Lesson 25: The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual, 2015


Introduction

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, some Latter-day Saints in southern Utah Territory and members of an emigrant wagon train on their way to California came into conflict, and the Latter-day Saints, motivated by anger and fear, planned and carried out the massacre of about 120 emigrants. This atrocity is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Background Reading

Suggestions for Teaching

Tension built between early Latter-day Saints and the United States government

handout iconDistribute a copy of the handout at the end of the lesson to each student. Ask a student to read aloud the handout section titled “Growing Tension Led to the Utah War.”

  • 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 caused some Saints to worry that such events might also occur in Utah.)

Invite a student to read aloud the handout section titled “Preparing to Defend the Territory.”

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

Display a map similar to the one shown here, or draw one on the board.

Invite a student to read aloud the handout section titled “Conflict with the Emigrant Wagon Train.”

Invite students to think of times when they have experienced conflict 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 by Elder David E. Sorensen of the Seventy:

Elder David E. Sorensen

“The Savior said, ‘Agree with thine adversary quickly … ,’ thus commanding us 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? (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 could those who plotted to harm the members of the wagon train have applied this principle?

Have a student read aloud the handout section titled “Escalating the Confrontation.”

  • What should the Cedar City Church 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 and even sinful choices. You might also point out that there is great wisdom in the system of councils by which the Church is governed.)

Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud the handout section titled “Attack on the Emigrants,” and invite students to look for how Cedar City leaders continued to make sinful choices after ignoring the counsel they had received.

  • What resulted from the Cedar City leaders’ decision to disobey the counsel of William Dame, 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.)

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 planned and carried 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 students take turns reading aloud the handout sections titled “The Mountain Meadows Massacre” and “Tragic Consequences.”

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 negotiations 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 various principles, including the following: Choosing to hide our sins can lead us to commit further sins. Choosing to hide our sins can bring regret and suffering.)

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.

Invite a student to read aloud the handout section titled “Church Leaders Learned of the Massacre.”

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 statement by President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency found in the handout section titled “150th Anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

  • How should we respond when we learn of instances when Church members have failed to live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ?

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, display the following and invite a student to read it aloud:

“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,” Ensign, Sept. 2007, 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 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.

Student Readings

The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Growing Tension Led to the Utah War

Three years after the first Latter-day Saint pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley, the United States government organized the Utah Territory and appointed Brigham Young as the first governor over the territory. 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. 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, some of whom were dishonest, corrupt, and immoral. Some of the federal officials believed that the Saints’ actions and attitudes meant that they were in rebellion against the United States government.

United States President James Buchanan sent approximately 2,500 troops to Salt Lake City to accompany a new governor safely to Utah and to put down what he thought was a rebellion among the Saints. This decision was made without accurate information about the situation in Utah (see Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 368–71).

Preparing to Defend the Territory

In sermons to the Saints, President Young and other Church leaders described the coming troops as enemies. They feared that the troops might expel the Saints from Utah, as they had previously been driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. 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 with the Emigrant Wagon Train

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 large numbers of 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.

Escalating the Confrontation

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, a Church member, 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.

Attack on the Emigrants

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.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

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 recruited by the settlers 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).

Tragic Consequences

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. 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. Paiute Indians also suffered from being unjustly blamed for the crime.

Church Leaders Learned of the Massacre

“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).

150th Anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency said:

“The responsibility for the [Mountain Meadows 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. …

“… 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. … No doubt Divine Justice will impose appropriate punishment upon those responsible for the massacre. …

“… May the God of Heaven, whose sons and daughters we all are, bless us to honor those who died here by extending to one another the pure love and spirit of forgiveness which His Only Begotten Son personified” (“150th Anniversary of Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Sept. 11, 2007, mormonnewsroom.org/article/150th-anniversary-of-mountain-meadows-massacre).

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