Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre


Sunrise came early on the morning of Monday, September 7, 1857. The Fancher party had arrived at Mountain Meadows in the dark the evening before, and the tired immigrants had not formally established a camp. The wagons were parked close to each other, but they were not in a standard defensive position that the train used when attack was a possibility. Because of the comings and goings of various members, the number of people in the train stood at around 120 to 140 -- the actual number will probably   never be known. Most of the party had been together since Arkansas, but several fallen-away Mormons and some Gentiles who wanted out of Utah had joined what was likely to be one of the last trains out of the territory before the war.

In addition to the people, somewhere between 400 and 600 head of cattle were wandering near the camp that fateful morning, along with the horses of the cowboys who tended them and the working oxen and horses who towed the wagons. The first shot struck and killed a child who had just started to eat a breakfast of quail and rabbit, Will Bagley reports. The deadly barrage struck down between ten and 15 victims, killing seven of them. Three of the wounded men were taken out of the fight and died within days.

The hardy immigrants had traveled too far and lived too long with the threat of attack to be beaten so easily. They quickly fired back on the Paiute attackers. One warrior was slain and two chiefs were disabled by the return fire and the initial attack failed. The attacking force was not large enough to overrun the camp or simply lacked the will to do the job, Bagley wrote.

During a brief lull, the besieged immigrants quickly reinforced their position, creating a circular fortification of wagons and digging a trench from which they could safely defend themselves. From behind rocks at the base of nearby hills, the attackers sniped at the Fancher party and the immigrants fired back, neither side gaining any advantage. As the sun rose, both sides took stock of the situation, and the shooting stopped. Inside the encampment, the adults were busy tending to the wounded or reinforcing the battlements, but Sally Denton reports that panic had seized the 50 or so children who were there. Some were wounded; all were terrified. She writes that the immigrants could not see their cattle, which had been grazing over a small hill. Outside the wagon lay dozens of dead and dying animals. The immigrants, who had not expected to fight a siege, had made a strategic error by failing to set up their camp closer to water. To reach the stream, someone would have to make a hundred-yard dash across open terrain. At the edge of the desert, water had become a precious commodity.

The ambush turned into a siege, as both sides traded sniper fire for the rest of the day. Most historians report unsuccessful attempts by the immigrants to reach the spring, including an unconfirmed claim that the party sent a pair of young girls, dressed in white, toward the water, only to be struck down by gunfire. As night fell, the immigrants must have wondered just who their attackers really were. While survivors reported that the bushwhackers had painted faces, many of the Fancher-Baker party were familiar enough with the Paiutes in the area to know that while they were prone to cattle theft, they were generally not cold-blooded killers. Having passed through a series of towns filled with angry Mormons who refused to trade or sell them supplies, the Arkansans must have suspected that white men were behind the attack.

In fact, the trap had been sprung by a combination of Paiutes and Mormons. The Indians had been encouraged to attack the train with the cattle as their prize. Whether they intended to slaughter the party is not known. In the end, however, the blame for this act of mass murder can be laid squarely at the feet of the white men.

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