06. September 2007 · Comments Off on Forted Up – Part 2 · Categories: General, Good God, History, Old West, War, World

(Part one is here)

The start of the trail season, spring of 1857 saw a number of prosperous but restlessly ambitious emigrants taking the trail west, many of them linked by ties of kin and friendship: the Bakers of Caroll County, Arkansas, and the Huff and Fancher clans, from Benton County, were joined at some point along the long trail from the jumping-off place at the edge of the sea of grass by families with the prosaic names of Tackett, Jones, Mitchell and Prewitt. Alexander Fancher, the paterfamilias and trail-boss of the Fanchers was experienced in the ways of the emigrant trail, having gone back and forth several times. He and his kin intended to settle for good in California and to that end had bought not only their wives and children, but much of their portable property and savings, and a large herd (estimated at 800-1,000) of long-horned Texas cattle. Some of the party were Argonauts, intending to look for gold, but the Fanchers’ cattle were their gold, and intended to market them at a profit to the hungry gold miners in California. They had already registered a brand, for their new ranch and herd.

By 1857 the emigrant trail was not the long and desperate march through unsettled wilderness that it had been ten years before. The US Army had managed to spottily garrison and patrol the Platte River Valley, and the Mormon settlements spreading out from Salt Lake City offered one last and often life-saving chance at rest and resupply before the final calculated leap into the desert and over the sheer mountain wall of the Sierra Nevada. The Fanchers and the Bakers and the other families, numbering about a hundred and fourty men, women and children, arrived in the Salt Lake City area at the end of August, and after consultation decided that they were too late in the season to venture the northern trail, following the Humboldt River into the desert where it sank eventually into the sand, and up the long rocky climb up the Truckee River to the steep mountain pass named after the emigrant party which had so famously left their own traverse too late.

Experienced and sensible, Alexander Fancher and his fellows would not chance being trapped in the snow; not with their long train of wagons, their herd of cattle and their horses. They would take the southern route, the old Spanish Trail that lead down through the Mojave Desert, through the less precipitous passes farther south. (Roughly following present-day I-15, from Salt Lake City, Los Vegas and San Bernardino) It would be a long haul through various deserts, and a couple of hard pulls through mountainous terrain, but nothing like the cruel snows which had doomed the Donner-Reed Party ten years before. By early September they had reached Cedar City, the last outpost for resupply before descent of the Virgin River George and the long desert crossing below. They met a cold reception from the Mormon settlers there, and were not able to purchase any supplies. Doubtless shrugging it off, they moved on south and camped in a pleasant mountain valley at the foot of the Iron Mountains and adjacent the Spanish Trail.

This camping place offered generous pasturage and water, but on the morning of September 7th the emigrants began to be attacked by a large war-band of Piute Indians. Dismayingly, it soon became clear that the Indians were unusually persistent; this was no quick smash and grab ambush, a sudden screaming foray at dawn, with a handful of casualties and a few cattle or horses stolen in a few minutes. This was a deadly, concerted siege. The Fanchers and the Bakers and the others swiftly forted up, chaining their wagons together and digging hasty trenches; they held out for five days. Seven of them were killed outright, another twenty or so wounded, and dismayingly, they began to run low on ammunition, and were tormented by an inability to reach water without being repeatedly sniped at. Of two men who attempted to fetch water from the spring closest to the encampment, one was shot down, and the other escaped… but not before seeing that the man who shot them was not an Indian.

But this was not very unusual… there were brigands all over the west who pretended to be Indians as a cover for robbery and murder, and there were whispers of white turncoats among the various tribes. Still and all, when the cavalry appeared on the horizon, probably everyone in the besieged encampment took a deep breath of relief. Here was rescue at hand; well armed frontiersmen like themselves. Not actually the cavalry, for this was still Mormon territory – it was the local militia, their leaders advancing under a white flag, with good news for the emigrants.

They could leave, the militia leader said… they had been able to call off the Piutes and negotiate some kind of truce with them. But they would have to disarm and leave their wagons and cattle and horse herd, and walk back under escort of the militia to Cedar City. Oh, the children and the wounded could be taken in wagons, but everything else would have to be left behind. No doubt the Fanchers and the Bakers, the Prewitts and the Tacketts and their wives and older children did not like the idea much… but they had their lives and what small valuables they could carry on them. And so they left the wagon encampment in three parties, trusting the men who had come to their rescue. First came some wagons with the wounded, some of the women with babies and small children in it, then another group of women with the older children on foot, and then the men, each of them escorted by a militiaman.

And when a prearranged signal was given by the militia leader, they turned and executed the men, and all of the women and children but for seventeen of them who were babies or assumed to be too young to ever remember what they had seen at the place called Mountain Meadows.

(to be continued)

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