In September 1857 a wagon train from Arkansas was attacked by Mormon militia and Piute Indians in Mountain Meadows, Utah. They were surrounded for five days. The Piutes basically were a ploy to convince the Arkansans that the attack was from Indians not Mormons. But the Mormons soon feared the wagon train had seen white faces and knew who was behind the attack. On September 11, 1857, (yes, on 9/11) they convinced the wagon train to surrender weapons in return for safe passage. It was a trap. The wagon train members were slaughtered a mile later, probably because Mormon militias wanted no witnesses. A few children survived and were sent back to Arkansas. About 130 people were killed in cold blood. Word of the slaughter spread and people across the country were horrified.
The bodies were either left to rot or buried lightly where wolves got them. A US Army contingent soon gathered the scattered bones and put them in a cairn. The cairns were desecrated and rebuilt several times. No one has ever been able to really determine why the attack happened. It was perhaps a mixture of religious fanaticism, isolation, a raiding party, as well as general paranoia. Mark Twain suggests the massacre was due to greed for the goods of the prosperous wagon train and generalized revenge against Gentiles and specific revenge and fury against a few disaffected Mormons who joined the wagon train in Salt Lake City. All of this happened during a time when Mormons were severely persecuted and at least one Mormon missionary was murdered.
To add to the fire, the Utah War was going on then, which was armed conflict between Mormon settlers and the US government. (It culminated a few decades later with the US telling Mormons to renounce polygamy or be wiped out. Brigham Young wanted a theocratic empire stretching to California. The federal government would not allow this. The two could not peacefully co-exist. It’s no accident that Utah has the highest percentage of BLM land of any state.)
In 1950 Mormon historian Juanita Brooks wrote The Mountain Meadows Massacre, the first book to examine what happened using modern historical methods. It was a landmark. The walls of denial within LDS fell as people began to see what had really happened. In 1990, Gordon Hinckley, the 15th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dedicated the cairn, which LDS built and now maintains. There have been several more books about the massacre, with authors and historians given full access to LDS archives.
As you can see from the various plaques and inscriptions, the atonement by LDS is heart-felt and genuine. Sue and I were quite moved by it.