There are many places to begin the story of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. Google it and you will see thousands of entries on this subject. Living not far from where the massacre happened and having ancestors who may have been actively or passively involved, I wanted to explore the subject. But to try to understand what happened requires a bit of background.
For my purposes, let us begin in Arkansas, drawing extensively on Sally Denton's book American Massacre ...
These are some of the choices of possible trails west in the 1800's laid over a modern map of the states.
The aridity of the southern-most trail through NM & AZ and its fierce Apache warriors made it an especially hard route for those driving cattle.
Taking the northern routes presented the traveler with choices in Fort Bridger Wyoming and again in Salt Lake City Utah. Those whose goal was to end up in California could take the California Trail across the vast void of the Great Plains of present day Nevada, eventually traversing the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mtn Range (this is what the Donner Party did).
Another option was to follow the Mormon Trail through the high country of Utah. Although more primitive, this route afforded good grazing and supply towns along the rivers & valleys before the long dry run from Las Vegas to San Bernardino. The local Indians were driven by extreme poverty to be opportunistic raiders of unguarded goods, but were otherwise considered peaceful and cooperative.
The California Gold Rush was drawing many people west. In the summer of 1849, Arkansas cattle rancher John Fancher asked his younger brother Alexander, "Are you as tired of looking at the damn double-shovel plow as I am?" The two brothers were also best friends who, along with other family members, had assembled one of the finest breeding stock operations in the southern U.S. Their longhorns were prospering in the Ozark Mountain area of Arkansas, but the idea of year-round grazing, ideal weather conditions for growing hay, and high prices for beef paid by miners had much appeal.
Their first trip west in 1850 was a preliminary exploration. They planned to drive a hardy herd of cattle overland on the Oregon Trail, then drop down into California seeking the most enticing ranch property they could find within a reasonable distance of the gold mining area. For unknown reasons, their original plans changed en route. Some accounts say they went across the Great Plains of northern Nevada. Other accounts claim the Fanchers departed from the California Trail in Salt Lake City and took the more primitive wagon trail through central Utah, possibly camping at Mountain Meadows. This only becomes significant 7 years later when Alexander Fancher decides to take this very same route on his final trip.
On this first trip, the Fancher brothers explored California before deciding to settle near the tiny town of Visalia. They staked out a ranch site along a creek and registered their livestock brand in Tulare County in 1852. In Visalia, cattle could graze year-round since it had snow-free winters. The brothers built basic facilities for their enterprise in the then sparsely populated county, including a house, corrals, outbuildings and fences. John's immediate family traveled by steamer from New Orleans to Panama, rode mules across the isthmus, caught a ship to San Diego, then rode north to Visalia.
Alexander returned to Arkansas and amassed some 400 cattle for a 2nd trip west. He led them and a wagon train of 13 families in April 1854, following the trail from Fort Bridger across northern Nevada and south along the Sierra Nevada range to Visalia. As he passed through the California gold fields, he sold many of his steers, making an astronomical profit, while keeping the females to replenish the herd in Visalia. Things were looking good.
Alexander then returned to Arkansas for the third/final trip west, which involved gathering a tremendous herd and bringing his family and others for the permanent move to California. He immediately began putting together one of the largest wagon trains in America's westward expansion.
On this final trip, Alexander would share command of the "Fancher Train" (as it came to be known) with John "Captain Jack" Baker, a successful landholder, farmer and cattleman. For the next 2 years, Fancher and Baker oversaw the organization of the entourage. Because these people would mostly become their neighbors in California, they were very selective in who they recruited. They wanted only solid and responsible persons whose abilities had been honed in the military, whose horsemanship was superior, and whose tenacity for driving cattle on the trail would enable them to successfully lead such a large wagon train across the country with their families.
In addition to the Fanchers, the original families were the Bakers, Mitchells, Millers, Dunlaps, and Camerons. For more than a year, the wives organized domestic items like clothing, camp stoves, sewing machines, water buckets, dishes, and bulk provisions of flour, rice, sugar, beans, butter, etc. Their husbands outfitted the wagons, collected livestock, ammunition, tools and forges. Eventually as many as 200 men, women and children would join The Fancher Train journeying toward the better life they envisioned in California. Most of them were related by blood or marriage in some way or another.
