Left: John Doyle Lee, the only person ever brought to justice for the massacre.
Center: Brigham Young, head of the church and governor.
Right: Isaac Haight, a church elder now thought to have been involved, with a wife and daughter.
in 1850, his successor, Millard Fillmore, legitimized the Mormon theocracy, naming Young governor of the new Utah Territory. Following Fillmore, Franklin Pierce’s administration let the Mormon regime fasten its hold still tighter on Utah politics and society. By the time James Buchanan was elected, in 1856, the Mormons were defying every federal authority, from judges and U.S. marshals to Indian agents. Territorial officers were fleeing Utah. There followed increasing reports of Mormon clashes with emigrant parties headed to California, as well as with the government surveyor Capt. John W. Gunnison, who, along with members of his party, was massacred in south-central Utah while mapping a route for the transcontinental railroad. Church militia–"blue-eyed, white-faced Indians"–were said to be masquerading as Utah Paiutes in these confrontations. As the attacks became widespread, pressure mounted in Washington to take some action. At the same time, the emerging Republican party designated Mormon polygamy a "relic of barbarism" it would equate with slavery in its first national platform.

But perhaps even more relevant to the later events at Mountain Meadows was the role of a church doctrine more secret, sacred, and controversial than polygamy. The belief in "blood atonement"–that there are certain sins that can be forgiven only when the sinner’s own blood spills on the ground–was a reality not even the most sympathetic chroniclers of the church have been able to deny. "It would be bad history to pretend that there were no holy murders in Utah," Wallace Stegner wrote gingerly but candidly in his classic book Mormon Country, "... that there was no saving of the souls of sinners by the shedding of their blood during the ‘blood atonement’ revival of 1856, that there were no mysterious disappearances of apostates and offensive Gentiles."

By the winter of 1856–1857, Young was tormented by defections in his ranks. Responding with his "Mormon Reformation," he had his church elders sweep through the communities of the territory "in an orgy of recrimination and rebaptism." He instructed that backsliders were to be "hewn down." His enforcement arm, called the Danites, for Sons of Dan, and commonly referred to as the Avenging Angels, gained especial notoriety.

By the spring of 1857, Young was flaunting his secessionist leanings, often whipping his audiences into an antigovernment frenzy as fervid as anything in the pre–Civil War South. Only a few months after taking office, Buchanan responded to the mass exodus of government agents–the "runaway officials," as Washington called them–by ordering a punitive expedition to enforce the federal writ in Utah. By late that summer troops under the command of U.S. Bvt. Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston were marching from Fort Leavenworth toward the remnants of Fort Bridger near the Wyoming-Utah border, a post the Mormon militia had burned down. Young prepared his followers for what was being called the Utah War. "We are invaded by a hostile force who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction," he declared in a broadside proclamation on August 5, 1857.

Into this cauldron of suspicion," a historian later wrote, "came the unfortunate Fancher party en route from Arkansas to California." A few on the train were affluent, some even wealthy–"livesrock growers, drovers, and traders," as one descendant described them. Others were cattlemen and thoroughbred-horse breeders from northwestern Arkansas. Most of the party were members of large families, the Bakers and Fanchers, heading to join relatives who had migrated the previous year to California’s Central Valley, where the range was free and land grants were available for men with prior mili- next page