FEATURE — When considering the date it happened and the carnage that took place, one could call the Mountain Meadows Massacre the first 9/11.
The event, which took place Sept. 11, 1857, is easily the most controversial moment in Utah’s history and the blackest mark in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is practically beyond reason to try to understand how a group of local Mormon settlers could have slaughtered 120 overland emigrants from Arkansas who were just passing through seeking a better life – literal greener pastures in California.
Historians of the 20th and 21st century have been trying to put the pieces together to understand the motives of the perpetrators of this 19th century bloodbath and explain exactly what happened.
But no one knows for sure if they’ve completely succeeded.
As with most, if not all, controversial events in U.S. history, there are several different interpretations of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, as well as conspiracy theories surrounding it.
One of the main sticking points with the Mountain Meadows Massacre is the involvement of Brigham Young, then-president of the church as well as Utah’s Territorial Governor.
To some, Young helped orchestrate the massacre, while to others, he tried to call it off.
The Massacre story
To mark the 150th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in September 2007, an article by the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department, Richard Turley, provided an overview of the massacre for a general church audience in the Ensign magazine.
Turley explained the rising tensions in the Utah Territory during the time period, which is one thing all historians do agree on. U.S. President James Buchanan had just ordered troops to march to Salt Lake City to quell a supposed rebellion against the government in the territory.
Knowing this, Young called on his people to ready themselves for what he perceived as an upcoming battle, which included hoarding their surplus goods and food for their own use and not selling or trading with outsiders in preparation. As such, many overland emigrants who came through the territory hoping to resupply were in for a rude awakening.
Turley also noted that stories ran rampant of emigrants poisoning water holes or dead cattle carcasses in retaliation to the Mormons’ refusal to trade with outsiders. Some argue that the livestock died after eating noxious weeds or contracted a disease common to cattle during the time period, possibly anthrax. Some say that the poisoning of the cattle led to the death of local Native Americans, which raised their ire and led to their desire for revenge by wiping out the emigrants who allegedly did the poisoning.
Both exaggerations were used as a justification and an explanation for the mass killings later on, but both proved to be untrue.
In Turley’s version of events, when the Fancher party, the group who met their demise at Mountain Meadows, stopped in Cedar City seeking to resupply, one member of the party boasted of having the gun that killed Joseph Smith. Others in the party threatened to join the incoming federal troops against the Mormon settlers, Turley noted.
“The men’s statements were most likely idle threats made in the heat of the moment, but in the charged environment of 1857, Cedar City’s leaders took the men at their word,” Turley wrote of the incident.
Cedar City leaders wouldn’t let the matter rest and wanted to punish the men in some way – whether it was arresting them or making them pay a fine of some cattle. Isaac Haight, Cedar City’s mayor and stake president, wanted to call in the militia but was rebuked by William Dame of Parowan, who was the district militia commander, Turley wrote.
These Cedar City leaders eventually ignored the decision of their commander, took matters into their own hands and enlisted the local Paiute Indians, who reluctantly agreed to help them in what turned out to be a five-day siege.
First, a few scuffles between settlers and emigrants led to the killing of 15 of the party’s emigrants and wounding some others. According to Turley’s story, the militia reached the point of no return when it realized that the emigrants knew the killings had come at the hands of whites, not Indians, and that that knowledge would lead to more trouble for the settlers from the government.
Eventual scapegoat John D. Lee became involved in the planning of the event through his role as the Fort Harmony militia major. On the day of the actual massacre, Lee, along with the accompanying militia, went into the emigrants’ tight wagon fort under a white flag saying that the local militia would escort them back to Cedar City but that they must leave their possessions and weapons behind as a peaceful sign to the Indians.
“The suspicious emigrants debated what to do but in the end accepted the terms, seeing no better alternative,” Turley wrote. “They had been pinned down for days with little water, the wounded in their midst were dying, and they did not have enough ammunition to fend off even one more attack.”
