Q: “Had any person ever been injured for not obeying?”

Johnson: “Yes, sir; they had.”

Q: “And from what you had seen before that, you thought it was your duty, under the circumstances, to obey counsel, or commands given you by Haight?”

Johnson: “Yes, sir.”

– Excerpt from Nephi Johnson’s testimony in the trials of John D. Lee (September 1876)

Here’s a short poem I wrote through the eyes of my homey, Nephi Johnson. An Indian interpreter that spent his life secretly struggling to make peace with the role he had played in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857.

“Do Your Duty”

My eyes are dark reflecting horrid deeds that play within my head
When I pray, it can’t outweigh the innocent blood I’ve helped to shed
Long have I feared my soul is forfeit and can’t negotiate my fate
Heaven knows my harrowed mind, so Outer Darkness now awaits

There are others in this town that you might pass from day-to-day
We might nod to you in earnest or kneel in church with you to pray
But kept between us is a secret of events that once occurred
And swore to cut each other’s throats before we’d utter up one word

From the red rocks down in Tonaquint to the fields in Parowan
Zion’s surface seems at peace, but much has changed since ‘57
It wasn’t many seasons past that we’d been overcome with zeal
That the end of days was imminent and the Utah War was real

You cannot fathom if you hadn’t heard as George A. Smith would talk
Why we stained the banks of the Santa Clara redder than the rock
Now it pervasively still resonates that each of us still knows
The atrocity we orchestrated down at Mountain Meadows

Now I, Nephi Johnson, while being duly sworn depose
Broader detail of that day when we defiled the Mountain Meadows
Though I don’t avow an innocence of blood that’s on my hands
Unless you heard the words of Smith, then you could never understand

One dreary autumn night, two men came knocking on my door
Bearing orders from the Major to report down to the fort
I was 2nd in command of Nauvoo Legion Company D
And had no doubt as to the reason Major Haight had called on me

See, only days before, a wagon train caused a bigger stir than most
It was a cattle team from Arkansas on their way down to the coast
Among the train, a man or two got drunk and looked to fight
They made savage claims that sealed the fate of that wagon train that night

“We have the gun that killed your prophet! Yea, we shot him in his cell!”
“We’re gonna come back with an army and we’ll kill you all as well!”
These words served as the trigger that every Mormon man and wife
Now knew these Gentiles had to pay the price for Joseph’s life

Looking back, it’s hard to say the way the tensions had begun
But I recall it may have stemmed from sermons roared by Brigham Young
He and Jedediah Grant began to chastise and require
That every Mormon prove their faith and pass through Reformation’s fire

They said that we were doomed and that the leaders spoke for God
They said some must atone their sins through the shedding of their blood
They said we must obey and not trespass against the Lord
They appointed staunch enforcers as the bishops of our wards

And in those days, going through the Mormon temple meant you would
Take a rousing Oath of Vengeance to avenge the prophet’s blood
So in hearing these two drunkards, every man in town now knew
The time had come to do his duty that he’d sworn that he would do

Now, Haight was down in Cedar calling men to leave in haste
To make for the Meadows with a spade and there was zero time to waste
Said the Arkansans were “used up” and there were bodies there to bury
Though I had my apprehensions to be wary of his story

See, I had learned to speak the Pahvant and the Paiute tongue with ease
Until even Chief Kanosh had come to trust my expertise
So for Isaac Haight to call on me specifically must mean
“Lamanites” had helped to kill those drunken men who’d made a scene

Then Haight told me that John D. Lee had proposed to him a plan
They would use up the Arkansans; every woman, child, and man
Until Lee got into trouble with the Indians and now
I must go to Mountain Meadows and resolve it all somehow

Haight said with firm sincerity, these Arkansans had been with
The mobbers that had murdered Parley Pratt and Joseph Smith
This hysteria with these immigrants was exactly as foretold
When George A. Smith had come to Parowan a couple weeks ago

See, when Apostle Smith had come, he told us all to be prepared
For the end of days was nigh and only Zion would be spared
And Haight and I had sworn before Almighty God we would
Pray for vengeance on the nation and avenge the prophet’s blood

Back when Joseph Smith was killed, I was a young boy in Nauvoo
But I was talking to the man who had been first to hear the news
Isaac Haight had been a sentry at the temple gates that night
And as the rider came from Carthage, Haight was first to come in sight

“My heart shrunk down within me and could not resist the need-
I felt to curse the perpetrator of that diabolical deed.
I still recall the twinge of panic as Old Porter rode through town.
“Goddamn them! They have killed him!” We heard the cry and gathered ‘round.

“The morning next, I saw the body of that man I so revere.
I still feel that memory wreathing me in rage and constant fear.
And so, dear Brother Johnson, I won’t spare myself the nerve-
If these bastards all get sent to hell, it’s ‘cause it’s what they all deserve.”

