9/11/1857: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

It’s mid September, so our thoughts return to the events of 9/11 — and, if we’re serious Twilight readers, to the first 9/11 massacre, the unprovoked attack of Latter-day Saints on an Arkansas wagon train passing through Southern Utah in 1857 on that date, the so-called Mountain Meadows Massacre. If you wondered why Carlisle Cullen has a picture of a mountain meadow in his office and why every Twilight novel features a scene of revelation or conflict in a mountain meadow, the answer in large part comes back to this historical event and books about it published the year Mrs. Meyer had her vampire-with girlfriend-in-circular-meadow dream.

One of the more bizarre events in my Walter Mitty existence as an author happened this February in Oklahoma City. I was speaking at the C. S. Lewis conference there and spent the night in the home of a friend’s parents. The father was wonderfully hospitable, and, being a serious reader, our conversation on the drive to his house turned to talk about books and my work as a critic. I shared a copy of Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga with him and explained its two parts. I mentioned to him what I said above: that a large part of Twilight’s inspiration, Mrs. Meyer’s dream, is in the LDS community’s response to three histories of the Mountain Meadows Massacre that were published in the year she had her dream.

He held up his hand and said, kindly but firmly, as we pulled into his driveway, “Stop right there. Don’t say anything more about that.”“My wife is going to want to hear every word of this and I don’t want you to have to repeat yourself.”

As you’ve probably guessed, his wife is a direct descendant of one of the few child survivors of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. They’d read every book published on the topic, visited the site, been to survivor re-unions, and were very much up-to-date on the controversies involving Mormon acknowledgment of Brigham Young’s role in the incident and/or in the two decades of cover-up. They hadn’t made the Twilight connection, though. It was a fascinating night for me, to say the least, because I was much more familiar with the LDS defensive position than I was with the survivors’ experience. And they had a lot of history and experience to share.

When we left for the conference the next morning, my new friend gave me a copy of an interview with his wife’s great-grandmother, which I share with you here. I cannot speak to its veracity or dependability but it was a fascinating piece quite different from accounts I’d read in the history books. Make of it what you will.


As told to me by Sarah Baker Mitchell, the last survivor of that infamous thing which took place in September 0f 1857. Sarah Baker Mitchell was my neighbor many years at Wainwright, Oklahoma. Knowing the children of my Sunday Bible Class would study the account of it in their history at school, I took them to visit Grandma Mitchell to hear the story first hand.

Grandma Mitchell said the wagon train was the largest and richest to ever travel toward the west; one-hundred thirty-seven people got together the first day of May 1857 four miles south of Harrison, Arkansas. They had gathered from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas to begin this fateful journey. After four months of travel they had reached Washington County, Utah, where suddenly they were attacked by Indians, she receiving one of the first bullets fired through her left ear (she showed us the large scar. It must have been a big slug). The same bullet killed her father as she was sitting on his lap.

They fortified themselves as quickly as possible and began to fight back. After three days the fighting ceased and the Indians withdrew while the wagon train travelers busied themselves burying their dead and caring for the injured.

A group of white people came to them saying they were friends of the Indians and that they could prevail on the Indians not to bother the train any further if the travelers would give up their guns and ammunition. The travelers handed them over to these people and as soon as they had them in their hands they threw them on the travelers and ordered them to stand in a line, and with their own weapons shot down every man, woman and child, except seventeen children seven years of age and under, according to history. But, Grandma Mitchell said they kept one seventeen year old girl alive, who was very beautiful and who happened to be her own sister, as one of the men wanted her for one of his wives. It had been these white people instead of Indians who had attacked them in the first place and having run out of ammunition, fell onto this scheme of disarming and murdering them with their own guns. So, they removed their disguises and sent away the few real (renegade) Indians who were helping them and came to them in the pretense of friendship. When it was over, they took the one teenager and the seventeen small children to Salt Lake City and just left the dead lay where they fell, did not even bury them. But, not burying them became their downfall, for seven years later another wagon train passed that way and found the bones and knew some awful crime had been done so they reported it to the government at the first fort they came to and soldiers were sent out to investigate.

Grandma Mitchell said when they saw the soldiers coming they saw a group of men surround her sister (the older girl), forcing her to run and disappeared with her. The soldiers searched for her but did not find her, so they concluded they had killed and buried her somewhere, but they rescued the seventeen younger children (some of whom were fourteen years old now) and delivered them back to Harrison, Arkansas to relatives and friends; whoever they could find to take care of them.

