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The Capture of JOHN D. LEE 1874-1875
This article is written in the style of an historical novel. The details are based on U.S. Deputy Marshal William Stokes’ description of events leading to the arrest of JDL, appearing in chapter XX of the book Mormonism Unveiled. (An extended version was published in the March 1992 issue of the Cactus Flat Lee Quarterly). Panguitch is the place where John D. Lee was taken into custody by Marshal Stokes in the year 1874. Those attending the reunion will have the opportunity of visiting the general area where this occurred.. Camp Cameron, where he was subsequently held prisoner, is located adjacent to the town of Beaver. Lee was tried twice, both times in Beaver (1875-1876) for his participation in the Mountain Meadows massacre.



This story begins in the United States District Court at Beaver City, Utah Territory with The Honorable Jacob S. Boreman presiding

Marshal Stokes, assistant U.S. Marshal for the territory of Utah, escorted his prisoner to the table occupied by the attorneys for the defense and saw that he was properly seated. He then found a chair nearby for himself and sat down. Casually crossing his legs, he settled in comfortably and let his gaze range impassively around the crowded hall.

Every citizen of Beaver must be here today he thought, and some from settlements as far away as Washington County, a hundred miles south. Those unable to make their way into the hot crowded courtroom, he noted, were gathered in the doorway and down the stairs into the sun-baked yard surrounding the two story building where the trial was being held.

This was Wednesday, July 23, 1875, the opening day of the trial of John D. Lee, charged as accessory in the murder of 120 men, women and children at Mountain Meadows, Utah more than 18 years before. Managing to capture him had, surprisingly enough, proved easier than bringing him to trial. The trial had been delayed several times because the U. S. District Attorney was unable to gather information enough to prosecute. More than nine months had elapsed since his capture; Judge Boreman would be compelled to discharge him if he could not be brought before the bar soon.

Marshall Stokes recalled the day that he brought the prisoner into Beaver City from his capture at Panguitch; it was the 10th of November of the previous year. The citizens of Beaver had been astonished at the news of his arrest. It seemed the entire population was aroused as word spread among them. Feelings of disbelief and incredulity brought on by this unlikely turn of events continued for the first few weeks of his confinement, with everyone speculating about his fate. But then things had settled down and Lee proved to be a model prisoner.


When Stokes had received the indictment and order to apprehend John D. Lee, his superior, General George R. Maxwell, U.S. Marshal for the Utah District, told him that he would probably have to ride down to the Colorado River to find him. Stokes had responded that he didn’t look forward to such an eventuality, but if it proved necessary he assured Maxwell, he would make the 200 mile journey. Before parting, Marshall Maxwell expressed doubts that Lee could ever be brought in alive. It took Stokes a month and a half to make the arrest and bring the prisoner back to Beaver, alive and well.

Stokes set out alone in this assignment from Beaver, where he lived, going south. He was headed for the Colorado River. While passing through Parowan he learned that Lee was not at the Colorado at all, but had lately been seen here in the settlements over at Harmony. With this information, he continued on toward Cedar City, developing a plan of apprehension and capture of the fugitive. If Lee was still in the area he would get him.

As he traveled southward toward Harmony, via Cedar City and Fort Hamilton, he met Thomas Winn, whom apparently he knew and who had assisted Stokes in other law enforcement assignments. When he told Winn of the indictment and orders to capture John D. Lee, Winn told Stokes in no uncertain terms, that such a task was impractical for it had been reported that Lee was heavily armed and traveling with several of his sons. It was madness to think that he alone or even the two of them could apprehend and arrest Lee under such circumstances. Disregarding such talk, Stokes put Winn on the federal payroll and swore him in as a deputy. He then instructed him to head for Iron City, form up a posse of six or eight men and meet him at Harmony. Stokes continued on toward Fort Hamilton.
Here he discovered that Lee, with a seven day lead, had started back to Arizona by way of Toquerville. He immediately turned around, to retrace his steps north, found Winn and canceled his order organizing a posse. On a hunch he told him to take Frank Fish, who lived nearby, and go over to the Sevier River to see if Lee had gone on to Panguitch. He knew that some of Lee’s family had a place in the little mountain town where he would likely visit them before heading back to the river, And there too, he would be able to pick up additional supplies. He made arrangements to meet Winn and Fish in two days at Parowan.

He started for the rendezvous early Saturday morning. Several hours later, he found Winn and Fish as they came riding out of Little Creek Canyon above Parowan. Winn, with no prefatory remarks, immediately reported the spine-tingling message, “Your man is there”, meaning that Lee was at Panguitch.
Now he would have to move fast. Winn reported that Lee had already laid in his supplies and was preparing to depart for the ferry. Stokes immediately ordered Fish back to Panguitch instructing him to keep Lee under surveillance until a posse he would lead, would arrive the next morning. The plan was simple, they would meet Fish at Panguitch; he would guide them to their quarry; the arrest would be made and they would be on their way out of town before anyone could take any retaliatory action. This might be easier than he expected, thought Stokes. After sending Fish on his way, the marshal had gotten busy and hired more deputies; Thomas LeFever, Samuel G. Rodgers and David Evans. Counting Winn, Fish and himself, there would be six of them.

