On the morning of September 7th, 1857, a wagon train of 140 or so migrants lay encamped along the headwaters of Magotsu Creek as the sun came up over the Mountain Meadow. The group was mostly comprised of Arkansas uproots travelling to California along the Old Spanish Trail. The party had not bothered to circle the wagons the night before since there were believed to be no hostile Indian tribes in this region of southern Utah, and several Mormon settlements were situated close by their current campsite, adding to their feeling of security. As the migrants stoked their campfires for a breakfast of desert quail, a shot rang out and an Arkansan child fell, mortally wounded. Within minutes, the morning erupted in gunfire as the clamor of breakfast was replaced by chaotic efforts to circle the wagons for defense. In the first few minutes of the attack, seven of the Fancher wagon train took deadly bullets from the unidentified assailants and another fourteen were wounded.
Assessing their situation, Alexander Fancher, John Baker, and other leaders of the besieged party determined that they were under attack from Southern Paiute Indians, a tribe typically assumed to be docile, impoverished, and poorly armed. Their attackers, however, had no shortage of firepower, and kept the Arkansas pioneers pinned down throughout the morning as the assault settled into a siege that would go on for five bloody days of dust ridden strife in the Utah wilds.
The attackers, in fact, were not a rogue group of Paiutes turned hostile. Though it is now commonly agreed that a party of 200 Paiutes were involved in the initial attack on the Fancher party, the plan was orchestrated by local Mormon authorities and largely executed by militias of the Latter Day Saints disguised as their indigenous allies. The plan was to attack the Gentile wagon train, capture the alleged shipment of gold it was carrying, and wrangle the thousand head of cattle and two hundred horses in tow. The attack, if successful, could then be blamed on the local Paiutes without suspicion against the Mormons.
This premeditated Mormon plan to use the Indians as their scapegoat was not an anomaly. Throughout Mormonism’s short and controversial history, Native Americans have played a major role in theological doctrine as well as practical exploitation. According to Mormon teachings, American Indians are the descendants of Laman, a wayward Hebrew of the lost tribe of Israelites that the Book of Mormon says sailed to the New World sometime before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The Hebrews of the New World, as per the Book of Mormon, split into two factions, one godly group, headed by the patriarch Nephi, and one cursed group, headed by his wayward brother Laman. Because of their wickedness, God cursed the children of Laman and “did cause a skin of darkness to come upon them.” Eventually, according to Mormon teaching, Pre-Columbian America saw the rise of the brown-skinned Lamanites, who overthrew and exterminated God’s chosen Nephites, thus explaining the heathen Indians that Europeans found when they arrived on America’s shores.
Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and author of the Book of Mormon, saw the Native Americans as the natural group to use in his teachings as the moralistic foil. Much like earlier religions in the Abrahamic tradition that had drawn on a distinction between a Chosen People and a Gentile Other, Smith found his needed other in the American Indian. The Book of Mormon reflects common criticisms of the American Indians that were held in early nineteenth-century America, describing the children of Laman as “an idle people” who “lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents.” Though Smith admonished his followers to deal fairly with native peoples in the hopes that in the last days they might repent and convert to Mormonism, he nonetheless portrayed them as the genocidal, cursed race of his religion’s origin stories. Throughout his writings, he utilizes the American Indian as his explanation for heathenism in the New World and the antagonist to Mormon theology—a very useful literary tool when trying to gain converts from the anti-Indian society of the early United States.
When Mormondom relocated to the deserts of the Great Basin following its persecutions in Missouri and Illinois, the accepted practice of exploiting the children of Laman continued. Brigham Young, assuming the leadership of the church after Joseph Smith’s assassination, was determined to make a stand in Utah against further persecution from the United States and its Gentiles, and he saw the local Lamanites as his key to a successful defense. Young, writing to his underlings in the southern Utah settlements on August 4th 1857, urged them to “continue the conciliatory policy towards the Indians, which I have ever recommended, and seek by works of righteousness to obtain their love and confidence, for they must learn that they have either got to help us or the United States will kill us both.” George Smith, the general commanding the Nauvoo Legion (the Latter Day Saints military), held a conference with the Paiute leaders that same year along the Santa Clara River in which he told them the will of the Great Spirit was that they ally themselves with the Mormons against the Gentiles and make ready for war. If the United States made moves to cull the Mormon kingdom in Utah, the leaders of the church were determined to follow their founder’s example, and use the Indians to advance or defend the faith as need be.
