Wagon Train Descendants tell tale of 1857 massacre in Utah
Taping an episode of WTJR's "Truth Outreach" with host Rocky Hulse, the four men forgot about the cameras.
They didn't forget their story.
A massacre in 1857 in southwest Utah claimed the lives of some of their ancestors. What came to be called the Mountain Meadows Massacre shadows each generation, but Scott Fancher said the public knows little of "one of the single most important historical incidents" in the nation's history.
"Apart from the Oklahoma City bombing, this was the single largest act of domestic white-on-white violence in the history of the U.S.," he said.
The 150th anniversary of the massacre on Sept. 11 renews the push by Scott Fancher, Bob Fancher, Phil Bolinger, Ron Wright and the Mountain Meadows Massacre Foundation to boost awareness and gain federal stewardship of the property where the events occurred.
The effort pits the foundation against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , which controls the burial sites and, the men say, has never taken responsibility for the deaths of 120 men, women and children.
Scott Fancher said perpetrators included church leaders and militia members. "They have never once apologized to the families of the massacred victims," he said. "We think frankly it's high damn time."
Alexander Fancher thought it was time to start a new life as a rancher in California in 1857. He gathered up 140 people — mostly relatives who were Methodists, not LDS members — and left Arkansas with 40 wagons, close to 1,000 cattle and 200 horses.
The Fanchon-Baker train was one of the wealthiest and best-provisioned wagon trains to make the trip through Kansas , then onto Salt Lake City and southwest Utah.
"What they didn't know probably was at the time Utah Territory was in rebellion against the U.S.," Bob Fanchon said.
"This wagon train happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time," Bolinger said.
The train was besieged by Indians and local Mormons dressed as Indians. Fighting lasted until Sept. 11, when John D. Lee, representing the Mormons and the adopted son of Mormon leader Brigham Young , rode into the wagon camp under a white flag. Lee said the Indians would allow train member to leave, unarmed and without their possessions, under a Mormon escort.
The wagon train members — women holding their infants, children under the age of eight in one group, older children in another group and the men with individual Mormon escorts — walked along a one-mile stretch away from the wagons. Then a signal was given, and all but the youngest were massacred.
"The men mostly were lucky enough to be shot at point-blank range. The women and children, most of them received a billy club to the head," Bolinger said.
The attackers not only took the wagons and all the goods, but stripped the bodies of clothing and jewelry, Bob Fanchon said, and the bodies were left on the ground. The surviving children were taken in by Mormon families.
"It was such a horrible mess. They rerouted the wagon train (route) several miles so they wouldn't be able to smell the stink of the rot," Bolinger said.
U.S. Army Maj. James Carleton led the investigation of the incident. Carleton buried the dead in four mass graves, including one that came to be known as the Carleton Cairn marked with a cross, along the mile-long killing field. He testified before Congress and the Army returned the surviving children to their families in Arkansas in 1859.
Fifty-four warrants were issued, but Lee was the only one arrested.
"To this day, he was the only one out of the 50-plus clubbers and shooters that were on the killing field that day ever tried, convicted, executed and held responsible," Bolinger said.
"For the longest time, the Indians were blamed wrongly, the emigrants themselves were blamed," Scott Fanchon said. "More recently, the LDS church to its credit has admitted at least local Mormons were involved which we've all known."
The original cairn was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The most recent monument was built in 1999 by the church.
"It has a little plaque embedded in it the basically says the site is owned and maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints . That's all the interpretation we get for the victims, for our families," Bolinger said.
Bolinger said the foundation won some initial support from Elder Marlin Jensen, the church's liaison with massacre descendant organizations, but lost that after church leadership declared it was "not in the best interest of the church" to pursue federal stewardship.
As a compromise, the foundation has asked the church to consider national historic landmark designation as a way to protect and preserve the site.
"The LDS church as an institution promotes many of its historic sites to be designated including Nauvoo and Temple Square," Scott Fanchon said. "When they say we don't want the federal government involved, we say it's a bit hypocritical."
Church spokespeople in Salt Lake City did not return a call from The Herald-Whig.
In a June story by the Associated Press, spokeswoman Kim Farah said Mormon leaders are committed to appropriately preserving the site.
"The church has owned the monument site at Mountain Meadows for many years. The property is open to the public, and considerable time and resources are allocated to ensure that the property is well-maintained, open to the public, and that those who perished there are appropriately remembered," she said.
In the same article, Bolinger said it's not right for the church to own the site. "How do you think the Kennedy family would feel if the Lee Harvey Oswald family had control of the Kennedy tomb?"