Mountain Meadows Massacre/Summary

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    History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Questions


In September 1857 a group of Mormons in southern Utah killed all adult members of an Arkansas wagon train that was headed for California. Critics charge that the massacre was typical of Mormon "culture of violence," and claim that Church leaders—possibly as high as Brigham Young—approved of, or even ordered the killing.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to these questions

"Mountain Meadows Massacre," Gospel Topics on LDS.org


“On September 11, 1857, some 50 to 60 local militiamen in southern Utah, aided by some American indian[s], massacred about 120 emigrants who were traveling by wagon to California. The horrific crime, which spared only 17 children age six and under, occurred in a highland valley called the Mountain Meadows, roughly 35 miles southwest of Cedar City. The victims, most of them from Arkansas, were on their way to California with dreams of a bright future“ (Richard E. Turley Jr., ”The Mountain Meadows Massacre,“ Ensign, Sept. 2007).


“What was done here long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct. We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here.
“We express profound regret for the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time.

“A separate expression of regret is owed to the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre. Although the extent of their involvement is disputed, it is believed they would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local Church leaders and members” (Henry B. Eyring, in “Expressing Regrets for 1857 Massacre,” Church News, Sept. 15, 2007).
(Click here for full article)


Detailed Analysis

One of the most tragic and disturbing events in Mormon history took place on 11 September 1857, when approximately 120 men, women and children, traveling through Utah to California were massacred by a force consisting of Mormon militia members and Southern Paiute Indians. The Mountain Meadow Massacre, as it is known, has remained a topic of interest and controversy as Mormons and historians struggle to understand this event, and the Church's detractors seek to exploit it for polemical purposes.

Setting the stage

Shortly before July 24th, 1847, the first party of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. These Saints were the first vanguard of Church members who had been driven from Nauvoo, Illinois, by angry mobs. At the time of its first settlement, the area that came to be known as Utah still belonged to Mexico, but was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the end of the Mexican-American War in early 1848. (The treaty ceded all of what would become California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of modern-day Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.)

Over the next two years the bulk of the Church members who had been driven from Nauvoo reached the valley. Great Salt Lake City was built, and under Brigham Young's direction satellite settlements were established north, south, and west of the city. The sites for these settlements were often chosen because of proximity to an important natural resource; one such resource was the iron ore deposits found in what became known as Iron County in Southern Utah.

The continuation of successful missionary work in the Eastern United States and Europe brought a steady influx of Mormon converts to the Mormon communities; the population continued to grow, and settlement expanded outward into present-day Idaho, Canada, Nevada, California, Arizona, Wyoming, and Northern Mexico.

The Utah War

In 1850, Utah was established as a U.S. territory, with Brigham Young as its first governor. Because of its territorial status, the federal government retained the right to appoint officials at various levels, in addition to actual federal offices existing within the territory. While there were, no doubt, many honest public servants among them, a number of the federal appointees to both territorial and federal positions, including some judges, turned out to be both morally venal and abusive of the prerogatives of their offices. Scandals arose over the behavior of some of these men, who left the territory in disgrace. Rather than accepting responsibility for their own failures, a group of them, upon returning to the East, published claims that they had been forcibly expelled, and that the Mormons were rebelling against federal authority.

These claims caused quite an uproar in Washington, where the nascent Republican Party demanded something be done about the Mormons. Acting without benefit of an investigation, U.S. President James Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming as territorial governor and, on June 29, 1857, ordered federal troops to escort Cumming to Utah. Additionally, Buchanan ordered the cessation of all mail service to Utah in an effort to provide the advantage of surprise for the advancing troops.

Despite the efforts of Buchanan to keep the advance of the army secret, Mormon mail runners notified Brigham Young, the incumbent territorial governor, the very next month that troops were travelling to Utah. He had not been officially notified that he was to be replaced, so he viewed the news—combined with the efforts to hide the movement of the troops—as an act of war by the United States government against the Mormons. Brigham closed all Church missions, instructing all missionaries to return to Utah, and ordered the abandonment of the more isolated Mormon colonies. He prepared to defend the territory against the approaching army by adopting a "scorched earth" policy. He sent small parties to harass the approaching troops with the intent of slowing their progress while he prepared the Saints for the plausible possibility of battles with U.S. troops.

