To understand the impact of the event known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it is useful to focus on the date of that atrocity: September 11, 1857. On that Friday morning, Mormon militiamen lured the members of a California-bound wagon train into an ambush. Collaborating with Paiute Indian allies, the Mormons slaughtered 120 people. Many victims were shot at point-blank range; some of the children were clubbed to death.
In his 1877 memoir, massacre participant John D. Lee described a meeting of Mormon leaders in Cedar City before the attack. “Brethren, we have been sent here to perform a duty,” declared a person described by Lee only as “some one in authority.”
The orders of those in authority are that all the emigrants must die. Our leaders speak with inspired tongues, and their orders come from the God of Heaven. We have no right to question what they have commanded us to do; it is our duty to obey.
Historian Will Bagley wrote The Blood of the Prophets in order “to examine how decent men, believing they were doing God’s work, committed a horrific atrocity”—what was, until the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995, the bloodiest act of terrorism perpetrated on American soil.
Mormon historians have habitually “laid the blame on the victims and Indians, and that tradition is alive and well today,” notes Bagley. Mormon folklore describes the California-bound wagon train, under the leadership of seasoned frontiersman Alexander Fancher, as a horde of violent bigots, including men responsible for killing Mormons in Missouri. Some accounts claim that the Arkansans provoked the Indians by poisoning streams and giving them a poisoned beef. In a six-volume history published around the turn of the 20th century, Mormon leader B.H. Roberts retailed much of that folklore, even as he grudgingly allowed that Mormons “have been naturally slow to admit all the facts that history may insist upon as inevitable.”
Many of those unpalatable facts were presented in Juanita Brooks’ 1950 study, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, which the Mormon author (a granddaughter of a coconspirator in the massacre) wrote and published in the teeth of intimidation by Mormon authorities. Brooks’ volume “repeated many of the slanderous tales” about the massacre victims, notes Bagley, and accepted John D. Lee’s argument that the Paiutes led the attack, with the Mormons acting as little more than frightened accomplices. Both of these conclusions are demolished in Bagley’s new study. Still, Bagley commends Brooks for her brave work in documenting that “[Brigham] Young’s cover-up of the crime made him an accessory after the fact, and that he stage managed the sacrifice of John D. Lee” as a scapegoat. Today, church-aligned Mormon historians acknowledge the validity of Brooks’ work, even if they ignore its implications regarding Young’s crime in covering up the massacre.
In an address last May, Richard Turley, an historian employed by the Mormon Church, laid the blame at the feet of “militia and church leaders of Iron County.” He also obliquely acknowledged the cover-up: “Due to an environment of mistrust, some documents of importance were sequestered by institutions or individuals and kept from researchers.” Throughout Mormondom, informed observers understood that Turley’s officially sanctioned admissions were meant as a preemptive strike against Bagley’s book. Subsequent to its August publication, the book was assailed in a review published by the church-owned Deseret News, which accused Bagley of having a “sledgehammer agenda” and assailed the University of Oklahoma Press for “publishing what is really an anti-Mormon tract.” That review was a splendid illustration of what Bagley calls “the myth of persecuted innocence,” which, for nearly a century and a half, was invoked to justify the massacre and efforts to cover it up.
Turley’s description of the Mormon cover-up was a work of Clintonesque dissimulation. As an independent researcher, Bagley could be blunt in describing efforts to purge the archives:
Missing or destroyed sources include John D. Lee’s 1857 diary, the minutes of the Cedar City church meeting whose participants voted to kill the emigrants, correspondence between local militia commanders and Brigham Young, and pages ripped from 1857 journals.
Bagley, however, was able to find a key piece of evidence in a diary kept by Dimick Huntington, Brigham Young’s brother-in-law and Indian interpreter. The account describes a September 1 parley between Young and a group of Indian chiefs. During that meeting, Young “gave” the Indians the cattle belonging to the Arkansas wagon train, which was, at that point, passing through southern Utah. Young “understood it was likely that innocent women and children would die in the Indian attacks he tacitly authorized,” contends Bagley. “The Paiute chiefs left Salt Lake City the day after their meeting with Brigham Young, and the first attack on the Fancher party ensued less than a week later.”
