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More than 150 years ago, a group of Mormon settlers, for reasons still hotly debated, killed some 120 men, women, and children in the southwestern Utah grazing lands known as Mountain Meadows. Since then, the Mountain Meadows Massacre has become both an example of religious paranoia gone murderous, and a bloody nightmare that still haunts the collective Mormon consciousness.
Beginning in 1950, with the pioneering work of Juanita Brooks, historians have attempted to grapple with the causes and personalities at the center of this tragedy. Brooks concluded in her Mountain Meadows Massacre that "the complete -- the absolute -- truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being." Despite the modesty, Brooks provided what has become the generally accepted narrative of the massacre.
As Brooks recounts, a large group of Arkansas emigrants on their way to California entered Utah just as a U.S. army was approaching the Rocky Mountain territory to enforce federal oversight. LDS Church members were convinced that the army was going to take control of the pioneer settlements. Angry, inflammatory rhetoric sounded from pulpits across the region, defying Washington, D.C., and calling for the Saints to take up arms. Church President Brigham Young would eventually place the territory under martial law.
Making their way south, the 150 or so members of the Fancher-Baker wagon train decided to spend several days resting in Mountain Meadows before continuing. Nearby Mormons, disguised as Native Americans, with some local Paiutes (though this is disputed), attacked the outsiders. What began as an assault ended on Sept. 11, 1857, as cold-blooded murder, when the attackers gunned down all members of the wagon train over the age of 8; the emigrants thought they were being conveyed to safety when the final orders to kill were given. Young disavowed advance knowledge of the massacre; only one man, John D. Lee, was ever convicted and executed for his participation.
Brooks, a native of southern Utah, was the first to propose a scholarly, balanced interpretation. She was followed by brief treatments in The Story of the Latter-day Saints (1976), by James Allen and Glen Leonard; Establishing Zion (1988), by Eugene Campbell; Ronald Esplin and Richard Turley in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992); Morris Shirt in Utah History Encyclopedia (1994); and in Forgotten Kingdom, by David Bigler (1998).
Then, in August 2002, Utah historian Will Bagley published Blood of the Prophets. A narrative tour de force, Bagley's analysis pointed to, as probable precipitating causes, the May 1857 assassination of an LDS apostle, and the so-called oath of vengeance, once administered in LDS temples, charging believers to avenge the deaths of God's prophets. Though Bagley did not explicitly say Brigham Young ordered the massacre, he insisted that "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."
The next year, Sally Denton's engaging but controversial American Massacre appeared nationwide. And the winter 2005 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly included "Pursue, Retake & Punish," Ardis E. Parshall's eye-opening account of an ambush in Santa Clara, Utah, in 1857. Parshall's discussion, detailing Brigham Young's involvement in the deadly assault on a small group of outsiders making their way through the Utah Territory only months before Mountain Meadows, is as insightful as it is illuminating.
Finally, in August 2008, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints historians Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, and Glen Leonard released their eagerly awaited account of the tragedy, entitled Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Some seven-plus years in the making, and drawing upon the full resources of the LDS Church (including access to the First Presidency's Archives), Massacre offers a straightforward, spartan narrative couched in nuanced language more focused on explaining than on blaming. Though its sympathies toward their church and its pioneer members are apparent, the book's objectivity is sobering. The massacre was not so much the result of one or two immediate precursors, but the frenzied culmination of out-of-control psychological forces, including a culture that encouraged blind obedience, conformity, and the "dehumanization" of outsiders.
"For the most part," Walker, Turley, and Leonard write, "the men who committed the atrocity at Mountain Meadows were neither fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people." A companion volume treating the cover-up of the massacre is planned.
Following the Walker-Turley-Leonard book, Bagley and David Bigler last month produced a compilation of "essential narratives" of the massacre, Innocent Blood.
Brooks may be correct that the full truth of the Mountain Meadows Massacre will always be elusive. But Brooks, Bagley, Parshall, Walker, Turley, and Leonard have brought us as close to that truth as we may be able to bear.
What emerges from the works of these preeminent historians is the painful reminder that the propensity for unspeakable violence resides in every human heart.
Gary James Bergera, an author and editor, is the managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation in Salt Lake City.