Lesson 151: The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, 2013


During the 1850s, tension and miscommunication between Latter-day Saints and officials of the United States government led to the Utah War of 1857–58. In September 1857, conflict also arose between some Latter-day Saints and members of an emigrant wagon train passing through Utah. Motivated by anger and fear, some Latter-day Saints in southern Utah planned and carried out the massacre of about 120 emigrants traveling to California. This atrocity is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Suggestions for Teaching

Tension builds between Latter-day Saints and the United States government

Explain that on July 24, 1857, President Brigham Young was with a group of Saints celebrating the 10th anniversary of their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley when he received confirmation of earlier news that an army was coming to Salt Lake City. In previous years, disagreements and miscommunication had resulted in growing tension between the Latter-day Saints and officials of the United States government. The Saints wanted to be governed by leaders of their own choosing and had rejected federal appointees who did not share their values. That led some federal officials to consider them in rebellion against the United States government. Without approval from Congress, United States President James Buchanan sent approximately 1,500 troops to Salt Lake City to force Utahns to accept new officials.

  • If you had been a Latter-day Saint in 1857 and had heard that a large army was approaching your city, what concerns might you have had? (Students might mention that the Saints had been violently driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; many had lost valued possessions and land; and some had been killed or had died during these persecutions. News of the approaching army produced concerns that such events might also occur in Utah.)

Invite a student to read the following paragraph aloud:

In sermons to the Saints, President Young and other Church leaders described the coming troops as enemies. President Young, who for years had asked the Saints to save grain, renewed his instructions so they would have food to eat if they needed to flee from the troops. As governor of the Utah Territory, he also directed the territory’s militia to prepare to defend the territory.

Conflict arises between some Latter-day Saints and members of an emigrant wagon train

Display a map similar to the one included here, or draw one on the board. Invite a student to read aloud the following two paragraphs:

An emigrant wagon train traveling west from Arkansas to California entered Utah just as Latter-day Saints were preparing to defend the territory against the coming United States troops. Some members of the wagon train became frustrated because they had a difficult time purchasing much-needed grain from the Saints, who had been instructed to save their grain. The emigrants also came into conflict with Saints who did not want the wagon train’s horses and cattle to consume food and water resources the Saints needed for their own animals.

Tensions erupted in Cedar City, the last settlement in Utah on the route to California. Confrontations occurred between some members of the wagon train and some of the Latter-day Saints. Some members of the wagon train threatened to join the incoming government troops against the Saints. Even though the captain of the wagon train rebuked his companions for making these threats, some Cedar City leaders and settlers viewed the emigrants as enemies. The wagon company left town only about an hour after arriving, but some of the settlers and leaders in Cedar City wanted to pursue and punish the men who had offended them.

Invite students to think of times when they have experienced conflicts with another person or a group of people. Invite a student to read 3 Nephi 12:25 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for a principle Jesus Christ taught that can guide us when we experience tension with others.

  • What do you think it means to “agree with thine adversary quickly”?

To help students understand this phrase, you may want to ask a student to read aloud the following statement:

Elder David E. Sorensen of the Seventy taught that the phrase “agree with thine adversary quickly” means to “resolve our differences early on, lest the passions of the moment escalate into physical or emotional cruelty, and we fall captive to our anger” (“Forgiveness Will Change Bitterness to Love,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2003, 11).

  • How would you summarize the Savior’s teaching in 3 Nephi 12:25 in your own words? (As students respond, write a principle similar to the following on the board: If we resolve conflict with others in the Lord’s way, then we can avoid the harmful effects of contention.)

  • How might obeying the principle in 3 Nephi 12:25 have helped the Latter-day Saints who had become upset with members of the wagon train?

Explain that because these Saints did not resolve their conflict with the emigrants in the Lord’s way, the situation became much more serious. Isaac Haight, the Cedar City mayor, militia major, and stake president, requested permission from the militia commander, who lived in the nearby settlement of Parowan, to call out the militia to confront the offenders from the wagon train. The militia commander, William Dame, counseled Isaac Haight to ignore the emigrants’ threats. Instead of yielding to this counsel, Isaac Haight and other Cedar City leaders decided to persuade some local Indians to attack the wagon train and steal their cattle as a way of punishing the emigrants. Isaac Haight asked John D. Lee, a local Church member and militia major, to lead this attack, and the two planned to blame Indians for the deed.

