City Council votes against displaying John D. Lee statue

Washington City Mayor Ken Neilson (center) listens to a man concerning an application made by the city's historical society to display a statue of John D. Lee, a controversial figure connected to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Washington City, Utah, June 11, 2014 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

WASHINGTON CITY – The Washington City Council denied an application from the city’s historical society Thursday night to place a statue of a controversial historical figure in a memorial plaza honoring early city residents. The figure in question was a statue of John D. Lee, the only man to be convicted and subsequently executed for his involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

George Staheli, president of the Washington City Historical Society, stood before the City Council and recited Lee’s personal history and his perceived role in the massacre.

“The Mountain Meadows Massacre was terrible,” Staheli said, but he argued that Lee’s perceived involvement shouldn’t overshadow the contributions he made to Washington City and the community overall.

Staheli described Lee as a loyal, honest and humble man and also a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He resided in Washington City for 13 years before being sent to Lee’s Ferry in Arizona in 1870.

Staheli also recounted how around a decade ago, city officials created a memorial plaza featuring statues of prominent citizens from Washington City’s early years. Sculptor Jerry Anderson was commissioned to make a series of statues for the project, among which was a figure of Lee. However, due to heated controversy surrounding the issue, Lee was never added to the plaza.

Now, 10 years later, Staheli asked the City Council not to be frightened away from approving the statue’s placement because of the controversy attached to Lee’s name.

Past is prologue

The Mountain Meadows Massacre took place Sept. 11, 1857, and resulted in the deaths of 120 people who belonged to the Baker-Fancher wagon train from Arkansas. They had been passing through the Utah Territory on their way to California. The wagon train stopped in the area, located 8 miles south of Enterprise on state Route 18, and according to some historical accounts, came under attack by Native American Paiutes beginning Sept. 6. The attacks were part of a plan conceived by area Mormon leaders for which the Paiutes were supposedly recruited.

It should be noted that the extent of the Paiutes’ involvement in the incident is disputed. Other accounts point to the the militia attacking the wagon train while disguised as Paiutes.

Lee is said to have helped recruit the Paiutes, as he was a federal Indian agent who worked with the Native Americans in the area. He was a major in the Nauvoo Legion, the territorial militia, and had jurisdiction over the area in which Mountain Meadows was located.

Lee approached the besieged wagon train on Sept. 11 under a white flag. By this time, a number of the immigrants had already been killed or wounded. He offered to protect the group with the aid of militia under terms that they leave their belongings and weapons behind. They did so and began to be escorted out of the area – only to have the militia turn on them and kill an estimated 120 men, women and children.

“Yes, he went down with a white flag, but he did not fire a shot,” Staheli said.

Staheli said Lee and another man led out wagons full of 17 survivors – children believed to be too young to talk or remember the events at Mountain Meadows.

Lee was ultimately arrested in 1874 for his “perceived involvement in the massacre,” Staheli said.

Someone had to accept the guilt for the massacre,” he said. “Many authors used the word ‘scapegoat’…I want to use the words ‘loyal’ and ‘honest.’”

Lee was tried in federal court and found guilty of murder and was subsequently executed by firing squad for his part in the massacre.

Aspects of the massacre remain a mystery to historians, which has helped fuel the fires of controversy surrounding the issue.

“We’ll never know in our lifetimes what happened at Mountain Meadows,” said Richard Williamson, a great-great-grandson of Lee who spoke in favor of his ancestor’s statue.

Plea to honor the man, not the massacre

Although there was no public comment period scheduled at the City Council meeting concerning placing Lee’s statue on city property, Mayor Ken Neilson nonetheless allowed those for and against the application to speak.

Before people got up, however, the mayor asked who in the council chambers had come to support the historical society’s application, and a majority of the hands in the room were raised. Among the crowd were members of the Washington City Historical Society as well as some Lee’s descendants.