A fear grew from within me to object this man’s resolve
I now worried for my life if I refused to be involved
Then he told me that a rider had been sent to Brigham Young
With a note to ask for counsel what the Lord wants to be done

I suggested Brother Haight await what his instructions are
But he said he feared that John D. Lee’d already gone too far
So I must go with John M. Higbee to help settle the dispute
And proceed disposing bodies that were used up by the Paiutes

In my life, I’ve always sought to be obedient to God
And if my leaders ask for service, I know to close my mouth and nod
But when Haight asked, “Where’s your rifle?” in curiosity, I said,
“I was not aware I’d need a gun to bury up the dead.”

Higbee and I made for the meadow with our stomachs tied in ropes
Vexing desperately to keep God’s kingdom’s grand design in scope
The loudest silence of my life, staving off incessant chills
As the fiery words of George A. Smith seemed to echo off the hills

Now it had been a month before, since Apostle Smith had come to preach
I’d felt the passion of the Spirit warm the crowd during his speech
He’d been sent down from Salt Lake by Prophet Brigham Young himself
For it was time to defend Zion and would take every Mormon’s help

“Johnston’s Army’s on the march, and we cannot let them through!
We’ll use up the whole Legion if it’s what we have to do!
We can’t let him get through Echo or all hope we have is gone!
So be prepared to hide your wives and to touch fire to your home!

“Not a single grain be traded! Let no Gentile tread thy farms!
We must drill the Legion daily and call every man to arms!
The Second Coming nears, my friends, yet the news gets bleaker still…
I report as well, in Arkansas, our dear Parley Pratt was killed!

“So now all ye Saints are called upon to hold to thine accord!
These Gentiles must atone their trespasses against the Lord!
We’ll stand as one and defend our land! Let the nation all take heed!
Recall the Oaths that ye have sworn and atone them for this deed!

“Call upon the Lamanites! Their time is soon to come!
Do your duty! One and all! Let Heavenly Father’s work be done!
Do your duty! One and all! And feel the Spirit in ye risin’!
Until the Savior doth return to rule His people here in Zion!”

“Do your duty” were the orders resonating once again
Was this what Smith intended when his speech had reached its end?
As I and Higbee rode out to Mountain Meadows towards the fight
These struggles deep within me wrestled on throughout the night

We camped the night at Hamblin’s Ranch, a few miles from the creek
Hamblin’s wife was stricken ill, but had been feeling well that week
Jacob Hamblin’s family’s one I always have admired
Their ranch, a welcome stop when I was traveling and tired

Jacob was away and traveling with Apostle Smith
He’d chosen a 2nd wife, Dudley’s sister, who traveled with
So they were up in Salt Lake City dressing in their Temple Clothes
And weren’t there to see Hell open up and swallow Mountain Meadows

Then Albert, Jacob’s Paiute son, told us what already had transpired
Mormons with painted faces had jumped from the trees and fired
Albert said they’d been assisted by some of Tutsegavits’ tribe
But the big surprise was hearing most the wagon train was still alive

When I had left from Cedar, I’d been told the fight was done
But that was not the story I was hearing now from Jacob Hamblin’s son
The bodies we were to bury were still alive and suddenly I knew that-
I hadn’t been called to clean the fighting, I was being called to do it

We rode before the dawn and reached Lee’s camp before first light
Soon Lee and I discussed his plan to use the Lamanites
His plan to lure the immigrants to leave their wagon fort
Was by promising them safety and an escort back up north

The immigrants must acquiesce to forfeit all their guns
And give the Indians their cattle and they’d all be left alone
But in actuality, I was to tell the Indians to hide
And when they heard the signal called – slaughter everyone in sight

I yearned to cry in protest and not heed to such a task
Or to simply tell the Indians different orders than he’d asked
But if you’d seen the look in John Lee’s eyes, you’d have done the deed as well
The man looked of a devil and would have cut my throat himself

Many men were told the immigrants had already been used up
That the battle had been had and they were just to clean it up
But we’d all been drawn to action by the ruse of Isaac Haight
And now feared what fate might come to those that don’t participate

I knew that was a consequence I didn’t want to pay
I’d seen the fare of men in town who chose not to obey
And even in that camp were men refusing to engage
Their salvation held for ransom as a pawn in John Lee’s rage

“I’d defend them ‘fore I’d use them up,” came Brother Holly’s staunch appeal
So I found that Lee chained Holly to a sturdy wagon wheel
“Bloody murderers! The lot of you! May the curse of God come on you!”
But Lee said God was on our side and we had no choice but think it true

Again, I say if you weren’t there, you cannot know the times
To stand against the Lord’s Select was the gravest sort of crime
There was panic ruling Mormon hearts that atoning for your sins
Meant Porter Rockwell and the Danites might be waiting around the bend

So I did as I was told and hid with Paiutes at my side
And watched women and children passing by us as we’d hide
Lee was there up in the front and all the men were further back
Mormon trigger fingers quivered and awaited the attack

I heard, “Halt! Do your duty!” and then the meadow was ablaze
And I will spare you from the horrors that went on there in that place
But I swear that not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could erase
The terror-stricken looks on every bloody Arkansan face

Every Mormon man in earshot of John Higbee’s battle cry
Pulled the trigger on the immigrant that he’d been walking by
Then I watched as Lee led Lamanites in slaughtering the front
Where the women and the children stood there helplessly and stunned