  • What should the Cedar City leaders have done when William Dame counseled them not to use the militia? What did rejecting counsel then lead them to do? (After students respond, write the following principle on the board: If we ignore counsel to do what is right, then we become more susceptible to making poor choices.)

Point out that these men acted contrary to their priesthood responsibilities. Invite a student to read aloud Doctrine and Covenants 121:36–37. Ask the class to follow along, looking for the Lord’s warning to priesthood holders who act unrighteously.

  • What warning does the Lord give to priesthood holders who seek to cover their sins or act unrighteously?

Read or summarize the following paragraphs, and invite students to listen for how Cedar City leaders continued to make poor choices after ignoring the counsel they had received.

Isaac Haight presented the plan to attack the wagon train to a council of local leaders in the Church, community, and militia. Some council members strongly disagreed with the plan and asked Haight if he had consulted with President Brigham Young about the matter. Saying he had not, Haight agreed to send a messenger, James Haslam, to Salt Lake City with a letter explaining the situation and asking what should be done. However, because Salt Lake City is approximately 250 miles from Cedar City, it would require about a week of hard riding on horseback for the messenger to reach Salt Lake City and return to Cedar City with President Young’s instructions.

Shortly before Isaac Haight sent his letter with the messenger, John D. Lee and a group of Indians attacked the emigrant camp at a place called the Mountain Meadows. Lee led the attack but concealed his identity so that it would appear that only the Indians were involved. Some of the emigrants were killed or wounded, and the remainder fought off their attackers, forcing Lee and the Indians to retreat. The emigrants quickly pulled their wagons into a tight circle, or corral, for protection. Two additional attacks followed during a five-day siege on the wagon train.

At one point, Cedar City militiamen became aware of two emigrant men who were outside the wagon corral. The militiamen fired on them, killing one. The other man escaped and brought news to the wagon camp that white men were involved in the attacks against them. Those who planned the attacks were now caught in their deception. If the emigrants were allowed to go on to California, news would spread that Latter-day Saints were responsible for the attack on the wagon train. The conspirators feared this news would bring negative consequences upon themselves and their people.

  • What resulted from the decision to disobey the counsel of the militia commander?

  • At this point, what choices did those responsible for the attacks have? (They could confess what they had done and receive the consequences, or they could try to hide their crimes and sins. See D&C 121:37.)

  • What should they have done?

Invite students to ponder the following questions:

  • What do you do when you do something wrong? Do you confess what you have done wrong and receive the consequences, or do you try to hide the sin through deception?

Some Latter-day Saints plan and carry out the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Explain that the Church members involved in the attacks against the emigrants chose to try to hide their sins. Invite the class to listen for what occurred as a result of this decision as you read or summarize the following paragraphs:

In an attempt to prevent news from spreading that Latter-day Saints were involved in the attacks on the wagon train, Isaac Haight, John D. Lee, and other local Church and militia leaders made a plan to kill all the remaining emigrants except for small children. Enacting this plan, John D. Lee approached the emigrants and said the militia would protect them from further attacks by guiding them safely back to Cedar City. As the emigrants were walking toward Cedar City, the militiamen turned and fired on them. Some Indians rushed from hiding places to join the attack. Of approximately 140 emigrants who were part of the wagon train, only 17 small children were spared.

Two days after the massacre, James Haslam arrived in Cedar City with President Young’s message of reply, instructing the local leaders to allow the wagon train to go in peace. “When Haight read Young’s words, he sobbed like a child and could manage only the words, ‘Too late, too late’” (Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Ensign, Sept. 2007, 20).

Explain that the choices of some Latter-day Saint leaders and settlers in southern Utah Territory led to the tragic Mountain Meadows Massacre. In contrast, Church and territory leaders in Salt Lake City resolved the conflict with the United States government through peace talks and negotiation in 1858. During this conflict—later called the Utah War—the United States troops and Utah militiamen engaged in acts of aggression but never in battle.

  • How would you summarize the choices that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre?

  • What principles can we learn from this tragedy? (Students may identify a variety of principles, but their responses may include the following: Choosing to hide our sins can lead us to commit further sins. Choosing to hide our sins can bring regret and suffering.)