“History has strung us along for a lot of years,” said Kenneth Lee, who is also a great-great-grandson of John D. Lee. He said his ancestor took the brunt of the blame for the massacre on behalf of the LDS Church, and he asked the City Council to honor the man’s memory in relation to what he did for their city and not the massacre.

Priscilla Cahoon, of Washington City, also spoke in favor of the Lee statue. “Here is a man that has done a lot for this city and should be recognized,” she said.

Others spoke against the statue, saying that despite the good Lee may have done for the city, history still sees him as a convicted murderer.

“He was convicted in a court of law,” one man said. “He was justifiably found guilty.”

Bill Stolz shared that sentiment when he spoke to the City Council. “The fact is John D. Lee is a mass murderer,” he said. “It was premeditated murder of innocent men, women and children.”

Staheli addressed the City Council once more and reminded them that a monument to Lee had been erected in Arizona recognizing his work at Lee’s Ferry. If he is recognized by another state, Staheli argued, he should be recognized by the city he helped to develop.

Vote against the application

“This is such a controversial issue,” City Councilman Jeff Turek said. “I won’t support it.”

The City Council unanimously voted to reject the historical society’s application in a 4-0 vote. Councilman Ron Truman was absent due to business out of town.

On Tuesday, Neilson said of the issue that he also couldn’t support placing Lee’s statue on city property.

I am not in favor of having something that has caused some controversy in this town,” he said. “There are other things we need to focus on.”

Following the vote, one of the statue’s supporters called the City Council members “chickens.”

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23 Comments

  • Applejack June 12, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    We do not need a statue of a “man” who took an active role in the murder of 120 people erected in a public square. Southern Utah already has enough of a bad reputation for things like rampant pedophilia, fascism, racism and greed that we do not need to be memorializing convicted killers.

    I would like to thank the Washington City Council for not slowing this man to be memorialized in a public square.

    • Applejack June 12, 2014 at 2:46 pm

      not allowing*

    • Brian June 12, 2014 at 3:47 pm

      You clearly live in a different Southern Utah than I do (and your own planet). I’m guessing all of the water is bitter there…

      • Applejack June 13, 2014 at 11:17 am

        Yea I live in reality. I arrived there the moment I opened my eyes and stopped drinking the Mormons brand of Kool-aid. Judging by the comment here and ones you’ve made in the past, you have not. Please, Brian, stop drinking the Kool-aid . What little you have left of your mind depends on it.

  • Opanke June 12, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Times are changing, the city of St. George can and must not continue the charade of the past . Information is readily availible to discount the supposed niceties of this man. He should not be honored, he should stay in the past and a part of history. Such as his placement was, good or bad.

  • Bree June 12, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Do the council members know the real history of Mountain Meadows? This makes me sick just thinking for a moment the council might consider a statue for John D Lee.

    • JOSH DALTON June 12, 2014 at 3:14 pm

      I think that this is another way Washington County is trying to bury the fact the massacre even happened. Why is the statue any worse than Cotton Days?

    • t-RAV Fan June 12, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Did you read the article? The city council voted against allowing the statue to be placed on city property.

  • Bree June 12, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    I see it’s just Staheli — I do apologize.

  • judyzum June 12, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    well, one of my (very) distant ancestors was part of the train (eliza ingram fancher) and was murdered along with the others. I have read considerably about the mountain meadows massacre and about john d. lee. I feel a statue of Lee is appropriate–he was part of the history here. I don’t believe in sanitizing history, or ignoring what happened by not permitting a statue of John d. along with other pioneers. It seems to me it would occasion good dialogue among us present-day citizens.

  • CC June 12, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    The information about the Paiute Native Americans being recruited, and or participating in this atrocious act is incorrect!

    • Mori Kessler Mori Kessler June 12, 2014 at 10:03 pm

      It is true that the extent of the Paiutes’ involvement, or non-involvement, is a disputed fact and one to be duly noted, so thank you for bringing that up. The disputed nature of that point has been noted in the body of the text. The purpose of the history was to give a general background of the controversy surrounding the statue. No disrespect was intended by this article.

