February 29, 2012
John Doyle Lee was born in Illinois Territory in 1812. By the time he was 3, his mother was dead. Relatives took him in from his alcoholic father and put him to work on their farm at a young age. At 20, Lee began courting Agatha Ann Woolsey in Vandalia, Illinois, and in the summer of 1833, she became Lee’s wife—the first of 19 for John D. Lee, who would soon commit himself to the nascent Latter-day Saints movement. He professed his commitment till the day he was executed for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The massacre, in 1857, was one of the most explosive episodes in the history of the American West—not only were 120 men, women and children killed, but the United States and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost went to war. The denouement of the so-called Utah War set Utah on the path to statehood and the Mormons on a long and fitful accommodation to secular authority, but the Mountain Meadows Massacre remained a focus of suspicion and resentment for decades. The church issued a statement on the role its members played in the killings in 2007, and opened its archives to three scholars—Richard E. Turley Jr., a Latter-day Saint historian, and Brigham Young University professors Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard—for their book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, published in 2008. But in the aftermath of the massacre, only one participant was brought to trial, and that was John D. Lee.
Lee and his wife joined the Mormon settlement in Far West, Missouri, in 1837. That was only seven years after Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but already the Mormons had been pushed out of Smith’s home state of New York and Ohio. Conflicts arose on grounds both religious and secular—Smith preached that other Christian churches had strayed; Mormons tended to vote as a bloc and to outwork others, concentrating both political and economic power—and the antagonism intensified to the point that the Mormons would be evicted from Missouri and Illinois, where Smith was lynched in 1844. To break a cycle of mutual suspicion, recrimination and violence, Brigham Young, who would succeed Smith, made plans to lead the remaining LDS members on an exodus to Utah, which was then part of Mexico—beyond the reach of U.S. law.
As a recent convert John D. Lee joined a secret church order called the Danites, which was charged with protecting and defending Mormons. When some Missourians opposed to Mormons’ voting started a riot at a Daviess County polling center in 1838, Lee and his fellow Danites stormed into the crowd with clubs flying. “I felt the power of God nerve my arm for the fray,” he later said. Buildings were burned, and Lee later admitted that he had participated in looting.
Lee was in Kentucky when Smith was killed in 1844, but when he returned to Illinois he learned of Young’s plan to head for Utah. Lee joined the migration through hostile and foreboding territory (which led to Young’s nickname of “the Mormon Moses”), and Young appointed him a Captain of Fifty—a ranking based on number of people under one’s command. Lee served as a clerk and purchasing agent.
In July of 1847, a contingent of Mormons arrived in the Great Salt Lake valley and began a settlement that would grow to thousands in the coming years. Just six months later, Mexico ceded that land, and so much more of the West, to the United States. The old conflicts between religious and secular power arose again. President Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young governor of the Utah Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs, but the Mormons kept their distance from outsiders—including officials sent from Washington, D.C.
Non-Mormon locals immediately resented the appointment of Mormon surveyors and Indian agents, one of whom was John D. Lee. The agents’ relationship with the Native Americans, to whom they supplied tools, seed and proselytizing, aroused suspicion, especially among federal soldiers in the area. Mormon men, meanwhile, took offense when soldiers tried to socialize with Mormon women. Once the Army departed, “as many as one hundred Mormon women went with them,” according to Turley, Walker and Leonard. “Everybody has got one except the Colonel and Major,” one soldier said. “The Doctor has got three—mother and two daughters. The mother cooks for him and the daughters sleep with him.” The familiar cycle of suspicion and resentment built toward violence into the mid-1850s. Rumors that the LDS church was sanctioning polygamy—which turned out to be true—only made matters worse.
In April 1857, a Mormon apostle named Parley P. Pratt was murdered in Arkansas by the legal husband of one of Pratt’s plural wives. Mormons in Utah took the news as another example of religious persecution and considered Pratt a martyr. They began stockpiling grain, anticipating a violent and apocalyptic encounter with the people they called “Americans.” The Army, they believed, was about to invade the Utah Territory, (an invasion that did not come until the following year in the Utah War) and Young tried to enlist Paiute Indians from nearby Mountain Meadows in the fight. He also warned “mobocrats” to steer clear of Mormon territory or they’d be met by the Danites, who would form a line of defense in villages near Mountain Meadows. Then he declared martial law, making it illegal to travel through the territory without a permit.
At the same time, several groups of emigrants from northwest Arkansas, mostly families that in total numbered between 100-200 people, were making their way to California by wagon trains. Joining up in Salt Lake City, the Baker-Fancher party restocked their supplies, but for the rest of their trip, Mormons were prohibited from selling any goods to wagon trains. Lee and another Mormon man, apostle George A. Smith, met with the Paiutes, a a tribe of Native Americans in the region, and warned them that the encroaching Americans threatened both them and the Mormons; rumors circulated that members of the Baker-Fancher train might poison water and cattle along their way.
The Baker-Fincher party was most likely unaware of the new requirement for a permit to cross Utah. They grazed their cattle on Mormons’ land as they passed through, stoking anger. Lee later said that members of the train “swore and boasted openly…that Buchan[a]n’s whole army was coming right behind them, and would kill every… Mormon in Utah.” Others reported that the men of the Baker-Fancher party were respectful.