Explain that the Mountain Meadows Massacre not only resulted in the deaths of about 120 victims, but it also caused great suffering to the surviving children and other relatives of the victims. Paiute Indians also suffered from being unjustly blamed for the crime. In addition, those “who carried out the massacre labored the rest of their lives under a horrible sense of guilt and recurring nightmares of what they had done and seen” (Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” 20).

Assure students that if they have started down a path of mistakes and sin, they can prevent future heartache and regret by turning to the Lord and repenting of their sins.

Explain that because a number of local Latter-day Saints were responsible for planning and carrying out the Mountain Meadows Massacre, some people have allowed this event to negatively affect their view of the entire Church.

  • Why is it important to realize that the wrong actions of some Church members do not determine the truthfulness of the gospel?

Invite a student to read the following statement by President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency:

President Henry B. Eyring

“The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done [at the Mountain Meadows] long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct” (“150th Anniversary of Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Sept. 11, 2007, mormonnewsroom.org/article/150th-anniversary-of-mountain-meadows-massacre).

Invite a student to read Helaman 5:12 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what we can do to develop and maintain our testimonies so that during difficult times, such as when we learn of instances when Church members have failed to live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, our faith will not be shaken.

  • According to Helaman 5:12, what can we do to develop and maintain our testimonies? (After students respond, you may want to write the following principle on the board: We can develop strong testimonies by building our faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ.)

To illustrate this principle, invite a student to read the following paragraph:

“James Sanders is the great-grandson of … one of the children who survived the massacre [and is also a member of the Church]. … Brother Sanders … said that learning his ancestor had been killed in the massacre ‘didn’t affect my faith because it’s based on Jesus Christ, not on any person in the Church’” (Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” 21).

  • How can our faith in Jesus Christ strengthen us when we learn of instances when Church members have failed to live according to the Savior’s teachings?

  • What do you do that helps you to build your faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ?

Testify of the importance of living the Savior’s teachings and basing our faith on Him and His gospel. Invite students to ponder how they might better build their faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ and to set a goal to do so.

Commentary and Background Information

Responsibility for the Mountain Meadows Massacre

President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency made the following statement concerning responsibility for the Mountain Meadows Massacre:

President Henry B. Eyring

“The responsibility for the massacre lies with local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the regions near Mountain Meadows who also held civic and military positions and with members of the Church acting under their direction. …

“… No doubt Divine Justice will impose appropriate punishment upon those responsible for the massacre” (“150th Anniversary of Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Sept. 11, 2007, mormonnewsroom.org/article/150th-anniversary-of-mountain-meadows-massacre).

Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant Church historian and recorder, explained how general Church leaders eventually learned of the massacre. He also summarized the consequences that came to some of the perpetrators:

Richard E. Turley Jr.

“Although Brigham Young and other Church leaders in Salt Lake City learned of the massacre soon after it happened, their understanding of the extent of the settlers’ involvement and the terrible details of the crime came incrementally over time. In 1859 they released from their callings stake president Isaac Haight and other prominent Church leaders in Cedar City who had a role in the massacre. In 1870 they excommunicated Isaac Haight and John D. Lee from the Church.

“In 1874 a territorial grand jury indicted nine men for their role in the massacre. Most of them were eventually arrested, though only Lee was tried, convicted, and executed for the crime. Another indicted man turned state’s evidence [voluntarily testified and gave evidence against the other defendants], and others spent many years running from the law. Other militiamen who carried out the massacre labored the rest of their lives under a horrible sense of guilt and recurring nightmares of what they had done and seen” (Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Ensign, Sept. 2007, 20).

Timeline of events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Thursday, September 3, 1857: A wagon train of approximately 140 people, mostly from Arkansas, passes through Cedar City, Utah. Some members of the wagon train become embroiled in conflict with some of the local Latter-day Saints. After some members of the wagon train refuse arrest, local Church and civic leaders in Cedar City seek permission from William Dame, the military district commander in nearby Parowan, to call out the militia to confront the emigrants.

Friday, September 4, 1857: William Dame sends a message of reply instructing the leaders in Cedar City not to take action against the emigrants. Isaac C. Haight and other leaders in Cedar City formulate a plan to persuade local Indians to attack the emigrant wagon train. Haight recruits John D. Lee from nearby Fort Harmony to lead the attack.