The news of the approaching army spread quickly through the body of the Saints as preparations were made. Many Mormon settlers vividly remembered the hardships of being forcibly (and violently) expelled from Missouri and Illinois, and were resolved not to be driven from their homes again. The mood in the territory was grim and determined. This conflict, known as the Utah War, was ultimately resolved peacefully; but it was into this tense atmosphere the Baker-Fancher train entered in August of 1857.

The Baker-Fancher Train

Map showing the area around Mountain Meadows, highlighting the Spanish Trail

The Baker-Fancher train consisted of California-bound emigrants, men women and children, who started their journey in Arkansas and Missouri. The exact number of people in the train is estimated at 120, but some reports have put it as high as 140. Led by John T. Baker and Alexander Fancher, the train was reported to have been well-stocked, with plenty of cattle, horses, and mules.

The Baker-Fancher train arrived in Salt Lake City about the end of July 1857, camping west and a little south of the city on the Jordan River. Their arrival did not appear to raise any eyebrows or concerns, as there was no mention of them in the newspapers of the time. The group was advised by Elder Charles C. Rich of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to head toward California by circling around the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake, and they began in that direction. Upon travelling as far as the Bear River, the train decided to take the southern route. This caused them to pass through Salt Lake City again, moving further south through Provo, Springville, and Payson.

There were no reports of problems related to the Baker-Fancher party until they reached Fillmore, about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City. Commencing at this point and through settlements to the south, there were complaints that the emigrants boasted of participating the violence against Mormons in both Missouri and Illinois, that they poisoned a spring, and that they threatened to destroy one of the Mormon settlements.

It was also common knowledge that the train originated in Arkansas, where earlier in the year beloved apostle Parley P. Pratt had been murdered near the town of Van Buren. Rumor had it some of the members of the train were among those who had participated in Pratt's murder, or that they bragged about his killing. There are also reports that some of the emigrants told a few Latter-day Saints that once they had transported their families to California they would return, join the army, and help subdue the Mormons.

Whether there is any truth to these rumors, it is clear the travels of the Baker-Fancher train through southern Utah did not go unnoticed as they were in northern Utah. The presence of the train seemed to exacerbate the tensions already present due to the Utah War.

Overland Travel Conditions

Commencing with the opening of Oregon Territory, and accelerated by the discovery of gold in California, large numbers of emigrants crossed the interior of the continent to the West Coast. Before the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, overland travel was both difficult and dangerous. Native Americans, alarmed by the ever-increasing numbers of white settlers crossing their land, frequently attacked emigrant groups. Weather was another potential danger, with winter coming early to the high country and sudden storms occurring during all seasons of the year. For protection against these hazards, emigrants typically banded together in large parties called "wagon trains," covered wagons of the "prairie schooner" type being the most typical vehicles used. The climate made overland travel a seasonal affair as emigrant parties would try to complete their crossings during the warm months. To be caught on the high plains or the mountain passes when winter came was often a deadly mistake.

Mountain Meadows site on modern map. off-site

The Mormon settlements of Utah provided important rest and reprovisioning points for overland travelers. One of the most widely used wagon trails to California branched off the Oregon trail in Northern Utah, running almost due South through Salt Lake City, eventually joining the Old Spanish Trail. Emigrants could purchase foodstuffs and other supplies from businesses in Salt Lake City and other towns, while their animals—both beasts of burden and any livestock—could find excellent grazing at a spot near the west end of the Pine Valley Mountains, about 30 miles west of Cedar City and 28 miles north of St. George, known as las Vegas de Santa Clara or the Mountain Meadows. It was common for emigrant parties to camp there for several days or even weeks while their animals gained condition for the grueling desert crossings still to come.

The Main Participants

There were many participants in the tragedy at Mountain Meadows. The following are considered to be the main participants, from a historical perspective. (The individuals are listed in alphabetical order.)

