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Blood of the Prophets: Mountain Meadows Massacre
Mountain Meadows Massacre
Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
by Will Bagley. Published by University of Oklahoma Press.

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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 120 men, women, and children - many being killed only after surrendering on the promise of safe conduct. But what really happened and why?

This issue has been a real strain on the Mormon church and its relations with outsiders for more than a hundred years. Until now, there has been one book which might be called "definitive," exploring as many aspects of the events and evidence as possible: Juanita Brooks' The Mountain Meadows Massacre, published in 1950. In 2002, Will Bagley published a new account which is not designed to replace, but rather expands upon Brooks' work by incorporating unpublished diaries, letters and other documents which she did not have at the time.

Bagley, a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, provides readers of Blood of the Prophets with fascinating new material, such as accounts from Paiute Indians who participated in the attack, recollections from some of the young children who survived and were adopted into Mormon homes, and even more interestingly, accounts from Mormon objectors who refused to cooperate in the attack or the later cover-up.

Although an engaging and readable history, Bagley is not offering an impersonal discussion of historical events. Instead, he is searching to answer to vital questions: "What did Brigham Young know, and when did he know it?" This isn't simply a matter of reading history because there is no unequivocal evidence about Young's involvement in the massacre; that means, then, that people must read into the historical record in order to construct likely scenarios and probable conclusions based upon what evidence does exist.

Brooks, herself a Mormon, privately believed that Young was much more heavily involved than was commonly assumed. Bagley agrees, but goes even further:

Claiming that Brigham Young had nothing to do with Mountain Meadows is akin to arguing that Abraham Lincoln had nothing to do with the Civil War. His own words reveal that both before and after the massacre, Brigham Young recognized the likely results of his acts.

Bagley tries to make a coherent case through the use of much material which was simply unavailable and unknown to Brooks when she wrote. He is even able to use new forensic data acquired when a 1999 project to erect a memorial at the site turned up mass graves with bones of men, women, and children, all damaged not by Indian tomahawks or clubs, but by Mormon bullets.

Why would Mormons be involved in the massacre of a group of travelers in the first place? The 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.

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, Mormons engaged in widespread efforts to conceal the role of themselves and 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.

Indeed, Bagley's evidence points to the likelihood that this was ordered and planned by Mormon church leaders, not simply a bunch of overzealous citizens. Dimick Huntington's journal entries, for example, indicate that Brigham Young authorized the southern Paiutes to help themselves to the emigrant's livestock at a meeting on September 1, 1857 - ten days before the massacre. Was Young aware that the emigrants soon wouldn't be needing their livestock anymore?

Of course, this and other bits of information don't conclusively "prove" anything - much of the evidence which does exist is unreliable or equivocal:

Almost every acknowledged 'fact' about the fate of these murdered people is open to question.

A person who wanted to be generous towards Mormon leaders like Young could potentially interpret the evidence in ways which would tend to clear them of any foreknowledge or involvement in planning the attack, although evidence of being accessories "after the fact" and aiding in the cover-up is too solid to dismiss. On the other hand, people who are inclined to be less generous to Mormon leaders will tend to find that the evidence presented by Bagley makes a sound case for the guilt of people like Young.

Does this mean that the only conclusions are those created by whether one is prejudiced in favor or against Mormons? That may be true in some cases, but it isn't necessarily always true. People have been convicted of murder based upon weak circumstantial evidence, so there is nothing inherently prejudicial about reading similar conclusions with regards to the involvement of Mormon leaders in the slaughter of the Arkansas emigrants.

As noted above, Bagley's book is a very engaging read. He does a wonderful job recouinting the historical, cultural, and religious context in which the massacre ultimately occurred. We learn about what life was like in the doomed Fancher wagon train. We learn about the fervor with which Mormons held to their religious beliefs and with which they followed their religious leaders. We also learn about the means by which those leaders helped secure the loyalty and obedience of the average Mormon. Some readers might be put off by the sheer amount of detail and description, but for those unfamiliar with the times it helps put things in the proper perspective.

Bagley walks us through a confluence of attitudes and actions which surely did not have to lead to tragedy, had people of good will only realized where things might be heading and done something to alter their course. Such introspection and foresight, however, often aren't the forte of those secure in their own righteousness and holy mission. Even today, any admission by current Mormon leaders to any direct involvement by Brigham Young or other figures would undermine the belief that those same people were prophets of God, taking their cues directly from Him.

As a religion claiming direct divine inspiration, the LDS church is caught on the horns of an insoluble dilemma. Its leaders cannot admit that the Lord's anointed inspired, executed, and covered up a mass murder, and as long as modern prophets deny that the LDS church had "any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day," they can never come to terms with the truth. The church's doctrine of repentance dictates that without acknowledging sin, there can be no forgiveness. There is, ultimately, no easy way for the Latter-Day Saints to resolve the problems posed by this awful tale until they admit their historic responsibility for a terrible crime. The faith must accept its role, open all of its records on the subject, acknowledge its accountability, and repent - or learn to live with the guilt.

Many loyal Mormons would surely prefer it if this entire incident had never happened, but since it did, they would prefer it if people would simply forget about it. During a 1999 memorial ceremony, church president Gordon B. Hinckley stated that it was "time to leave the entire matter in the hands of God" and ordered: "Let the book of the past be closed." Mormon historians are expected to write things which are "faith promoting," regradless of accuracy. This is not an unusual sentiment among Mormon leaders - if anything, it's mild. At a 1990 memorial dedication, Brigham Young University President Rex E. Lee, a descendent of John D. Lee, stated:

Our task for today is not to look backward, not rationalize, nor engage in any kind of retroactive analysis nor apology.

Perhaps that is why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has never acknowledged or apologized for any church role in the massacre. Fortunately, there are historians like Bagley who are willing to ignore that advice and continue to dig to learn more about what happened in the past.

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