Also known as the Utah Expedition and Buchanan's Blunder, the Utah War was an armed confrontation between Mormon settlers in the Utah Territory and the armed forces of the United States government.
In 1847, members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, began settling in the area that now comprises most of Utah and Nevada. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons had traveled west to escape religious persecution in Illinois and Missouri. In 1848, Mexico ceded much of what is now the southwestern United States under terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, after the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Two years later, Congress formally established the Utah Territory when it enacted the Compromise of 1850. As a concession to the largely Mormon population in the area, President Millard Fillmore named Brigham Young as territorial governor.
Troubles between Mormons and non-Mormons soon developed when federal officials who were sent to the territory reported that Young tended to rule Utah as a theocracy. Chief among the complainants was Associate Judge William W. Drummond. Drummond was particularly antagonistic toward Utah’s probate courts, which he claimed Mormons used to circumvent federal authority. When newspapers began publishing the denunciations of these men (including charges that Young and his followers practiced polygamy) an atmosphere of anti-Mormonism developed in the East.
Reports that Young and the Latter-day Saints in Utah were repudiating federal authority troubled President James Buchanan when he took office in 1857. Buchanan was sensitive to speculation that Young might attempt to establish a separate Mormon nation in the West, thereby emboldening pro-slavery agitators who were promoting Southern secession. The President’s apprehensions prompted him to dismiss Young and replace him with Alfred Cumming in July 1857. Anticipating that the change would anger Young and his followers, Buchanan ordered Secretary of War John B. Floyd and Army Chief of Staff Winfield Scott to assemble a military force to escort Cumming to Utah to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
The first troops deployed to Utah were handicapped by their lack of cavalry support. Initially the War Department ordered the 10th Infantry, the 5th Infantry, Phelps’ Battery of the 4th Artillery, and the 2nd Dragoons to the territory under the command of General William S. Harney. Harney was charged with reaffirming the authority of the United States in the territory and he was authorized to impose martial law if necessary. Before the Utah Expedition commenced, however, Harney and the dragoons were redeployed to attend to the rampant lawlessness in Bleeding Kansas. Later, Albert Sidney Johnston was assigned to replace Harney. It took Johnston and the 2nd Dragoons nearly four months to join the initial force of 1,500 soldiers sent to Utah.
Because mail service to the West was slow, Young was not informed about his dismissal before he learned from other sources that federal troops were en route to Utah. Suspecting the onset of another episode of Mormon persecution, the governor mobilized the territorial militia, called the Nauvoo Legion, and declared martial law. In addition, Young and the church elders published a resistance policy that advised Mormons to burn their homes and destroy their crops, if necessary, to resist the federal invasion. When the federal soldiers began to arrive, the Nauvoo Legion resorted to guerrilla tactics that included stampeding livestock, raiding supplies, starting prairie fires, blocking roads, destroying river crossings, and staging nightly forays to deprive the soldiers of sleep. Although the territory was plagued with strife for over a year, there was surprisingly little bloodshed or loss of life.
Mountain Meadows Massacre
One glaring exception to the mostly non-lethal hysteria evoked by the Utah Expedition was the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
In early September 1857, a California-bound wagon train transporting the Baker-Fancher Party entered the Utah Territory. Most of the 140 emigrants were from Arkansas, where Parley P. Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church, was murdered in May. As the travelers passed near Cedar City, Utah a dispute erupted with Mormon residents who refused to sell supplies to the travelers. Tempers flared within the Mormon community when rumors spread that members of the Baker-Fancher Party had participated in Pratt’s murder back in Arkansas.
As tempers flared, firebrands in the local Mormon community recruited Paiute Indians in the area to join them in an attack on the wagon train in exchange for whatever bounty the natives might confiscate. On Monday, September 7, 1857, the emigrants were grazing their cattle in a valley known as Mountain Meadows, about thirty-five miles southwest of Cedar City. As they sat down for breakfast, a group of Indians, and Mormon militiamen dressed as Indians, began firing on them. Despite several deaths and injuries, the surprised travelers quickly circled their wagons and fended off the assault, which turned into a five-day siege.
While the emigrants ran low on food and water, more militiamen reinforced the original group of raiders. As the days passed, the Mormons grew concerned that the travelers knew that their assailants were not exclusively Indians. Fearful of possible reprisals, Mormon leaders decided that they could not allow witnesses to survive to tell about their participation in the attack.
On September 11, 1857, the Mormon negotiators underhandedly offered the travelers safe passage out of the area if they would hand over their weapons as a sign of good faith. Facing dehydration and starvation, the emigrants were forced to comply. When the arms were surrendered, the militiamen escorted the wounded and youngest children away from the site in two wagons. They were followed on foot by women and children old enough to walk. Bringing up the rear were men and older boys, each escorted by an armed militiaman.
After marching into the desert for about a mile, where the Indians were hiding, the Mormon leader ordered a halt. On a prearranged signal each militiaman turned and shot the man he was guarding. Meanwhile, militiamen in the two leading wagons executed all of the wounded emigrants. The women and children on foot were left to the mercy of the Indians who came out of hiding. By the end of the ordeal, the Mormons and Indians murdered roughly 120 men women, and children. They spared only seventeen children under the age of seven who were deemed to be too young to bear witness to the massacre.
When word of the killings leaked, Mormon leaders denied any culpability and blamed the massacre on the Indians. Nonetheless, one of the militiamen eventually came forward with the truth. In 1859, church leaders removed some of the culprits from their positions of authority. In 1870, they excommunicated the two ringleaders, Isaac Haight and John D. Lee. Four years later, a territorial grand jury indicted nine men for their role in the massacre. Haight, along with some of the others, went into hiding and was never captured. In 1877, Lee was tried and convicted of murder for his participation in the crime. On March 23, 1877, Lee was executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows, protesting that he had been “sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner” by Brigham Young. The Mormon Church posthumously reinstated Lee’s membership on April 20, 1961.
In September 2007, on the 150th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Mormon Apostle Henry B. Eyring, speaking for the church, formally acknowledged that members of the Mormon militia planned and committed most of the killing. Eyring recounted that “What was done here long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.” He went on to clarify that a “separate expression of regret, is owed to the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre.”
During the winter of 1857-58, both sides strengthened their forces in Utah. Congress authorized two new volunteer regiments, and Buchanan, Secretary Floyd, and General Scott assigned 3,000 additional regular troops to reinforce the Utah Expedition.
Hoping to avoid escalating violence, Brigham Young appealed to Thomas L. Kane, a Pennsylvanian friendly to Mormonism, to use his influence with Buchanan to negotiate a diplomatic solution. Buchanan, who was eager to put an end to the troubling predicament, agreed to let Kane travel to Utah as an unofficial mediator. Kane arrived in Utah in late February 1858 and met with Young and Cumming independently. He then arranged a meeting between both parties in April. As a result of the negotiations, on June 12, 1858, Young agreed to surrender the gubernatorial title to Cumming in return for a pardon for all Mormons. The Utah War ended peacefully with few casualties, but it was a black eye for the Buchanan administration, so much so that the press referred to the affair as “Buchanan’s Blunder.”