Church History
18 Too Late, Too Late
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“Too Late, Too Late,” chapter 18 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 18: “Too Late, Too Late”

Chapter 18

Too Late, Too Late

Saints V2 illustration - White flag at Mountain Meadows Massacre

During the summer of 1857, Johan and Carl Dorius made their way to Zion in a handcart company of around three hundred Scandinavian Saints.1 Most of the company had arrived in the eastern United States in May. Having stayed to preach the gospel in Norway and Denmark long after his father and sisters had emigrated to Zion, Johan felt his heart beat for joy when he finally saw the United States.2 On shore, however, he and his company soon learned about the murder of Parley Pratt and the army of fifteen hundred troops marching to subdue the Saints in Utah.3

They also learned about the handcart emigrants who perished on the trail the year before. As Brigham had anticipated, handcart travel under normal circumstances had proved to be faster and cheaper than traditional wagon trains. Of the five handcart companies that had come to the valley, the first three had arrived without major incident. And the tragic outcomes of the other two could have been avoided with better planning and counsel from some of the emigration leaders. To avoid additional catastrophes, emigration agents now made sure to send off all handcart companies with enough time to reach the valley safely.4

In late August, Johan, Carl, and their company traveled for a time near the well-armed, well-supplied army marching to Utah. Though many people believed that the army wanted to overpower and oppress the Saints, the emigrants received no harassment or abuse while traveling alongside them.5

One day, about two hundred miles from the Salt Lake Valley, the emigrants found one of the army’s oxen on the trail with an injured foot. “You people can have that ox,” the leader of the army’s provision wagons said. “I suppose you might need a little meat.”

The Saints gladly accepted the animal. Relief wagons from the valley were supposed to be on the way, but they had not yet arrived. Short on other sources for food, the Saints saw the beef as a blessing from God.

The handcarts eventually outpaced the army. As they neared Utah, Johan was eager to begin the important work ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic, he had married a Norwegian Saint named Karen Frantzen. His brother Carl had married Elen Rolfsen, another Norwegian Saint, at the same time. In Utah, the former missionaries planned to settle down for the first time in years—probably near the rest of the Dorius family—and enjoy their new lives in Zion.6

Yet some uncertainty lay on the horizon. The soldiers had treated the Saints kindly on the trail. Would they do the same when they marched into the territory?

On August 25, 1857, Jacob Hamblin, the president of the Indian mission in southern Utah, accompanied George A. Smith back to Salt Lake City. They traveled north with a group of leaders from the Paiute Indian tribe. Knowing Paiutes could ally with the Saints if violence broke out with the army, Brigham had invited the leaders to the city for a council.7 Jacob would act as a translator during the meetings.8

About midway to Salt Lake City, the small company camped across the creek from a wagon train of emigrants mainly from Arkansas, a state in the southern United States. After sunset, a few men from the Arkansas company approached camp and introduced themselves.9

The company had around 140 people, most of them young and eager to start a new life in California. Several were married and traveling with small children. Their leaders were Alexander Fancher and John Baker. Captain Fancher, who had traveled to California before, was a natural leader who was known for his integrity and courage. He and his wife, Eliza, were the parents of nine children, each of whom was in the company. Captain Baker traveled with three of his grown children and an infant grandson.

The company had mules, horses, and oxen to pull their wagons and carriages. They also traveled with hundreds of longhorn cattle, which they could sell for a profit when they arrived in California, provided they kept the cattle fed and healthy on the trail.10

Around the time Captain Fancher had first traveled to California, the southern route through Utah had plenty of open grazing land and watering spots. Since then, new settlements along the road had claimed this ground, making it difficult for large wagon trains to care for their livestock without the Saints’ cooperation. Now, with the army approaching, many Saints were treating outsiders with suspicion and hostility. Many also obeyed the counsel not to sell provisions to outsiders.11

The Saints’ indifference worried the Arkansas company. The road ahead passed through some of the hottest and driest country in the United States. The journey would be difficult without a place to resupply, feed and water their animals, and rest.12

Jacob Hamblin told the company about good campsites along the road. The best was a lush valley, just south of his ranch, with plenty of water and grass for the cattle. It was a peaceful spot called Mountain Meadows.13

