1869 Murder in a Mormon Ward House?

by Sandra Tanner


    In 1869 three non-Mormons, part of the John Wesly Powell expedition of the Colorado River, were murdered in southern Utah. Were they killed by Indians or Mormons? Was it due to indiscretions with an Indian woman or mistaken identity?

    The Salt Lake Tribune, in 1993, printed a story entitled "Did Murders Happen in Mormon Ward? 1883 Letter May Solve Mystery of Trio." Reporter Vern Anderson wrote:

    "One of the abiding mysteries of Colorado River exploration remains the fate of three men who left John Wesley Powell's first expedition in 1869 and headed for the Mormon settlements to the north.

    "A letter that lay for a century at the bottom of an old trunk raises an intriguing new possibility. The trio made it to Toquerville, only to be murdered by a man who mistook them for federal agents chasing a participant in the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre.

    "A never-before-published 1883 letter from William Leany to John Steele refers to 'the day those three were murdered in our ward & the murderer killed to stop the shedding of more blood.' "

(click to enlarge)
William Leany and his wife, Elizabeth Scearce Leany
[color added]

    Further on in the article we read:

    "Larsen speculates the three Powell men may have been killed in the Toquerville chapel—which still stands—by Eli N. Pace, a son-in-law of John D. Lee who was trying 'to protect Lee from three armed federal men coming out of nowhere.' "(Salt lake Tribune, Nov. 28, 1993, p. B3)

(click to enlarge)
Toquerville LDS chapel
[color added]

    John D. Lee was one of the Mormon leaders in southern Utah who was implicated in the Mormon massacre of non-Mormons at Mountain Meadows, in southern Utah, in 1857. In the book Zion in the Courts we read:

    "To fully understand that event, one must understand the mind-set of the Mormons in 1857. On July 24, 1857, during the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the settlement of the Great Basin, Brigham Young informed his people that an army [sent by the US government] was marching on Utah. This provoked anti-American sentiment, and the people were prepared to fight for Zion. A part of this war hysteria was a mistrust of all outsiders, and an order from Brigham Young to stop all trading with emigrees... It was in this climate of hostility that an emigrant group entered the territory....Indians and nearby Mormon settlers attacked them, killing between 115 and 120 men, women, and children... Responsibility for the massacre remains unclear, but attempts were made to place blame on the Mormon leadership." (Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, by Edwin Firmage and Richard Mangrum, University of Illinois Press, 1988, p. 247)

    It is easy to see why Lee's son-in-law may have assumed that the three strangers he encountered in 1869 may have been federal agents looking for Lee. (Lee was later arrested and became the only man convicted of the massacre and executed in 1877 by the Federal Government.) Once it was realized that the three men had been killed in a case of mistaken identity, the local Mormons must have feared further government investigations and reprisals and decided to take matters into their own hands and kill the murderer.

    The recently found letter by Leany adds new light to the 1869 incident. Anderson explains how the letter was found:

    "The Leany letter was part of a trove of hundreds of documents kept by Steele, a soldier, churchman, Parowan mayor, judge, county recorder and assessor who died in 1903. A Steele great-grandson, Gary Callister, let Larsen make copies of many of the documents before giving them to Brigham Young University in 1990....

    "Kerry Bate, a Steele descendant who is writing a family history, said there is no question the letter is authentic and he is intrigued by Larsen's conclusions. But he questions Leany's soundness of mind, citing a severe skull fracture he suffered in an 1857 beating.

    "Curiously, the beating was punishment for Leany's having fed and given supplies to a member of the ill-fated emigrant wagon train [Mountain Meadows massacre]....

    "On Sept. 7, 1869, a telegram of unspecified origin was sent to Mormon apostle Erastus Snow in St. George, saying Powell's three men had been killed by three Shivwits [Indians] for having shot 'a squaw gathering seed.'" (Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 28, 1993, p. B3)

(click to enlarge)
Sample of William Leany Letter
See Canyon Legacy, n.17, Spring 1993, p.15

    The incident is also discussed in Michael Quinn's book Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Quinn states:

    "Three men left Powell's group to go to 'some Mormon settlements north of the river' and 'get some grub and return to our boats and continue on down the river.' On 7 September 1869 an unsigned telegram (with no place of origin given) informed Apostle Erastus Snow at St. George, Utah, of their deaths '5 days ago, one Indian's day's journey from Washington, [Utah].'...Powell's men expressed suspicion that Mormons were involved in these killings, but the identity and motive of the killer(s) are still unclear." (Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, p. 250)

    The 1883 letter by Leany was first published in an article called "The 'Letter' or Were the Powell Men Really Killed by Indians?" by Wesley Larsen, in Canyon Legacy, Spring 1993, published by the Southeastern Utah Society of Arts and Sciences, Inc.

