Unit 31: Day 1, The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre

“Unit 31: Day 1, The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide for Home-Study Seminary Students (2017)

“Unit 31: Day 1,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide

Unit 31: Day 1

The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre


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. For more information, go to, select Gospel Topics, and search for Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Tension Builds between Latter-day Saints and the United States Government

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 they received confirmation of earlier news that an army commissioned by the United States government 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 heard that a large army was approaching your city, what concerns might you have had? Remember that memories of being violently driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois were still fresh in the minds of many of the Latter-day Saints. Many had lost valued possessions and land, and some Church members had been killed or had died from causes related to these persecutions. News of the approaching army produced concerns that such events might also occur in Utah.

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 Utah Territory, he also directed the territory’s militia to prepare to defend the territory. (A militia is a group of citizens who can be organized for military service in emergencies.)

Conflict Arises between Some Latter-day Saints and Members of an Emigrant Wagon Train

map, Arkansas to California

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. As you read the following paragraphs, underline reasons for the hard feelings between some members of the wagon train and some of the Latter-day Saints.

Some members of the wagon train became frustrated because they had a difficult time purchasing much-needed supplies and 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 it arrived, but some of the settlers and leaders in Cedar City wanted to pursue and punish the men who had offended them.

Think about times when you have experienced conflict with another person or a group of people. Read 3 Nephi 12:25, 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”? Elder David E. Sorensen of the Seventy taught that the phrase 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).

Based on the Lord’s teachings in 3 Nephi 12:25 and Elder Sorenson’s explanation, we learn that if we resolve conflict with others in the Lord’s way, then we can avoid the harmful effects of contention.

  1. Answer the following questions in your scripture study journal:

    1. 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?

    2. How has seeking to resolve differences in the Lord’s way helped you or someone you know avoid the harmful effects of contention?

Because some of the settlers of Cedar City did not resolve their conflict with the emigrants in the Lord’s way, the situation became much more serious. As you continue to study, consider the dangers of acting out of anger or revenge.

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 following 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?

One principle we learn from the example of these Cedar City leaders is that if we ignore counsel to do what is right, then we become more susceptible to making poor choices. Watch for evidence of this principle as you continue to learn about the actions of these leaders. As you read the following paragraphs, underline ways in which 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 (about 400 kilometers) 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.

hills and meadow

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, but 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 upon 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.

  1. Answer the following questions in your scripture study journal:

    1. At this point, what choices were available to those responsible for the attacks upon the emigrants?

    2. What should they have done? Why?

In making their poor choices, these men acted contrary to their priesthood responsibilities. Read Doctrine and Covenants 121:36–37, and mark the Lord’s warning to priesthood holders who act unrighteously.

Think about what you do after you have done 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

The Church members involved in the attacks against the emigrants chose to try to hide their sins. 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 young children were spared.

stone marker

The monument memorializing the tragedy at Mountain Meadows

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, Sep. 2007, 20).

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.

President Henry B. Eyring

Speaking of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency said: “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,

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, some of 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).

  1. Complete the following assignments in your scripture study journal:

    1. Summarize the mistakes that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

    2. Write a principle or lesson we can learn from this tragedy about choosing to hide our sins.

    3. Answer the following questions: What can you do in the future to make sure you follow your leaders’ counsel and avoid covering up sins you might commit? What blessings can you experience from taking responsibility for your mistakes and not trying to hide your sins?

Jesus Christ

If you have started down a pathway of mistakes and sins, you can prevent future heartache and regret by turning to the Lord now and repenting of your sins.

Because some of the 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 Church. Something similar occurred in the Book of Mormon when Alma’s missionary son violated the law of chastity and others would not believe Alma’s words because of the conduct of his son (see Alma 39:11).

  1. Answer the following question in your scripture study journal: Why is it important to realize that the wrong actions of some Church members do not determine the truthfulness of the gospel?

Read Helaman 5:12, 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. Summarize what you find:

One principle we can learn from Helaman 5:12 is that we can develop strong testimonies by building our faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

The following example illustrates this principle: “James Sanders is the great-grandson of … one of the children who survived the massacre [and is also a member of the Church]. ‘I still feel pain; I still feel anger and sadness that the massacre happened,’ said Brother Sanders. ‘But I know that the people who did this will be accountable before the Lord, and that brings me peace.’ [He] 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).

  1. Answer the following questions in your scripture study journal:

    1. 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?

    2. What are some things you do that help you to build your faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ?

    3. What is one thing that you will do this week to better build your faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ? (You may write more than one thing you will do.)

  2. Write the following at the bottom of today’s assignments in your scripture study journal:

    I have studied “The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre” lesson and completed it on (date).

    Additional questions, thoughts, and insights I would like to share with my teacher: