The Execution of Judge John Doyle Lee

The following account offers insight about the beginnings of Daviess County and, in particular, the role one pioneer played. Judge John Doyle Lee eventually was convicted of murder and executed in Utah Territory after the Mountain Meadow massacre. He was known as “Judge Lee” due to his appointment as magistrate in Washington County, Utah, by Brigham Young.

The following account offers insight about the beginnings of Daviess County and, in particular, the role one pioneer played. Judge John Doyle Lee eventually was convicted of murder and executed in Utah Territory after the Mountain Meadow massacre. He was known as “Judge Lee” due to his appointment as magistrate in Washington County, Utah, by Brigham Young.

Upon hearing of Mormonism from missionaries, Judge John Lee traveled with his wife, Agathe, from Fayette County, Ill., to Missouri to investigate the new sect firsthand, and remained there a convert.

Many poor people came to share in the kingdom who had little to contribute. Judge Lee was soon zealous in the new church. As a member of the Mormon military organization, he took part in several skirmishes with the Missourians. He became a fanatical mystic about his religion although he warned others not to do so.

Judge Lee may have been related to others of the Lee name settling near Shoal Creek in old Ray County from 1834. The first settler was Henry Lee, who later stayed in Daviess County and had the first ferry license at Adam-Ondi-Ahman for 22 days starting July 9, 1839.

Judge Lee was an early settler in Daviess County at our first Mormon settlement, three miles south of Gallatin. Other Mormons remembered were Henry Belt, Danite Leader John Lowe Butler, Perry Durfey and Roswell Stevens. The Dayley family was also recalled in the 1882 history book.

Mormon records recall that other early (spring 1837) Mormons in Daviess County and were James Bingham, John Freeman, Elisha Grove, Charles McGee, Samual Brown, Levi Taylor, Lyman Wight and Clauncey Webb, also the Swartwouts and Woodland families and Riley Stewart. McGee and Brown stayed in Daviess County after 1840, so their membership is questioned.

Canadians Abraham and Hyram Nelson were reported to have operated the Honey Creek Ferry on Grand River but county court records do not show that they were licensed to do so.

Judge Lee’s nature is variously described. He was termed a “tough rough-hewn frontiersman” and also as a “neurotic” addicted to superstition, having an irrational fear of the unknown, mysterious parts of life. With little education, everything is mysterious with ominous significance.

Lee recalls that upon leaving Missouri, he was a minister of the gospel with no money, “illiterate and inexperienced” and “could hardly quote a passage of scripture” at age 27. This was not unusual since Brigham (Bricham) Young couldn’t spell his first name at age 33.

Judge Lee said that some Mormons were “wild, ignorant fanatics,” but those who “behaved ourselves” were treated well by the Missourians.

Lee recalled that a man named McBride who had been a good friend to him and to other Mormons did not escape in the destruction of Daviess County. “Every article of movable property was taken by the troops: he was utterly ruined.”

There is no indication that Judge Lee owned any land in Daviess County. He was a squatter like nearly all settlers at that time (although it was a violation of state law). Lee surely had some taxable property to put him on the voting records of Ray County in 1836.

Sidney Rigdon’s plan to form a Mormon military unit was first started on March 10, 1838. The “Host of Israel” (or armies of Israel) was to be by “the law of the priesthood” and make all Mormon men over the age of 18 be included regardless of county residence.

A secret part of the army was formed in Daviess County, which never had a state military unit. At Adam-Ondi-Ahman, July 22, 1838, Lee was sworn in and had two meetings each month at that location.

Judge Lee states that he was “placed under the most sacred obligations that language could invent.”

He was “sworn to stand by and sustain each other” and to “sustain, protect, defend, and obey the leaders of the church, under any and all circumstances unto death; and to disobey the orders of the leaders of the church, or divulge the name of a Danite to an outsider, or to make public any of the secrets of the order of Danites was to be punished with death.”

Lee’s third meeting, Aug. 4 at Adam-Ondi-Ahman, was two days before the Gallatin election. The plan was for leader John Butler and a few other Danites to disrupt the election. Butler was charged in Daviess County with an unprovoked assault on Richard Weldon.

Lee said that he “was lying on the grass near the polling place at Gallatin when…close at hand was a pile of oak hearts remaining from a shingle making operation, handy clubs three inches square and four feet long. Riley Stewart snatched one and leaped in to defend his fellow Saints, fetching Richard Weldon a clout that fell him almost atop Lee,” who states that “Immediately, the fight became general.”

Judge Lee recounts being present when “the Danites took prisoner a Gentile named Tarwater, but after talking with him let him go, telling him he was free to return home.”

As the man turned and ran happily toward freedom, a Saint who was particularly revered by Lee “stepped up to a tree, laid his gun up by the side of the tree, took deliberate aim, and shot Tarwater.” Lee reported this as an example of war humor.

In Ray County records, a Samuel Tarwater was wounded about Oct. 25 in Ray County at the Battle of Crooked River. All Mormons involved in that battle were charged with murder if they could be identified.

Many of those departed north toward Iowa from Far West about Oct. 31 to avoid charges. Brigham Young left for Iowa about that time leaving his family in Missouri the way others did.

Judge Lee says that he was not in the “Destruction Company” of the Danites that did the burning and looting in Daviess County, but knew many who were part of that unit. It soon was called the “Fur Company” since most members soon had good horses, warm fur coats, and lots of trade goods. Many of these men left for Iowa (Wisconsin Territory) in late October.

Judge Lee reported that the work in Daviess County was planned at Far West about Oct. 15 but action was delayed by an 8-inch snow. He says that during Oct. 18-19, the young men found stealing and burning to be a game and a lark and something new that they found to be enjoyable. Not until Oct. 20 did the Daviess County citizens begin to react and start to be active in retaliation.

Lee believed himself “invulnerable, fighting God’s war” and part of “a formidable guerilla force… bullet proof, that no Gentile ball could ever harm me… I thought that a Danite could chase a thousand Gentiles, and two could put ten thousand to flight.”

When Captain Patton was killed, Lee was shocked. He reasoned if Fearnot “could be killed, who could claim immunity from the missiles of death.” It was like a mantle of gloom spreading over the entire community.

In the book Life and Confession (p. 70), John D. Lee says that Joseph Smith declared on this occasion that it was a civil war, and that by the rules of war each party was justified in spoiling his enemy.

“This,” says Lee, “opened the doors to the evil disposed, and men of former quiet became perfect demons in their efforts to spoil and waste away the enemies of the church.”

Lee said that he helped range over the country, and “the men I was with took a large amount of loose property, but I was not with them when they burned any houses or murdered any men.

“We took what property we could find, especially provisions, fat cattle and arms and ammunition… The Mormons brought in every article that could be used, and much that was of no use or value was hauled to Adam-Ondi-Ahman. Men stole simply for the love of stealing.”

Lee states that he came up from Far West with General Robert Wilson of the Missouri militia on Nov. 8, 1838, because his wife and baby were there and to be taken back to Far West.

Written and prepared by David Stark, Gallatin