William H. Dame was, at the time of the massacre, the commander of the Iron Military District with the militia rank of colonel. He was also serving as president of the Parowan Stake. Initially, he counseled letting the wagon train leave in peace. Later, he decided not to help the emigrants fend off what he thought was an Indian attack unless they requested it. Finally, becoming aware of the true situation at the Mountain Meadows, he reluctantly authorized the use of the militia to finish the massacre in time to avoid discovery. While not at the site until after the massacre, he was, by the standards of military justice applicable both then and now, administratively responsible for the actions of officers and soldiers under his command.

Isaac C. Haight was a major over the Second Battalion in the Iron County militia and president of the Cedar City stake. Haight was the mastermind behind the massacre. After being denied permission to use the militia, Haight recruited John D. Lee and others to incite the Indians to attack the train. Efforts to bring Haight and others to justice after the massacre proved to be fruitless.

John H. Higbee was a major over the Third Battalion in the Iron County militia and town marshal of Cedar City. His ecclesiastical position was first counselor in the stake presidency of Isaac C. Haight. After a failed attempt to arrest rowdy members of the train for criminal offenses, he conspired with Haight to punish the wagon train. When Dame permitted, Higbee led troops to the Meadows carrying orders to completely destroy the wagon train.

Philip Klingensmith was a bishop in Cedar City and private in the Iron County militia. In this latter role, he carried orders and other messages between various militia officers. He was present at the massacre and subsequently turned states' evidence, but his testimony was of no real help to the authorities.

John Doyle Lee was a major over the Fourth Battalion in the Iron County militia. At the Mountain Meadows, Lee led Indians and other Mormons in the early unsuccessful stages of the siege. After Higbee's arrival with reinforcements, Lee convinced the emigrants to surrender their weapons under false pretenses. Lee was the only person ever brought to trial for his involvement in the massacre.

The Massacre

As the Baker-Fancher train camped at Mountain Meadows, some of the residents of Cedar City and the surrounding areas determined that some action needed to be taken against the emigrants. The heightened anxiety brought on by rumors swirling about the train, the advancing federal troops, the drought that many had suffered through for the year, and the memories of violence in Missouri and Illinois all combined in an explosive atmosphere; yet the residents were unclear on what action they should take.

This excellent summary of events in the days immediately preceding the massacre is provided by Robert H. Briggs:

On or about 2 September 1857, some encounters between individuals in the Fancher train and others in the Mormon iron mining settlement of Cedar City sparked an angry reaction among the Mormon settlers. By Friday, 4 September, however, militia leaders in Cedar City had decided against direct Mormon interference with the train. Thus, Major (also stake president) Isaac Haight dispatched couriers to Pinto, a new settlement near the California Road directly west of Cedar City. The couriers, Joel White and Philip Klingensmith, carried orders for settlers there to not interfere with the approaching emigrant train. Meanwhile, however, a pivotal meeting occurred that same evening in Cedar City between Major Isaac Haight of the Second Battalion and Major John D. Lee of the Fourth. What emerged was a plan to incite local Paiute Indians to gather at Mountain Meadows with Lee as their leader. Lee departed in the early hours of Saturday, 5 September. Evidently, Lee had no further contact with militia leaders at Cedar for the better part of the next four days.
Lee returned home to Fort Harmony and laid over on Saturday and part of Sunday, making preparations. He departed for the Meadows on Sunday and arrived there later that afternoon or evening. Other couriers carried word to outlying settlements, each relaying that Indians were to be assembled. There was some confusion about exactly where this rendezvous was to occur. Many Paiutes from the region of Cedar and Fort Harmony were sent to Mountain Meadows. Other bands along the Santa Clara River were urged to gather at Santa Clara Canyon (west of present Veyo).
Similar preparations continued in Cedar City over the weekend but came to a halt in mid-afternoon on Sunday, 6 September. During the usual council meeting of community leaders from Cedar City and outlying settlements, Laban Morrill lead a faction which heatedly opposed Isaac Haight’s plan. Morrill extracted a promise from Haight that no aggressive action would be taken against any emigrants until they had sought the advice of President Brigham Young. Thus, as things stood in Cedar City, the plan was off.
All of this was unknown to John D. Lee. At that moment, Lee was en route to the Mountain Meadows, his adopted Indian son in tow to act as interpreter. They met up with Paiute bands at Mountain Meadows that afternoon or evening. One line of evidence suggests that Santa Clara Canyon, roughly a dozen miles south of Mountain Meadows, was where the planned attack would occur. Yet early Monday morning, 7 September, Lee’s Paiute auxiliary force attacked the emigrant encampment at the southern tip of Mountain Meadows. We will probably never know for certain whether Lee attacked according to a preconceived plan or, driven by some personal desire or impulse, attacked on his own initiative. In any case, as things stood at the Meadows, the attack was on.
Activity erupted throughout Southern Utah. In Cedar City, Major Haight dispatched the youthful Englishman James Haslam to Great Salt Lake City for orders from President Young. Haight also sent an express via Joseph Clews to Amos Thornton at Pinto which Thornton was to relay. In it, Haight ordered Lee to "keep the Indians off the emigrants and protect them from harm until further orders." Thornton rode to the Meadows but searched in vain for Lee. Unbeknownst to Thornton, Lee had gone south, spending the night near Santa Clara Canyon with Mormon militiamen and the Paiute allies he encountered there. This group arrived at the Meadows on Tuesday afternoon, 8 September. That is the earliest Lee could have received an express that the planned attack had been postponed.
There were additional expresses between Tuesday, 8 September and Thursday, 10 September. The most significant of these was one from militia headquarters in Parowan which conveyed the ambiguous order to save emigrants lives yet not to precipitate a war with the Indians under any circumstances.[1]

