Mountain Meadows Massacre in the Records

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What Happened

The Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred in September 1857 in a highland valley roughly 35 miles southwest of Cedar City. The Baker-Fancher emigrant party, traveling through Utah on their way from Arkansas to California, was attacked by members of the local Iron County Militia and purportedly some local Paiute Indians. The emigrants fought back and a five day siege ensued. On the fifth day members of the wagon train were lured out under a banner of truce and massacred under orders from local militia leaders. All told one hundred and twenty men, women, and children over the age of seven were slaughtered on September 11. Seventeen infants and young children were spared and taken into the homes of local Mormon families (before eventually being united with extended family members outside of Utah).

The Aftermath

For nearly two decades no one was brought to justice for the crimes committed at Mountain Meadows. The official story from Mormon officials became that the massacre was conducted solely by local Paiute Indians. Prior to the massacre, John D. Lee had been a prominent pioneer in building the Mormon communities of Southern Utah, but after a federal judge began investigating the massacre in 1858, he went into hiding. By 1870 pressure was mounting on Federal officials to bring those responsible for the massacre to justice. At this time, Lee was officially excommunicated from the LDS Church and given instruction by Brigham Young to make himself scarce in Northern Arizona. With passage of the Poland Act in 1874, Mormon control over the Territorial justice system was loosened and John D. Lee was arrested and brought to trial in the Second Territorial District Court in Beaver.

Digitized Records

The Territorial Second District Court case file pertaining to the trial and conviction of John D. Lee for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been digitized and posted online in our Digital Archives. The records in this case file cover Lee’s first trial that began in July 1875 and ended in a hung jury, as well as the subsequent second trial where blame for the massacre was placed squarely on Lee, which led to his conviction and a sentence of death by firing squad.

District Court (2nd District): Criminal case files, 1855-1895 (Series 24291), Case 31.

The records trace the procedural history of the Lee trials. During the first trial, the prosecution attempted to pin blame for the Mountain Meadows Massacre largely on the Mormon hierarchy, with Brigham Young as a central figure. In spite of the defense offering an often incoherent narrative of the massacre, the jury of eight Mormon’s, one former Mormon, and three non-Mormon’s ended up hung (with all but the three non-Mormon’s voting to acquit).

The second trial of John D. Lee was radically different from the first. The prosecution pinned blame for the events at Mountain Meadows squarely on Lee, and contended that Lee was the driving force behind planning and carrying out the execution. Resigned to the fact that he was being made a scapegoat for the massacre at Mountain Meadows, Lee requested that no defense be made on his behalf. He was ultimately found guilty of first degree murder by an all-Mormon jury. On March 28, 1877, John D. Lee was taken to Mountain Meadows where he was executed by firing squad. His body was then taken to Panguitch, Utah for burial.

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