by Donald D. Erwin
A new movie, called September Dawn, was released August 24, 2007. Although some speculative dialogue was added, as well as a romantic sub-plot, the film is based on an actual tragic event. It should be a “must see” for those interested in Erwin family history, especially that which has connections to Arkansas. The following article was published in the March 2004 issue of the Bagpiper, and is carried here to add historical background for those who may wish to see the movie:
There is an historic marker at Caravan Spring, on Arkansas Highway 7, about ten miles south of Harrison, Arkansas that reads: “Near this spring in early 1857, gathered a caravan of 150 men, women, and children, who here began an ill-fated journey to California. The entire party, with the exception of seventeen small children, was massacred at Mountain Meadows, Utah, by a body of Mormons, disguised as Indians.”
The wagon train that left Northwest Arkansas in 1857 was a family train, and was made up of rural families, most of which were from the then Arkansas Counties of Carroll, Crawford, Benton, Johnson and Marion. This wagon train—actually numbering 142 men, women and children—was like countless other pioneer groups moving west; many of the travelers were related by birth and marriage. Yet there was one significant difference with regard to this train; it was one of the richest to ever make the trip west. The train, with a total estimated cash wealth of about $70,000 (this when an ordinary worker might earn one dollar a day), was made up of about forty wagons, with separate carriages to transport the women and children in as much comfort as possible. In addition there was almost a thousand head of cattle and hundreds of horses.
The leader of the train was Captain Alexander Fancher. Little is known about Captain Fancher’s early life, but he married Eliza Ingram in Coles County, Illinois on May 12, 1836. The couple eventually made their way to Carroll County, Arkansas, homesteading forty acres near Metalton. Their family grew to nine children, and Triphenia, their youngest child, was only eighteen months old when Alexander was elected leader of the train. An uncle, also named Alexander Fancher, was a neighbor of Thomas J. Erwin, when Thomas and wife Nancy Caroline settled near Carrollton—about thirteen miles due east of Metalton—about 1848.
Most historians seem to agree that Captain Fancher had not previously led a wagon train, but that he had made two previous trips to California to visit a brother, and thus was aware of the terrain and the hazards involved in making the trip. When the wagon train made its way through Carrollton, and by Beaver’s Trading Post to ferry across the White River, they apparently had trust in Captain Fancher’s ability to guide them safely to California.
After laying in such supplies as could be obtained in Salt Lake City, the emigrants proceeded southward, following the well beaten road that stretched out southerly and then southwesterly to southern California. The company was still short of supplies when they left Salt Lake. At Nephi, about one hundred miles south of Salt Lake, they made an attempt to purchase flour from “Red Bill” Black, who ran the flour mill, but were refused. A like effort was made at Fillmore, sixty miles south of Nephi, and with the same result.
At Corn creek, fourteen miles southwesterly from Fillmore, the emigrants laid over a day or two to permit their work animals and cattle to graze on the good pasture they found there. The emigrants then moved on to Beaver, about forty-eight miles from Corn creek, where they made another unsuccessful attempt to purchase supplies.
Their next layover was at Parowan, about thirty miles south of Beaver. The emigrants camped outside the “fort,” which was just an earth wall surrounding the Mormon residences and gardens. By some means the emigrants succeeded in purchasing a small quantity of wheat, but there was no mill in the settlement. From Parowan the road turns sharply to the southwest, and continues eighteen miles to Cedar City, where the emigrants made another ineffectual effort to buy provisions. But Joseph Walker, who was running the flour mills, ground the wheat which had been obtained at Parowan.
It is very probable that the emigrants were initially unaware of Brigham Young’s mandate that “permits” were required to pass through the Territory of Utah, and when they did learn of his proclamation it is understandable that they might choose to ignore it. They were, after all, American citizens, and were not accustomed to asking for permits to travel the public byways of the United States of America. Cedar City was the last Mormon town on their route to California, and the last place where Brigham Young’s order regarding permits could, without retribution, be enforced.
