Tribal justice at Mountain Meadows

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.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    An outstanding essay, Levi. This spirit of tribal justice you invoke strikes me as similar to some of the scenes in The Backslider. Do you feel that this kind of spirit is something inherent in Mormonism? Even contemporary or urban Mormonism?

  2. Thanks, Steve. I don’t think tribal justice was any more inherent in frontier Mormons than it was in other frontier population. You can find it operating everywhere on the successive American frontiers for a century and a half. I felt frustrated in my interview with Helen Whitney at my inability to get this point across. It wasn’t her fault. I never have been very articulate in an impromptu situation like an interview, and I think I’m less so in my 70’s. What I wanted to tell Helen was that you have to take into account the violence and attrocities on both sides of the Mormon-Gentile conflict in Utah of 1857. I mean, you have to take it into account emotionally, not just intellectually.

    Even now, when I read Richad Bushman’s very objective account of the driving of the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois, I discover an anger in myself toward the Gentile population of those states. Juanita knew about the anger too. But I don’t think Helen caught it, and I wonder why Will Bagley doesn’t share it.

  3. Levi: Great post. I am chagrined to hear from Ron Walker that they are not planning on focusing that much on the impact the Missouri/Illinois persecutions had on the Mormons. While I agree with him that it can sound as an excuse, I still feel it had a major role in the mindset surrounding the massacre.

  4. Nice comparison regarding Brooke’s and Bagley’s positions.

    If I were to project a future niche for Bagley’s book I would not see him as the definitive work on the MMM for non-Mormons. That is because popular treatments like Denton’s and Krakauer’s are read much more. Bagley’s book might appeal to a more academic non-Mormon audience. But even there I would expect the new Oxford volume to give some competiton, in a manner comparable to the Bushman’s biography is winning over some of the old Fawn Brodie audience. In my opinion, Bagley may need to put out a second edition to stay relevant, if only to correct the misread of the Dimick Huntington diaries and to back off a little on the vengeance oath stuff, that Van Hale is calling into question.

  5. Great post Levi. Along these lines, Richard Bushman gave a speech at an LDS Law Conference in DC a couple years ago where he made a similar analogy, exploring how the “mob” justice which was perpetrated (and condoned) against Joseph Smith and the earlier members of the Church was related to later acts of “mob” justice carried out by Church members themselves in places like Missouri and, ultimately, Mountain Meadows.

  6. Levi, this is an enjoyable and perspicacious essay. I think you are absolutely correct in your observations about Brooks’ tapping into the tragedy of the affair. I am, however, not so certain that Bagley’s book will be the de facto non-Mormon account of choice. That said, I think the inability of Walker et al. to publish is more than a little embarrassing and Bagley just might win the day for actually having produced something.

  7. Thanks for the views.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    Well, the delay on Walker is annoying. But I don’t think that means Bagley will win the day. Although I do think the mere fact Walker and Turley are so tied to the Church means they’ll be discounted out of hands. (I’m sure the inevitable review of their tome by Bagley will be quite entertaining)

    One hopes that the facts will rule the day in determining how the history is viewed. Although arguably how popular or praised a book in LDS history is tends to have weak correlation to facts. I can think of several praised books with tons of problems.

  9. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    An allegory. It is during the sentencing phase, and it is Juanita Brooks who stands up at the defense table calling for leniency and recognition of the defendants’ subsequently honorable life, proving the mending of his ways. Then over at the prosecution table, Will Bagley stands up and intones, “Come on!–let’s lock these damned rascals up and throw away the key!”

    I.e., would she, on the one hand, have been sort of an early twentieth century social reformers–who sought, from her standpoint on the inside, to validate her particular religious and regional culture as having a proper place in the America landscape, while she still would expose its guilts such as the Massacre, while also seeking to mitigate the same through identification with perpetrators and understanding whatever the crosscurrents in play? And, if so, would he, on the other hand, be sort of the type of crusader for secular culture who’s more a “Zion curtain revolutionary”: excoriating an Old Regime for its failings while spiritedly calling on others to join him in rejecting it outright?

  10. Clark, I think you are correct that it doesn’t mean it. However, if they were to have produced something in 2003, like it was rumored, then Bagley would have had a year in the limelight. Instead he has the bulk of the decade. I personally think that they will pull it off, but it isn’t a sure thing.

  11. Some additional thoughts:

    I have attended two lectures by Turley and one by Thomas Alexander within the last 14 months or so. Alexander’s paper from that lecture has now been published and is available from Amazon. Unfortunately the paper doesn’t cover the remarks he made regarding Levi’s questions #1 and #3. IIRC correctly, Alexander came down emphatically that Haight was the prime instigator and mastermind. Likewise Turley also described the build up to massacre and puts much of the culpability on Haight (with a lot of help from Lee). I assume the new book will spell out their arguments better than I can recall them. I blogged about both these lectures on M*. Turley’s second lecture at the FAIR Conference didn’t spare condemnation for those who were only following orders and framed the events in terms of “moral panic”.