Sarah Baker Mitchell, my friend and neighbor, out-lived all the others. She passed away in August of 1950 at the age of ninety-six, in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

The next question is always, “how come?”. So, she told us the other story, too. It started some time before the above story began, with a fellow by the name of Parley Parker Pratt, Bishop of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, on a wife hunting trip over in California and he found a young woman he liked. Although she was a wife already, and the mother of a couple of children, he persuaded her to go with him, she, knowing her husband would not give up the children, left all behind and went to Salt Lake City with him. The young husband father, in order to have help with the children’s up-bringing, loaded them in the wagon and brought them back to Little Rock, Arkansas, to his wife’s mother’s house to raise them. Later, (I don’t know how much later), he and his mother-in-law received a letter from his wife saying she had fallen out with the Mormons, begging them to forgive her and let her come home so they wrote her to come. She arrived and was going about reestablishing their confidence in her integrity, and watching for her chance to steal the children away. She and Pratt had layed the plans, he had brought her back in a wagon along with other wives and children and were in hiding until she could join them. When her husband was away one day she made a hurried leave with the children and joined Pratt and they headed west. But, when her husband returned and found her and the children missing he figured out what was taking place and he still objected to her taking the children. So he saddled his horse and loaded his Winchester and set out on their train and over took them and killed Pratt. Grandma Mitchell told me this story and where it all took place, over in Arkansas.

While I was living near her at Wainwright, Oklahoma, the names of the places didn’t register with me as I never expected to go there, but just twenty years later I moved to Van Buren, Arkansas, and the first group of people to whom I was showing and lecturing on my Little People of the Ozarks (not made in Japan) and telling the above stories, a man in the audience exclaimed, “Why, that happened just six miles from here at Fine Springs”, and proposed to take me and show me Pratt’s grave. Then he said he’d bring a man to see me the next day who could tell me the story from that angle, as his grandfather had told it to him, as it was at his place Pratt was killed. The fellow said the story was that a man with several women and children asked permission late one day to camp near his springs for the night. He granted him the privilege. Then a little later in the evening another visitor came up on horseback and asked if such and such type rig and man had passed that way and he answered yes, they are camped just over there, said he dug spurs to his horse and headed that way. He had noticed the man had a Winchester but thought nothing of that as most people traveled armed in those days, but in a little while he heard shooting in that direction. A little later still the horseman came back and asked him where he could give himself up, saying, “I killed that man over there”. Then he told him what Pratt had done to his home, and had now come and taken his children, so he advised him to just go home and forget about it. So, they buried Pratt in the fence corner of the man’s farm. The horseman had a hearing but was cleared. I don’t know what became of his wife, but he had his children back. I have visited the Pratt grave and the Mormons in recent years have come and erected a large monument at his grave for dying for the faith with an original poem by Pratt himself on it.

From the dates chizzeled there I learned the ill-fated wagon train had been on the road twelve days toward California when he was killed, but because the train was from Arkansas where their Bishop was killed, the Mormons had been alerted to be on the watch-out for them, and the rest you know. The leader of the massacre gang was John D. Lee, a Mormon Elder, who was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime and was hanged for it, but it was twenty years from the date of the crime until the law mill ground out its justice.

Grandma Mitchell told us a coincidence which I think worth retelling, considering the times, and means of travel in those days. She was only nine years old when they were rescued and brought home, and now she as grown up and married, and was traveling by buggy down in Texas with her husband, camping in a wagon yard as most people did. She struck up conversation with another traveling lady camping there also, and was telling her of this thing that had happened to her, and the other woman began to cry and became hysterical. When she got where she could talk she said, “I was in the next wagon train, and we found the bones!”

Another coincidence of mine in this story; a visitor came to my door in Van Buren, Arkansas, and said, “I judge from you business signs of The Little People of the Ozarks (not made in Japan), that you are an old settler here, and my wife and I have come all the way from Washington State to visit her grandfather’s grave, and we don’t know where to find it. We are looking for the grave of Parley Parker Pratt”.


  1. Arabella Figg says

    This was amazing! What a hideous tale of lust, kidnapping, and pointless, cold-blooded murder; and to leave the bodies just rotting there. Those poor traumatized people who found them! I can see why the Mormons wanted to cover it up.

    And what are the odds of you coming upon this story? Thanks for sharing it.

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