The whole were dead in moments, in five minutes it was done
The Nauvoo Legion had done its duty – Not with a spade, but with a gun
The next morning, Haight and Bishop Dame both joined us at the site
And confirmed to us these sinners had been atoned and been made right

Then every man raised his arm up to the square and swore an oath
That if any of us speak a word, we’ll be giving up our throat
And as the corpses of the immigrants finally entered in the ground
I was charged with Bishop Klingensmith to run the cattle back to town

Now Southern Utah’s hot as hell. It steals your energy like a thief
You spend every moment sweaty, tired, and praying for relief
The Meadow was a green oasis cherished as escape
From scorching rocks and other trials along the Southern ‘scape

But since 9/11 of ’57, the only hell I’ll ever know
Is that scene that I beheld, forever damning Mountain Meadow
It will never be the same for me. The oasis is no more
One hundred and fifteen died that day, and for what? I know not for

I had heard three men escaped and ran like hell to get away
‘Til Ira Hatch found them near Vegas, and used them up within two days
And a few children had been spared, I think in total, seventeen
It was believed they were too young to have remembered such a scene

But you don’t forget that place. And I know I never will
You don’t forget the sound of screaming children being killed
You don’t forget the smells. There’s no way you can avert
From the grossest human tragedy to have passed on U.S. dirt

You move on and try and act as though you didn’t play a part
You block images of tomahawks being run through women’s hearts
And you cannot tell a soul, so now you live in constant fear
That one day, you’ll get hunted down and have your throat cut ear-to-ear

We said it was the Indians. We said that we weren’t there
We said a lot of things to shroud a mask over our fear
We said the train put poison in an ox along their path
That when eaten, killed 10 Pahvants, and this was penance for their wrath

But we all know that the reason so much innocent blood was spilled
Was fanatic retribution because our prophet had been killed
We were told that sinners must be atoned to heed to heaven’s plan
I tell you – unless you heard the words of George A. Smith, you could never understand

We men went on as though we were not trodden in our woes
While the trial for this savagery took near 20 years to close
Haight and Dame and Klingensmith and Higbee and I went free
As well as every other man involved, except for Brother Lee

We’d been told that we’d been chosen as a “battleaxe of the Lord”
If that’s the case, why am I lain with so must guilt I must ignore?
You can’t settle aching hearts so sweet with petty praise and laud
So I live knowing I’d been servant in a zealot’s deadly fraud

My ability to interpret has offered many jobs and quests
And I’ve been hired a time or two to guide immigrants across the West
I’ve seen so many places I can fondly still recall
I was the first white man in Zion’s Canyon and see Havasupai Falls

I’ve helped found many towns, such as Virgin and Kanab
I’ve loved my wives and children and I’m grateful for the life I have
And I know that I’m as blessed as any cursed man could be
But how do I escape the terrors that are dwelling now in me?

And I cannot help but wonder if I’d have been called upon that night
If I was not so skilled in translating the tongue of Lamanites
So every day, I curse myself for learning such a skill
But can’t say a lot to change it now. I must accept it as God’s will

Years have passed and now I feel a sense of folly for my acts
As to follow my leaders blindly and be the Kingdom’s battleaxe
Now, I fear that I am damned with only one way to atone
But I lack the strength, so I fear I’ll float through Outer Darkness all alone

And I promise you, my friend, that there’s no way for you to know
The heavy burden that I live with from what I did at Mountain Meadow
The prophet had been avenged and I did my duty before God
But as I lay old and weak and dying, my last words were “Blood! Blood! Blood!”

**Notes: Nephi Johnson was an early Mormon pioneer that helped to settle much of Southern Utah, Northern Arizona, and Nevada. Among other things, he served as a farmer, iron worker, Indian interpreter, guide to immigrant companies and explorers (including John Wesley Powell), and a lieutenant in the Mormon Church’s “Nauvoo Legion”. Nephi Johnson died in 1919 and is said to have lived out the end of his life haunted and tormented by the role he’d played in the infamous “Mountain Meadows Massacre” in 1857.

There are details that are known and even more that are unknown in regards to that fateful tragic event. As closely as I tried to keep to the overall narrative, as I understand it, please do not take this poem as an accurate depiction of how it all went down. This is kind of a mashup of several different sources with a couple extra pieces of flare pinned on here and there. Since many details remains generally unknown, there is much that is still up to interpretation. This poem is just another of those interpretations. These are my words based on his words and the words of others.

In that regard, I encourage readers to do their own research into the life of Nephi Johnson, the Iron County Mission and Militia, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and other details in the early settlement of Southern Utah. Nephi Johnson was an amazing man who lived in a very complicated time. I had a lot of fun researching his life and felt a prompting to write a poem. Thank you for reading it. Please feel free to comment, share, or whatever it is you kids do these days. – Josh

Utah born. Utah bred. Utah raised. Josh always writes like he's running out of time. Always writing on his phone like he needs it to survive. His only other need that he keeps in his life is raising all five of his kids with his wife. He also likes sports.

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