In Bagley’s telling, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was an outgrowth of Young’s campaign of asymmetrical warfare against the U.S. government. At the time of the massacre, Young was both Utah territorial governor and the territory’s superintendent of Indian affairs. From their arrival in the Rocky Mountains in 1847, the Mormons made clear their intention to establish a theocratic kingdom in what they called the territory of “Deseret”—a vast area encompassing modern Utah as well as parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon. As the prophetic successor to Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Young ruled an American caliphate. He was seen as God’s mouthpiece, with jurisdiction over matters both temporal and spiritual.
Even as Mormon leaders petitioned Washington to admit Deseret into the Union, they uttered apocalyptic predictions that America’s “gentile” (non-Mormon) government would soon fall as divine punishment for shedding the “blood of the prophets”—Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, who were killed by a mob in June 1844. Mormons who had undergone the quasi-Masonic initiation administered in the Nauvoo, Illinois, temple were bound by oath to seek vengeance for the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum, as well as those of Mormons who had died in earlier intercommunal violence in Missouri. In May 1857, President Buchanan, acting on reports that the Mormons were in rebellion against federal authority, dispatched an army to install a new governor.
As the conflict raged between Washington and Deseret, Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt was serving a mission in Arkansas, where he baptized a woman named Eleanor McLean. Eventually, Eleanor was “sealed” to Pratt as a “plural wife.” Her cuckolded husband responded by tracking down Pratt and murdering him. News of Pratt’s death reached Utah at about the same time the Mormons learned that the U.S. Army was on its way. The Arkansas wagon train arrived in Utah at the convergence of these events. “The party from Arkansas was probably doomed from the moment the Mormons learned of the death of Parley Pratt and the approach of the American army,” writes Bagley.
The emigrants fell victim to Brigham Young’s decision to stage a violent incident that would demonstrate his power to control the Indians of the Great Basin and to stop travel on the most important overland roads.
In early September 1857, the Fancher train reached a park called Mountain Meadows, about 400 miles from its destination. When the Indian attack ensued, the wagons formed a defensive circle, with sharpshooters repelling the initial sortie. Mormon leaders from Cedar City, determined to annihilate the emigrants, devised a ruse to lure the Fancher party out of its fortified position: Militiamen would approach the train under a flag of truce, urge the men to disarm, and offer to escort them to safety.
The Fancher party was separated into three groups, with the men marching in single file, each of them bracketed by an armed Mormon. At a designated signal, the procession drew to a halt, and the Mormons opened fire on the disarmed men. At the same time, Paiutes swarmed the women, older children, and wounded. The Mormons plundered the train of its considerable wealth; eventually, they sluiced some of it into the church’s tithing office. The children who survived the attack were temporarily adopted into Mormon homes.
In 1859, amid mounting public outrage over the atrocity, Congress paid to transport the child survivors back to Arkansas. Before Washington could pursue a proper investigation of the massacre, however, its attention was diverted by the crisis that led to the War Between the States. Young and his minions did their best to cover up the Mormon Church’s official responsibility for the crime, finally scapegoating John D. Lee for the entire affair. Lee was tried, convicted, and executed at Mountain Meadows in 1877.
To this day, the Mormon leadership refuses to acknowledge the Mormon Church’s official role in the atrocity. “I would place the blame on the local people,” Mormon President Gordon B. Hinck-ley told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2000. Each of those “local people,” however, was bound by oaths and covenants to make Brigham Young’s “will my pleasure,” as Lee lamented just before his execution. Each was steeped in doctrines that demanded blood vengeance for the death of God’s holy prophets. And none of them was ever cut off from the church in whose name he carried out the bloody deed. While Lee was excommunicated following his conviction, he was posthumously reinstated to membership in 1961—a tacit acknowledgement by Brigham Young’s successors that Lee’s actions were indeed in line with the prophet’s will.
[Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Will Bagley (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press) 544 pp., $39.95]