Seventeen children, who were deemed too young to tell any tales, were moved out first and spared, but at a prearranged signal, each militia man shot the emigrant next to him and the Indians swooped in to attack the women and remaining children.
Despite plans to pin the massacre on the Paiutes – and persistent subsequent efforts to do so – one participant later maintained that his fellow militiamen did most of the killing, Turley concluded.
Even before the siege an express rider was sent to Salt Lake City with a letter to Brigham Young seeking his advice on the matter, Turley wrote. Unfortunately, Young’s reply came two days after the massacre.
That reply letter said that the federal troops would not be coming before that winter. It also said to not meddle with the emigrants and let them pass in peace.
“When Haight read Young’s words, he sobbed like a child and could manage only the words, ‘Too late, too late,” Turley wrote.
One of the things that defies understanding about the massacre that Turley notes in his article is that before the event and after, the Mountain Meadows Massacre perpetrators lead decent, nonviolent lives. However, those men felt guilt for what they had done, and some of the men and their families were ostracized by their neighbors.
A territorial grand jury indicted nine men for their role in the massacre, but Lee was the only one convicted and punished for his role in the massacre – with his life. Lee dug his own grave and suffered death by firing squad at the massacre site in 1877.
Turley also points out the irony of the event. The very settlers who perpetrated the massacre came to Utah because they abhorred mob violence and wanted to flee from it. However, in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, they exacted it to a more grave degree than was ever turned toward them.
The event’s historiography: interpretations over time
Like any controversial historical event, the historiography of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is fascinating.
Technically, historiography is defined as “the study of the writing of history,” but in essence, it illustrates how interpretations of an event change over time. And the perception of the Mountain Meadows Massacre has definitely changed.
In its immediate aftermath, the stories tried to place the blame on the Indians or justify the killings because the emigrants’ actions toward the Mormon settlers. In reality, the Mormon hierarchy hoped it could be forgotten, but in the mid-20th century a historian emerged who wanted to set the record straight.
Dixie State College English professor and dean of women Juanita Brooks wrote the first full-length account of the event, simply entitled “Mountain Meadows Massacre,” published in 1950. She was inspired to write it from stories she had heard since she was a child and because her grandfather played a role in it.
Her goal in writing it was to present the facts, but she caught major flak from the LDS church, who at that time wanted the most unsavory episode in its history swept under the rug for good. The church barred her from looking at certain primary sources it kept under lock and key. While the church was not supportive of her efforts, she received no formal disciplinary action, but she was ostracized in other ways, such as being released from her calling as Stake Relief Society president.
Even though she was a staunch LDS member, her writing didn’t come off as if she were someone who was an LDS apologist. She was a courageous historian some say was born to tell the story she did. For over 50 years, her book was the only detailed volume on the massacre until Will Bagley’s “Blood of the Prophets,” published in 2002.
As his subtitle subtly suggests, Bagley’s book put a different spin on the massacre. One of the aims of his book, which is clearly explained in his introduction, is to try to implicate Brigham Young as one of the massacre’s masterminds through his research.
Bagley grew up as a member of the faith but has since left it and is definitely not considered an LDS apologist, even though he does admit in his introduction that he is proud of his Mormon heritage.
Bagley admits in his introduction that his aim was not to revise Brooks’ work but to add to it. He praises Brooks for her work and is mostly complimentary of it. His main criticism of her work is that she was too amiable in her depiction of Lee.
In his preface, Bagley asks two questions – “What did Brigham Young know about the Massacre?” and “When did he know it?” – and he attempts to answer those questions based on his research throughout his book.
Historian Lawrence C. Coates, in his review of Bagley’s book for The Journal of American History in December 2003, said that Bagley’s evidence trying to implicate Young as one of the instigators of the massacre is circumstantial. To Coates, Bagley tries to weave “an elaborate conspiracy theory,” adding words to primary sources to spin his tale. Coates notes that the book must be read with a critical eye.
Bagley argues that the religious fanaticism of Brigham Young and other Mormons was the principal cause of the massacre, Goates wrote in his review.
