About the Collection

John Doyle Lee

by Jeffrey S. Hardy

See Diary

John Doyle Lee was born on 12 September 1812 in Kaskaskia, Randolph County, Illinois, to Ralph Lee and Eliza Doyle. Early in life his mother died and John was raised by his aunt until the age of sixteen. From this point he engaged in various odd jobs on the American frontier, such as clerk, fireman, and mail contractor. After marrying Agatha Ann Woolsey on 24 July 1833, however, he settled down and began farming in Fayette County, Illinois. The next major event in John?s life came on 17 June 1838 when he and his wife were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). This followed a lengthy conversion process during which John had become convinced “that the Book of Mormon was true.”1 Desiring to live with fellow members of the Church they relocated to a small town near Far West, Missouri, the headquarters of the LDS Church at the time.

Violence in Missouri soon forced the saints to leave that state and flee to Illinois. John initially moved his family back to Fayette County, but they soon moved to Nauvoo where the saints were gathering. In 1840 John began his first proselytizing mission for the Church, traveling to Tennessee and preaching among the wealthier segment of the population. In his journal John displayed a love of song and poetry, composing many verses, such as, “My wife and children O Lord defend! While I my mission shall attend! Give them grace to overcome, Untill [sic] thy servant shall return.”2 On this and his subsequent missions John found great success, baptizing “more than a hundred persons, most of whom joined in the building up of Nauvoo and the trip west.”3 In 1841 John returned to Nauvoo and during the ensuing three years he labored to build up that city, serving as police officer and working to build a meeting hall. He also served several more short proselytizing missions and one mission in the spring of 1844 to campaign for Joseph Smith?s presidential bid. This last mission ended abruptly, however, with the death of Joseph Smith, after which John returned home to Nauvoo.

Upon returning to Nauvoo in 1844, John acted as secretary and bodyguard to Brigham Young, and swiftly became one of his most trusted friends. He also married nine of his eighteen polygamous wives during the period from 1844 to 1845. Early in 1846 John and his family traveled to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to prepare for the overland trek to Utah. In 1847, however, Young instructed him to remain behind in Winter Quarters until the following year and plant crops to feed the constant flow of immigrants waiting to cross the plains. Obedient to this counsel, John subsequently joined the 1848 Brigham Young Company of the Mormon migration and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in late September of that year.

John spent two years in the Salt Lake Valley, during which he helped found the town of Provo, Utah County, Utah. In December 1850, however, John heeded a call to settle the southern part of the territory, and he and his company of fellow settlers soon established the communities of Parowan and Harmony, Iron County, Utah. John served in many important positions during this time, such as probate judge for Iron County, delegate to the Territorial legislature, and agent for Indian affairs in the southern part of the territory. In September 1857 the tragic Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred and John was one of the men that participated in that fateful event, although he denied having killed anyone personally.

After the massacre John relocated to Santa Clara, in the far southwestern corner of the state to raise cotton and hide from those who wanted to try him in a court of law. He settled his many families in various communities throughout southern Utah, visiting them as often as he could. As one of his daughters declared, “He was one of the best men that ever lived. So kind hearted to [his] children.”4 An acquaintance described him as a caring man who “never passed up anyone in need.”5 Apparently, not all of his wives agreed with these statements, however, as eleven of them left him at one time or another.

John was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1870, after which he moved to the Colorado River where he built and operated Lee’s Ferry. Two years later, while visiting one of his families in Panguitch, Utah, Lee was arrested and imprisoned for his participation in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. After being acquitted at a first trial, a second jury found John guilty and sentenced him to death—the only man associated with the Mountain Meadows affair to be tried and convicted of murder. On 23 March 1877 John was executed by firing squad on the scene of the massacre which had taken place twenty years previously. On that day John wrote his final testament, defiantly proclaiming his guiltlessness: “I declare my innocence. I have done nothing designedly wrong in that unfortunate and lamentable affair with which I have been implicated.”6


1 NephiJohn D. Lee, Writings of John D. Lee, comp. and ed. Samuel Nyal Henrie (Tucson, Ariz: Fenestra Books, c2002), 33.

2 John D. Lee, “Journal, 1840-1841,” p. 28. VMSS 449, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young Univeristy.

3 Kate B. Carter, ed., Our Pioneer Heritage, vol. 15 (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneer, 1958), 401.

4 U. S. Works Administration, Interviews with Living Pioneers (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1939), 27.

5 Ibid., 108.

6 Lee, Writings of John D. Lee, 414.


Brooks, Juanita. John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1992.

Dalton, Luella Adams. History of Iron County Mission, Parowan, Utah. [n.p., 1973?].

Fielding, R. Kent. The Tribune Reports of the Trials of John D. Lee for the Massacre at Mountain Meadows: November, 1874-April, 1877. Higganum, Conn.: Kent?s Books, 2000.

Henrie, Manetta Prince. Descendants of John Doyle Lee, 1812-1877. Provo: [n.p.], 1960.

Karter, Kate B., ed. Our Pioneer Heritage. Vol. 15. Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneer, 1958.

Lee, John Doyle. “Diary, 1840-1841.” VMSS 449, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

________. Journals of John D. Lee, 1846-47 and 1859. Edited by Charles Kelly. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984.

________. A Mormon Chronicle: The Diaries of John D. Lee, 1848-1876. Edited and Annotated by Robert Class Cleland and Juanita Brooks. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, c2003.

________. Writings of John D. Lee. Compiled and Edited by Samuel Nyal Henrie. Tucson, Ariz.: Fenestra Books, c2002.

U. S. Works Administration. Interviews with Living Pioneers. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1939.

Van Wagoner, Richard S. A Book of Mormons. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1982.