Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

For 150 years, site markers didn’t name who committed Utah’s Mountain Meadows Massacre

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For over a century, historical markers at Mountain Meadows did not say who was responsible for the murder of more than 100 Arkansas emigrants in 1857. Recent additions like this monument along State Route 18 in Washington County as seen on March 24, 2024, show signs of change.
David Condos

Mountain Meadows was an oasis. A lush, green valley at the doorstep of the Mojave Desert.

In the era of westward expansion, this part of present-day southwest Utah was basically that last-chance gas station on a lonely highway. Wagon trains on the Old Spanish Trail would camp and graze their livestock before braving the rest of the dry, dusty road to California.

One September day in 1857, however, this peaceful paradise was thrown into unthinkable violence.

“If you can imagine: Small children going to the legs of their mothers looking for protection. Mothers doing what they could to try to protect the children. Gunfire. Smoke. Screams. A kind of horror that we often don't think about much today in our sanitized world,” said historian Richard E. Turley Jr., now retired from the historical department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Turley, author of the 2023 book Vengeance Is Mine about the massacre and its aftermath, has spent more than three decades researching and writing about the attack. He describes it as the worst event in the church’s history.

Richard Turley stands next to the latest iteration of the stone cairn that marks where some of the massacre victims remains are buried at Mountain Meadows, March 24, 2024.
David Condos

Between 120 and 140 travelers — mostly families from Arkansas — were passing through Mountain Meadows in the Baker-Fancher wagon train. Fueled by some combination of pride, fear and false rumors, dozens of local settlers — members of the LDS Church — opened fire on them. After a five-day siege, the Utahns lured the travelers out of their makeshift bunkers under a truce. Then, after separating the men from the women and children, they killed them at point-blank range, except for 17 small children deemed too young to serve as credible witnesses to the attack.

For well over a century, however, that wasn’t the story historical markers told there.

“Unless you understand the horror of what happened, you don't understand the gravity of what happened,” Turley said.

Standing next to the valley where victims’ bones remain buried just 30 miles north of St. George, he said the evolution of the site’s monuments over the decades mirrors the stages of grief. First, there was denial that it even happened, then anger at confronting the horrible truth, and eventually sadness and acknowledgment.

The first historical marker came in 1859, when the U.S. Army built a large stone cairn — a mound of rounded rocks — after soldiers collected some of the victim’s remains into a mass grave. At the top stood a wooden cross etched with the words “Vengeance is mine, I will repay saith the Lord.”

It didn’t say who the killers were, but people who lived in the area saw it as a condemnation. It was destroyed — probably by some combination of vandalism and erosion, Turley said — and then rebuilt by the military in 1864. Like the first one, this new cairn was also destroyed in the following years.

A marker lists some of the memorials in the Mountain Meadows area, March 24, 2024. This list has grown considerably since 2011 as the LDS Church collaborates with descendants of the perpetrators and victims to tell a fuller story.
David Condos

By 1932, many of the perpetrators had died, and the next generation of Utahns began to revisit the massacre’s history. The Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association and local residents put up a new plaque that blamed the attack on a single settler — limiting the fault to one bad apple, not a group of church adherents — and on members of southwest Utah’s Paiute Indian Tribe.

That’s how many remembered it here for decades. As you might expect, that made Native Americans and descendants of the victim’s families angry.

Phil Bolinger of Hindsville, Arkansas, traces his lineage to the wagon train’s Fancher family. His introduction to the massacre story came at an early age listening to an oral history his grandmother recorded on cassette tapes. In the fourth grade, he presented the tapes to his class.

“Some of the other kids, they got to have a little more fun with their show and tell, but mine was serious,” he said. “The Mountain Meadows massacre did not have a good ending.”

In his part of northwest Arkansas where many people have blood ties to the massacre victims, the story never left their minds. At family reunions growing up, he said the adults’ conversations often turned to Mountain Meadows and the “unfinished business” of getting the truth told.

Descendants of the victims and perpetrators came together to add this memorial wall on a hilltop overlooking the Mountain Meadows valley in 1990. Like the markers that came before it, however, it doesn’t acknowledge who was responsible for the attack.
David Condos

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bolinger became involved with the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation and began reaching out to people in Utah about adding more detailed markers. He didn’t get far.

“Some of the first receptions were, ‘That's not in the best interest of the LDS Church,’" he said. "And we're like, ‘Well, we realize it's not in the best interest of y’all, but that's not what this is about. We're trying to fix all of your lies and your deceit.’”

Groups in Arkansas had already put up markers there as early as 1936. Those did not hold back about who murdered their ancestors.

At the dedication of one such memorial in 1955, local leaders welcomed Utah historian Juanita Brooks, who wrote a groundbreaking book on the massacre just a few years earlier. Bolinger described that moment as a big step in starting to reconcile descendants from both sides. It would be decades before another marker would be added at the site in Utah, however, and those would represent the sadness stage of grief rather than full acknowledgment.

