Last night at like 4 am I was lying awake listening to a podcast about the Iran-Contra scandal, you know, like you do, and at one point the hosts were talking about how the CIA put sea mines in a harbour in Nicaragua and then let everyone think it was the Contras, a rebel group backed by Ronald Reagan, that was blowing up all the boats. At this point, one of the hosts, writer Sarah Marshall, remarked “that’s like how the Mormons would hold up wagon trains going through Utah territory and kill people and take all of their livestock and their money and be like ‘oh, the Native Americans did it, classic Native Americans.’”
Yeah I definitely had to run that back a couple times. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a story idea so perfectly catered to the random bullshit I cover here, so I immediately had to google it to see if I was being fucked around with. I didn’t even really know how to start looking for this story so I just typed in the keywords from Ms. Marshall’s offhand comment and it turns out the event she was describing is a pretty big deal in some circles — mostly Mormon historians. Though Marshall implies that this was a pattern of behaviour for the Mormons in wagon train times, I could only find coverage of a specific incident known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but everything else about her characterization actually holds up.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre, or Emineminem, took place on September 11, 1857. On September 7, a Mormon militia in Native American dress and potentially redface, agitated by zealous religious rhetoric and anxiety about an approaching U.S. army force, attacked and then laid siege upon the Baker-Fancher party of Arkansan emigrants ‘headed for a new life’ in the West, or whatever it is we usually say about the white people who steal Indigenous land. Then on the 11th, as concern that the Arkansans had identified their attackers as white and therefore probably Mormon spread, an order was given to slaughter everyone old enough to bear witness — some 120 men, women, and children in all were murdered when militiamen posing as newly-arrived Mormon escorts turned on them in cold blood.
In a number of ways, this is fucking fascinating, and I wish I could get all up in this story like a directionless grad student, but unfortunately I have your little baby attention span to consider, so how about I just talk about like four things? I’ll limit it to that just on the off chance you don’t have all day to hear about regional mid-19th century American history or whatever. Okay the four things are:
- The relationship between the Paiute Native Americans in Utah and the Mormon/Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) pioneers.
- The relationship between the U.S. government and the Mormon pioneers.
- The Church's cover-up of the massacre.
- The aftermath and legacy of the event.
As you can tell, I have no patience at the moment for elegant directional statements, I just need to talk about some fuckin Mormons. Let’s get going.
Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah in 1847 at the Salt Lake Valley in the Wasatch Oasis. While the desert of Utah was certainly much more arid compared to the New England homeland of most of the LDS pioneers, the various rivers and watersheds leading to the Great Salt Lake provided for much natural vegetation and while irrigation farming was necessary, it was not too difficult to set up. In doing so, however, the Mormons positioned their settlements strategically along Utah’s waterways, diverting streams and rivers for irrigation and thereby forcing Utah’s Paiute Native Americans into a dependent relationship with the settlers. In addition to controlling the water, settlers’ livestock also went to town on the vast natural stores of grass seed that the Paiutes relied on for a great deal of sustenance.
So while many Paiutes were not necessarily loath to work in good faith with their new white neighbors, and evidence suggests that many early attempts to collaborate between groups were successful, they were nonetheless subject almost immediately to economic control and intense paternalizing attitudes. Mormon missionaries set about trying to impose their values, ‘civilize’ the Native Americans, and carry out all the classic colonial shenanigans, and as was often the case, some communities cultivated good relationships and others didn’t.
The important thing is that nobody opened in 1847 by waging war on anyone else, so by the time 1857 rolled around, the Mormon power structure in Utah could still claim many Paiute allies. This is important because at the time of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Brigham Young, leader of the first Mormons to come to Salt Lake and by this point the governor of the recently ceded (by Mexico) Utah territory, has said that Native Americans should basically feel free to raid any emigrant caravans they come across heading West.
I don't know if I'm allowed to say this, but Brigham Young kinda has an Osama beard... coincidence?