Sunday, September 6, 1857: Isaac C. Haight presides over a council meeting in Cedar City and informs additional local leaders of the plan to attack the emigrants. Some leaders object to this plan and persuade Haight to send a messenger, James Haslam, to seek President Brigham Young’s counsel on the matter.

Monday, September 7, 1857: John D. Lee and Indians attack the emigrant wagon train at the Mountain Meadows. James Haslam, carrying a letter requesting guidance from President Brigham Young, leaves Cedar City for Salt Lake City. Two Cedar City militiamen attack two emigrants who are outside the wagon corral. One emigrant survives and returns to the corral, bringing news that local settlers are attacking the emigrants.

Tuesday, September 8, 1857: Some Latter-day Saints and Indians participate in two more attacks against the wagon train. The emigrants successfully defend their position, but Cedar City men kill two more men who try to escape and seek help.

Wednesday, September 9, 1857: Isaac C. Haight travels from Cedar City to Parowan to meet with William Dame. The Parowan council decides that the emigrant company should be allowed to go on their way in peace, but Haight privately lobbies for and receives Dame’s permission to call out the militia to attack the besieged emigrants.

Thursday, September 10, 1857: Isaac C. Haight returns to Cedar City and confers with local leaders. They send orders to kill all of the emigrants except for the young children. James Haslam reaches Salt Lake City, delivers Haight’s message, and begins the return journey to Cedar City with President Young’s response.

Friday, September 11, 1857: Local militiamen lure the remaining emigrants out of their camp. The militia and Indians attack and kill the emigrants, except for 17 small children.

Sunday, September 13, 1857: James Haslam returns from Salt Lake City with Brigham Young’s written instruction to let the emigrants go in peace.

1859: Federal officials retrieve the surviving children and return them to Arkansas to live with relatives.

1870: President Brigham Young learns additional details about the massacre and excommunicates Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee.

1874: Nine men are indicted by a territorial grand jury for their roles in the massacre.

1875: John D. Lee is the only perpetrator tried, but the case results in a hung jury.

1876: John D. Lee is retried and convicted of murder for his role in the massacre.

Friday, March 23, 1877: John D. Lee is executed by firing squad at the Mountain Meadows.

The Utah War

In mid-1857, Latter-day Saint leaders heard rumors that the federal government might replace Brigham Young with a new governor of the Utah Territory, who would be backed by large numbers of federal troops. These rumors were confirmed on July 24 by Latter-day Saint men who had come to Salt Lake City from the east (see Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy [2008], 30). Abraham Smoot, Judson Stoddard, and Orrin Porter Rockwell arrived in Salt Lake City on July 23 with news of the approaching army. The next day they carried the news up Big Cottonwood Canyon, where Brigham Young and many Saints were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the pioneers’ entrance into the Salt Lake Valley (see Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 369–70).

President Brigham Young and other Church leaders believed the approaching federal troops had hostile intentions toward the Latter-day Saints. In early August of 1857, Church leaders announced plans to prevent or stall the troops from entering Utah Territory. On September 15, 1857, Brigham Young proclaimed martial law in the territory. He also “ordered the Nauvoo Legion to prepare for the invasion. In nearly every Utah community, preparations for defense were accelerated. He also instructed bishops in the villages to prepare to burn everything should hostilities actually break out” (Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 371).

Members of the Nauvoo Legion [the name taken by the Utah Territorial militia] were sent to harass the federal troops as they marched toward the territory. “The [legion members] torched a total of seventy-four wagons, containing enough supplies to outfit the large army for three months. They also captured fourteen hundred of the two thousand head of cattle accompanying the expedition” (Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 374). This slowed the troops’ march and prevented them from entering the Salt Lake Valley until the spring of 1858.

In March 1858, President Young instructed the Saints to evacuate all the settlements in northern Utah. The Saints “hid all the stone that had been cut for the Salt Lake Temple, and leveled and covered over its foundation so that the plot would resemble a plowed field and remain unmolested” (Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 376). Homes and other buildings in Salt Lake City were filled with straw so they could be burned rather than occupied by the army. Over 30,000 Saints made their way toward Provo and other towns in central and southern Utah, where other Church members helped to house and care for them.

