Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

The Meadow

Mtn Meadows massacre area
Mtn Meadows massacre area

Some 300 miles south of Salt Lake City, at the southern tip of the Wasatch Mountain foothills, lies a five-mile-long section of rock and brush that belies the name it was given when white men first found it about 150 years ago. Christened Mountain Meadows, the area was once green and lush, fed by mountain streams that brought snow from the tops of the Iron Mountains to the floor of the high desert some 6,000 feet above sea level.

The Meadow, a fertile strip of land that marks the divide between the Colorado River and the sloping profile that forms the Great Salt Lake Basin, was a popular respite area for weary emigrants who made the thousand-mile trek from Fort Smith or Leavenworth before they crossed the Mojave Desert to their new homes in Southern California. To these travelers, Mountain Meadows, emerald and temperate almost all year long, appeared like a Garden of Eden amid the red rocks and scorching sand of Utah.

Mountain Meadows, Utah map
Mountain Meadows, Utah map

The Mountain Meadows that existed until the late 19th century is gone now. Scientists point to devastating droughts and floods that killed the meager amount of grass left by hungry cattle as the reason the Meadows looks like just another patch of southwestern U.S. desert. Others who know its history believe the Meadows is cursed by the Almighty, an infernal region on earth testifying to the inherent evil of man, a wasteland serving as a reminder of Gods wrath against those who sin.

Beneath the sands of the once-beautiful land lie the bones of more than 120 men, women and children slain at Mountain Meadows in 1857, their mortal remains left to the caprices of nature and their killers protected by Utahs peculiar theocracy. Only one participant was ever punished for the butchery, although more than 50 men took part.

The killers were mostly Mormons; they were respectable members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but even to this day, the church, while recognizing that Mormons took part in the massacre, disputes claims that the murders were part of an organized plot directed by the churchs leaders.

Guilt, however, is a nebulous concept, and even if the upper echelons of the Saints did not specifically order the murders, they still bear some responsibility. At the time, the Mormons were on a war-footing, and leaders like Brigham Young had instilled a culture of vengeance, fear and anger in their people. Just as military leaders are responsible for the acts of their subordinates, Young and the rest of the Mormon leaders could not simply wash their hands of the blood that was spilled at Mountain Meadows.

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