Several Mormons citizens of Cedar City would later claim that the emigrants’ conduct was rude, defiant and boisterous when “Brother” Isaac C. Haight—the last man on the route who was authorized by the Mormon “prophet” to issue permits—insisted that the orders of his religious leader in Salt Lake City be fulfilled to the letter. It was also alleged that the emigrants refused to apply for the permits, and that they “swore like pirates,” and defied the town authorities to arrest them. Whether true or false, unfortunately none of the adult emigrants were available for rebuttal during the later hearing.
Fancher’s company left Cedar City—without the permits—and turned westerly, following the old emigrant trail that ended in California. On September 4, 1857, about forty miles south of Cedar City, the wagon train entered the narrow five-mile-long valley that was called Mountain Meadows. Captain Fancher and the train elders decided that the train would stop for a few days to rest and to allow their animals to feed on the lush grass of the valley before entering the southern desert.
Although many of the Mormons had shunned them, and others had treated them with hostility, the travelers had managed to get through the major portion of the Mormon-settled territory without a serious confrontation. Scouts had reported seeing a few Indians in the area, but not in numbers to be concerned about. They felt reasonably secure
The predawn of Monday, September 7, found the train stirring as usual; camp fires were going, the women were starting breakfast and the men were caring for the animals. There was no premonition of danger. Suddenly the crack of rifles, and fierce war whoops from more than a hundred Indians startled the members of the wagon train. The initial shots of the attackers killed seven and wounded another fifteen or sixteen, and the triumphant yells of the Indians, combined with the screams of the women and children, created a near hysterical situation. While the initial attack came as a surprise, many of the travelers were veterans of the frontier Indian wars and were quick to return fire. Three of the attackers were killed and several wounded, and the others withdrew to a safe distance.
Immediately after the first attack the emigrants placed their wagons in a circle and chained the wheels together. A pit, or “fox-hole,” large enough to protect the women, children and wounded, was dug in the center of the circle. A makeshift fort was thus constructed and sharpshooters were stationed around the perimeter to keep the Indians at bay. Even so, several separate attacks occurred during the rest of the day and into the next.
On September 13, the sixth day of the attack, John D. Lee, a Mormon bishop and adopted son of Brigham Young, approached the camp with a white flag. He told the emigrants that he was the government Indian agent, and had influence with the Indians. He said that if they would lay down their arms and leave everything behind, he and about fifty members of the Mormon militia would be able to escort them safely out of the valley. After a long discussion the emigrants finally agreed, but insisted on burying their dead.
Then the proposed plan of escape began. The weapons of the Fancher party, as well as nineteen small children, were loaded into one wagon, and the wounded were loaded into a second one. The women and older children walked behind the wagons, and following them were the men, unarmed and walking in single file.
Some one or two miles from the “fort,” when the able bodied men filed past the Mormon militia, John D. Lee gave a predetermined signal, and the armed members of the militia—systematically and at point blank range—shot the unarmed men of the wagon train. This accomplished, other Mormons and about two hundred Indians jumped from their hiding places and began a determined and horrendous slaughter of the rest of the settlers.
Only the nineteen small children and infants were spared, and only seventeen would eventually be repatriated to their relatives in the east. Triphenia “Trifina” and Christopher “Kit” Carson Fancher, the two youngest of Captain Fancher’s nine children, were among those spared.
There is no indication that Captain Fancher, or any of the travelers, had a clue as to what was happening in Utah in early 1857. James Buchanan was the newly elected President of the United States, and he had decided that it was time to “...end a decade of insolence, subversion and even open defiance...and that henceforth the laws of the United States were to be supreme...,” even in Utah.
When the Mormons first settled in Utah in 1847, the region was part of Mexico. The following year, ownership of the region was transferred to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican War. Eager to preserve the independence of the Mormon colonies, Brigham Young called a convention in Great Salt Lake City in 1849 to draw up a constitution for a new state, to be called Deseret. Deseret, a name taken from the Book of Mormon (one of the sacred scriptures of the Mormons) and meaning “honey bee,” was conceptually to include all or part of eight present-day western states, as well as an outlet to the sea at San Diego, California. The convention also elected a slate of state officials. United States President Millard Fillmore (who served from 1850 to 1853) appointed Brigham Young (1801-1877) the first territorial governor.
