COMMENTARY – It is the darkest chapter in Utah History. In the early fall of 1857, Latter-day Saint settlers in southern Utah, led by church leaders from Cedar City and with faces painted to appear as Paiute Indians, brutally murdered 120 emigrant men, women, and children from Arkansas who were in a wagon train bound for California. The infamous event is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
It was a time of great zeal and excitement, as a ‘reformation’ swept through the settlements, with church leaders calling for rebaptism, and stricter obedience to authority. The saints were still reeling from the persecutions endured in Missouri and Illinois, including the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and a spirit of vengeance filled the territory. Under an order from Brigham Young, oaths were taken to “avenge the blood of the Prophets.”
All of the sordid details will never be known, but a federal investigation that lasted 20 years revealed the names of 67 men who were involved, producing arrest warrants for 38 of them, including virtually all the principal leaders of southern Utah.
Little known is the Cache Valley connection to Mountain Meadows, and the whispers that live on in an old barn in the little town of Paradise.
Samuel McMurdie was an English convert who emigrated to Utah, settling in Cedar City in 1853. Full of fervor, and a strong defender of his new faith, Samuel joined the Danite band, taking an oath to “support the First Presidency in all things, right or wrong…and to cause all who speak evil of the Presidency to die the death of dissenters or apostates.” Samuel was quickly appointed as a counselor to Philip Klingensmith, the first Bishop of Cedar City, and one of the massacre’s principal instigators.
By his own admission, McMurdie was at Mountain Meadows and participated in the killings. Before firing his weapon he is purported to have exclaimed, “O Lord, my God, receive their spirits, it is for thy Kingdom that I do this.” His family biography states that “he acted with the purest of motives according to the strictest orders from those in authority over him and under obligation to the oaths he had made…”
It is said that the memories of the massacre plagued Samuel throughout his life, but the torment he suffered in the days that followed immediately thereafter are indescribable; his nights became filled with nightmares of the cries of the wounded and dying emigrants, and he prayed constantly for relief.
To protect the participants, Brigham Young determined it would be wise for those involved to move to various, distant parts of the territory. In 1859, Samuel McMurdie loaded his wagons and traveled north to Cache Valley, settling first in Wellsville and then moving to Paradise where he purchased 12 acres on its western hillside.
Legend claims that unknown to his new neighbors, some of the wagons McMurdie brought with him had belonged to the murdered emigrants at Mountain Meadows. To hide the evidence, Samuel burned the wood as much of it was blood-stained, and riddled with bullet holes, but kept the iron from the box frames, wheels, and axles.
After setting up a blacksmith shop, and using the skills he obtained while working at the Deseret Iron Company in Cedar City, Samuel forged the plundered iron into footings, door hinges, and other hardware for his new barn. This post and beam outbuilding, with tongue and groove joinery and a distinctive center cupola, would be the first of three barns Samuel built on the property.
From one of them, Samuel operated the Diamond M Creamery, which during its time was the largest in the territory. Milk from farms throughout Cache Valley was processed into butter and cheese here. His wife Sara Ann delivered their products to Logan in a white-topped buggy.
Samuel McMurdie died at his home in Paradise on June 4, 1922, at the age of 91. He is buried alongside Sara Ann in the Paradise Cemetery. The farmstead changed hands, but the barns remain and are now listed on the national register of historic places. For this article, I contacted the current owner and he graciously allowed me to walk the property.
It was early in the afternoon when I arrived. The oldest barn, built with iron from the Arkansas wagon train, is the furthest west, sitting at a distance from the others like a sentinel, surrounded by peaceful, rolling hills that open to a beautiful Cache Valley vista. This is a serene place, far removed from the blood-stained grasses of Mountain Meadows. I hoped Samuel found some peace here, but suspect he never did.
As I walked among the murmuring timbers of the old barn, I thought I could hear the muffled volley of frontier rifles, along with the cries of the innocent, resonating from the ironwork that held it together. It is an odd juxtaposition of a tranquil setting that harbors the deep and dark secrets of another time and place.
Marc K. Ensign