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American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 11, 1857
Mountain Meadows Massacre
American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 11, 1857
by Sally Denton. Publisher: Knopf.

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Emigrating from Arkansas to California in September, 1857, a train of wagons had the misfortune to pass through the Utah Territory during a time of violence and heightened tension between the Territorial government (under Brigham Young) and the United States government (under President Buchanan, who was determined to replace Young). The result was the massacre of around 140 men, women, and children - many being killed only after surrendering on the promise of safe conduct. But what really happened and why?

Why would Mormons be involved in the massacre of a group of travelers in the first place? The answer to that lies in the complex history and theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons. Founded in New York by Joseph Smith, Mormonism became the first "great" religion that was native to the United States of America - and ever since that founding it has played a unique role in this country's development.

A great deal of this is documented in Sally Denton's recently published "American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 11, 1857." An award-winning investigative reporter, Denton's story is about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but it is also about the Mormon church itself: its theology, its secrecy, and its efforts to keep the true story behind the massacre hidden from public view for as long as possible.

These efforts have continued down through the present day. When bones of the victims were unexpectedly uncovered in 1999, then-governer of Utah Mike Leavitt directed state officials to find administrative or other means to make sure that they were reburied as quickly as possible and before they could be studied. Leavitt is himself a direct descendant of one of the Mormon killers who participated in the slaughter at Mountain Meadows.

The ill-fated Arkansas pioneers were in the wrong place at the wrong time, sadly. LDS Church Apostle Parley P. Pratt had been murdered in Arkansas recently (by the legal husband of his 12th wife, Eleanor McLean). President Buchanan was sending federal troops to help install a new territorial governor to replace Brigham Young and gain some control over "disloyal" Mormons. At the same time, the Mormon community was experiencing what has been called the "Mormon Reformation," a short period of intense religious zealotry which reinforced the commitment of "true" Mormons against outsiders and apostates.

The fact that this was perhaps the richest wagon train to ever go through the area may or may not have played a role in its being chosen. Even if it wasn't, though, it was certainly plundered with glee:

Wagons were now dismantled and featherbeds ripped open in search of gold; utensils, tools, and home furnishings that had been strewn about were collected. The plunder proceeded with a strange quiet. Women from Cedar City and nearby settlements arrived to remove the calico dresses and lace pinafores of the women and children, pulling off expensive shoes, and ripping earring, brooches, and rings off of corpses, most to be turned over to the church.

Later the children who were spared, "human plunder" turned over to be raised by the Mormon families of some of those who participated in the massacre, would be able to identify their mothers' and sisters' dresses on some of the well-to-do Mormon women of the region.

It wasn't until 20 years later that a single participant, John D. Lee, was tried, convicted, and executed for his role in the slaughter. Both before and after, many Mormons engaged in widespread efforts to conceal their own role and that of other Mormons and to pin all of the blame on the Paiute Indians - who were, it was alleged, provoked by the settlers into their attack. Evidence, however, points to a great deal of Mormon planning, support, encouragement, and participation throughout the assault, but no particular provocation made by the settlers.

Denton is quite sure that if Brigham Young did not direct the massacre originally, he was an accessory after the fact in order to maintain a positive reputation for himself and Mormons generally:

Young fully realized that the Mountain Meadows Massacre would continue to plague him until someone was held accountable for the crime. In a calculated and mutually beneficial deal, Young and [U.S. attorney Sumner] Howard came to terms. Young would make available all witnesses and evidence necessary for a conviction of Lee. In exchange, Howard would limit the testimony implicating Young, George Smith, and other church leaders in the affair...

Many other Mormons refused to aid in the cover-up, and they paid the price for their lack of loyalty:

It would be part of the larger historical tragedy of Mountain Meadows that the outside world would level collective blame and guilt at Mormons in general. For there were untold numbers of faithful and believing Mormons profoundly disturbed by the church's role in the slaughter and subsequent dissembling, which they termed "lying for the Lord." Hierarchical church leaders were no less appalled than common Stains by what they increasingly saw as the dark blot on their religion. Amasa Lyman, a devout and kindhearted man who had been a high priest, apostle, and Danite since the early days at Kirtland, encouraged the participants in the massacre to "make a full confession and take the consequences." Lyman would be excommunicated.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a sad chapter both in Mormon history and in American history generally. The real consequences of the murders have not been fully felt because those responsible for it were never brought to justice while those responsible for the cover-up have never owned up to their own complicity after the fact. Until that happens, a ghost of a wagon train will continue to haunt the relationship between the Mormon Church and the rest of America.

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