Mormons had been attacked by mobs and forcibly ejected from states. They were viewed as a political threat and targeted for their now-abandoned practice of polygamy.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre remains one of the darkest episodes in the history of Mormonism. The church has apologized for the incident, and Romney addressed it during his 2007 presidential campaign in response to a reporter’s question.
“That was a terrible, awful act carried out by members of my faith,” he told the Associated Press. “There are bad people in any church, and it’s true of members of my church, too.”
Violence erupted between Mormons and non-Mormons elsewhere, such as Carthage, Ill., where Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. And in Independence, Mo., site of the “Missouri Mormon War,” a conflict that resulted primarily in Mormon deaths.
In northwestern Arkansas, at least two monuments commemorate the massacre, including a towering wooden cross erected just six years ago. On it is carved a biblical saying: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord.”
Historians believe the wagon train of 30 families, laden with cattle and other goods, set off in early 1857 seeking a better life in California.
Their journey took them through Utah, where a skittish Mormon population had sought refuge from persecution but were preparing for an invasion by the federal government, which feared the Mormons were plotting treason.
Accounts differ about why tensions escalated, but local Mormon leaders decided to attack the wagon train with the help of a local Native American tribe, on whom they planned to lay the blame. After days of exchanging fire, a Mormon leader approached the camp to offer safe passage. But it was a ruse: The Mormon militia massacred the men and women and many of the children, 120 in all. Seventeen of the youngest were spared, and adopted by local families until federal authorities intervened to return them to Arkansas. Years later, John D. Lee, a Mormon, was tried and executed for the crime.
The Mormon Church has consistently said it was a renegade local militia, not church leaders, who authorized the killings, though some of the victims’ descendants are skeptical of that claim.
The massacre is a familiar story in this region, where blood ties and history are so respected that people can rattle off the myriad ways in which they are related to their neighbors, and every spring, they lay flowers at the graves of their ancestors.
Once impoverished, the area experienced a boom in the early part of this century, driven in part by Wal-Mart, which is headquartered a few miles away in Bentonville.
But it still carries the character of a modest mountain community, where people teach their children to hunt raccoons and relatives are referred to as “kin.” It is so conservatively Christian that former governor Mike Huckabee once derided its politicians as “Shiite Republicans.”
Descendants’ groups headquartered here for years have worked with, and sometimes clashed with, the Mormon Church to create a public memorial at the site of the massacre, which sits on church property. They succeeded last year, when the site became a National Historic Landmark.
“It’s an emotional thing for us,” said Phil Bolinger, president of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation. “When you come of age, when you mature, things to do with your own blood kin becomes more important and you become passionate about it.”
In another quirk of history, both of the main presidential candidates have ties to this region. Parley Pratt, an ancestor of Romney’s and an esteemed figure in the Mormon Church, was murdered in Arkansas shortly before the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Historians have speculated that anger over this killing may have played a part in the massacre.
And in a cemetery nearby is buried Nathaniel Bunch, an ancestor of Obama’s, according to local genealogists, who say Bunch was a contemporary of the wagon train emigrants.
Some here also are skeptical of the president’s faith, believing their choice this fall is between a Mormon and a Muslim (Obama has repeatedly affirmed his Christian faith).
None of that history, though, including the massacre, may make much of a difference at the polls.
“That was 200 years ago,” Doug Steele, 45, a Republican insurance agent related to some of the massacre victims, said over a chicken sandwich at Granny’s Kitchen in Huntsville. “It’s been a long time. You can’t hate forever.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.