I probably should be ashamed of the fact that I paid my own airfare to Salt Lake City for an interview with Helen Whitney during her preparation of the PBS documentary on the Mormons. That’s just another evidence of my vanity. However, the airfare cost me less than $200 and I had almost no other expense. I stayed with Lavina Fielding Anderson, and Whitney’s associate Jane Barnes picked me up at the airport and drove me around. The guestroom in the Anderson house is an immersion in Mormonism—hundreds of books by and about Mormons from early to late line the shelves. And Jane Barnes consented to write an essay for Dialogue about her impressions of Joseph Smith, which will be published in our spring 2008 issue. You don’t want to miss that one.
Whitney’s interest in me had to do with my biography of Juanita Brooks. I think she hoped I could tell her something important about the Mountain Meadows massacre. I had some inkling during the interview that I wasn’t succeeding. Later, as I watched the section of the documentary devoted to the massacre, I understood more clearly why my view of the massacre, conditioned entirely by Brooks, didn’t appeal to her. She was relying on Will Bagley’s interpretation of it, which, I grant, is persuasive.
Brooks’ Mountain Meadows Massacre was published in 1950 and was last updated 1972. Bagley’s densely annotated Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows was published in 2002. Offering a mass of new evidence, it seems destined to displace Brooks’ work in the esteem of non-Mormon readers, a potentially numerous category including all the non-Mormons in the world who can read English. As for Mormon readers, the book soon to be published by BYU historians Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Glen M. Leonard will unquestionably become the history of choice. Entitled Massacre at Mountain Meadows, this volume has the official sanction of the Church, which has allowed the publication of an article based on it in The Ensign. Needless to say, I expect this Church-sponsored volume to brim with facts unavailable to Brooks.
All this is fresh on my mind because I recently delivered the annual Juanita Brooks lecture sponsored by Dixie College in St. George, Utah. In my remarks, I compared Brooks’ and Bagley’s interpretation of the massacre closely. I also absorbed whatever I could find by Walker, Turley, or Leonard, including Turley’s Ensign article and impromptu remarks made by Walker in St. George on the day after I had made my presentation.
My conclusion is that the mass of new facts available to Bagley and the BYU historians bring them no closer than Brooks to answering crucial questions like the following:
- Who among the Mormons made the decision to have the Indians attack the Fancher train in the first place?
- Who made the decision to lure the emigrants from their defenses by a treacherous promise of safe conduct and to require the assembled Mormon militia to take a leading role in the mass murder of 120 men, women and older children.
- Twenty years later, did Brigham Young make a backstairs deal with the gentile prosecutors by which John D. Lee alone, of dozens of known participants, was convicted and executed for the bloody deed?
As I say, like Brooks, Bagley and the BYU historians offer only plausibilities by way of answering these questions.
Historical studies derive from sources relevant to the period in question. Modern historiography requires that facts be extracted from sources by objective standards. Finding sources in the first place is a problem; equally vexing is the problem of discerning the truly factual from the merely plausible. It is a problem finally solved by resort to an interpretation. Interpretation is the process of amalgamating verifiable fact with plausibilities in order to create a coherent pattern and to suggest causes and effects beyond the purely demonstrable. Historians, being human, have an inevitable bias. Confronted by ambiguities, they will choose according to their preference.
Juanita Brooks’ bias had to do with her desire to spread the blame for the massacre widely. She was, after all, a native of the region where the massacre occurred and the granddaughter of a participant. As you read her book, you realize that she intends to spread the blame from the scapegoated John D. Lee to many other Mormons in southern Utah. She intends to spread it from southern Utah to the likes of Brigham Young and other leaders in Salt Lake City. She intends to spread it to the American decision makers who were sending an army to invade Utah. She intends to spread it to the mobs and pusillanimous government officials who expelled the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois. She even intends to spread a small portion of it to some members of the Fancher party itself.
All of this becomes apparent in what I will call the body language of her book. What human beings say to one another is often belied by the way they look. Hence, a rigid, unsmiling face contradicts cordial words; a cheerfully ironic tone of voice cancels a declaration of disapproval. History books use body language too. Brooks arranges chapters and chooses connotative words in a way that emphasizes that responsibility for the massacre must be widely spread.
When I first read Brooks’ history of the massacre and her biography of John D. Lee, I had been thinking a good deal about the nature of literary tragedy, a subject which I sometimes taught in literature classes. It struck me that Brooks’ volumes had the effect of literary tragedy upon Mormon readers. Taken as two parts of a single opus, her books evoked a paradoxical sympathy for the perpetrators while at the same moment making the horror and duplicity of their deed apparent. Her books were, I saw, not simply accounts of a tragedy in the everyday sense of word, but of a tragedy in the literary sense too—tragedies in the same sense that King Lear and Othello are tragedies, wherein fundamentally good men are led into an evil deed. And in the case of the Mormons who perpetrated the Mountain Meadows massacre, the evil was compounded, rather than alleviated, by the scapegoating of a single one of their number.
Like Brooks, Bagley has his own agenda as a historian, though it is of a very different sort than hers. In his preface, Bagley declares his pride in his Mormon heritage and hopes that his book, like that of Brooks, “will come to be appreciated as a service to my people and to history” (xix). However, the body language of his book conveys another message. Certainly, he does not seek to evoke sympathy for the Mormons who participated in the massacre. Quite to the contrary, over and over throughout his long, detailed volume, his choice of connotative language and his arrangement of events suggest that for him the perpetrators of the massacre were not good men who committed an evil deed, but malefactors expressing thereby their essentially criminal nature.
Bagley’s interpretation is the one that Helen Whitney prefers. I think she can’t share Brooks’ sympathy for the perpetrators. I don’t fault her for that. Maybe you have to be a Mormon with some of the pioneering experience still in you to have sympathy for the men who committed the massacre. You have to realize that tribal justice competed with civilized justice everywhere on the expanding American frontier. I use the word tribal because it was common among the Indian tribes on the American frontier to wage hereditary war on certain other tribes. The scalps of enemy women and children counted as much as those of men when it came time to tally the honors of a raid. The mobs that drove the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois were practicing tribal justice. All Mormons, whatever gender, age, or circumstance, were enemies. At Mountain Meadows, the Mormons acted according to tribal justice. They were giving as they had received.
That doesn’t excuse their atrocity. All the more reason then to muster some pity for them. And some gratitude that you are not called to be similarly tested by circumstances.
Levi Peterson is the Editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. For more interesting material and the latest in Mormon Studies, visit the Dialogue website.