Monday, March 23, 2009

A Restless Wind, MMM Part 3

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...

12 comments:

D.K. Raed said...

Wow! Who knew it would take so long just to describe the wagon train and emigrants. I wanted to do them justice because they were truly a unique group.

I omitted so many details, like the Fanchers tradition of military service. The Fancher name was originally Faucher. Their ancestors were French Huguenots who emigrated to Long Island NY in 1724.

I can't really explain it, but for now, don't expect any current stuff on my blog, until I work through this horrible tale. I understand it's not everyone's cuppa.

Annette said...

You are doing great. I love it. Devouring every word...Literally and no it probably isn't everyone's cuppa, for sure, but I for one am sure enjoying it. Thank you so much.

D.K. Raed said...

Annette:
it's nice having you for company here while I keep trying to wrap my brain around the real story! I just realized I needed to add a map of the actual route the Fancher Train took, since I didn't expand on that part of their journey. Following the Arkansas River deep into Kansas Territory, they then made a diagonal path up to the main route out of Independence MO. After that they were following the North Platte River to the south pass through the Rocky Mtns. Even over this there is disagreement. Many historians say following the natural river routes with the least number of major river crossings would've enabled them to connect earlier, probably at Fort Kearney or Ft Laramie. They might've wanted to connect earlier because of the safety-in-numbers factor along the better used trail out of Independence.

Annette said...

They really meandered...lol What a long ride out of the way. I know they had to make some concessions for supplies and such but it really seems they went so far out of the way. Of course, Indians, Mountains, Water and so many other things made a huge difference in those days.

This has always held such a fascination for me.. I am glad you are telling it.. I know it is hard on you and I appreciate it. If it gets to much..stop.. I will understand. You do what you feel you have to..like I said yesterday, follow your heart.

enigma4ever said...

great story...and story telling ....it's hard to tell a morbid tale well- you are doing fine....frankly I needed a mental repreive and found it fascinating...thank you for researching all of this....amazing....

an average patriot said...

Great Red
Okay I'm riveted, looking forward to the next installment!

D.K. Raed said...

Annette:
Do you have any personal connection with the event? I'd love it if you care to share any details! And yeah, no highways back then, lol. The Rocky Mtns were a pretty big obstacle.

Enigma:
There's much about available online, but there's also much missing. As I progress beyond the facts, I want to address some of the missing info. And yeah, I guess I needed a mental break too.

Avg Patriot:
Glad you like it. Just sit back & let me weave the tale the only way I know how. It'll probably come in fits & starts.

Fran said...

Oooh the suspense. Each of my kids classes in elementary school did studies of the Oregon trail. People loaded up all their goods- then when faced with the harsh rugged terrain, wound up ditching all kinds of goods & cherished items (some families tried to bring pianos!). Conditions were so harsh, lots of people died along the way from bronchitis & the like.
It was a very hard life on the wagon train.

You've captured my attention.....

Annette said...

No, just where I live.. being close to Independence, and hearing stories most of my life. Here in Odessa we had a huge group that lived here in town.. they have always called us a "bedroom" community to KC and so there was a large contingent of LDS who lived here.

Of course one of the most famous late "fringe" LDS groups came from this area... then went back to Ohio.. I went to school with them. That was a scary thought for a while when I heard the names it really gave me a chill and I took a double take. Of course I am talking of Jeffrey and Alice Lundgren..

But thats another story all together....lol That would be my closest connection. Just my location and then I have read a lot about it because of my fascination with history and travels around the west.

D.K. Raed said...

Fran:
yup I imagine the trail was littered with unnecessary things as people realized how impossible it was to move all that stuff. On the Mormon Trail there was a lot of cholera so the death rates were quite high. Some of the descriptions remind me of the Plague Ships sailing into harbors in the 1300's.

Annette:
I will have to look up the Lundgren name. Right now I only associate it with Dan Lundgren, congressman from CA, who has always pissed me off, but never more so than when he laughed about cutting the mikes & lights on Rep Conyers who was trying to hold an impeachment inquiry in the congressional basement because the repubs wouldn't let them have a regular meeting room.

D.K. Raed said...

Annette, I just read the Jeffrey Lundgren bio! The world is better off without him. His story reminded me of Manson, same small band of cult worshippers willing to kill if their "prophet" told them to. This is where religious extremism ends up, everytime, guaranteed. How scary that you went to school with some of them!

Annette said...

I was in school with Jeff and Alice.. they graduated a year ahead of me here in Odessa...lol That's how close I was to them...

Like I said gave me chill bumps and I sure did a double take when I heard the names and heard what happened. I was just dumbfounded. I better stop there...lol