Several days later, the Arkansas company stopped at Cedar City, two hundred and fifty miles south of Salt Lake City, to purchase supplies before moving on to Mountain Meadows. Cedar City was the last major settlement in southern Utah and home to the Saints’ iron industry, which was now struggling. Its residents were poor and relatively isolated.14

The company found a man outside of town willing to sell them fifty bushels of unmilled wheat. Some members of the company took the wheat and some corn they had purchased from Indians to a mill operated by Philip Klingensmith, the local bishop, who charged an exceptionally high price to grind the grain.15

Other members of the company, meanwhile, tried to make purchases at a store in town. What happened next remains unclear. Years later, Cedar City settlers recalled that the store clerk did not have the items the emigrants needed—or that he simply refused to sell them.16 Some people remembered a few members of the company growing angry and threatening to help the soldiers exterminate the Saints once the army arrived. Other settlers said that one man in the company claimed to have the gun that killed the prophet Joseph Smith.17

Captain Fancher tried to rein in the angry men.18 But some of them apparently found the home of the mayor, Isaac Haight, who also served as the stake president and a major in the territorial militia, and shouted threats at him.19 Isaac slipped out his back door, found John Higbee, the town marshal, and urged him to arrest the men.

Higbee confronted the men and told them that disturbing the peace and using foul language were against the local laws. The men dared him to arrest them. Then they left town.20

Later in the day, Isaac Haight and other Cedar City leaders sent a message to William Dame, the commander of the district militia and the stake president in nearby Parowan, seeking advice on what to do about the emigrants. Though the vast majority of the company had caused no trouble, and no one had physically harmed any of the residents, people in town were seething when the emigrants left. Some of them had even begun plotting revenge.

William shared Isaac’s message with a council of Church and town leaders, and they determined that the Arkansas company was probably harmless. “Do not notice their threats,” William counseled Isaac in a letter. “Words are but wind—they injure no one.”21

Dissatisfied, Isaac sent for John D. Lee, a Latter-day Saint in a neighboring town. John taught farming to local Paiutes and had a good relationship with them. He was a hard worker and was eager to prove himself in the southern settlements.22

While he waited for John to arrive, Isaac met with other leaders in Cedar City to lay out his plan for revenge. South of Mountain Meadows, along the road to California, was a narrow canyon where Paiutes could attack the wagon train, kill some or all of the men, and take their cattle. The Paiutes were generally peaceful, and some of them had joined the Church. But Isaac believed that John could convince them to attack the company.23

Once John arrived, Isaac told him about the emigrants, repeating the rumor that one of them had bragged about having the gun that killed the prophet Joseph.24 “Unless something is done to prevent it,” Isaac said, “the emigrants will carry out their threats and rob every one of the outlying settlements in the south.”25

He asked John to convince the Paiutes to attack the company. “If they kill part or all of them,” he said, “so much the better.” But no one could know that white settlers had ordered the attack.

Blame had to fall on the Paiutes.26

On the afternoon of Sunday, September 6, Cedar City leaders met again to discuss the Arkansas company, now camped at Mountain Meadows. Convinced that a member of the company was connected to the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith or that some people in the company wanted to help the army kill the Saints, a few councilmen supported the plan to provoke the Paiutes into attacking the company.27

Others in the council urged caution, and soon more men expressed reservations about the plan.28 Frustrated, Isaac leapt out of his seat and stormed out of the room. The council, meanwhile, proposed sending an express rider to seek advice from Brigham Young.29 But by noon on Monday, no rider had been sent.

That same day, September 7, Isaac received a message from John D. Lee. That morning, John and a group of Paiutes had attacked the emigrants at Mountain Meadows. Though the Paiutes had at first been reluctant to participate, John and other local leaders had promised to reward them with plunder if they joined in the strike.30

Isaac reeled at the news. According to the plan, the attack should have happened after the Arkansas company left the meadows, not before. John now reported that seven emigrants had been killed and another sixteen wounded. The emigrants had circled their wagons, fought back, and killed at least one Paiute.31

With a siege underway at Mountain Meadows, Isaac wrote to Brigham Young for advice. He reported that the Paiutes had attacked a wagon train. He noted that the emigrants had threatened the Saints in Cedar City, but he omitted the settlers’ role in plotting and carrying out the attack.32

