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Friday, May 6, 2011

Mountain Meadows Massacre

Mountain Meadows, Utah
(from Wikimedia Commons)
The massacre at Mountain Meadows (1857) in southern Utah was the next criminal case Judge Cradlebaugh sought to investigate.  As part of his investigation, he visited the site of the massacre in May 1859 with a military escort and with James Gammell as his Indian interpreter.  The expedition with Cradlebaugh has forever linked James with the Mountain Meadows trials, at least in family lore.  Tradition has it that James presented evidence that Brigham Young had ordered the massacre, and because of what he revealed, he was excommunicated from the Mormon Church.  However, in the most recent (2008) and most thoroughly researched account of the massacre, James Gemmell is only a footnote.(1)  Researcher Richard Turley reported that  Gammell’s name did not appear in any of the surviving trial transcripts.(2)

The complete story of the massacre, its historical context, its victims, its perpetrators, and its aftermath, could fill several volumes.  Just a brief summary is given here as it relates to the life of James Gammell.

Mountain Meadows:  A monument to the victims
(from Wikimedia Commons)

The Mountain Meadows massacre could be called the perfect storm, given the number of coinciding events that preceded this horrific crime.  The Utah War, although it was settled peaceably, had several unfortunate consequences.  One indirect, but tragic, result was the massacre.  In 1857 streams of emigrant wagon trains, many of them from anti-Mormon states like Missouri and Arkansas (where Parley P. Pratt had just been murdered), were traveling through Utah Territory on their way to a better life in California.  About the same time that the small southern settlements got word of the approaching United States Army, the Fancher wagon train from Arkansas was passing through Utah.  Dark clouds of suspicion and fear hung over the Mormon settlements.  Had the Fancher group sensed the level of war hysteria among the locals when it set up its camp thirty-five miles southwest of Cedar City, some members of the party would not have chosen to antagonize the Mormons with their demands for supplies and their blatant anti-Mormon comments.  But hysteria prevailed, and the situation spiraled out of control.  Local militiamen decided to attack the Fancher train. They also enlisted the help of the Paiute Indians by promising them plunder.  Local Mormon leaders, including John D. Lee and Isaac Haight, brought the matter before the local council, who vetoed the whole idea.  Lee and Haight ignored the council’s decision and went ahead with a plan to have the Indians attack and then lay the blame completely on them.  Several of the emigrants were killed in the attack, but one man, returning to the camp on horseback, saw that there were white men involved.  Lee and the other conspirators were now in panic mode.  The rest of the bloody massacre was the result of the cover-up of their original deceit.

The Fancher party circled their wagons and held off their attackers for five days.  The Mormon militiamen who were involved finally drew them out of their fortress by waving a white flag of truce.  However, the truce was only a ploy.  They asked the party to march in single file, women and children first, followed at a distance by the men.  When the signal "Halt" was given, the militia fired at close range, killing all except the seventeen youngest children.  The final day of the siege was September 11, 1857.

On September 9, the local Mormon council had sent an express rider, James Haslam, to Salt Lake with a letter explaining the situation to Brigham Young and asking his advice.  President Young sent instructions to “let them go in peace,” but Haslam didn’t return with the reply until two days after the bloody deed was done.  When Isaac Haight, one of the leaders of the attack, read  Brigham’s message, he sobbed like a child, “Too late! Too late!”(3)

Note:  For further reading see the most recent and well-researched account of the Mountain Meadows massacre. Check out the link on the right-hand side of this page.

Judge Cradlebaugh convened a grand jury investigation of the massacre in March 1859 in Provo, but the jury declined any indictments.  The judge then decided to hold court in Cedar City, where he would have access to key witnesses.  He attempted to arrest John D. Lee and two others, but they had fled.  By overstepping his judicial authority, Cradlebaugh antagonized U.S. District Attorney Wilson:

Attorney General Black in Washington, D.C., said that it was not Cradlebaugh's job to determine whom to prosecute or when to call out the troops.  He instructed U.S. District Attorney Wilson to "oppose every effort which any judge may make to usurp your functions. . . . If the judges will confine themselves to the simple and plain duty imposed upon them by law of hearing and deciding the cases that are brought before them, I am sure that the business of the Territory will get along very well."…Cradlebaugh's grasping for prosecutorial power made prosecution nigh impossible.  Prosecutors must work with judges to obtain warrants and convene grand juries, but Cradlebaugh would not cooperate. (4)

The Civil War (1861) prevented any further trials, but the case was revisited in the 1870’s. A grand jury indicted nine men for their role in the massacre. Only John D. Lee, considered to be the leader and organizer of the murders, was tried and convicted. Lee was executed by firing squad in 1877 at the site of the massacre.

Concerning James Gammell’s role as a witness in the Mountain Meadows trials, there are two surviving accounts, both written at least twenty years after the incident, that seem to be the source of family legend.  Stories seem to get better with the telling, but now it is possible to compare them with facts from reliable sources.

In one account Joseph C. Walker, writing many years after James death (1881), recalled stories that James told around the campfire in the winter of 1863-64:  “Mr. Gemmell said that he was in Brigham Young’s office when a courier came to the office with the horrible news of the Mountain Meadow massacre.”  [Could this courier actually be James Haslam who brought a message to Brigham, not after, but before the massacre had occurred?]