In a meeting at Cedar City on the afternoon of September 6, 1857, local leaders received word the wagon train at Mountain Meadows had been surrounded by Paiute Indians who were determined to attack the emigrants. (Some historians are undecided as to whether Paiute Indians were actually involved in the massacre at all; some assert that it was white men disguised as Indians.) The leaders decided that they needed to ask Brigham Young what to do, so they dispatched a fast rider to Salt Lake City with a message to that effect. James H. Haslam, the messenger, left on Monday, September 7, and made the 300-mile journey in just a little more than three days. Within an hour he had an answer from Brigham Young and began the journey back to Cedar City. Young's message said, in part, "In regard to the emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them." Unfortunately, the messenger arrived back in Cedar City two days after the massacre, on September 13, 1857.

As Haslam was leaving for Salt Lake City on September 7, the Indians' attack commenced. Several of the emigrants were killed, as were several of the Indians, producing a stalemate situation. The emigrants circled their wagons and dug into a rifle pit and the Indians sent a call to the surrounding country for reinforcements. They also sent for John D. Lee, an area farmer on friendly terms with the Indians. According to Lee's later court testimony, the Indians asked him to help with the attack. Lee instead sent word to Cedar City on September 10, asking what should be done.

It is at this point that the exact nature of the events becomes unclear; most details being provided by Lee, and the veracity of his testimony is naturally suspect. He indicated that in short order there were quite a few other Indians and white settlers who had joined the group outside of the siege. The night of September 10 and the following morning the whites debated what to do. It appears that one incident which factored into their eventual murderous decision was the killing, the night before, of one of the emigrants by white men. It appears that two men from the Baker-Fancher party left the camp, evaded those surrounding their camp, and started toward Cedar City to request help. Within a few miles the two met three white men, whom they asked for help, but then they were attacked by the white men. One of the two was killed, and the other was able to make his way back to the Baker-Fancher party.

How could such news factor into the decision to massacre the emigrants? There is no doubt the news that both Indians and white men—Mormons—were attacking the emigrants was not well received. If any of the emigrants should escape to California and tell the story, prejudice against the Mormons—already quite high—would be incited and there would be greater likelihood that a military force would move upon the southern settlements from the west. Facing down an army from the east might be bearable, but facing one from both the east and the west could seem unbearable.