Isaac handed the letter to James Haslam, a young member of the militia, and ordered him to ride a horse to Salt Lake City as quickly as possible.33 He then wrote to John. “You will use your best endeavors to keep the Indians off the emigrants,” he wrote, “and protect them from harm until further orders.”34

That evening, Isaac learned that after John and the Paiutes attacked the company, armed Latter-day Saints had searched the area for two of the company’s members who had left Mountain Meadows earlier that week to round up stray cattle. The men had found the emigrants and shot one of them. The other emigrant had escaped and returned to the company’s camp, aware that two white men had attacked him.

If the emigrants had not previously known that Latter-day Saints were involved in the attack on their camp, they knew now.35

Two days later, on September 9, Isaac met with marshal John Higbee, who had just returned from the siege.36 Since the initial killings, John D. Lee had led smaller attacks on the company.37 Higbee knew the emigrants would eventually run out of water and supplies. But more wagon trains would be passing through the area, perhaps within the next few days, and could discover the Saints’ role in the attack.38

To hide the settlers’ involvement, Isaac and Higbee decided that the local militia had to end the siege. Everyone in the company who could implicate the attackers had to be killed.39

After the meeting, Isaac went to Parowan to get permission from William Dame to order the militia to attack the emigrants. Still believing the emigrants were victims of an Indian attack, William and his council wanted to send the militia to Mountain Meadows to protect the company and help them continue on their way.40

In a private meeting with William, however, Isaac admitted that Latter-day Saints had been involved in the attacks and that the emigrants knew it. He said their only option now was to kill any survivor old enough to testify against the settlers.41

Weighing these words, William put aside his council’s decision and authorized an attack.42

The next day, September 10, Brigham Young met with Jacob Hamblin in Salt Lake City to learn how Paiutes stored food. If the Saints had to flee to the mountains when the army arrived, Brigham wanted to know how to survive in rugged terrain.43

But already the army seemed like less of a threat than the Saints had first imagined. An army representative had recently come to the city and stated that the soldiers did not intend to harm the Saints. It also seemed unlikely that most of the army would arrive in the area before winter.44

As Brigham and Jacob spoke, the messenger from Cedar City, James Haslam, interrupted the meeting with his message about the siege at Mountain Meadows.45 Brigham read the note and then looked at the messenger. James had ridden 250 miles in three days—with practically no sleep. Realizing there was little time to waste, Brigham asked him if he could carry his response back to Cedar City. He said he could.46

Brigham told him to get some sleep and return for his reply.47 James left, and Brigham wrote his response. “In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away,” he instructed. “You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please, but you should try and preserve good feelings with them.”

“Let them go in peace,” Brigham insisted.48

An hour later, Brigham handed the letter to James and walked with him to the hitching post outside his office. “Brother Haslam,” he said, “I want you to ride for dear life.”49

Although the Saints in Salt Lake City no longer expected soldiers to invade their streets that season, the Saints in southern Utah remained unaware of the army’s professions of peace and of Brigham’s instructions not to interfere with emigration trains. The Cedar City Saints still believed the army intended to destroy them.

For more than a week, the women in town had watched the men in their families grow more agitated over the Arkansas emigrants. The men stayed out late, held councils, and plotted ways to handle the situation. Now the militia was marching off to Mountain Meadows.50

On the afternoon of September 10, the women met for their monthly Relief Society meeting. Some of the women had felt threatened when the emigrants passed through Cedar City. A few of them, including Annabella Haight and Hannah Klingensmith, were wives of the leaders who had participated in the events of the past week.51

“These are squally times,” Annabella told the women, “and we ought to attend to secret prayer in behalf of our husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers.”

“Attend strictly to secret prayer in behalf of the brethren that are out acting in our defense,” agreed Lydia Hopkins, the president of the Relief Society. She and her counselors then instructed the women and appointed several members to visit other women throughout the city.

Before closing the meeting, they sang a hymn.