Continuing, Walker wrote, “He [James] said he went with a party from Salt Lake City to Mountain Meadows and buried the dead.  He said it was the most gruesome, pitiful, heart rending and sickening sight he had ever beheld…” [James didn’t visit the site immediately after it happened.  He was there in May 1859 with Judge Cradlebaugh.  At that time some bodies had still not been buried.  It was still a gruesome site.]  “This massacre, the foul deed that it was, was enacted in the year 1853 [the actual year was 1857].  The people of this train were all from Arkansas…Evedently [sic], Mr. Gemmell could not go into court and testify to only such part of the above statement as he either witnessed or heard, but his opportunity to receive information was of the best, he having been in Utah before any Mormons were.”(5)

The second account comes from James Gammell’s obituary in The Dillon Tribune.  The article claims that James was in Brigham's office when Jacob Hamblin came in and reported the Arkansas train near Cedar City.  James allegedly heard Brigham tell Hamblin that if he [Brigham] were in command of the Legion "he would wipe them out.”  [A meeting at Brigham’s office on September 1, involved Jacob Hamblin and ten Indian chiefs.]

James' obituary continues:

About three weeks [actually only ten days] afterwards the Mountain Meadow massacre occurred which wiped out the Arkansas train, for which John D. Lee suffered the death penalty by being shot a few years ago [1877]… There were 125 bodies found afterwards and buried by the U.S. troops sent out for that purpose.  Gen. Albert Johnson was in command and Judge Cradlebaugh was sent along to ascertain whether any white men were engaged in the massacre.  The Indians said the Mormons incited them into it, and gave them the plunder...Bishop Jake Hamlin [Hamblin] lived within three miles of the battleground, and it was him that took the order from Brigham to John D. Lee.  [Jacob Hamblin, the Indian missionary and later Indian agent, could not have delivered orders from Brigham Young. Hamblin didn’t return to Mountain Meadows from Salt Lake City until September 18.](6)  The foregoing history came under Mr. Gemmell's immediate observation and was written down at his request and will no doubt be interesting to many.(7)

Perhaps the most reliable source of all is a letter written by James himself.  Questions about his personal knowledge related to the massacre came up again in 1872, while he was living in Montana.  Investigations were going on in Utah, and Montana officials were asked to question Gemmell.  Worried about being compelled to go to Utah, he wrote to his old and trusted friend Feramorz Little, who would later become the mayor of Salt Lake City.  As we know now, James was never summoned.  In his letter he actually seemed surprised that anyone would have knowledge of what he said “in some of our whisky sprees.”

Sheridan M.T.
October 14 1872

Mr. Feramore Little
Salt Lake City

Dear Sir
      I have been very much annoyed lately by the officials of Montana, as they say through the request of their Friends in Utah, to accertain [sic] of me what took place, and what was said in President Youngs office, on my arrival from Texas, between Jacob Hamlen President Young and others, in regard to the Arkansas Train then passing through the southern settlements of the trouble they had with the Inhabitants, and of their boasting, of Parley been [sic] killed in their neighbourhood before they left.  And of them threatening to Poison the springs and what Conversation took place between the President Hamlen and others at that time in the Presidents Office and if I knew what was the purpose of the Instructions sent South, and if I thought the massacre was in retaliation for the killing of Parley, and of what I remembered of the evidence gleaned from the Indians and others from Judge Cradlebaugh when I was his Interpreter, when he was holden [sic] Court in Cedar City.  Now where they got the Knowledge to interrogate me in this matter, is a mystery I think they must have got it from Bill Hickman, in some of our whiskey sprees when we was togeather [sic] in Echo Canyon, but thank God those sprees are at a end for I have not drank any whiskey for over two years.  Now, Ferry I expect to be put in restraint and compelled to go to Utah daily, and give evidence in that affair. I would much rather go to the end of the Earth, or Texas, than be compelled to go down there for that purpose, [but] go I must as that would be the only way I have of avoiding them, but I am dead broke as usual [and] have not the means of leaving a large family, please write as soon as you receive this.  And give me Council for the best.

From your old Friend
James Gemmell (8)

  1. Walker, Turley and Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy, Oxford, 2008, p. 344, footnote #108.
  2. Scott, Stuart D., “A Frontier Spirit: The Life of James Gemmell”, p. 92.
  3. For a review of Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by a friend, Craig Matteson, one of Amazon’s top reviewers, click on this link:    For a scholarly review by Robert H. Briggs, click on this link:
  4. Joseph C. Walker Papers, pp.46-50.
  5. Brooks, Juanita, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, 1950, p. 42.
  6. James Gemmell obituary, The Dillon Tribune, April 9, 1881.  William Wheeler quoted the obituary in his account.  Wheeler conducted his interview shortly before James’ death (1881), but it was probably not published until 1896.
  7. James Gemmell letter to Feramorz Little, Brigham Young Papers, MS 1234, LDS Archives.  Feramorz Little may never have received this letter.  He left Salt Lake City on a journey to Palestine on October 15, 1872, the day after James Gammell wrote it.  This may explain why the letter ended up in Brigham Young's papers. 

1 comment:

  1. What a tragic tale of the massacre. Well posted.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)