etched on a newly discovered lead sheet has shaken the
Mormon Church by linking its revered leader, Brigham Young,
with one of the worst massacres in American history.
The note claims that the founder of Salt Lake City ordered
the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, when a wagon train of
120 settlers, mostly women and children, were killed after
they had thrown down their weapons on a promise of safe
The Church of the Latter-Day Saints, as Mormons are properly
known, first tried to blame Indians for the slaughter but
after huge pressure from the federal government, John D Lee,
a militiaman who was Young's adopted son, was tried and
executed 20 years later for organizing the attack.
The Church has always maintained that the militia acted
alone, despite persistent claims that documents
incriminating its leaders were burned at the end of the 19th
century. Schoolbooks in Utah do not mention the incident and
it has been airbrushed out of the religion's official
The lead sheet is the first evidence to directly link the
killings to Young, who is considered a modern-day prophet by
Mormons after he led them on their trek across America to
found the city at Salt Lake.
It was found during restoration work on the debris of Lee's
Fort, the citadel at which Lee's militia forces were based
on the Colorado River, under several inches of dirt and rat
droppings in the main chamber.
It is signed by Lee, who had 19 wives and 64 children, and
claims to be written "by my own hand", 15 years after the
events it describes.
Filled with misspellings, grammatical errors and halted
sentences, it says: "I do not fear athorty for the time is
closing and am willing to take the blame for Fancher."
The wagon convoy was known as the Fancher party, after
Alexander Fancher, who led it.
It continues: "Col Dane, Maj Higby and me - on orders from
Pres Young thro Geo Smith took part - I trust in God - I
have no fear - Death hold no terror."
The massacre occurred amid a climate of war hysteria as
Utah's Mormons prepared for an invasion by federal troops,
who had been dispatched to suppress the theocracy
established in the region a decade earlier.
As the settlers' convoy entered the state en route from
Arkansas to California, rumours spread that it contained men
who had killed a Mormon leader and church leaders vowed
After a five-day siege the Mormon militia sent in a party
under a flag of truce and promised safe passage. When the
"gentiles" left their encampment all but the youngest
children were killed.
Historians were yesterday clamoring to examine the sheet,
and tests were being conducted to determine where the lead
was mined in an attempt to date it.
The possibilities of a forgery or a false claim by Lee have
not been ruled out, but experts said that at the time that
it was not unusual for people who wanted to preserve a
record to etch it on lead.
Scott Fancher, a lawyer in Harrison, Arkansas, who is
president of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation and a
descendant of Alexander Fancher, welcomed the discovery as a
significant step in forcing the Church to face up to the
reality of its past behaviour. He said he had long believed
that Young sanctioned the massacre as a demonstration to
federal authorities that only he could control the Paiute
Indians who supposedly took part in the attack.
"The only thing that surprises me is that it's taken this
long to find the letter, not the admission of guilt or that
Lee pointed the blame at Young," he said.
In Salt Lake City, Mormon leaders insisted that further
checks had to be conducted on the authenticity of the note
before it could be accepted as a historical document.
Dale Bills, a Mormon spokesman, insisted that Young did not
order the killings although "some members of the faith acted
independently at Mountain Meadows ".
In 1999 work to restore a memorial at the settlers' burial
site turned up bones and forensic tests showed many in the
group had been shot and not bludgeoned to death by the
Indians, who had no guns.