fillmore. Essentially, Utah and the Mormon settlements were a theocracy to a degree not seen since the very early days of the Puritan colonies. Young and his church continued to have a contentious relationship with the US government. Who would actually be in charge; the civil authorities represented by the US Government, or the religious establishment, personified by Young, in his position at the apex of LDS authority? Church-approved polygamy rattled mainstream Americans to no end, since many suspected that it was a wholly self-serving justification for the indulging of male lusts. (The Victorians generally entertained lively suspicions about male lusts, which would today not disgrace a university womens’ studies department.) On their side, memories among the Mormon settlers of their persecutions in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas were still raw, even as more American settlers continued to move westwards to California and Oregon. Isolation in the far West turned out to be less absolute every year.
By 1857 rumors were flying thick and fast, shouted from every meeting place of Mormons in the Territory that an American military invasion was on the way, with the stated intention of deposing the theocracy, murdering every believing Mormon and laying waste to the settlements they had built with so much heartbreaking labor over the previous decade. And early that spring, shortly after the Bakers and the Fanchers had departed Arkansas, a popular and much-loved Mormon missionary, Parley Pratt had been murdered there by the estranged husband of one of his plural wives. As historian Will Bagley wrote in his account of the massacre, Brigham Young may have been respected – but Parley Pratt was loved. And when there were rumors passed around that some of his murderers were among the men in the Fancher-Baker train, there was stirred up a perfect storm of paranoia and millennial fears. Brigham Young had ordered that a number of outlaying Mormon colonies in California, Wyoming and Nevada to immediately withdraw, and for his people to stockpile supplies and steel themselves for all-out war.
And the Fanchers and the Bakers and all their friends and their children, their cattle herd and their wealth of wagons and property were right in the middle of it, all unknowning.
(next; how the plan unfolded… but at whose order?)