Repent and be washed clean from sin,

And then a crown of life you’ll win;

For the day we seek is nigh, is nigh at hand.52

At Mountain Meadows, meanwhile, between sixty and seventy militiamen from Cedar City and other neighboring settlements joined John D. Lee at the ranch of Jacob Hamblin, who had not yet returned from Salt Lake City.53 A few militiamen were teenagers, but most were in their twenties and thirties.54 A few of them arrived thinking they had come to bury the dead.55

In the evening, John Higbee, John D. Lee, Philip Klingensmith, and other leaders reviewed the plan of attack with the militiamen. One by one, the men agreed to the plan, convinced that if they let the Arkansas company go free, the enemies of the Church would learn the truth about the siege.56

The next morning, September 11, twenty-three-year-old Nephi Johnson was on a hilltop overlooking Mountain Meadows. Since he was fluent in the Paiute language, he was ordered to lead the Indians in the attack. Nephi wanted to wait until after hearing back from Brigham Young, but the militia insisted on striking now. Nephi believed he had no choice but to cooperate.57

He watched as a sergeant in the militia, carrying a white flag of truce, met one of the emigrants outside the company’s barricade and offered to help the survivors. After the emigrants accepted the offer, John D. Lee approached the barricade to negotiate the rescue. He instructed the company to hide their guns in wagons and leave their cattle and goods as gifts for the Paiutes.58

John ordered the emigrants to follow him. Two wagons with the sick, the wounded, and small children led the way, followed by a line of women and older children. The older boys and men walked some distance behind, each one with an armed militiaman at his side. Some of the men and women carried young children in their arms.59

Nephi knew what would happen next. The emigrants would proceed toward the Hamblin ranch. At some point, Higbee would signal each militiaman to turn and shoot the emigrant next to him. Nephi would then order the Paiutes to attack.60

Soon John D. Lee and the emigrants passed beneath where Nephi hid with the Paiutes. Nephi waited for Higbee’s signal, but it did not come. Confused, the Paiutes struggled to stay hidden as they hurried to keep up with the procession.61 Finally, Higbee turned his horse to face the militia.

“Halt!” he yelled.62

When the militiamen heard Higbee’s signal, most of them turned their guns on the men and boys and killed them instantly. One loud shot seemed to echo across the meadow as gun smoke shrouded the emigrants.63 Nephi signaled the Paiutes to attack, and they sprang from their positions and fired on the closest emigrants.64

The emigrants who survived the first volley of fire fled for their lives. Higbee and other men on horseback cut them off while attackers on the ground chased and slaughtered them, sparing only some of the youngest children.65 At the wagons with the sick and wounded, John D. Lee saw to it that no one survived who could tell the tale.66

Afterward, the stench of blood and gunpowder hung over Mountain Meadows. More than 120 emigrants had been killed since the first attack four days earlier. As some attackers looted bodies, Philip Klingensmith rounded up seventeen small children and carted them to the Hamblin ranch. When Jacob Hamblin’s wife Rachel saw the children, most of them crying and covered in blood, her heart broke. One of the youngest children, a one-year-old girl, had been shot in the arm.67

John D. Lee wanted to separate the wounded girl from her two sisters, but Rachel persuaded him to keep them together.68 That night, while Rachel cared for the anguished children, John bedded down outside the house and went to sleep.69

Early the next morning, Isaac Haight and William Dame arrived at the Hamblin ranch. It was the first time either of them had visited Mountain Meadows since the siege began.70 When he learned how many people had been killed, William was shocked. “I must report this matter to the authorities,” he said.

“And implicate yourself with the rest?” said Isaac. “Nothing has been done except by your orders.”71

Later, John D. Lee led both men to the massacre site. Signs of the carnage were everywhere, and some men were burying the bodies in shallow graves.72

“I did not think that there were so many women and children,” William said, his face pale.73

“Colonel Dame counseled and ordered me to do this thing, and now he wants to back out and go back on me,” Isaac said to John, his voice filling with rage. “He has got to stand up to what he did, like a little man.”

“Isaac,” William said, “I did not know there were so many of them.”

“That makes no difference,” Isaac said.74

Later, after the dead were buried, Philip Klingensmith and Isaac told the militiamen to keep their role in the massacre a secret.75 James Haslam, the messenger sent to Salt Lake City, returned soon after with Brigham Young’s instructions to let the wagon company go in peace.

Isaac began to weep.76 “Too late,” he said. “Too late.”77