The Mountain Meadows Massacre was one of the worst acts of premeditated mass murder ever committed by Americans against other Americans. It occurred in southern Utah between Cedar City and St. George on September 11, 1857, and involved the slaughter of 120 California-bound emigrants, the Fancher-Baker train. It was perpetrated by an armed force of 50-60 Mormon militiamen and some Southern Paiute Indians. Directed by LDS Stake Presidents William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight, Bishop Philip Klingensmith, Mormon Indian agent and militia officer John Doyle Lee, and Mormon militia officer John H. Higbee, the Mormon militia killed every man and woman in the wagon train and nearly every child, with only seventeen children, all under eight years of age, surviving.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the same Mormon leaders denied all responsibility, blaming it, instead, on the Southern Paiutes. Almost immediately, though, this “cover-up” unraveled, resulting in a protracted effort by territorial officials to get to the bottom of what happened—an effort that spanned some two decades. As more information came to light, two principals, Haight and Lee, were excommunicated from the Mormon Church. In the legal arena, ultimately only one militia member was brought to trial, namely Lee. After being convicted of murder in a U.S. federal court, he was executed by firing squad on March 23, 1877, at the site of the massacre—Mountain Meadows.
This episode raises a number of troubling questions. Foremost is: How could such an atrocity have occurred? Most perplexing to us today: How could this act of mass murder have been sanctioned by otherwise responsible individuals within the Latter-day Saint community, particularly given that the Mormons themselves had been the victims of armed violence in their early history, prompting their mass exodus from the Midwest to the Rocky Mountain Great Basin? Regarding LDS Church President and Territorial Governor Brigham Young: To what extent did he have foreknowledge of the massacre? In addition: What was his subsequent role in the cover-up? Finally: What was the extent of Southern Paiute involvement in the whole affair? Such questions have concerned both Mormon and non-Mormon chroniclers since the event occurred; and since the beginning of the 21st Century, a new generation of talented researchers and writers have further explored these questions.
First to examine the causes of the massacre in a thorough, professional manner was Mormon scholar-writer Juanita Brooks. Her Mountain Meadows Massacre, published in 1950 and updated in 1962, carefully outlined a set of causes within the broader context of time and place. She specifically noted that the doomed Fancher-Baker Company had arrived at the worst possible time, in that they were just a step ahead of 1,500 troops sent by U.S. President James Buchanan to the Mormon-dominated Great Basin. Buchanan had proclaimed the territory to be “in a state of rebellion.” In September 1857, Mormons, therefore, looked suspiciously at outsiders as potential spies and collaborators. Exacerbating this situation, and in conjunction with Mormon preparations for war, local citizens stopped the sale of foodstuffs and other needed supplies to emigrants. The LDS community had also been stirred up through a series of lively sermons in the so-called “Mormon Reformation”—a wave of religious enthusiasm that promoted a sense of apocalyptic millenarianism, including the belief that the End Times were near. As for Young, himself, Brooks found no evidence that he had ordered the massacre, but she charged him with having provoked the attack through inflammatory rhetoric and with having creating suspicion by obstructing the investigation that followed.
For over a half century, Brooks’s carefully crafted book stood alone as the definitive work on the topic. But with the onset of the twenty-first century, several other capable historians have revisited this sad episode and uncovered troves of previously unmined collections of primary sources. The first of this recent wave of writers was Will Bagley, an independent scholar whose 2002 Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, asserted, as the title suggests, that Young wanted to avenge the murders of three important Mormon leaders: founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith (d. 1844) and Apostle Parley P. Pratt (d. 1857). The murder of Pratt, as Bagley documented, occurred in Arkansas and was committed by the husband of a woman Pratt had taken as a polygamous wife. This sensational crime was widely publicized both in Utah and Arkansas, the starting point of the Fancher-Baker wagon train. All of this, in turn, fueled increased prejudice and fanaticism among the Mormons themselves, causing them to view all outsiders collectively as antagonists, including the doomed emigrants. Bagley’s views proved controversial among scholars and laypeople, particularly those within Mormon community. At the same time, historians welcomed the new information and insights presented by Bagley.
Attracting attention within American society at large was Sally Denton’s equally provocative American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, published in 2003. An investigative journalist, Denton wove her story together in an engaging, readable style, though she relied mostly on other scholars’ research, published in historical periodicals, dealing with the Fanchers, U.S. politicians, and Utah leaders. Like Bagley, she assumed Young had ordered the massacre; she went a step further to assert a darker motive for the attack involving a “culture of violence” she said was pervasive within the larger Mormon environment. This was most evident, she argued, in so-called “Danite” activity beginning in the 1830s in Missouri and continuing strong into 1850s Utah. Such activity, moreover, enforced the Mormon concept of “blood atonement,” and she further stated that the Southern Paiutes had played no role whatsoever in the attack.
Considering the causes of the massacre from a starkly different perspective were professionally trained historians and LDS Church employees Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard. Their 2008 work, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, drew on seemingly limitless resources and involved a corps of archival researchers sent out across Utah and throughout the United States in quest of new primary sources. Akin to Brooks’s earlier work, these three authors placed their story within the context of the Utah War and the Mormon Reformation. In addition, they utilized sociological and psychological tools for analyzing motives and behavior. The authors also cited as a contributing cause the unquestioning Mormon obedience to authority. They found that, further aggravating the situation, the economic deprivation in the southern Utah communities near the massacre site was prevalent. As the authors noted, southern Utah Mormons could not help but view the relatively prosperous California-bound citizens with a combination of envy and jealousy. In overall terms, the authors stated, “The conditions for mass killing—demonizing, authority, obedience, peer pressure, ambiguity, fear and deprivation—all were present in southern Utah in 1857.” As for their view of Young’s possible involvement, the authors chose to exonerate him completely, at least from responsibility for the attack itself. They also affirmed the long-held Mormon belief that the Paiutes, alone, killed the women and children.
Appearing in 2008 was another important work, Shannon A. Novak’s House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. An anthropologist, Novak considered the forensic evidence gathered from the site where the victims were buried. On the question of Indian involvement, Novak found the forensic evidence supported the Paiutes’ oral tradition that the tribe had played “little or no role in the killings,” including the murder of the women and children.
Finally, two important recently published works of historical documents provide additional perspectives on the causes and consequences of the massacre. These are the volume by David L. Bigler and Will Bagley, Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (2008), and by Richard E. Turley Jr. and Ronald W. Walker, Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Andrew Jenson and David H. Morris Collection (2009).
All of the above works, taken together, provide, not only an enlightening overview of old and recently turned-up evidence, but also informed opinions regarding the presumed causes and consequences, albeit from perspectives often in conflict with each other. It used to be that views on this topic were extremely biased in one direction or the other. Now, fortunately, they are more nuanced, although at times also more subtle in their biases. Hopefully they are nonetheless of use to readers wanting to know the facts of the case, as well as the range of interpretations and implications thereof.
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