Reflecting on the Mountain Meadows Massacre on Day Three


Brick from the wall at the Civilian Conservation Corps in Leeds, Utah. Photo by Bill Deverell.

By Bill Deverell

After a great Fourth of July in St. George, my son and I headed out this morning to Colorado. First stop was the CCC camp in Leeds, just east of St. George. Here’s a photo I took of the wall of the CCC officer’s quarters up on the hill. It’s likely, given the other signatures I saw, that this was not “Dobby Cleve.” I think it may have been a man named Dobby who was from Cleveland. What’s amazing about our ability to do family history these days, through various genealogy sites, is that a couple of hours of work would probably allow us to find out just who this was, this man who scratched his name into the stone of a small building in the red sandstone hills of southwestern Utah in the heart of the Great Depression.

Up and out of the canyons surrounding St. George and on towards Cedar City. Here, where there is now a superb Shakespeare Festival, is the site of one of the most notorious massacres in all of American history. In 1857, at the height of tensions between the Mormon theocratic community and the federal government (which resulted in the Mormon War), the Baker-Fanchon wagon train bound for the far West wandered through nearby Mountain Meadows. The emigrants hailed mostly from Arkansas, though they had absorbed some others from Missouri. These later additions may have heightened the tensions, seeing as they came from a region which had so recently persecuted the Mormons in one violent encounter after another.

Mormon militia members, in league with local Paiute Indians, attacked and put the wagon train under siege. After several days, Mormon fighters approached the train under a white flag, offering the emigrants protection and safe escort back to Cedar City. It was a ruse. Once on the trail, the Mormon militia members turned their weapons on the settlers. With the exception of the very young, all were murdered, well over 100 people. Adding another macabre note, the spared children were brought back to Mormon families to be raised as adoptees (some later returned to Arkansas by federal officials). To top off the weird grimness of it all, the one man brought to justice for the massacre, John D. Lee, was executed by federal firing squad twenty years later, sitting on the edge of a coffin at the very site of the massacre. I can’t drive by Cedar City without thinking of all this.

We usually press on to Salt Lake when we take this trip each summer. But this year, a deviation. We turn east onto I-70, bound for Colorado to visit my family. This is a glorious detour from our regular route. Such stunning canyon country, and if you look closely, the landscape reveals far more color than just the spectacular sandstone red. Reds in rich array, whites, grays. It is breathtaking. Not many people live out here, but here and there you can see an old cabin. And in the valleys, where there’s at least a little water, small communities.

On the way into Grand Junction, Colorado, we drove alongside and over the Green River. Full of snowmelt as we saw it today, lazy and powerful, the Green is the parent of the mighty Colorado, falling out of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, where we will be in a week or so.

Tomorrow, we hunker alongside the Colorado River for awhile, a route I love, a trip also alongside the history of the Rocky Mountain West, a journey from the western slope up and over the Rockies to the front range.

  1. Jana said:

    Reading Juanita Brooks’ account of the MMM was one of the more formative experiences of my life, as it helped me to understand the importance of telling difficult historical stories and also intersected in some rather uncomfortable ways with my own family tree.

    Liked by 1 person

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