Story of Lee's Ferry and the Mountain Meadows Masacre

The story of the complex character behind Lee's Ferry in the Grand Canyon and his part in killing 120 people

Lee’s Ferry is the site of the start for most river trips through the Grand Canyon. Named for John D. Lee, the ferry provided the only access across more than 300 miles of river for many years. Lee established the ferry in 1872 and ran it for five years until his death.

The story might end there, but Lee is a complex character who deserves more attention. Prominent in the Mormon Church, Lee had 19 wives and 67 children. However, this church-going man was executed by firing squad in 1877 for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre 20 years before.

The massacre involved a group of emigrants known as the Fancher Party who were camped at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah preparing for their final push across the Mohave Desert when they were attacked by a group of Mormon Militia disguised as Native Americans.

The reason for the attack is unclear. It was a time of great tension between Mormons and the rest of the United States, but what the militia hoped to accomplish by this attack is unknown.

After an initial siege, Lee approached the emigrants saying he’d negotiated safe passage for them with protection from their supposed Native American attackers if they surrendered their weapons. The group agreed, whereupon the militia and their Paiute allies proceeded to kill all but the children under 8 years of age.

One hundred and twenty men, women and children died that day. For almost two decades, the incident was covered up, but in 1874, Lee was brought to trial. He was convicted and executed in 1877.

Never denying his complicity in the massacre, Lee did insist he was acting on orders from high up in the church.

Execution of John D. Lee
Execution of John D. Lee; 1886, J.P. Dunn, Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West, New York: Harper & Brothers