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John Doyle Lee

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John Doyle Lee

Template:Latter Day Saint biography/John D. Lee John Doyle Lee (September 6, 1812 – March 23, 1877) was a prominent early Latter-day Saint (LDS or Mormon) who was executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows massacre.

Early Mormon leader

Lee was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in 1838. He was a friend of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the LDS Church. He was the adopted son of Brigham Young under the early church doctrine the Law of Adoption. In 1839, Lee served a Mormon mission with his boyhood friend, Levi Stewart. Together they preached in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. During this period Lee converted and baptized "Wild Bill" Hickman. Lee practiced plural marriage (called polygamy by non-Mormons) and had nineteen wives (at least eleven of whom eventually left him) along with sixty-seven children. He was allegedly a member of the Danites vigilante group, although this claim has been disputed. Lee was an official scribe for the Council of 50, a group of men who, in the days of Joseph Smith, Jr. and Brigham Young, worked together to provide guidance in practical matters to the church, specifically concerning the move westward out of the United States of America to the Rocky Mountains.

After Smith's murder, Lee joined the bulk of the LDS Church's members in what is now Utah and worked towards establishing several new communities. Some of those communities included Lees Ferry, and Lonely Dell Ranch located near Page, Arizona. A successful and resourceful farmer and rancher, in 1856, Lee became a US Indian Agent in the Iron County area, assigned to help Native Americans establish farms.[1][2] In 1858 Lee served a term as a member of the Utah Territorial Legislature. Following church orders in 1872, Lee moved from Iron County and established a heavily-used ferry crossing on the Colorado River. The site is still called Lee's Ferry. The ranch was named the Lonely Dell Ranch and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, together with the ferry site.

Mountain Meadows massacre

In September 1857, the Baker-Fancher party,[3] an emigrant group from Arkansas, camped at Mountain Meadows, a staging area in southern Utah used to prepare for the long crossing of the Mohave desert by groups traveling to California. They were attacked by a combined group of Native Americans and Mormon militiamen dressed as Native Americans. On the third day of the siege, Lee (not dressed as a Native American) approached the Baker-Fancher encirclement under cover of a white flag and convinced the emigrants to surrender their weapons and property to the Mormons in return for safe conduct to nearby Cedar City, whereupon approximately 120 of the Baker-Fancher,[4] party were killed by Mormon militia, leaving only about 17 small children as survivors.

William Ashworth notes in his autobiography that after the massacre, the "leaders among the white men had bound themselves under the most binding oaths to never reveal their part in it." Lee told Brigham Young that the Indians had been solely responsible, that "no white men were mixed up in it."[5]

Lee later maintained that he had acted under orders from his militia leaders, under protest. Lee remained active in Mormonism and local government for several years.

In 1874, he was arrested and tried for leading the massacre. Lee's first trial ended inconclusively with a hung jury, seemingly because of the prosecution's misguided attempt to portray Brigham Young as the true mastermind of the massacre. A second trial in 1877, in which the prosecution placed the blame squarely on Lee's shoulders, ended with his conviction and he was sentenced to death.[6] Lee never denied his own complicity, but claimed he had not personally killed anyone. He said he had been a vocally reluctant participant and later a scapegoat meant to draw attention away from other Mormon leaders who were also involved.

Lee further maintained that LDS President Brigham Young had no knowledge of the event until after it happened. However, in the Life and Confessions of John D. Lee he wrote, "I have always believed, since that day, that General George A. Smith was then visiting southern Utah to prepare the people for the work of exterminating Captain Fancher's train of emigrants, and I now believe that he was sent for that purpose by the direct command of Brigham Young."[7]

On March 23, 1877, Lee was executed by firing squad at Mountain Meadows on the site of the 1857 massacre. His last words included a reference to Young: "I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young. I do not care who hears it. It is my last word... I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner."[8]

On April 20, 1961, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posthumously reinstated Lee's membership in the church.[9]


Lee had 19 wives and 56 children, and his descendants are now numerous. Former Solicitor General Rex E. Lee is a direct descendant of John Lee as are his sons Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas R. Lee. See also the Lee-Hamblin family for a list of more of his noteworthy descendants.

Film portrayals

John Lee was portrayed by Jon Gries in the film September Dawn (2007).



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  • Kelly, Charles, ed. Journals of John D. Lee, 1846–47 and 1859. Salt Lake City, Priv. print. for R. B. Watt by Western printing company, 1938. Republished: Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984.
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External links

  • Excellent sketch of Lee's life
  • Complete text of book:
  • Project Gutenberg
  • Find a Grave

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