Church and territory leaders in Salt Lake City resolved the conflict with the United States government through peace talks and negotiation. In April 1858, Church leaders welcomed the new territorial governor, Alfred Cumming, into Salt Lake City. Brigham Young delivered the territorial records and seal to the new governor and established a cordial relationship with him. In early June, messengers dispatched by President James Buchanan arrived in Salt Lake City carrying an offer of a pardon for the Latter-day Saints. Church leaders accepted this offer, which cleared the Nauvoo Legion of wrongdoing in their raiding activities against the army’s supply trains. On June 26, the army peacefully entered the quiet and mostly deserted capital city. Because the troops did not disturb the Saints’ property, the Saints who remained in the city did not act on their threat to burn the buildings. After staying in the city a few days, the army departed and established a new outpost approximately 48 miles (77 km) southwest of Salt Lake City, which they named Camp Floyd. On July 1, 1858, Brigham Young directed the Saints to return to their homes in northern Utah (see Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 375–77).

What happened to the emigrant children who survived the massacre?

Some Latter-day Saints took in and cared for the emigrant children who survived the massacre. In 1859, federal officials took custody of these children and returned them to relatives in Arkansas.

Did members of the emigrant wagon train poison Indians?

Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant Church historian and recorder, explained:

Richard E. Turley Jr.

“Some traditional Utah histories of what occurred at Mountain Meadows have accepted the claim that poisoning also contributed to conflict—that the Arkansas emigrants deliberately poisoned a spring and an ox carcass near the central Utah town of Fillmore, causing illness and death among local Indians. According to this story, the Indians became enraged and followed the emigrants to the Mountain Meadows, where they either committed the atrocities on their own or forced fearful Latter-day Saint settlers to join them in the attack. Historical research shows that these stories are not accurate.

“While it is true that some of the emigrants’ cattle were dying along the trail, including near Fillmore, the deaths appear to be the result of a disease that affected cattle herds on the 1850s overland trails. Humans contracted the disease from infected animals through cuts or sores or through eating the contaminated meat. Without this modern understanding, people suspected the problem was caused by poisoning” (“The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Ensign, Sept. 2007, 16).

Unfortunate actions by members of the Church

The following statement by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency can help us know how to respond if we ever learn of wrongdoings by Church leaders:

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf

“To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.

“I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes. …

“This is the way it has always been and will be until the perfect day when Christ Himself reigns personally upon the earth.

“It is unfortunate that some have stumbled because of mistakes made by men. But in spite of this, the eternal truth of the restored gospel found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not tarnished, diminished, or destroyed” (“Come, Join with Us,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2013, 22–23).

Mountain Meadows Massacre

For more information about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, go to Gospel Topics on LDS.org and search for “Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

Supplemental Teaching Ideas

video iconVideo presentation—“The Mountain of the Lord”

As part of your discussion of the Utah War, you may want to show students a brief depiction of the Latter-day Saints burying the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple and the entrance of federal troops into Salt Lake City. These are depicted in the video The Mountain of the Lord (time codes 30:04–34:02), available on disc three of Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Visual Resource DVDs.

Hiding wrongdoings can lead to more serious sins

Use the following teaching idea to help students understand how people who initially commit sin may go on to commit greater sins if they seek to hide their wrongdoings instead of confessing and forsaking their sins.

Explain that the life of King David illustrates how seeking to hide wrongdoings can lead someone to commit worse sins. King David was a hero in ancient Israel and did many good things. However, he followed a path of serious sins and tried to cover them up. Invite students to scan 2 Samuel 10:2–5, 14–15 silently, looking for ways David sinned and then sought to hide his sins. Ask students to report what they find. (Students should identify David’s path of sins included in the following summary.)

  1. 1.

    David saw Bathsheba bathing. Instead of looking away, he apparently lusted after her.

  2. 2.

    David sent messengers to bring Bathsheba to see him.

  3. 3.

    David committed adultery with Bathsheba.

  4. 4.

    David tried to hide his sin, ultimately orchestrating the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.

  • What could David have done to stop this downward cycle of sin?

  • How is David’s experience similar to the experience of the men who were responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre?