The Sad Truth About Pioneer Children

Mormon Pioneer Children in 1800

I sometimes find a blog topic in surprising places. Today it was while reading my latest daily book – Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo. And it is tangentially related to adoption – really.

It all begins with the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857. It was one of the most explosive episodes in the history of the American West—not only were 120 men, women and children killed, but the United States and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost went to war. 

The early antagonism towards Mormons had intensified until they were evicted from Missouri and Illinois, where Joseph Smith (the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) was lynched in 1844. To break a cycle of mutual suspicion, recrimination and violence, Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith, made plans to lead the remaining LDS members on an exodus to Utah, which was then part of Mexico and so beyond the reach of US law. Only six months after the Mormons arrived in the Great Salt Lake valley, Mexico ceded that land and more of the West, to the United States.

The Baker-Fancher party emigrating from northwest Arkansas by wagon train to California passed through Utah. Paiutes in the region were warned the encroaching Americans might poison water and cattle along their path. The Baker-Fincher party was most likely unaware of the new requirement for a permit to cross Utah. So, they grazed their cattle on Mormons’ land as they passed through, thus stoking anger.

John D Lee claimed that he had orders from Isaac C. Haight, a leader of several Mormon congregations that formed the Iron County Militia, “to send other Indians on the war-path to help them kill the emigrants.” Haight and Lee gave weapons to the Paiutes.

The Baker-Fancher party was camped at Mountain Meadows on September 7 when Paiutes (and some Mormons dressed as Paiutes to conceal their Mormon affiliation) attacked. The emigrants circled the wagons, dug trenches and fought back—but as the siege continued for five days, they began to run out of ammunition, water and provisions. The Mormon attackers concluded that the emigrants had figured out their ruse—and feared that word of their participation would hasten an assault by the Army. It was then that militia commander William H Dame ordered his men to leave no witnesses. The emigrants were to be “decoyed out and destroyed with the exception of the small children,” who were “too young to tell tales,” according to another militia commander, Major John H Higbee, who relayed the orders to Lee. After the massacre, Local Mormons auctioned off or distributed their possessions and adopted the surviving 17 young children.

When the Army arrived in Utah in 1858, they investigated the killing and found the bones of “very small children.” The soldiers gathered skulls and bones and erected a cairn with the words, “Here 120 men, women, and children were massacred in cold blood early in September, 1857. They were from Arkansas.” They marked the site with a cross inscribed, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.”

On the morning of his execution, John D Lee would write that Brigham Young was “leading the people astray” and that he was being sacrificed “in a cowardly, dastardly manner.”

You can read more here – The Aftermath of Mountain Meadows – from which the above was taken.

So what does this all have to do with adoption ? Well first there were the surviving children raised by Mormon families.

Nephi Johnson was also at the Mountain Meadows Massacre and testified against John D Lee. He was a 2nd Lieutenant at the time.

White men fighting white men over land that was not theirs to begin with has continued in the West all the way to 2016 when the Bundy brothers took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Cliven Bundy traces his lineage back to Nephi Johnson, the Mormon leader who was involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Johnson adopted Bundy’s grandfather, John Jensen. This is Cliven Bundy’s proof of his claim to the land around his ranch in Bunkerville Utah.

So again, a theme of adoption comes out of history. There are theological foundations to the Bundy’s perspectives and this comes down from the early history of Mormonism, particularly the Mormon land ethic and Mormon interpretations of the divinity of the Constitution. Painting a picture of a uniquely American religion that has shaped the American West in important ways, but at times has operated as if blind to the ecological and geological realities of the very land on which it was founded, the book by Betsy Gaines Quammen asks what the future of public lands looks like in the context of violence that its perpetrators believe has a divine justification.

Quammen’s book is divided into two parts; the taproot story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s struggle to establish a safe homeland for their people, and the sprawling, tangled tree of sects and prophecy and public land fights that grew up out of that foundation. Quammen is quick to point out that the current LDS church has disavowed the Bundys’ armed rebellions.

More about Betsy Gaines Quammen’s book – American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West here – The West In A Time Of Conflict: The Bundys, Public Lands And Covid-19.

I love history and so that’s why, when I saw an intersection between adoption and this historical massacre, I wanted to write about it in this blog.

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