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Photo of John Doyle LeeJohn Doyle Lee

(1812-1877)

A man whose life was stained by tragedy, John D. Lee is perhaps the most controversial figure in Mormon history.

Born in 1812 in Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory, Lee had a tumultuous childhood. At age three, his mother died after years of lingering illnesses, leaving Lee to his alcoholic father. From age seven to sixteen Lee was raised in an uncle's family. He worked for a time as a mail carrier before assuming managerial responsibility for his uncle's farm, then worked several years as a store clerk in Galena, Illinois. Finally, Lee moved to Vandalia, Illinois, where he met and married Agatha Ann Woolsey in 1833.

It was in Vandalia that Lee and his wife encountered Mormonism. In 1837 a Mormon missionary converted the couple to the young religion, which had been formally organized only seven years before. Lee's religious passion quickly became the driving force in his life, prompting him to move in 1838 to a homestead near the Mormon town of Far West, Missouri.

The large influx of Mormons into Northwest Missouri caused enormous tensions with the non-Mormon ("gentile") population. Many of the gentiles were hostile on purely religious grounds, but they also resented the political and economic power which the cohesive Mormon community had acquired. Individual confrontations soon exploded into near warfare involving murder, destruction of property, and cycles of raids and counter-raids between the Mormons and gentiles. Lee played an active role in many of the military conflicts, and soon became a member of the Danite Band, the formally organized Mormon militia. Finally Missouri's governor ordered the Mormons expelled or exterminated, sending an army which surrounded their community and forced the Mormon leadership to surrender.

As the Mormons began preparing for their trek eastward to Nauvoo, Illinois, Lee's religious devotion continued to strengthen. In 1838 he was promoted within the priesthood and made a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, the body which directed the church's extensive missionary activities. From 1839 to 1844 he spent much of his time winning converts in Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky. His commitment impressed the church leadership, and in 1843 he was chosen to guard the home of the church's founder and prophet, Joseph Smith.

John Lee's religious fervor only grew in intensity as the young religion entered its darkest hour. In June 1844 a mob dragged Joseph Smith and his brother from their jail cell in Carthage, Illinois, and murdered them, causing a crisis of leadership within the church. In addition, there was internal dissension over the doctrine of plural marriage, which had been formally announced within the church in 1843. Lee accepted the new doctrine, soon taking five more wives, and he remained devotedly loyal to the church leadership, especially the new leader, Brigham Young, whom Lee assisted during the Mormon flight to the "Winter Quarters" near the confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers.

Having been persecuted from their religion's birthplace in New York to Missouri and Illinois, the Mormons had by 1846 decided to seek their own Zion in the American West. This journey, the first leg of which was the removal from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters, was to take the Mormons to Utah. By 1847 the first wagons began arriving in Utah's Salt Lake valley. After serving briefly in the Mexican-American War as a member of Brigham Young's "Mormon Battalion," Lee joined the gathering masses of Zion in Utah.

For the next decade, Lee played an important role in expanding the Mormon refuge in the West. He became a prosperous farmer and businessman in Southwestern Utah, helping to establish communal mining, milling and manufacturing complexes. He became the local bishop and the Indian agent to the nearby Paiute Indians. And he continued to be a frequent visitor and trusted confidant of the church leadership in Salt Lake City.

Even in the far West, however, neither Lee nor his co-religionists were beyond the reach of the country whose persecution they had fled. In 1857, prompted by complaints about church power in the territory and a public outcry against polygamy, the United States sent an army to Utah, raising Mormon fears that the final annihilation was at hand. This invasion was the backdrop for the still-controversial Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a wagon train of about 120 gentile immigrants, suspected of hostility toward the church, was destroyed by Mormon and Paiute forces in southwestern Utah.

Lee's involvement in the massacre -- the extent of which is still vigorously disputed and will probably never be known -- was to haunt him for the next two decades, and would ultimately lead to his execution. He had written a letter to Brigham Young shortly after the massacre which laid the blame squarely on the Paiute Indians, but even among his own neighbors rumors of Lee's guilt abounded. In 1858 a federal judge came to southwestern Utah to investigate the massacre and Lee's part in it, but Lee went into hiding and local Mormons refused to cooperate with the investigation. Folk songs dating back to this year blamed Lee for the massacre. A warrant for his arrest remained outstanding.

Although the church sought to lower Lee's profile, by removing him as a probate judge, the Mormon leadership continued to return his immense loyalty. In 1860, Brigham Young visited one of Lee's mansions and publicly praised his personal industriousness and communal economic contributions. In 1861 the residents of Harmony, Utah, elected him as their presiding elder.

But Lee could not escape the legacy of Mountain Meadows. By the late 1860s, his diary, and letters from several of his wives, speak of persistent harassment by his Mormon neighbors for his connection with the massacre, including threatening letters and the ostracization of his children. In 1870 a Utah paper openly condemned Brigham Young for covering up the massacre. That same year Young exiled Lee to a remote part of northern Arizona and excommunicated him from the church, instructing his former confidant to "make yourself scarce and keep out of the way."

The next several years brought a continued decline in Lee's fortunes. He had several episodes of severe illness; drought followed by torrential rains destroyed many of his buildings and crops; former neighbors preyed upon his livestock and otherwise took advantage of his absence; several of his wives deserted him. Nevertheless, he was managing to eke out a living in a homesteader's cabin near the Colorado River in Northern Arizona (at one point hosting John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition before their trip through the Grand Canyon) when a sheriff captured him in November 1874.

Lee's first trial ended inconclusively with a hung jury, probably because of the prosecution's misguided attempt to portray Brigham Young as the true mastermind of the massacre. A second trial, in which the prosecution placed the blame squarely on Lee's shoulders, ended with his conviction. The trials were the subject of enormous public attention and gave rise to many accounts of the massacre and of Lee's life. These accounts, naturally, vary widely in their factual accuracy, but many contain the classic elements of anti-Mormon paranoia: fear of Mormon political and economic power and horror at the sexual depravity assumed to be implicit in plural marriage. Most play up the fact that Lee had numerous wives and emphasize the plight of the women and children killed and captured at Mountain Meadows. Lee himself continued to profess his innocence.

Nearly twenty years after the massacre, Lee was executed at Mountain Meadows. Although angry at Brigham Young's treatment of him, Lee's final words maintained the deep religious faith that had marked his entire adult life:

I have but little to say this morning. Of course I feel that I am at the brink of eternity, and the solemnities of eternity should rest upon my mind at the present... I am ready to die. I trust in God. I have no fear. Death has no terror.


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