  • Glenn June 12, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    I am a Paiute from the Shivwits Indian Reservation. The writer of this article should get their facts accurate. Have any of you heard women and children scream while they are dying? I doubt if any of you have . That’s how awful this thing was. We have a song of the blood that pertains to these men, women, and children. They are still blaming the Paiutes for what the John D. Lee militia did. Seams to me that a lot of people hide behind the Book of Mormon, and now they are still hiding behind the Paiute for what the militia did. Brigham Young was supposedly a prophet and revelator, he should have known what was going on if he was supposedly close to God. My grandma told me stories about the Mountain Meadow massacre, and she always told me that the Paiutes were NOT involved. Nobody ever came to my people and asked them what happened. The John D. Lee militia got away scott free and continued to live in the surrounding area without being prosecuted. There is no justice! This issue will continue to go on forever. If you want an accurate account of the massacre, read “Blood Atonement” by Will Bagley.

    • Mori Kessler Mori Kessler June 12, 2014 at 10:03 pm

      It is true that the extent of the Paiutes’ involvement, or non-involvement, is a disputed fact and one to be duly noted, so thank you for bringing that up. The disputed nature of that point has been noted in the body of the text. The purpose of the history was to give a general background of the controversy surrounding the statue. No disrespect was intended by this article.

  • Just Wondering June 12, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Is there a statue somewhere of a man named Lincoln that was a leader that helped in the planning plots causing many to loss their life. I don’t support the Lee Statue. But all statues are offensive to someone I saw one in Iraq come down now don’t we all wish it was back.

  • Billion June 12, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    There would have to be an impossible amount of explaining and justifying required, the plaque below the statue simply would not be big enough or have enough asterisks, and likely, no one would read past “the only person who was convicted and executed for the Mountain Meadow Massacre”. Lee’s blemished legacy might loosely be compared to the disgraced Joe Paterno, whose statue incidentally was removed. Both, arguably great men with stellar credentials save one major bad decision. I for one am glad that Washington City did not also make a bad decision.

  • It figures June 12, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    “Here is a man that has done a lot for this city and should be recognized”. Really? Just really??? Are you that stupid? Are you on dope? Or are you that far gone and brain washed into believing the crap you are typing. My guess is the latter. Put the kool aid down and wake up.

  • EL JEFE June 13, 2014 at 7:17 am

    Putting up the statue of John D. Lee would be like putting up a statue of Charles Manson next to the infamous Hollywood sign for all he did for the movie industry.
    Thank you City of Washington for doing the right thing.

  • suck it up you wuss June 13, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Holy …. people. Yes he did do horrible things, according to history over 100 years ago. Nobody knows the exact true story whether; whether or not you think you do, you don’t. And whether or not you agree with their decision, it’s the idea that they think they can pick and weave history. They are the idiots for thinking they can choose what we can, and cannot display in our history. There is no point in trying to hide the past, and the city council just looks like a bunch of cowardly chickens for refusing a statue of a man who was convicted of crimes according to other people’s words.

    • Really? June 13, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      Interesting point. Why would anybody base their sole beliefs on the word of some “witnesses”.

  • Applejack June 13, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Why stop at John Lee? Why don’t we erect a statue of Jeffery Dahmer or Charles Manson? Both if those men were convicted or terrible atrocities but they sure did a lot of good for the movie industry! Since we’re going that far, why stop there? How about BTK, Osama Bin Laden, John Gotti, Al Capone, Lizzie Borden or one of the many other killers throughout history. Of course Lizzie Borden hasn’t done nearly as much good for the movie industry as old Charlie and Jeff but her nursery rhyme has been replayed on the playgrounds of our youth for almost 100 years ” Lizzie Borden took an Axe…” Surely that deserves at least a small statue somewhere. 🙂

  • Many June 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    The cream really does rise to the top when you talk about stupid

    • It sure does June 13, 2014 at 11:27 pm

      How about a statue of Hitler? After all he did say “the youth are our future”. What a great guy. He did a lot for his community………. Man you people live in another world.

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