This is where we get into the relationship between the Mormons and the U.S. government. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, conflict between the Mormons and mainstream culture escalated to the point where the LDS was kicked out of Missouri and then Illinois, and their prophet and founder, Joseph Smith, was lynched. Also, I’m sorry Mormons, but if I had to pick one gripe with you guys, it wouldn’t be the legacies of homophobia, racism, or subjugation of women, nor would it be the fucking through a sheet thing, it would be that your prophet is named fucking Joseph Smith. That’s not the name of a prophet, that’s the name of an insurance broker. It’s too generic, I’m sorry, your Joseph Smith doesn’t just get to be the Joseph Smith just cause an angel showed him some golden plates one time.
So anyway, because nobody wanted to hang out with the Mormons, they had to fuck off to Utah where nobody would bother them, but then the federal government bothered them. The rest of the U.S. was not down with polygamy and Young’s theocratic government was all for it. So, because by 1857, James Buchanan, the worst president in American history, was in power, Utah was declared ‘in rebellion’ and federal troops were mobilized to assert their dominance I guess.
The Mormons pretty understandably flipped shit, and Young ordered his constituents to stockpile grain and embargoed trade with emigrants in preparation for a 7-year siege. Part of Young’s battle plan for the Utah War — which was ultimately peaceful, except for, you know, the emigrants who were slaughtered — was to target the feds’ supply chain in order to assert control of the territory. This hysteria is cited as one of the main causes for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, because Mormon speakers began spreading the message of wartime by visiting communities and instructing them to essentially fear outsiders. An apostle, George A. Smith was alleged to have spoken to several members of the militia that would eventually carry out the atrocity, including a Paiute chief.
There are contemporary reports of Paiutes in Arizona and Nevada carrying out raids on wagon trains in much the same way Brigham Young decreed his Paiute allies should feel free to indulge, but in Utah it’s really not clear how many attacks, apart from the Massacre, were carried out by Native Americans, Mormons, or both. Some accounts deny Paiute involvement in the Massacre and contemporary accounts blame the whole thing on the Native Americans, so I’m just gonna split the difference and say that probably it was a lot of both.
But this brings us to the cover-up, because for a while, the LDS church just decided to plant the blame squarely on their Paiute friends. This is actually cited as one of the reasons for the eventual deterioration of Utah-Indigenous relations, though their relegation to reservations and the theft of their children didn’t come too much later than this so those probably had an impact too.
Because all this shit happened in the 1850s, we didn’t have super sophisticated record-keeping and judicial oversight to do a Watergate-style ‘what did the governor know and when did he know it?’ investigation. Also, the civil war happened in between the army finding out about what happened and the army actually doing anything about it — again, I cannot stress enough how fucking shit James Buchanan was. So, for years, Brigham Young and the LDS just denied it had anything to do with the Massacre.
How Joseph Smith said he came across the word of the Lord -- printed on some golden plates buried next to an angel
It was 1874 before any arrests were made, and one militiaman, John D. Lee, an Indian Agent (classic) was tried and executed. And then that’s kind of it. The Mountain Meadows Massacre remained on the fringes of American history chiefly as a tool to beat Mormons with and also as an obsession for Mormon scholars who have tried to understand how, in their view, otherwise decent men could carry-out this war crime in a time before war crimes.
What I see in this case though is an example of the disastrous effects of a struggle between two very dominant cultures, an early warning of the dangers of religious extremism, and an interesting case-study of the fact that this world has no fucking good guys. The Mormons believed themselves superior to the Native Americans and to outsiders because they believed they were God’s chosen. This allowed them to do unconscionable things and scapegoat the very people they were purporting to “save.” At the same time, The Americans believed they were superior to the Mormons because their culture had institutionalized a monogamous family unit, which served to consolidate economic and political power with each individual man, rather than a religious hierarchy. And both groups had no problems assigning blame for raids to the Paiutes because the Paiutes weren’t white.
It’s just such a perfect parable for separation of church and state, and for the curtailing of religious fundamentalism, and for the way this continent treats its Indigenous population, but none of that is a salient narrative for a country built on white supremacy, valuing some religions over others, and treating Indigenous people like shit. Which is why we remember September 11th as the day we were forced to deal with Muslim extremism, rather than the day we realized that maybe we shouldn’t base our laws and culture on a bunch of crazy racists. Well no actually, that’s probably because everyone watched 3,000 people die on TV, but still, I think we could remember it as both. Cause holy fuck man, Americans were doing terrorism on each other since literally the birth of America. I think we should also never forget that.