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Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
Will Bagley
University of Oklahoma Press, 2004
550 pp., 34.95

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John G. Turner

9/11, 1857

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

On Friday, September 11, 1857, a Mormon settler named John D. Lee used a white flag to approach a besieged emigrant train in southwestern Utah. Unexpectedly, the pioneers had traveled into a maelstrom. As they made their way from Arkansas to Utah, roughly one-third of the entire American army was journeying toward the Great Basin, escorting a non-Mormon governor designated by President James Buchanan to replace Brigham Young. Only 13 years after the murder of Joseph Smith and with stark memory of his people's expulsion from Missouri and Illinois, Young prepared for war, ordering Mormons not to sell needed food or ammunition to gentile emigrants. Throughout August, tensions between Mormon settlers and the pioneers flared as the group made its way through southern Utah.

When Lee approached them, the emigrants had been holed up for four days at a lush watering place called the Mountain Meadow. On Monday, a barrage of Indian gunfire and arrows had surprised them at daybreak. After losing a dozen or so of their number, the pioneers successfully circled their wagons, dug fortifications, and fought back. By Friday, however, they were running low on ammunition, parched from thirst, and out of hope. Lee, a major in Utah's Nauvoo Legion militia, offered to help. If they would surrender their weapons, he and his men would protect them from the Indians.

Despite their suspicions, the emigrants accepted Lee's offer. Lee placed the wounded and young children in wagons; behind them marched the emigrant women and older children, followed by the men. Next to each unarmed man marched a Mormon soldier. Alongside the trail, Paiute warriors were hidden in the brush. When Nauvoo Legion Major John Higbee gave the signal, the escorts turned and shot the emigrant men at point-blank range. The Paiutes, joined by some of the Mormons, butchered the women, older children, and wounded adults. No one escaped, although the attackers spared seventeen young children. The exact number remains uncertain, but roughly 120 men, women, and children perished. It was a premeditated and perfectly executed mass murder.

After the slaughter ended, the Mormon leaders gathered the surviving children and distributed them among area families. Chillingly, some lived with massacre participants; others occasionally recognized Indians and Mormons from their gruesome memories. Two years later, U.S. government agents recovered the children and returned them to relatives. The Paiutes and Mormons also plundered the wagon train, with the Mormon settlers claiming most of the emigrants' cattle and valuables. Some of the loot eventually arrived at the church's General Tithing Office in Salt Lake.

Although Brigham Young had been preparing his people for war against the United States, he soon negotiated a peaceful end to what became known as "Buchanan's Blunder." Alfred Cumming, the new governor, assumed his office in the spring of 1858. With the reestablishment of an uneasy peace, it became essential not only to the perpetrators of the crime but also to the church hierarchy to maintain a veil of secrecy over the massacre. Mormon leaders feared that a true account would fuel already red-hot anti-Mormon sentiment. However, early attempts to blame the murders entirely on the Paiutes collapsed as information quickly spread to California and into the national press. Over the years, Mormons in southern Utah perpetuated allegations of emigrant arrogance, taunts, and foul play (the most significant story involved the poisoning of a creek that allegedly killed an indeterminate number of Indians and Mormons).

Thirteen years after the massacre, the church excommunicated Lee, who was arrested in 1874. The cooperation of massacre participant and former Mormon Bishop Philip Klingensmith helped a prosecutor build a strong case against Lee, but a heavily Mormon jury deadlocked. A second jury convicted Lee, and he was executed at Mountain Meadows in March 1877. Before his death, Lee expressed bitterness at what he considered Brigham Young's unjust betrayal, but he never accused his Prophet of ordering the massacre. Other local leaders who helped orchestrate the massacre fled indictments and were not pursued vigorously after Lee's execution. Lee, though certainly guilty himself, became the convenient scapegoat killed for the sins of his brethren.