Such reasoning does not excuse the decision the white men in the area made; it is only mentioned as a factor in understanding some of the excitement and the hysteria enveloping those in the area. The decision was apparently made on the morning of September 11 to destroy all in the Baker-Fancher party over the age of seven. To effect the massacre with a minimum of loss among the white men, it was decided to lure the emigrants out of their circled wagons and into the open. In the words of B.H. Roberts,

The conception was diabolical; the execution of it horrible; and the responsibility for both must rest upon those men who conceived and executed it; for whatever of initiative may or may not have been taken by the Indians in the first assault upon these emigrants, responsibility for this deliberately planned massacre rests not with them.[2]

Thus it was that on September 11, a flag of truce was carried to the Baker-Fancher party by William Bateman. He was met outside the camp by one of the emigrants, a Mr. Hamilton, and an arrangement was made for John D. Lee to speak to the emigrants. Lee described to them a plan to get them through the hostile Indians. The plan involved the emigrants giving up their arms, loading the wounded into wagons, and then being followed by the women and the older children, with the men bring up the rear of the company in single-file order. In return for compliance with these terms, the white men would give the emigrants safe conduct back to Cedar City where they would be protected until they could continue their journey to California.

The emigrants agreed, the wagons were brought forward and loaded with the wounded and the weapons, and the procession started toward Cedar City. Within a short distance, one armed white man was positioned near each of the Baker-Fancher party adults, ostensibly for protection. When all was in place, a pre-determined signal was given and each of the armed white men turned, shot, and killed each of the unarmed Baker-Fancher party members. Within three to five minutes the entire massacre of men, women, and older children was complete. The only members of the original party remaining were those children judged to be under eight years old, numbering about 17 persons.

The Aftermath

After the massacre, local leaders attempted to portray the killings as solely the act of Indians. This effort began almost immediately, with John D. Lee's report to Brigham Young. It wasn't long, however, before charges started to surface that Indians were not the only participants, but that there were whites involved. Responding to the charges that whites were involved, Brigham Young urged Governor Cumming to investigate the matter fully. However, the governor maintained that if whites were involved, they would be pardoned under the general amnesty granted by the governor to the Mormons in June 1858. This amnesty was issued at the behest of U.S. President James Buchanan, and covered all hostile acts against the United States by any persons in the course of the Utah War.

Most scholars recognize that there was a local cover-up of the massacre. What there is disagreement on is how involved higher Church leaders were in any cover-up. Some have concluded that Brigham Young, himself, was involved in a cover-up, but others argue that the evidence does not support such a conclusion. It is known that Brigham was not privy to the full details at first; he was told that only Indians were involved. In April 1894 Wilford Woodruff stated the following concerning the massacre and Brigham Young's supposed involvement:

One instance I will name here: A man went around Nauvoo asking every man he could, saying, "You come and be adopted to me, and I shall stand at the head of the kingdom, and you will be there with me." Now, what is the truth about this? Those who were adopted to that man, if they go with him, will have to go where he is. He was a participator in that horrible scene--the Mountain Meadow massacre. Men have tried to lay that to President Young. I was with President Young when the massacre was first reported to him. President Young was perfectly horrified at the recital of it, and wept over it. He asked: "Was there any white man had anything to do with that?" The reply was No; and by the representations then made to him he was misinformed concerning the whole transaction. I will say here, and call heaven and earth to witness, that President Young, during his whole life, never was the author of the shedding of the blood of any of the human family; and when the books are opened in the day of judgment these things will be proven to heaven and earth. Perhaps I had not ought to enter into these things, but it came to me.[3]

Most historians have followed Juanita Brooks, who concluded that Brigham did not know about the massacre before-hand, and was horrified to learn of it.[4]

Of course, it wasn't just Indians who were involved. The best available evidence supports two levels of cover-up: (1) concerted denials of guilt by massacre participants, including attempts to shift the blame to their erstwhile Indian allies, and (2) attempts by Mormons not involved in the massacre to shield accused persons from capture or prosecution. The latter actions did not normally arise out of any approval for the massacre, and indeed were usually undertaken without knowledge of the guilt of the persons being shielded; rather they reflected a feeling of community solidarity versus the coercive power of an often-hostile government, and a pervasive mistrust of U.S. authorities and their willingness or ability to ensure that Mormon defendants would receive a fair trial. Accusations of any more substantial cover-up, either by the Mormon Church as an institution, or by its highest leaders, are not supported by the available evidence.