But some might call Coates’ viewpoint into question because at the time he wrote the review, he was a professor at Brigham Young University, Idaho, an LDS-operated institution.
“Bagley’s Brother Brigham is a thoroughly flawed Saint,” University of New Mexico history professor Richard Etulain wrote in his review of Bagley’s book in the Spring 2003 edition of Montana: The Magazine of Western History. “By stirring up Indians, lashing out at critics of the Mormons, and telling churchmen they should stop immigrants passing through the Great Basin, Young played a central role, Bagley asserts, in bringing on the massacre.”
At the end of his review, Etulain tries to put the event into perspective for those who criticize the LDS church for its members’ involvement in the massacre.
“Still, before anti-Mormons try to damn the LDS leaders and people for this blot on Mormon history, they should recall and regret mistakes such as Japanese relocation, other American religious persecutions, and mistreatment of Indians generally.”
Some argue that Bagley’s book spurred the publication of “Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy,” written by Ronald Walker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard, three well-respected historians with close ties to the LDS church. In contrast to the challenges Brooks faced in writing her account, the church allowed the three authors open access to its archives, seeking to craft a transparent account of the tragedy.
In their preface, the authors note that historians before them have framed the massacre in two different ways. One portrays the perpetrators as good people and the victims as evil people who committed outrages during their travel through central and Southern Utah. The other depicts the victims as innocent and their killers as evil, following a misguided religion.
However, the authors’ approach to telling the massacre’s tale, they note, “attempts to navigate between the extremes of the other two.”
“This approach is partly a commonsense recognition that both victims and perpetrators were decent but imperfect people whose paths crossed in a moment of history that resulted in a terrible tragedy,” the authors explain.
One reviewer, Patrick Q. Mason of the University of Notre Dame, writing in Church History, a publication of the American Society of Church History, said that the three authors put to rest any suggestion that they are apologists right off the bat.
“In the very first sentence of the preface, they assign primary blame to the Mormon perpetrators, accusing them of a litany of crimes from deceit to treachery to cold-blooded murder,” Mason writes.
Walker, Turley and Leonard even clearly state their major disagreement with Bagley, who claims that Young told the Paiutes in a meeting on Sept. 1, 1857, that they could have the emigrants’ cattle, and, according to Bagley’s account, he “encouraged his Indian allies to attack the Fancher party.”
“The authors explicitly counter Bagley’s argument that Brigham Young essentially ordered the attack on the emigrants, contending that ‘neither chronology nor unfolding events confirm such a charge’” Mason explains.
Though absolving Young of direct responsibility, Mason writes that the authors do not shy away from criticizing Young, however, saying that Young’s declaration of martial law after hearing about the advance of the federal army contributed to heightened Mormon militancy, and his unclear Indian policy might have confused some settlers.
The Walker, Turley and Leonard book’s weakness is it basically ends with the receipt of Brigham Young’s letter telling Southern Utah Mormon leaders to leave the Fancher Party alone. It does briefly mention Lee’s trial and execution but has virtually nothing of the fallout and attempted cover-up after the massacre. However, the authors even admit that they could write a whole other volume on that part of the Massacre’s history, and many might hope they do.
Monument history and healing
This history of the series of monuments at the Mountain Meadows Massacre site is also a testament to the event’s controversiality.
An army regiment erected the first monument in 1859, a large cairn fashioned of stones with a wooden cross on top. In his book, Bagley contended that Brigham Young arranged for that memorial to be torn down in 1861. In the next 70 years, it was built back up several times and continued to be vandalized.
In 1932, the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association built a wall around the cairn site and installed a plaque, which read simply that the Fancher party “ was attacked by white men and Indians.”
In 1990, the Mountain Meadows Massacre Association, a group of descendants, along with the help of the LDS church and the state of Utah, erected several white granite panels on a hillside above the valley where the massacre took place to remember the victims by listing their names. It’s text, however, was a source of criticism. It says:
In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants led by Capt. John T. Baker and Capt. Alexander Fancher was attacked while en route to California. This event is known in history as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Sociologist and historian James Loewen, in his book “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong,” noted that “all across the United States, when the dominant group has committed wicked deeds, historical markers either simply omit the acts or write about them in the passive voice.”