Two questions comprise the heart of recent studies of Mountain Meadows: Why would a group of Mormon settlers abandon any shred of decency and murder scores of men, women, and children? And who was responsible for the decision to commit the massacre? In particular, did Brigham Young either order or condone the massacre? Juanita Brooks, in her courageous and ground-breaking Mountain Meadows Massacre, identified the long history of Mormon persecution, the frenzy surrounding the army's impending invasion, and the belligerent attitude of the emigrants themselves as factors that led to the mass murder. Although Brooks alleged that Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith preached incendiary sermons that "made it possible," they "did not specifically order the massacre." She labeled Young an "accessory after the fact" because of his failure to vigorously investigate the massacre and help bring the perpetrators to justice. (1)

Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, is the most significant book on the subject since Brooks'. Bagley's account sparkles with clear and eloquent writing, contains impressive research on the emigrant train and the role of the Paiute Indians in the attack, and chronicles the church's response to the massacre. Bagley strikes a modest tone at the outset of his work, which he terms "not a revision but an extension of Brooks's labors." Bagley concentrates on the dark elements in early Mormonism and connects them to the massacre. In particular, he emphasizes the doctrine of blood atonement, the early Mormon belief that the only remedy for "unforgivable crimes was to shed one's own blood" or have it shed. According to Bagley, some of the Mormon settlers believed that members of the emigrant train had participated in the recent murder of Mormon Apostle Parley Pratt in Arkansas and possibly had links to earlier anti-Mormon violence in Missouri and Illinois. In their temple ceremony, the Saints swore to "avenge the blood of the prophets," which in Bagley's account they fulfilled at Mountain Meadows.

When he turns to the question of Brigham Young's responsibility for the massacre, Bagley shelves his initial modesty. After the initial fighting on September 7, Isaac Haight—Lee's superior—sent a letter to Young asking for his instructions. Defenders of Young, including Brooks, have pointed to his September 10 response, in which he ordered Haight not to "meddle" with the emigrants. Bagley finds it curious that Young needed to issue such an order and suggests that previously "there were standing orders [from Young] to attack every emigrant party in southern Utah." Drawing on the diary of Dimick Huntingon, Bagley explains that on September 1—ten days before the massacre—Young "gave them [the Paiutes] all the cattle that had gone to Cal on the south rout … they [the Americans] have come to fight us & you for when they kill us they will kill you." "If any court in the American West (excepting, of course, one of Utah's probate courts) had seen the evidence it contains," writes Bagley of Huntington's journal, "the only debate among the jurors would have been when, where, and how high to hang Brigham Young."

Only a jury packed with anti-Mormons would have hung Brigham Young as an "accessory to murder" on the evidence available to Bagley. The distance between Young "giving" the Paiutes the cattle on the southern route and ordering his own men to attack the Fancher train is as wide as the distance between Salt Lake and Mountain Meadows, and the commonsensical reading of Young's letter to Haight remains exculpatory. Legal guilt differs from moral blame, however. Young gave his blessing to the Paiutes to attack emigrant trains, the natural result of which would be innocent deaths. Young and other church leaders unleashed irresponsibly bellicose rhetoric during the Utah War and pressured Mormons—sometimes violently—to stop selling provisions to emigrant trains. Moreover, after learning at least the partial truth of the massacre, Young did not aggressively investigate the affair or quickly excommunicate the guilty. The context of the Utah War and the prolonged controversies over federal judges and polygamy help explain Young's actions, but they do not excuse them.

Partly because the church initially suppressed evidence and only recently has made extent materials more accessible, debates over the culpability of Young and others will probably never be fully resolved. (2) In our fallen world, hatred and prejudice and fear can all too quickly evolve into violence, violence that religion—Mormon and otherwise—all too often has failed to restrain.

John G. Turner is assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama. He is the author of Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming).

1. Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, 2nd ed. (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p. 219. Brooks first published her findings in 1950.

2. For some years now, a team of LDS historians—Richard Turley, Ronald Walker, and Glen Leonard—has been preparing a new account of Mountain Meadows, an account that, according to pre-release coverage, exonerates Young. See Carrie A. Moore, "Historians Tell of Massacre," Deseret News, May 29, 2007.

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