An accounting

Marker at grave site of John D. Lee, in Panguitch, Utah

Eventually, as more information came to light, some of the principal participants were excommunicated from the Church. One participant, John D. Lee, was found guilty of murder in federal court after twenty years and two trials. The first trial occurred in 1875, before the anti-Mormon judge Jacob Boreman. The prosecutor was an even more notorious anti-Mormon named R. N. Baskin. This official failed to properly try the case against Lee, presented very little evidence against him, and instead focused upon an attempt to prove Brigham Young's complicity in the massacre. This trial ended with a hung jury.

Lee's second trial occurred the following year; the prosecutor was U.S. District Attorney Sumner Howard, and Boreman was again the presiding judge. This time around, the case was properly tried; the jury heard overwhelming evidence against Lee, who was duly convicted and sentenced to be executed for his crime. On March 23, 1877, Lee was executed at Mountain Meadows and buried in Panguitch, Utah. Though other Mormons were certainly as culpable as Lee (he did not act alone), he was the only one executed.

The long hiatus between the massacre and Lee's trial is one of the factors which some feel support the accusations of an institutional cover-up. However, the reasons for this delay suggest otherwise. As mentioned earlier, Governor Alfred Cumming believed the massacre was covered by the Utah Amnesty, thus making any investigation pointless. This belief was shared by a number of eminent legal authorities, including some charged with law enforcement in Utah. The attempts by some politically minded judges, such as John Cradlebaugh, to direct the investigation and prosecution of crime in Utah and conduct "crusades" against the Mormon Church actually hindered, rather than helped, prosecutorial and investigative efforts.

An additional claim sometimes put forward is that Lee was a "scapegoat," that some kind of corrupt agreement existed between Church leaders and territorial authorities to not pursue anyone else. However, the historical records do not back this up. After Lee's execution, territorial authorities wanted to continue the investigations with a view to bringing more of the guilty parties to justice. The official correspondence shows a reward was offered for the capture of Isaac C. Haight, William Stewart and John Higbee, all suspects in the planning and/or execution of the massacre, and that this reward remained on offer for at least seven years. Lee was not tried as a "scapegoat" but as an actual participant in the massacre, evidently the leading participant, who had done more than any other person to bring it about, and who had actually killed five people.

Polemical Accounts

Almost as soon as news of the massacre reached the eastern United States, enemies of the Church began exploiting it for polemical purposes. The content of the various polemical accounts of the massacre varies considerably, but the intent of the accounts is always and everywhere the same: to explain the massacre as a consequence of the doctrine, beliefs, practices or culture of the Mormon Church, and thus destructive of its truth claims.

When writing about the Mountain Meadows Massacre in his Comprehensive History of the Church, B.H. Roberts stated that he

recognizes it as the most difficult of all the many subjects with which he has to deal in this History. Difficult because it is well-nigh impossible to sift out the absolute truth of the matter from the mass of conflicting statements made by witnesses and near witnesses of the affair; and equally difficult to reconcile the differences of contending partisans. Anti-"Mormon" writers have been determined to fasten the crime upon the Church of the Latter-day Saints, or at least upon her leaders; and also, as a rule, holding that in some way "Mormon" doctrine and "Mormon" church polity was responsible for the crime. On the other hand, church people who in all good conscience, and justly, resent this imputation against their church and its leaders, have been naturally slow to admit all the facts that history may insist upon as inevitable.[5]

Most scholars and historians are quick to admit they don't have all the facts related to the massacre, and probably never will. That hasn't stopped some writers, for polemical reasons, from using a broad brush to denigrate the Church and its early leaders relative to the crimes of September 11, 1857.

There have been many accounts of the events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre and a small library could be filled with pertinent materials. Perhaps the best-known of the recent polemical accounts are:

  1. Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 1.. This work attempts to argue that Brigham Young actually ordered the massacre of the Fancher Party. Bagley relies upon a strained interpretation of some new evidence, including minutes of a meeting that took place between Dimick Huntington and some Southern Utah Indian chiefs on September 1, 1857, ten days before the massacre. The very brief minutes (actually a diary entry made after the fact) indicate that the purpose of the meeting, as with similar meetings held in the previous few days, was to enlist the Indians as allies against the approaching army, and not against the Fancher party. Although the particular item of evidence is new, the thesis which it is pressed into service to support actually dates to the 19th century; for example, in her book Wife No. 19, Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning accused Brigham Young of ordering the massacre so that he could appropriate the property of the victims.
  2. Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, (Secker & Warburg, 2003), 1. This book attempts to show that no Indians had anything to do with the massacre, but that every part of it was carried out exclusively by white men. This also repeats a nineteenth-century theme; Mark Twain in Roughing It implied that the Indian participants in the massacre were really white men "tricked out" as Indians.
  3. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Anchor, 2004), 1. This work claims that violence is endemic to LDS doctrine and culture, and uses the Massacre as one example.