The passive voice is used to shield the group doing the action, Loewen attests, but it sends the wrong message.
“When coupled with the passive voice, the term ‘massacre,’ while perfectly appropriate, guarantees that most tourists will infer that Native Americans did the grisly work,” Loewen concludes, and that is just what the massacres perpetrators wanted people to think, as explained earlier.
The monument in the valley below received an upgrade in 1999, again the product of a partnership between descendant groups and the LDS church. They erected a stone cairn monument patterned after the one the army put up 140 years before but without the cross.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, who took a vested interest in moving the new monument forward, especially after seeing how horribly it had fallen in disrepair, spoke at its Sept. 11, 1999, dedication. Some were hoping for an official church apology, but he stopped short of that. When asked in a later interview who was responsible for the massacre, he said, “the local people.”
A ceremony on the same date in 2007 marked the 150th anniversary. Then-church historian Marlin K. Jensen, who also showed a extreme interest in setting the story straight and remembering the victims, wrote a statement to read on that occasion, but because of illness, was unable to deliver it. Instead, then-Elder Henry B. Eyring, now second counselor in the First Presidency, presented it.
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.
The statement went on to voice regret to the Paiute people, who for so long bore the principal blame for the massacre but who would not have even participated in the massacre had they not been convinced by local Mormon leaders.
The word “apology” was never used in the remarks, and no official apology has ever come from church leadership. Despite that, descendant groups have been happy to have built a great relationship with the LDS church and work in concert with it to preserve the memory of the massacre and their forebearers who met their demise because of it.
In fact, Jensen was a big proponent of communication between the church and the Fancher party’s descendants, traveling to Arkansas to meet with descendant families and allow the healing to begin. He was also a driving force in helping the site reach National Historic Monument status in 2011 and spoke at the ceremony designating it a National Historic Monument on Sept. 11, 2011.
In his remarks on that occasion, Jensen said there are two parts to the massacre’s history, the story of the massacre itself and also the story of how those affected by it have worked together in its aftermath.
“This too is a complex narrative,” Jensen said. “In part, it documents the quest of historians in the intervening years to uncover the truth about the massacre. That truth, as it has emerged, has been greatly unsettling and a source of much reflection and sadness on the part of today’s Church leaders and members. The remarkable progress made in preserving Mountain Meadows as a sacred memorial to the massacre victims and, in according those victims the recognition they deserve, is also a vital part of this history.”
As most historians who have researched and written about the massacre will say, its story is definitely not cut and dry. For instance, reading the full-length, detailed accounts of the massacre mentioned in this story might leave one with more questions than answers.
Bagley even admitted that it’s basically impossible to get accurate data on the event.
“In the case of Mountain Meadows, we have a record irrevocably colored by dubious folklore and corrupted by perjury, false memory, and the destruction of key documents,” Bagley writes in his preface. “Almost every acknowledged ‘fact’ about the fate of these murdered people is open to question.”
But that is the draw of controversial events like this. There will most likely be no foregone conclusions.
Bagley also notes in his book that it is up to the reader to decide for themselves what they want to believe.
But it might be best to read several accounts before readers form their own opinions.
Visiting Mountain Meadows
The Mountain Meadows Massacre National Historic Landmark is located approximately 4o minutes north of St. George on state Route 18. It includes several different monuments and memorials all clustered within about a 2-mile radius. It’s turn-off is well-marked along the highway.
The main memorial, the recreated rock cairn, is reached via a gravel road which forks left after turning off the highway. A short trail leads across a wash to it from a gravel parking lot with pit toilets.
The right fork of the road leads to a short trail up to the overlook monument, the granite slabs listing the names of all the dead.
Two other monuments, one honoring the women and children who died, the other honoring the men, are directly off the highway to the north of the two large monuments.
Photo gallery follows below.
About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series
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