When descendants of victims and perpetrators came together for the first time in 1990 to add a memorial wall listing the names of the dead at Mountain Meadows, that marker still said nothing about who killed them. When the LDS Church added a new memorial to the rebuilt cairn in 1999, it similarly didn’t say who carried out the violence.

Reconciliations often don’t follow a straight line, said historian Barbara Jones Brown, Turley’s co-author and former head of the Mormon History Association.

“You can never say, ‘It's over,’” she said. “It's an ongoing, continual process that each new generation needs to continue to engage in.”

Brown said some of the lies Utahns spread to justify the attack — like disparaging the travelers with unfounded rumors to make it seem like they brought it upon themselves — continued to cause damage for decades.

Lies have also unfairly cast blame on the Paiute people for generations, she said, when the attack was planned and orchestrated by white Mormon settlers. The only reason some Paiutes were at the attack, she said, was because the settlers planned to pin it on them later.

Richard Turley describes this 2011 marker as a turning point for Mountain Meadows, as the first monument to fully acknowledge how southwest Utah settlers carried out the massacre.
David Condos

Like many dark chapters in American history that have led to intergenerational trauma — such as the mass killings of Native Americans or the slavery of African Americans — Brown said the hard truth about this massacre needs to be faced head-on.

“There’s more reconciliation and healing that needs to happen there. … Unless we're able to engage with the trying, painful parts of our history, we can never truly heal and move on.”

And slowly, that’s happening.

Starting in 2011, descendants of the victims and the perpetrators collaborated with the LDS Church to put up more than 20 new markers that tell a fuller, more accurate story at Mountain Meadows. That same year, the federal government designated the site as a National Historic Landmark.

At the edge of a gravel parking lot off State Route 18, Turley walked up to one of those recent additions, a black and gray monument that resembles a giant tombstone. He described it as another turning point in the reconciliation journey, the first marker to finally include explicit details about what happened and who was responsible.

“The text reads: Never to be forgotten. In memory of the emigrant men and boys from Arkansas massacred here in Mountain Meadows on September 11, 1857. Their lives were taken prematurely and wrongly by Mormon militiamen in one of the most tragic episodes in western American history,” Turley recited from the marker’s engraved message.

There’s a similarly worded monument at the site where women and children were murdered and another along a walking path in the valley that memorializes members of the wagon train who died during the initial siege. At each one, descendants of the victims have placed their own additions — small wooden crosses that symbolize the one atop the first cairn, flowers tied with a note that says ‘With love from Arkansas,’ and a poem for a fallen ancestor.

Flowers with a note from descendants of one of the families killed in the massacre adorn the ground next to one of the historical markers at Mountain Meadows, March, 24, 2024.
David Condos

The church paid for and maintains the new markers, Turley said, and has also purchased hundreds of acres in the valley to preserve the land close to how it might have looked in 1857. Above the cairn, an Arkansas state flag flies high on a pole, paired with a streaming webcam that allows the scene to be viewed 24 hours a day.

At each of the four main parking areas, there are now interpretive panels introducing people to the massacre in harrowing detail. Other panels along the sites’ paths highlight members of the Arkansas wagon train, the children who survived, the importance of being respectful of the dead who remain buried there and a statement of regret from LDS Church leadership about the pain its members inflicted.

Even just 20 years ago, Turley said, putting up markers like these would never have happened. There are many residents, particularly those who have a blood tie to the perpetrators, who still don’t want to talk about it.

“No person alive today is responsible for the massacre, but we are all responsible for how we deal with it. If we seek to deny it, condone it … then in a way, we become party to a cover-up,” Turley said.

The Arkansas state flag flies over one of the monuments at Mountain Meadows, March 24, 2024.
David Condos

As Turley and Brown see it, getting the story right on these markers isn’t just about accurately preserving the past — it’s about learning from it.

“I am confident that those who carried out the massacre could not have imagined themselves doing something so horrific, and yet they did it,” he said. “Today, we're in a period of increasing polarization, and most of us can never imagine being involved in such group violence. And yet, history teaches us that as people begin to vilify one another, the ultimate result — if not checked — is violence.”

For Bolinger, the work of reconciliation — and of putting up historical markers — continues. His foundation has added plaques to the graves of 15 of the 17 small children who survived the attack in Arkansas and elsewhere and is searching for the remaining two. In the southwest Utah valley, he’d like to see three additional mass grave sites added to the National Historic Landmark boundary and fitted with monuments.

Historian Richard Turley said it’s common for descendants of the victims to leave small wooden crosses like these at the site’s historical markers. They represent the large wooden cross that sat atop the first stone cairn built to memorialize their ancestors in 1859.
David Condos

He’s hopeful that will happen, especially after seeing the church become more open to telling the massacre’s story. There’s not a whole lot you can do for folks who have been dead for so long, he said, but you can at least honor and remember them — no matter how long or how many historical markers it takes.

“It's taken 167 years to be to where we are now, and if it takes another 50 years to get to where we can say that this deal is completely over, then we're willing to put in that time and that effort to get it done.”

Find more stories behind U.S. historical markers that hit the mark — or miss it — at

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David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.