Alexander convinced his cousins, James and Robert Fancher, to join by promising them "wage in cattle" to begin their own ranches in California. Captain Jack Baker's sons, George and Abel, agreed to go, though Jack's wife of 22-yrs refused saying, "Arkansas is plenty good enough for me". In addition to cattle, Captain Baker took along oxen, mules and a mare. He owned 8 slaves, but it is unknown if they accompanied him. More likely, he sold them for gold before leaving Arkansas. George Baker brought considerable cash and personal property including rifles and double-barreled shotguns. He was also said to have brought 2 hired hands, though their names are unknown.
The Camerons were the wealthiest family in the group, carrying a large amount of gold coin (as much as $100,000 by some estimates, and this was when the annual salary of the president of the United States was $25K) for purchasing land in California. Most of the gold was secreted in specially built wagon compartments. The Camerons brought choice dairy cows and a racing mare named One-Eyed Blaze who was descended from famous bloodstock and was indisputably the fastest mount in the party. She was worth an untold fortune. You will hear more of One-Eyed Blaze later.
The interrelated Dunlap and Mitchell families comprised about 30 people in wagons with 21 yoke of oxen, 92 cattle, many guns, pistols, bowie knives and cash, according to an inventory. As the Fancher Train neared departure, the 15-member Jones and Tackitt families joined, bringing 60 more cattle and heavily-loaded wagons brimming with household belongings.
History has forgotten the names of many others participating in the trek. For example, an unknown number of single men and teenagers signed on at the last minute, mostly as riflemen, wranglers and drovers. They must have eagerly anticipated prosperous futures in California. Others may have joined up along the route (more about that later), but we may never know all the names of those associated with the caravan before they met death in Utah.
The cattle herd now numbered about 1,000 rare longhorn cattle, healthy heifers and beef steers, pampered dairy cows and agile horses. Alexander Fancher rode his Egyptian Arabian Stallion, called Ebony King, who rivaled One-Eyed Blaze in value and speed. There were some 200 other horses of varying pedigrees. They carried an inventory of quality weaponry and a stockpile of expensive ammunition. Three uniquely elegant carriages, their panels emblazoned with stag's heads, transported some of the wealthier women (you will hear more about one of these carriages later).
The Arkansans began gathering in April 1857. It took 15 days to assemble the company, organize the leadership, practice defensive maneuvers, and assign wagon placement, chores and responsibilties. On May 7, 1857, the Fancher Train began their western migration following the Arkansas River. The men rode horses in the lead; the women and children rode in wagons or walked alongside. They had converted their life savings into gold and were transporting it along with their most precious possessions and children. It was publically noted as the wealthiest wagon train to ever cross the continent.
One of the largest wagon trains to travel that summer, the Fancher Train ambled along at 10-12 miles a day, slowed by their immense herd. This gave the men plenty of time to waste ammunition on target practice games, something that would have catastrophic ramifications later.
The purple dots represent the Fancher Train route (click to enlarge):
The travelers anticipated a good rest in Salt Lake City where according to long-standing Mormon advertisments, they could fatten their livestock and replenish their supplies. The Mormons had prospered so greatly from this type of commerce, the Deseret News eagerly reported the arrival of emigrant trains so local merchants could stock up on supplies they knew the trains would be purchasing.
But as the Fancher Train passed from Fort Bridger down toward Salt Lake City, they could not know they were entering a territory that had recently undergone some radical changes. Mormons were experiencing a rising tide of religious fanaticism coupled with persecution paranoia. The Deseret News uncharacteristically failed to note the Fancher Train's arrival, a bad omen in hindsight.
On August 3, 1857, Alexander Fancher led the wagons to Utah's Jordan River, a favorite campsite in the Salt Lake Valley he knew from his previous cross-country treks. The emigrants and their livestock were in remarkable health considering the distance and terrain they had traveled from Arkansas. Baker and the cattlemen drove the impressive herd to the nearby Wasatch foothills to graze on public domain land while the rest of the train looked forward to purchasing fresh supplies.
From that day on, as one historian puts it, the Arkansas party appeared to be a marked train...