A 7-foot bronze statue of Mountain Meadows Massacre participant John D. Lee will join these other four figures of founders of Washington City in the city's Pioneer Plaza. Ceremonies are planned for May 7.
(Mark Havnes/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Town takes heat for plans to honor Lee

By Mark Havnes
The Salt Lake Tribune

WASHINGTON CITY -- The image of John D. Lee using a white flag to coax victims of the Mountain Meadows massacre from the safety of their circled wagons more than 146 years ago is indelibly etched in the minds of many of their descendants.

That is why the thought of Washington City erecting a 7-foot bronze statue of Lee is abhorrent to them.

Kent Bylund, a former official with the Mountain Meadows Association who lives in nearby St. George, says the decision to put up the statue of Lee in a top hat is an embarrassment for the region. He said Washington City officials never consulted with the victims' descendants.

"It's like they don't even exist," said Bylund, referring to the immigrants' descendants.

Despite the criticism, Washington City officials this week reaffirmed their decision to install the statue of Lee -- not for his role in the massacre, but as one of the founders of the city, located north of St. George and about 30 miles southeast of the meadows where 120 men, women and children were killed by Mormon settlers and their Paiute allies.

The statue of Lee -- the only person found guilty and executed for the crimes -- will join four other similar bronze statues and cameos of Washington City founding pioneers. Ceremonies for the Lee statue are planned for May 7.

"Lee was the man who carried the white flag to get people to lay down their arms so they could be murdered," said Don Baker, whose great-great-grandfather John T. Baker was a leader of the Arkansas immigrants traversing Utah on their way to California. "He was a professional murderer for the [LDS] Church."

Baker, who lives in Lawndale, Calif. is a member of the Mountain Meadows Associ- ation, formed in 1990 to help reconcile the descendants of those killed in the massacre with those whose ancestors took part in the murders.

The massacre has always been a dark page in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1999, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a monument honoring those killed in the massacre while deploring the event -- a gesture Baker applauds.

Washington City Mayor Terrill Clove defends the city's actions.

He said descendants were not consulted because the statue is not about Lee's role in the massacre, but about his part in the city's creation in the summer of 1857, just months before the tragic event.

Clove said the majority of the six letters he has received and the opinions of residents he talks to on the street are in support of the city's decision, while phone calls to him and letters in the area's newspaper oppose the statue.

Officials still must decide whether a plaque will be posted with Lee's statue that would mention Lee's participation in the massacre.

For Cheri Baker Walker, a great-great-grandchild of slain immigrant Baker, the issue of erecting a bronze likeness of Lee is synonymous with putting up a statue in honor of executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

"I'm sure McVeigh did some good things in his life," said Walker. "But his deed in the bombing outweighs anything good he may have done."