Later, riding in the darkness of night up the trail toward Panguitch, the posse halted three miles outside town. The plan was to wait there until sunup when Fish was to come into camp and notify them of the whereabouts of Mr. Lee. At that point they would ride into town and make the arrest. While they thus lingered, the early morning temperature dipped below the freezing mark. As tired as they must have been, It was impossible to get any rest on the frozen ground. They had no bedrolls with them and it was miserably cold standing immobile in the frigid mountain air. Stokes refused to allow a fire for fear that Lee would be alerted and skip out ahead of them. All they could do was remain there, off the road in a clump of box elder trees, occasionally stamping their feet and flailing their arms in an attempt to generate a little heat in their icy limbs.

Finally, unable to endure the cold longer, Stokes decided they should go in ahead of schedule. They would try to catch the citizenry off guard by riding into town with as much spirit and boldness as they could muster, thereby gaining time to meet with Fish, discover the fugitive’s whereabouts and make the arrest. Hopefully Fish would be there to lead the way. It would be unthinkable that any of the Mormons would voluntarily came forward with a report of Lee’s location.
It took an hour to reach the outskirts of Panguitch. They found a place from which they had a good view of town and commenced watching for Fish. The deep shadows of early morning had by this time given way to the silvery rim of the morning sun as it slowly poked upward over the eastern hills, revealing a few whisps of pinkish tinged high cirrus clouds in an otherwise pleasant but cold wintery day. Shortly, faint sounds of the awakening community could be heard as its inhabitants performed early morning chores. An isolated muffled voice carried by the thin mountain air drifted occasionally to their ears and the faint aroma of pungent-burning pine logs to their near frozen olfactory senses, as smoke wafted almost vertically from chimneys into the cold clear calm of the morning.

But their man was nowhere to be seen. They themselves would be discovered, Stokes realized, if they didn’t soon make their move. “Get on in there Evans,” he finally ordered David Evans “and see if you can find Fish and bring him back here.” As Evans departed, one of the remaining men murmured, “Maybe Fish has been captured and blood atoned”, an expression describing the ritual by which Mormons were accused of putting away their enemies. “Fish will be alright” Stokes replied evenly, trying to make his voice sound positive and to mask his own feelings of apprehension.

At length, when Evans did not return, they could wait no longer. Stokes ordered them to mount up; complaining as they did so, they could now feel the stiffness in their bodies from a night of freezing immobility and lack of rest. One of them swore softly as he settled into the saddle. Another with grumbling stomach longed for the pungent bite of a steaming cup of hot black coffee.

They entered the town with as much bravado as they could muster and finally located the whereabouts of Mr. Lee. He had secluded himself in a shed behind his daughter’s house, where, after a tense encounter, he was eventually apprehended. In the course of conversing with them Lee realized the marshal and his men hadn’t eaten for more than twelve hours. He excused himself for being so thoughtless, and typical of his character, he graciously provided breakfast for all six of them. Stokes writes that during its preparation he sent one of his men to purchase some liquid libation. Wine was procured; from which the marshal says he took a pitcher into the house to Lee’s family. They all took a drink and even toasted the event with words by one of the Lee daughters: “Here is hoping that father will get away from you, and that if he does, you will not catch him til’ hell freezes over.”

During breakfast, Lee told Stokes he thought he could get a fair trial and assured him that neither he nor his family would make any trouble during the trip back to Beaver. “And”, Stokes reported, “the old gentleman was as good as his word; even rented his wagon to me so that I could transport him back to Beaver.” His wife Rachel who had traveled with him on his trip from the ferry, prepared some food to take along, and some blankets so they would be relatively comfortable during the journey. Since then thought Stokes, he’s been a model prisoner; has never tried to escape…even assisted the guards to carry out their instructions from the officers.”

While thus deliberating on Lee’s capture, Stokes’ was brought abruptly to the present as the U.S. District Attorney, William C. Carey, carrying a bulging calfskin valise, entered the courtroom, with his assistant lawyer Robert W. Baskin
trailing behind. The prisoner would finally receive his day in court.

A week after his arrest, a description of the famous prisoner appeared in the Salt Lake Herald: …His general appearance is that of a good natured agreeable old gentleman. He said he was sad today, yet when cheered up by a pleasant remark, his eyes shown with a laughing twinkle and his mouth evidenced an amiable smile. His teeth are full and perfect, above and below; he talks with ease and smoothness; his voice is mild and even musical; and he is an amiable conversationalist, nothing of the stern, fierce, selfish and cruel look about him that I expected. But, on the contrary, he seems like a good natured, kind-hearted, easy going, pleasant spoken old Pennsylvania farmer.


Lee was captured November 7, 1874.
John D. Lee’s first trial commenced July 23, 1875.