Memorializing Mountain Meadows

This monument honoring the victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is a sober one. It tells a story of fear, radicalism, and tragedy.

In the mid-1850s, the Mormons of Utah were not on friendly terms with the United States of America. Previous persecutions from the government caused Mormons to be distrustful of the United States. The United States saw the Mormon theocracy that existed in Utah and feared its disloyalty. This caused the Utah War, a cold war between the territorial and federal governments. Droughts and pestilence in the mid-1850s caused an extremist movement in Utah called the Mormon Reformation with powerful rhetoric, including a religious capital punishment. The atmosphere of Utah at the time was hostile.

The Baker-Fancher party of emigrant families was passing through the Southern end of Utah and rumors went with them. Local Mormons feared their intentions and assembled militia and local Paiutes to attack. In a series of attacks from September 7-11, 1857, 120 men, women, and children were killed, leaving only 17 small children alive. After much controversy over who was at fault for the massacre and the extensive efforts to cover up and understand, John D. Lee, one of the men who led the assault, was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.

The first monument was built by James H. Carleton in 1859 when he was investigating the massacre for the United States. In shock of what he had seen, he felt the need to build a monument by stacking stones atop one another with a cross at the top. The monument was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the years. Calls for a more honorable and permanent monument were made by the descendants of the Baker-Fancher party and Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley. While the permanent monument was being built in August 1999, a backhoe dug up the bones of 28 massacre victims. Much controversy went behind whether to study them or to honor them through reburial in time for the dedication. Utah Governor Mike Lee made the decision to not spoil the commemoration of the dead with controversy. The decision was made to honor the dead and allow for the healing of old wounds.

Historian Levi Peterson likens learning about the massacre to a Greek tragedy. Tragedies tell a story of an honorable hero who falls under a gross misunderstanding. When we view another in the midst of a tragedy, we are capable of escaping our own tragic emotions and seek for healing through catharsis. As one views this monument, one may come seeking healing of their own mistakes.