Wednesday, October 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> Showdown at Alma key to massacre

Leader executive editor

People in Crawford County often talk about a Mormon leader’s murder near Alma in 1857 and the slaughter of a group of Arkansans in Utah a few months later known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Once Mitt Romney began running for president, there was talk about how his great-great-grandfather was the one killed by a jealous husband after his wife ran off with the Mormon leader and became his 12th bride.

If you search the Internet, you’ll learn about Parley Parker Pratt, one of the 12 Mormon Apostles, who collected wives well into his 40s. You’ll also learn about the furious husband who searched for Pratt in several states before hunting him down less than 200 miles west of here.

The drama would make an interesting mini-series: It might be called “Incident at Alma: Prelude to the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

Pratt, a much-traveled missionary, had taken up with a woman named Eleanor McLean in California, and when her estranged husband, Hector, found out about it, McLean caught up with him at Fort Gibson in Oklahoma, just over the Arkansas line near Fort Smith.

Pratt was put on trial in Van Buren for taking McLean’s kids away from their father, but a judge let Pratt go for insufficient evidence. The judge even offered him a gun for protection, but Pratt refused, telling the judge, “Gentleman, I do not rely upon weapons of that kind. My trust is in my God.”

Pratt, who was 50, headed east toward Alma on horseback and hoped to make it through the rugged Boston Mountains north of town and then into Indian territory.

McLean and two confederates followed Pratt in the rain and found him on the Winn family farm in the community of Fine Springs just north of Alma, not far from where I-540 and Hwy. 71 now cut through. McLean stabbed Pratt with a Bowie knife and shot him for good measure.

As he lay dying, Pratt supposedly proclaimed, “I die a firm believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I wish you to carry this my dying testimony. I know that the Gospel is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the living God, I am dying a martyr to the faith.”

Pratt said he wanted to be buried in Utah, but he was buried near where he died.

Pratt’s grave, off Hwy. 282 between Alma and Mountain-burg, has an impressive monument and is open to visitors. A few years ago, his descendants tried to move his remains, but none were found there.

Newspapers proclaimed Hector a hero and urged president James Buchanan to make him governor of Utah. Instead, he died in obscurity a decade later in New Orleans. Eleanor taught school in Utah and died in 1874.

Mormons consider Pratt a martyr, although church historians concede that Eleanor and Hector were estranged but still married. Polygamy often meant not only that Mormon men had several wives — or plural marriages, as they were called — but many of the women were often still married to other men. Plural marriages indeed.

When most Mormons agreed to follow U.S. law and abandoned polygamy, Mitt Romney’s grandfather, Gaskell, joined a Mormon colony in Mexico. Pratt’s granddaughter, Anna Pratt Romney, who was Gaskell’s wife, and their son, George, Mitt’s father, were born there.

Pratt’s murder was avenged in September 1857 with the arrival of the Baker-Fancher wagon train from Arkansas, which had started out in Harrison (Boone County) and headed for California. Some of the emigrants were from Crawford County, the others from Johnson, Carroll and Marion counties in north Arkansas. They picked up another group in Missouri, and the party grew to 120 adults and several children.

They hoped to buy supplies at Cedar City in southern Utah, their last stop before California. But they were refused provisions, maybe because they were infidels. They appeared to have plenty of money, making them an easy target for robbers.

Word also got around that most of the travelers were from Arkansas, and angry Mormons made the connection to their apostle’s murder in Crawford County.

There were rumors that Eleanor McLean Pratt had recognized one of the travelers as one of those responsible for Pratt’s death.

The massacre took place at scenic Mountain Meadows, 35 miles from Cedar City. Several of the Mormon attackers were disguised as Indians, although there were a few real Indians involved in the massacre.

The travelers had circled their wagons and the standoff continued for several days, when John D. Lee, one of the Mormon leaders, entered the circle with a white flag.

The settlers thought the fighting was over and put their weapons down. Instead, the men and women were led one by one about a mile away from where the fighting took place and were shot by Mormons or their Indian accomplices.

The victims weren’t buried for more than a year, when the Army gave them a proper burial. Lee was executed and other Mormons were ex-communicated.

Seventeen children were spared as they were considered too young to understand what had happened and wouldn’t tell the world about the massacre.

They were taken to Mormon homes but did not stay there for long. The federal government ordered them reunited with their extended families in Arkansas.

Perhaps decades later, during the great migrations of the Depression, they wound up in California after all.