Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Prelude to Apocalypse

Brigham Young
Brigham Young

Church teachings promised a battle between the righteous and the damned, and in the 10 years that followed the Mormon exodus, Brigham Young and his hand-picked group of enforcers carefully shaped and prepared the Saints for the holy war. Using tactics that rivaled those of the 20th centurys strongest dictators, Young controlled access to information, used the pulpit to foment hatred, fear and mistrust of the federal government, and established an informal network of spies that allowed him to monitor the opinions and actions of everyone within the borders of Deseret.

When gold was discovered in California shortly after the Mormons arrived in Utah, Young realized that his land would be an important stopping place for weary emigrants and a vital link in the commerce of the nation that now spanned from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean. He quickly moved to establish land possession by eminent domain. Young forcibly moved his flock to geographically important locations, so that within a few years of settling in Utah, the Mormons controlled access to all means of entry into and out of the territory and every ford that the emigrants could use to cross the mighty rivers.

The Mormons had helped to wrest control of the Utah Territory from the Mexicans during the Mexican-American War. The goal of the Saints had been to create a theocracy independent of the United States in the territory between California and the Rocky Mountains, but the discovery of gold blocked that dream and resulted in a renewed pattern of Mormon religious persecution by government officials.

President Zachary Taylor
President Zachary Taylor

After using the Mormons Nauvoo Legion to help win the war with Mexico and eventually become elected as President of the United States, Zachary Taylor, who never had any love for the Saints, began to see that Brigham Youngs empire was quickly becoming the largest political force in the West and was close to escaping from federal government control.  In 1848, Taylor sent federal officials by the dozens to wrest authority from Young. Unfortunately, most of the first wave of territorial officials were Washingtons worst.

Some of them were broken politicians, professional office-seekers, with no desire but to secure the greatest possible gain out of their appointment, wrote Mormon historian James E. Talmage. With effrontery that would shock the modesty of a savage, the non-Mormon party adopted and flagrantly displayed the carpet-bag as the badge of their profession. But not all the officials sent to Utah from afar were of this type; some of them were honorable and upright men, and amongst this class the Mormon people reckon a number who, while opposed to their religious tenets, were nevertheless sincere and honest in the opposition they evinced.

President Millard Fillmore
President Millard Fillmore

By 1850, when Millard Fillmore became President, federal officials had given up hope of trying to counteract the dominance of Brigham Young. Fillmore already had a full plate without a Mormon problem, with the slavery question dividing the North and South and the lack of a transcontinental railroad dividing the East and West. Opting to settle the easiest question first, the President recognized that the only way to build the railway was with Youngs help. Because few federal officials had any desire to head to Utah, Fillmore appointed Brigham Young governor of the territory and agent to the Indians.

Unfortunately, while his appointing the Lion of the Lord might help to build a railway, it would have direct and dire consequences for everyone down the road.  The three territorial judges and the territorial secretary arrived during the summer of 1851, but by the fall, all had left. On their return to Washington, they reported in the Congressional Globe that an extraordinary state of affairs was in place that rendered the performance of duties not only dangerous, but impracticable.

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