The Congress of the United States, however, refused to recognize the state of Deseret. They dealt with the Utah issue in the Compromise Measures of 1850. The measures covered several issues, but one was to admit California as a state, and another created the territories of New Mexico (now New Mexico and Arizona) and Utah. Considerably smaller than the proposed state of Deseret, Utah Territory included all of present-day Utah, most of Nevada, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado.
Although non-Mormons were appointed to some territorial offices, the leaders of the Mormon church, headed by Brigham Young, ruled the Utah Territory. Initially the federal government did not intervene, but in early 1857 a number of non-Mormon judges returned to Washington with stories of authoritarianism and disregard of federal authority by the Mormon leaders. By that time also, hostility against the Mormons had dramatically increased because of their practice of polygamy. Brigham Young was reported to have had as many as twenty-seven wives.
In May 1857, President James Buchanan terminated Young’s governorship, as well as his title as superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Territory. Buchanan also ordered government troops to Utah to enforce federal authority over the Mormons, which in turn started what would be known as the Utah War. When news of Buchanan’s action reached Salt Lake City in July, Young sent a company of scouts to harass and delay the federal troops, which were moving west from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Young’s scouts did their work well. Using guerilla tactics, they burned supply trains, destroyed animal feed, and stampeded U.S. Army cattle, thus delaying the federal troops long enough to force them to camp for the winter in Wyoming, well short of their destination.
Brigham Young had previously issued a proclamation, of which only three paragraphs are necessary to get a sense of the explosive nature of the confrontation:
“Therefore, I, Brigham Young, governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah, ...
First—Forbid all armed forces of every description from coming into this territory, under any pretense whatever.
Second—That all the forces in said territory (by this he meant Mormon armed security forces–Ed.), hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s notice, to repel any and all invasion.
Third—Martial law is hereby declared to exist in this territory, from and after the publication of this proclamation; and no person shall be allowed to pass or repass (sic), into or through, or from this territory without a permit from the proper officer.”
Around the beginning of August 1857, Brigham Young added fuel to the feud by boldly “declaring war” against the United States. He further stated that henceforth Deseret would take whatever measures necessary to defend itself if an invading army crossed its “borders.”
It was this situation that the Fancher wagon train pioneers—apparently unknowingly—faced as they moved westward. It was within ten days of Brigham Young’s “declaration of war” that the wagon train made its way through Emigration Canyon and set up camp near what is now Emigration Square, the present site of the Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County government buildings.
The following excerpt from a directive from Brigham Young to Bishop William H. Dame—who also held the rank of colonel in the Mormon militia forces—dated September 14, 1857, proves that he was serious about resisting Federal intervention:
“You will probably not be called out this fall, but are requested to continue to make ready for a big fight another year. The plan of operations is supposed to be about this. In case the United States government should send out an overpowering force, we intend to desolate the territory, and conceal our families, stock and all our effects in the fastnesses of the mountains, where they will be safe, while the men waylay our enemies, attack them from ambush, stampede their animals, take the supply trains, cut off the detachments and parties sent to the canyons for wood, or on other service. To lay waste everything that will burn—houses, fences, fields and grass, so that they cannot find a particle of anything that will be of use to them, not even sticks to make a fire to cook their supplies. To waste away our enemies and to lose none; that will be our mode of warfare. Thus you will see the necessity of preparing, first, secure places in the mountains where they cannot find us, or, if they do, where they cannot approach in force, and then prepare for our families, building some cabins, caching flour and grain.... Conciliate the Indians and make them our fast friends.
In regard to letting the people pass and repass (sic), or travel through the territory, this applies to all strangers and suspected persons. Yourself and Brother Isaac C. Haight, in your districts, are authorized to give such permits. Examine all such persons before giving them such permits to pass. Keep things perfectly quiet, and let all things be done peacefully, but with firmness, and let there be no excitement. Let the people be united in their feelings and faith, as well as works, and keep alive the spirit of reformation. And what we said in regard to saving the grain and provisions we say again. We do not wish to shed a drop of blood if it can be avoided.
This course will give us great influence abroad.”