    Referring to the Canyon Legacy article, Quinn comments:

"Larsen...theorized that Eli N. Pace committed the murders because he thought the three men [from the Powell expedition] were actually federal deputies trying to arrest his father-in-law John D. Lee for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Shot in the heart under mysterious circumstances in January 1870, Pace's death was declared a suicide by an inquest jury of three Mormons from Toquerville, including Isaac C. Haight. See previously cited references for Haight's role in the massacre, also John D. Lee diary, 19 Jan. 1870, in Cleland and Brooks, A Mormon Chronicle, 2:133-134, for Pace's death and inquest. Leany's letter...clearly indicated that the perpetrator [Mr. Pace] was killed to avoid retribution on the LDS community." (Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, p. 534)


William Leany Letter Extracts as printed in:
Canyon Legacy
, n.17, Spring 1993, p.13-14

Dear Bro.

    After my love & a thousand thanks for your kind letter of Dec. 11th, allow me to say that your first statement...we had been acquainted for over thirty-seven years and not one jar between us tells the whole story... I might say the Berrys, the Adamses, the Meekses, the Hendricks, the Lewises & others have known me much longer...and it all shows that if Pres. Snow had been an honest, fair man, that would hear both sides, the same might be said of he & I, but all this and all other proof shows that he has been led by Bill Smith's dog & a few other drunken, adulterous, murderous wretches. As to your idea of my repenting & confessing all to get those blessings in the house of God we so much value, I must say that I think that would wholly unfit me...for God shall bear me witness that I am clean of all of which they accuse me & they guilty of all that I accuse them & much more.

    Here let me ask you to join me & let us sanction, ratify and confirm that unholy and ungodly curse of Pres. Snow with two or three provisos, first that the innocent go free & the curse fall on the guilty though it be I and mine, he & his...even Lewis & all the dogs wherewith he has dogged me & mine for the last thirty years. And I cannot see that for me to confess to a lie would make me more worthy or they less guilty...My object is & has been to stay the overwhelming tide of thieving, whoredom, murder...& like wickedness...that threaten to desolate the land...

    You are far from ignorant of those deeds of blood from the day the picket fence was broke on my head to the day those three were murdered in our ward & the murderer killed to stop the shedding of more blood. And you know too much of the raising of those tax bills & the deal with Capt. Hooper...

    But is has long been in my mind, aside from these deeds of blood, that my life would be well spent if laid down to establish one or all of the principles that no court, Quorum, Council, or conference is fit to hear any case unless they have the power & the will to fetch in the witnesses & protect them from insult, instead of making parties into charges & through mock trials, without the shadow of preparation as the records & all other proof show has been done with me... If you had heard the Prophet Joseph tell as I did how Uriah would get even with David and how many of the crushed of our day would get even with their oppressors, I think you side with me.

    As you speak of my often use of hard words, I will refer you to the fact that I only recently told you of Jim Lewises career with G.P. Adams & Bill Smith, though I had known it for thirty years. If this is not enough proof of my reserve in connection with our long intimacy & uniform peace, please name one time or place that I spoke out of place or out of season, for I think I can endure the rebuke of a friend. But here let me say that the fact of my hard speeches being so true...that none dare deal with me notwithstanding their high positions...& then bulldoze out of my witnesses, promising me a transcript, & the council gilding & lying over it, for what I knew for over a year, & then denying my right to call for the transcript all show just what I knew for years...

    Many of my friends have hinted to me that I must be sacrificed to maintain the dignity of the priesthood, but remember Br. Taylor's promise that he would cleanse the inside of the platter if he began at the Quorum of Twelve, & his career certainly gives hope, though Pres. Young said he could not touch the big lions, for the less lions that surround them, & many old prophets said the shepherds would not judge between fat and lean cattle.

    If Br. Taylor will only allow their own records, the lions are all so much worse than Judges A.A. King, Turman. Black and Mann worse...for their meanness, & until we right up these wrongs we may lay hands on our mouths & cease to bray about Gentile courts, committees, and congresses, for God would cease to be God, unless he made good the saying of Moses and Jesus, that if you devour one another you will be devoured...& Jesus said the measure you mete shall be meted unto you...

    The old Prophets said of the blood and violence in the city...and...if that was not fulfilled in the killing the three in one room in our own ward, please say what it was... For all this & much more unrighteous dominion shall we be cast out of the land, unless we arise, cleanse the inside of the platter, & then it will rest from its blood & have its sabbaths, which I, you, and God knows it does not enjoy now. And though I have not hinted at half your points, or half the points on my mind yet, I must close hoping you will be good as to carefully scan & note on the back any faults you may find in it. But be assured that I will, God being my helper, clear my skirts of the mobbing, raking, stealing, whoredom, murder, suicide, infanticide, lying, slander & all wickedness & abominations even in high places.

So, no more, but remain your Bro. in the Gospel

Wm. Leany Sr."


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