Certain themes continue to re-emerge in polemical accounts of the massacre. The claim that it was the worst massacre in American history is a common one; accusations of direct complicity on the part of Brigham Young, of subsequent institutional cover-up or of the "scapegoating" of John D. Lee, are common. Perhaps the following comments relative to Brigham Young's involvement may be instructive:

As a lad I worked in the Main Street Store of the United Order Building and Manufacturing Company in Logan, Utah, commonly known as the U.O. The Logan Branch of Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, familiarly known as the Z.C.M.I., was on the corner, one half block down the street. It was one of my duties to take our egg and butter accumulation, commodities of exchange in those days, to the egg and butter house of Z.C.M.I. It was a small building a little to the rear of the large Z.C.M.I. store building. The worker in charge there was a man who to my boyish eyes was old, perhaps in his sixties. His name was James Holton Haslam. He and I became good friends. Eager for knowledge, I discovered that he was the courier who traveled the road between Salt Lake City to Parowan and back to help President Young establish friendly feelings among the emigrant company, the settlers, and the Indians. The Indians were giving chief concern. He described minutely the trip from Cedar City to Salt Lake City riding three hundred miles in three days, to warn President Young that trouble for the traveling company was brewing in the south. Brigham Young was greatly troubled. Within a few hours after his arrival Brother Haslam was again in the saddle to instruct the people at Parowan and neighboring communities to do everything in their power to protect the emigrants. When he reached Parowan, the massacre had already occurred. He had come too late!
He described to me in detail his meeting with President Young. As he recounted the events of the massacre as far as he learned them, and he had every opportunity of knowing them intimately, President Young wept. The President did everything in his power to prevent any tragedy. He knew that if he failed his people, trained to live in peace and to give love for hate, they would be charged with the commission of the crime. He had suffered persecution with his people for many years. Moreover, he understood the horror of taking life.
The Latter-day Saints had been persecuted and driven from place to place since the beginning of the Church. He and the people prayed for peace to continue their work of redeeming the stubborn desert for human use. This terrible massacre would only intensify the hatred against the Latter-day Saints.
In righteous anger Brother Haslam defended to me as he had done in the courts and elsewhere Brigham Young against the charge of being an accessory to the criminal act of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He was very convincing to me; and a boy is not easily fooled.
When later I read Brother Haslam's testimony in the question and answer method, as published in the The Journal, Logan, Utah, December 4, 1874, I became more than ever convinced that he told the whole and absolute truth, and that Brigham Young was wholly innocent of any complicity with those who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Note an extract from the long testimony covering two newspaper pages. Apparently he arrived in Salt Lake City in the forenoon and found President Young in his office holding a council meeting with his brethren. Brigham Young asked him after reading the message, from Cedar City or Parowan, if he could take the trip back, if so, to take a little rest, and start back during noontime. "He (President Young) said that the Indians must be kept from the emigrants at all costs if it took all of Iron County to protect them." He felt the matter strongly. His eyes filled with tears, said Brother Haslam.
It would have been difficult to fool Brother Haslam. I believed him, and the many other supporting evidences, in preference to others who faraway in time are setting up their own theories of explanation. Brigham Young was not responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.[6]

Historical Healing

The events that transpired during the Mountain Meadows Massacre have rightfully lived in infamy; there is no explanation that can justify the murders of those five days in September, and we cannot fully understand them. In the words of one scholar, "the complete—the absolute—truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it are all very inadequate at best."[7]

In spite of the tragedy, efforts have been made to heal the wounds gouged into the collective American psyche 150 years ago. In the 1980s descendants of the victims and the perpetrators met together to start bridging the divide and make peace with the past. In a series of meetings, the seeds of trust were planted and a hopeful sense of accord started to bloom. On September 15, 1990, many of these descendants gathered together at Mountain Meadows to dedicate a memorial and marker to those who died there. The new memorial was a rendition of the original rock cairn constructed at the site by a military expedition under the direction of Major James H. Carleton about two years after the massacre.