(Signed) Brigham Young, Prophet
During the following winter, President Buchanan, eager to avoid further bloodshed and to stem nationwide criticism of the Utah military expedition, changed his tactics. He dispatched Colonel Thomas L. Kane, a friend both of Young and of the Mormons, to Salt Lake City to try to negotiate with Young. Kane persuaded Young to relinquish the territory to Alfred Cumming, Buchanan’s appointee, on April 12, 1858.
The Mormons publicly blamed the massacre on raiding Indians, but it was soon apparent—after the Federal Government sent a Major Carlton and a troop of Cavalry to investigate—that Indians were only partially to blame. After interviewing some of the older children, members of the local Indian tribes, as well as some of the horrified and uninvolved local Mormon farmers, it was clear that a tribe of local Indians, while certainly involved, were not the instigators. Major Carlton reported his findings, and recommended a more in depth investigation.
The investigation continued, off and on, but because of the Civil War, it was not until 1875, that John D. Lee was tried for his part in the massacre. There were seven Mormons and five Gentiles on the jury, and the result was a mistrial. The Mormons voted for acquittal and the Gentiles voted to convict. A wave of indignation swept over the United States. Several Mormon leaders, who were also implicated in the massacre (including Isaac C. Haight), were hiding out in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico.
A second trial was held in 1876. This time the Mormon witnesses, in a complete turn about, implicated John D. Lee as the sole white involved. He was convicted and sentenced to die by military firing squad. In his farewell speech Lee claimed that while he was indeed guilty, but that he had been betrayed. Lee was taken to the site of the massacre, and died with several Federal bullets in his chest in front of the Fancher party monument which had been erected by Major Carleton and his men. No one else, Indian or Mormon, ever paid any price for the atrocity at Mountain Meadows.
Nineteen small children survived the Mountain Meadows Massacre; seventeen were eventually returned to Arkansas. They became living memorials as to what really happened that September day in Utah. Their names were:
Christopher "Kit" Carson Fancher and Triphenia "Trifina" D. Fancher, children of Alexander and Eliza Fancher; Elizabeth, Sarah, and William Baker, children of George and Minerva Baker; Rebecca, Louisa and Sarah Dunlap, daughters of Jesse and Mary Dunlap; Prudence Angeline and Geogiana Dunlap, daughters of Lorenzo and Nancy Dunlap; John, Mary and Joseph Miller, children of Joseph and Matilda Miller; Milam and William Tackett, children of Pleasant Tackett; F. M. Jones, son of J. Milam and Nancy Jones, and Sophronia Huff, daughter of Peter and Salidia Huff. Mary Levina Baker also survived, but there is no record of what happened to her. Family members in Arkansas were never able to discover her fate. In addition, it is thought that Nancy Cameron lived with the Mormons for the remainder of her life.
What happened to these children in later life? Christopher "Kit" Carson Fancher died at the age of 21, and he lies in an unmarked grave in Carroll County. “Trifina” Fancher married James C. Wilson and became the mother of nine children before she died in 1897. She is buried at Rule, in Carroll County. Elizabeth Baker married into the Terry family at Harrison, and her sister, Sarah A. Baker, married into the Gladden family. Rebecca Dunlap married John W. Evans, and moved to Hampton, in Calhoun County, Arkansas. Her sister Louisa married into the Lynton family and moved to Scottsville, Arkansas. The third Dunlap girl, Sarah, married Captain James Lynch, who returned the children to Arkansas. They too lived at Hampton, Arkansas. After he was grown, Milam Tackett moved to Texas, and then later to Arizona. His brother, William Tackett, lived at Protem, Missouri. Nancy Sophronia Huff married Dallas Cates and lived in Yell County, Arkansas. No one seems know about the later lives of the remaining children.
Sources: Carroll County History: An Outlander’s History, by Jim Lair; Carroll County Families: They Were The First, by the Carroll County Historical Society; The History and Families of Carroll County, Arkansas, by The Carroll County Historical Society; Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Josiah F. Gibbs; and various sources on the Internet.
Further information can be found on the Internet at:
...or just type Alexander Fancher into your search engine for a number of excellent sources.