During the first day’s fighting on the Mountain Meadow, one Paiute warrior was killed and two leaders wounded. Unhappy with the difficulty of the siege, many of the Paiutes began abandoning the Mormon cause by September 8th, the hopes of easy prey being violently repulsed by the Arkansans’ rifles. John D. Lee, the Mormon leader of the attack, recalled years later “We knew the Indians could not do the work… we were in a sad fix.” Abandoning a reliance on the Paiutes to do the dirty work, Lee sent back to Cedar City and the other nearby settlements for reinforcements to help finish the job.
On September 11th 1857, with only about 40 Indians remaining under his command, but with swelled ranks of war-painted, feathered Mormons, Lee finally cajoled the Arkansan defenders into surrendering under the auspices of Mormon protection. Separating the surrendered into a grouping of women and children, and a single file line of men, the Mormons made as if to march the Arkansans to safety or, at worst, confinement. However, as Major Higbee of the Mormon militia called out the order, the Latter Day Saints followed out a mass execution of the Arkansas men at close range, and more Mormons, adorned in the dress of Indians, fell on the women and children with knives, cudgels, and pistols. All but the 17 of the youngest children were massacred in a matter of minutes. Nephi Johnson, one of the Mormon perpetrators, noted that though the violence was done in Indian style, “White men did most of the killing” that day. With the seemingly believable scapegoats provided by the Paiutes, the Mormons hastily buried the evidence in a shallow mass grave and agreed that they must all testify that “the Indians did it alone” and no Mormon culpability would be admitted to outside inquirers.
The ruse and attempted usage of the Paiutes as their scapegoat did not work. From very early on, the claims of innocence from the southern Utah Mormons were met with skepticism by Gentile society and the United States government. Prosecution of the murderers, however, was difficult to execute in the far flung reaches of the western desert, and with rising crises in Kansas and the Antebellum South, the national attention was focused elsewhere. The larger Utah crisis of 1857 was sidelined by more pressing issues that would culminate in the Civil War, and very few of the perpetrators ever came to justice.
Mormon exploitation of American Indians as their own storybook wayward sons continued beyond the Mountain Meadow. Subsequent murders of Gentiles and government agents in the deserts of Utah, also likely the work of Mormon vigilantes, were often blamed on Indians with little convincing proof. Three well-armed members of John Wesley Powell’s expedition to explore the Colorado River in 1869 disappeared after trekking north from the river into Utah. Their murders were reported in an anonymous telegram and blamed on an impoverished band of Shivwit Paiutes who were not known for hostility. Other members of the expedition, upon hearing about the deaths, dismissed the news as conjured rumors and suspected Mormon treachery. Though the affair remained clouded in mystery, several historians, Mormon and Gentile alike, have found Mormon guilt in these murders a compelling probability. The explicit precedent to utilize the figure of the American Indian was laid out in Mormon teachings, making it quite easy to understand Mormon readiness to turn to this theological, literary, and tangible tool whenever it could benefit the Latter Day Saints’ cause, sometimes in the most sinister forms of exploitation and scapegoating.
Such exploitation of the other is not unique to nineteenth-century Mormonism. Religious groups through the ages have created and used such distinctions to advance their respective causes. Various groups of Christians have used their foundational accounts in the New Testament to endorse nearly two millennia of Jewish exploitation and persecution, for example. Though by nature sacred, religious texts cannot always separate themselves from contemporary biases and beliefs that rule the day. However, Mormon use of the American Indian was unique in its harnessing of a racially distinct group rather than a competing religious rival. Because of its uniquely New World origin-story, Mormonism was distinct in its ability to utilize pre-existing disdain for Native Americans in early U.S. society and incorporate it directly into its foundational doctrines. This use of the Native American in Mormon doctrine set a precedent in pragmatic Mormon exploitation on the frontier, where the American Indian was seen as the cursed race of Laman, to be used and manipulated in even the bloodiest manifestations, to advance the Mormon cause.
As radical Mormons manipulated religion to exploit Indians and justify violence on the frontier of the nineteenth-century, so too did Catholic Spanish persecute Indians in the deserts of the Southwest through religious war much earlier. Read about the Pueblo War here.
Native Americans were discriminated against by Mormon and Gentile alike. Read how race played a factor in the trials of Indian combatants in the wake of the Dakota War here.
Like this article? Let us know what you thought in the comments below! We’re always happy to answer feedback.
The Book of Mormon
Bagley, Will. Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Brookes, Juanita. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York: Random House, 2003.
Larsen, Wesley. “‘The Letter,’ or Were the Powell Men Really Killed by Indians?” Canyon Legacy, no 17 (Spring 1993).
Lee, John D. Mormonism Unvealed; or the Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop, John D. Lee. William Bishop, ed. Albuquerque: Fierra Banca Publications: 2001.
Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. New York: Penguin, 1992.