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.”
- John D. Lee profile – Washington County Historical Society
- Mountain Meadows Massacre – 2007 Ensign article on LDS.org
- Mountain Meadows Association – Nonprofit group website
- Mountain Meadow Massacre to be officially designated as national landmark on Sept. 11
- ON Kilter: Mormon mavericks: Juanita Brooks, filmmakers kickstarting her story
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