Cultural and social considerations

Nothing can excuse the actions of those who perpetuated the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It may be possible, however, to better understand how basically good, law-abiding people (both before and after the massacre) could have been induced to carry out the massacre's actions.

Researchers have described a "culture of honor" which prevailed in the American South both before and after the Civil War, and illustrate how real or perceived insults or threats from the Fancher party might have moved some to violence:[8]

"The book is about “a singular cause of male violence – the perpetrator’s sense of threat to one of his most valued possessions, namely, his reputation for strength and toughness. In many of the world’s cultures, social status, economic well-being, and life itself are linked to such a reputation." (xv}
"The South was settled by herdsmen from the fringes of Britain. “Herdsmen the world over tend to be capable of great aggressiveness and violence because of the vulnerability to losing their primary resources, their animals."(xv)

(Note that the false belief that the Fancher party was guilty of poisoning water supplies could have stirred the same worries in the LDS settlers.)

"Cases of southern violence often reflect a concern with blows to reputation or status – with ‘violation of personal honor’ – and the tacit belief that violence is an appropriate response to such an affront." (2)
"Thus the southern preference for violence stems from the fact that much of the South was a lawless, frontier region settled by people whose economy was originally based on herding."

(Note that LDS settlers in southern Utah were in a similar setting, depending on a similar economic model. They were, furthermore, threatened by the coming U.S. Army).

"A key aspect to the culture of honor is the importance placed on the insult and the necessity to respond to it. An insult implies that the target is weak enough to be bullied. Since a reputation for strength is of the essence in the culture of honor, the individual who insults someone must be forced to retract; if the instigator refuses, he must be punished—with violence or even death." (5)
The stereotype of the southern woman is that she was highly feminine. Thought there may be some truth to that stereotype, there is a competing one, that she was a ‘steel magnolia,’ a superficially soft and melting woman who was quite capable of toughness and the wielding of power. ... Whatever plantation women were like, it is clear from all sorts of evidence that in the backcountry, women were very tough indeed. (87)

The threat to honor would have been particularly profound if the Mormons believed that their plural wives were being offended or insulted by being called "whores" by the immigrant party:

A key aspect to the culture of honor is the importance placed on the insult and the necessity to respond to it. An insult implies that the target is weak enough to be bullied. Since a reputation for strength is of the essence in the culture of honor, the individual who insults someone must be forced to retract; if the instigator refuses, he must be punished—with violence or even death. A particularly important kind of insult is one directed at female members of a man’s family.
In the Old South, as in the ancient world, ‘son of a bitch’ or any similar epithet was a most damaging blow to male pride....To attack his wife, mother, or sister was to assault the man himself. Outsider violence against family dependents, particularly females, was a breach not to be ignored without risk of ignominy. An impotence to deal with such wrongs carried all the weight of shame that archaic society could muster. (138)

With their history of being repeatedly driven, at least Mormon settlers were surely afraid of appearing weak and vulnerable, which would invite further attacks. That they were weak and vulnerable to the approaching federal army would have only made matters worse.

We emphasize that this does not excuse the massacre, but it makes the decisions and actions of those involved perhaps more explicable.


Notes

  1. Robert Briggs, "Wrestling Brigham: Review of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by Will Bagley," Sunstone no. (Issue #125) (December 2002), 62–66. off-site A longer version was published as "Mountain Meadows and The Craft of History" and was available on sunstoneonline.com.
  2. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 4:156. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  3. Wilford Woodruff, "The Law of Adoption," in Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 4:72–73. [Discourse given on 8 April 1894.]
  4. Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 219
  5. Roberts, 139.
  6. John A. Widtsoe, "Was Brigham Young Responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre?," Improvement Era (August 1951), ?.
  7. Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Revised Edition, (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 223.
  8. Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996), pages as noted after each citation.



Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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