The Wilson Quarterly

If history is written by the victors, church history is usually written by the vicars. Naturally, these captive ­chronicles—­generally churned out by priests, bishops, and ­in-­house ­archi­vists—­tend to accentuate the positive and gloss over errors and ­excesses.

So it is both surprising and admirable that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided extensive official support to a new ­warts-­and-­all history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the darkest moments in the 180-year history of the Mormon Church. The church opened ­century-­old archives for this account of the infamous mass murder in a high Utah meadow in ­1857.

The church was not always so helpful. For nearly a century after some 120 California-bound emigrants were killed by local Mor­mons, church leaders relied on the stonewall. As late as 1990, when a memorial was un­veiled at the massacre ­site—­at the foot of the Mormon Range, in the desert corner where Utah, Nevada, and Arizona ­meet—­descen­dants of the victims com­plained that the church was still concealing basic information about the ­crime.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows is not a formal Mormon publication, but its authors in­clude an assistant church historian (Richard E. Turley Jr.) and a former director of the church’s Museum of Church History and Art (Glen M. Leonard). Ronald W. Walker is an independent historian and a writer of Mor­mon ­history.

Their unparalleled archival access has not produced any major new conclusions. But in addition to a thorough account of the state of the Mormon Church and the Utah Territory in 1857, this volume contains the most information yet published on the individual militia­men, the individual victims, and the 17 babies and children whose lives were spared in the ­melee.

In the summer of 1857, the Mormons in the Salt Lake valley were celebrating the 10th anniversary of their arrival in Utah after an arduous west­ward trek to escape religious persecution. But their leader, Brigham Young, was terrified by the news that a U.S. Army expedition was making its way toward Utah. Unless the Mormons and their Indian neighbors were willing to fight, Young said, “the United States will kill us both.”

The Mormons’ sense that “the United States” was their bitter enemy is one of the most striking facts illuminated by this history. The Mormon Church is an intensely Ameri­can religion. It was founded in 1830 by a New York farmer named Joseph Smith, and its scrip­ture places the Garden of Eden in Mis­souri and relates how a resurrected Jesus appeared and preached to American Indians. When the Mormon pioneers settled in Utah, Young himself was appointed the territory’s first ­governor.

Mutual fear and loathing occasionally flared into battles between Mormon settlers and "overlanders" who crossed their lands heading for California.

By 1857, though, the Mormons wanted nothing to do with the U.S.A., while most Americans saw the polygamous sect as a dangerous cult. The mutual fear and loathing occasionally flared into battles between Mormon settlers and the thou­sands of “overlanders” who crossed the Great Basin trails each summer in wagon trains headed for ­California.

In late summer, nearly 140 emigrants from Arkansas and ­Missouri—­two states where Mormons had faced particularly bitter ­enmity—­encamped at the Mountain Meadows. The local Mormon militia devised a plan to annihilate the whole ­party—­men, women, and ­children—­and place the blame on Indians. The local Paiutes trusted the Mormons (they referred to church presi­dent Brigham Young as “Big Um”), and some Indians did take part in the killing. But the authors make it clear that the Mormons designed the “improbably sinister” plan of attack: Under flag of truce, the white men convinced the emigrants to put away their weapons, then led them down the trail to a bloody ­ambush.

The authors conclude that Young did not know about the planned attack in advance, but he did know the truth after­ward, while his church pointed fingers at everybody else. In their view, Young and other church leaders were responsible for the general climate of fear and open hostility to emigrants that drove the local militia to “set aside principles of their faith to commit an atrocity.”

Except for Mountain Meadows addicts (and there are a lot of them, both Mormon and otherwise), this history is likely to disappoint. Other than a sketchy “epilogue” about the execution of one militia leader, John D. Lee, the book says nothing about the after­math of the murders. A reader who cares to know how news of the massacre became public, how the church managed its long ­cover-­up, and what happened to the perpetrators other than Lee will be left high and ­dry.

For those who are new to this historical episode, Juanita Brooks’s ­well-­known 1950 chronicle The Mountain Meadows Massacre or Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets (2002) might be more satisfying. But for people already familiar with the sordid tale, or for readers who like their history awash in carefully documented detail, this history may be a useful addition to the ­library.

* * *

T. R. Reid has covered the Rocky Mountain West and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for The Washington Post and National Public Radio. He is the author of several books, including We’re Number 37! which is forthcoming next year.

Reviewed: Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Glen M. Leonard, Oxford University Press, 430 pp, 2011.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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