Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Cover-up and Aftermath

The enormity of their crime became apparent almost immediately, and for most of the Saints, the immediate crisis was how to cover up their involvement. The news of the massacre spread almost instantly, and the higher-ups with the blood of the innocents on their hands began to look for others to blame.

The men present at Mountain Meadows swore a blood oath to take the secret of their involvement to the grave, a promise almost none of them kept. Lee immediately reported the slaughter to Brigham Young, who quickly issued a letter dated before the slayings ordering the southern communities to take no action against any immigrant trains.

As the first settlers who followed the Fancher train through the southern route began to reach California, the newspapers, and later, Congress, who began to demand action. The Mormons blamed the murders on the Paiutes, although the Saints in fact possessed the children and the materials plundered from the site. For years afterward, it was not unusual to see some item that had belonged to the immigrants appearing on the streets of Cedar City or Salt Lake City in the custody of a Mormon.

The Church spread a story that the Fancher train had poisoned a spring and some cattle, resulting in the deaths of at least one Mormon child and several Indians. There is no evidence to support such a claim, and Garland Hurt, the federal Indian agent, said it was not unusual for a Mormon steer to eat a poisoned weed that was plentiful in the area. Indians who butchered these dead animals were frequently killed by the poisoned beef, he said.

As investigators from the federal government poked holes in the poisoning story, the Church augmented it by saying the Fanchers were a loud and boisterous crew who had insulted the Prophet Joseph Smith. They claimed that Parley Pratts widow had claimed others were participants in her husbands murder. In fact, most historians say, the only identification of a Fancher train participant was by a Mormon, who remembered that the mans father had protected him against an angry crowd in Missouri.

The first investigation and attempt to prosecute the participants of the massacre was blocked by the Church and ended with no arrests or even a trial. Major Carlton arrived from California to look into the facts of the murders and found the bones of the immigrants still lying unburied on the ground in the meadow.

The scene of the massacre, even at this late day, was horrible to look upon, Carleton wrote. Womens hair, in detached locks and masses, hung to the sage bushes and was strewn over the ground in many places. Parts of little childrens dresses and of female costume dangled from the shrubbery or lay scattered about; and among these, here and there, on every hand, for at least a mile in the direction of the road, by two miles east and west, there gleamed, bleached white by the weather, the skulls and other bones of those who had suffered. A glance into the wagon when all these had been collected revealed a sight which can never be forgotten.

Carltons investigation resulted in harsh words being spoken in Washington, but Brigham Youngs hold on power in Utah was so strong no one would be arrested or tried for another 17 years.

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