Throughout the summer of 1857, the Mormons’ sense of impending invasion only deepened. Parades through Cedar City included young men bearing banners reading, “A terror to evil doers,” according to Turley, Walker, and Leonard. Along the southern settlements, Mormons were urged to “shore up alliances with local Indians.” When Lee came into the vicinity of the Baker-Fancher train, he said, he saw a large group of Paiutes “in their war paint, and fully equipped for battle.” Lee claimed that he had orders from Isaac C. Haight, a leader of several Mormon congregations that formed the Iron County Militia, “to send other Indians on the war-path to help them kill the emigrants.” Haight and Lee gave weapons to the Paiutes.
The Baker-Fancher party was camped at Mountain Meadows on September 7 when Paiutes (and some Mormons dressed as Paiutes to conceal their Mormon affiliation) attacked. The emigrants circled the wagons, dug trenches and fought back—but as the siege continued for five days, they began to run out of ammunition, water and provisions. The Mormon attackers concluded that the emigrants had figured out their ruse—and feared that word of their participation would hasten an assault by the Army. It was then that militia commander William H. Dame ordered his men to leave no witnesses. The emigrants were to be “decoyed out and destroyed with the exception of the small children,” who were “too young to tell tales,” according to another militia commander, Major John H. Higbee, who relayed the orders to Lee.
On September 11, John D. Lee and a group of militiamen approached the camp under a white flag and offered a truce, with assurances that Lee and his men would escort the emigrants to safety in Cedar City. All they’d have to do is leave their livestock and possessions to the Paiutes. Having no good options, the emigrants, about 120 men, women and children, laid down their weapons and followed Lee and the militia away from the camp in three groups—the last comprising adult males. It was over quickly. The Arkansas men were shot at point-blank range; the women and children ahead were slaughtered by bullets and arrows in an ambush party. No one over the age of seven survived. The victims were hastily buried. Locals auctioned off or distributed their possessions and took in the surviving 17 young children.
The Army did arrive in Utah, in 1858, but no war ensued—Young and the Buchanan administration negotiated an agreement in which Young would give way to a new governor. The following year, troops led by Major James H. Carleton went to Mountain Meadows to investigate the killings and found the bones of “very small children.” The soldiers gathered skulls and bones and erected a cairn with the words, “Here 120 men, women, and children were massacred in cold blood early in September, 1857. They were from Arkansas.” They marked the site with a cross inscribed, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Lee and the other leaders swore that they would never reveal their parts in the massacre, and Lee himself told Brigham Young that the Paiutes had been responsible for it—an explanation that became the official position of the LDS church for generations. In a report to Congress, Major Carleton blamed Mormon militiamen and church leaders for the massacre. Young excommunicated both Lee and Haight for their roles, but only Lee faced charges. After a first trial ended in a mistrial, Lee was convicted in 1877 and sentenced to death by firing squad.
Lee claimed that he was a scapegoat, and that other Mormons were more directly involved in the planning and in the killing. And although he maintained at first that Young was unaware of the massacre until after it took place, Lee would later state, in his Life and Confessions of John D. Lee, that the massacre occurred “by the direct command of Brigham Young.” And on the morning of his execution, Lee would write that Young was “leading the people astray” and that he was being sacrificed “in a cowardly, dastardly manner.”
“I did everything in my power to save that people, but I am the one that must suffer,” Lee wrote. He closed by asking the Lord to receive his spirit, and then he was taken to the massacre site. As many as 300 onlookers had gathered. On March 28, 1877, John Doyle Lee, wearing a coat and scarf, took a seat atop the coffin where his body would lie. A photographer was nearby. Lee asked that whatever photograph was made be copied for his last three wives. The photographer agreed. Lee posed. And then an hour before noon, he shook hands with the men around him, removed his coat and hat and faced the five men of the firing party.
“Let them shoot the balls through my heart!” Lee shouted. “Don’t let them mangle my body!”
On U.S. Marshal William Nelson’s command, shots rang out in the ravine where so many shots had rung out twenty years before, and Lee fell back onto his coffin, dead.
On April 20, 1961, a joint council was held with the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “After considering all the facts available,” the Church authorized “reinstatement to membership and former blessings [temple marriages] to John D. Lee.” The reinstatement puzzled many. But four decades later, the church claimed full responsibility for the incident that led to Lee’s execution. At a memorial ceremony on September 11, 2007, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, LDS Apostle Henry B. Eyring read the church’s official statement to gatherers:
“We express profound regret for the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today, and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time. A separate expression of regret is owed the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre. Although the extent of their involvement is disputed, it is believed they would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local church leaders and members.”
Books: Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Oxford University Press, 2008. Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Doubleday, 2003. Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, Alfred A. Knopf., 2003.
Articles: “The Brink of War,” by David Roberts, Smithsonian magazine, June, 2008. “Books: A Blot on the Mormon Faith, Church’s History Fraught with Violence, Bloodshed,” by John Freeman, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 13, 2003. “New Perspectives on The West: John Doyle Lee, (1812-1877) PBS—The West—John Doyle Lee, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/i_r/lee.htm. “John D. Lee,” Utah History Encyclopedia, http://www.media.utah.edu/UHE/l/LEE,JOHN.html. “Shining New Light on the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Transcription of 2003 FAIR Conference presentation by Gene Sessions, FAIR: Defending Mormonism, http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2003-fair-conference/2003-shining-new-light-on-the-mountain-meadows-massacre. “Last Words and the Execution of John D. Lee, March 28, 1877,” As reported by his attorney, William W. Bishop in Mormonism Unveiled; Or the Life and Confession of John D. Lee (1877). Mountain Meadows Massacre Trial Homepage: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mountainmeadows/leeexecution.html
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.