    I think some of Juanita’s take on Brigham Young’s participation in the coverup after the Massacre will need to be re-evaluated. Historians have now deciphered some records written with the Deseret Alphabet that indicates Brigham Young was offering to help identify and bring the perpetrators to justice. From Alexander’s Arrington Lecture Series paper:

    On July 5, 1859, after the public knew that Cumming had received word from Washington placing the army under the governor’s control, Young met with George A. Smith, Albert Carrington, and James Ferguson. They discussed the “reaction to the Mountain Meadow Massacre.” Young told them that US. attorney Alexander Wilson had called “to consult with him about making some arrests of” the accused.[95]
    On the same day, Wilson had met with Young. Young told him “that if the judges would open a court at Parowan or some other convenient location in the south, .. . unprejudiced and uninfluenced by. . . the army, so that man could have a fair and impartial trial He would go there himself, and he presumed that Gov. Cumming would also go . . . ” He “would use all his influence to have the parties arrested and have the whole. . . matter investigated thoroughly and impartially and justice meted out to every man.” Young said he would not exert himself, however, “to arrest men to be treated like dogs and dragged about by the army, and confined and abused by them,’ presumably referring to the actions of Cradlebaugh and the army in Provo. Young said that if the judges and army treated people that way, the federal officials “must hunt them up themselves.”[96]
    Wilson agreed that it was unfair “to drag men and their witnesses 200 or 300 miles to trial.” Young said “the people wanted a fair and impartial court of justice, like they have in other states and territories, and if he had anything to do with it, the army must keep its place.” Wilson said he felt “the proposition was reasonable and he would propose it to the judges.”[97]
    Now confident that the army would not intrude and abuse or murder Mormons, and that the US. attorney and governor would support them, the church leaders lent their influence to bringing the accused into court. On June 15, 1859, to prepare the way for the administration of justice, Brigham Young had told George A. Smith and Jacob Hamblin that “as soon as a Court of Justice could be held, so that men could be heard without the influence of the military he should advise men accused to come forward and demand trial on the charges preferred against them for the Mountain Meadow Massacre” as he had previously done. Then he again sent George A. Smith and Amasa Lyman south, this time to urge those accused of the crime to prepare for trial and to try to suppress Mormon-authored crim [98]. The leaders had grown sufficiently troubled over the mounting evidence of some crimes that they also moved to release the suspects from leadership positions and to chastise the overzealous throughout the territory for condoning violence and theft based on their misunderstanding of church doctrine.

    95. Historian’s Office Journal. July 5, 1859, Carruth transcription of Deseret Alphabet entry.
    96. Ibid..
    97, Ibid.
    98. Historian’s Office Journal, May 25, June 18, and July 5, 1859, Carruth transcription of Deseret Alphabet; George A. Smith so William H. Dame, June 19, 1859, Historian’s Office Letterpress copybooks 1854—1879, 1885—1886, 2:127, LDS Church Archives; Lee, Mormon Chronicle, 1:214 (August 5[6]1. 1859).

  12. Wonderful essay, Levi. Thanks for the very interesting insights. I had not looked at it quite like that before now.

  13. Ivan Wolfe says:

    I don’t think it’s Bagley who will carry the day. In my experience, it’s Krakauer. More people, in my experience, have read his book, and he spends some time talking about MMM as representative of Mormons’ inherent violent nature.

    Basically, Krakaeur seems to have penetrated the popular market to a large degree. Whenever I encounter a discussion of MMM online in non-Mormon forums, he gets cited more often than most.

    Great essay, Levi. Posts like this make me think there’s still something worthwhile in the ‘Nacle.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    Ivan, I think one has to separate out the “popular” view and the “scholarly” view. I think among the popular lay population the style of thinking by Krakauer caries the day. Although I’m loath to credit that to Krakauer since that “reading” was around long before him and he largely just aped it. Rather it goes back at least a century and has merely been given the all so popular anti-religious twist in Krakauer. (Since to Krakauer, like so many at the moment, MMM is but the typical result of religious belief)

    Of course better Krakauer than that hack journalist – Sally Denton. I never read her book so I can’t speak to that. But I heard her interviewed on KUER and it was…embarrassing to say the least.

  15. I think that massacres have become the standard currency for what is most horrifying in humanity, so to try to understand how MMM could happen, particularly how it could be perpetrated by someone with whom we identify, is likely beyond the ken of most people. More importantly, though, it is beyond the desired ken of most people. (Though, at a great abstraction, we’re glad to benefit from remarkably high mortality among the factory workers who produce and expedite many of our cheap goods.)

    I agree, Denton is deeply embarrassing. I don’t find Bagley or Krakauer particularly nuanced or skilled interpretive voices, though Krakauer is an excellent journalist (the only good one of the trio), and his treatment of the modern fundie insanity is quite gripping and laudable (he’s a terrible historian).

    I suppose Mormons could always grunt something about Calvin’s Geneva or the Crusades if push comes to shove. I’d be more interested in actual efforts to move toward a society where massacres don’t happen in the future.

  16. though Krakauer is an excellent journalist

    Really. I’ve heard his “Into Thin Air” is full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies, and (as an Alaskan) I find his mild romanticization of a complete idiot in “Into The Wild” laughable.

    But I don’t want to turn this into a Krakauer thread.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    SMB – I completely agree. I also think the way we view “massacres” and mass death is very out of wack. To draw a perhaps better analogy: we all are in shock when 300 people die in a plane crash but have a very different reaction when over a year 300 people die individually in car crashes. Out brains are, of course, wired to think that way. And it’s understandable why.

    Likewise if a factory led to the death of 300 people at once its treated very, very differently if it kills 300 people over 10 years due to health effects.

  18. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    Regarding Young’s supposed complicity after the fact: What should be made of BY’s belief that within the cosmic scheme of things divine justice had been meted out vengeance had been meted out, due boasts certain of the emigrants were said to have made, or whatever cause?

    While maybe there are valid excuses that an internal investigation wasn’t adequately carried out–for Haight’s only having been excommunicated years after the fact, and even then, only temporarily–and while it may not be fair, these excuses are quite often met with skepticism.

  19. Clark Goble says:

    The idea of cosmic justice does complicate things. As too does identification of groups with other groups. (i.e. the whole Pratt issue)

    But it goes both ways. There are folks who read some of the warnings and condemnations of the Saints in the D&C and say that the Saints typically got what was coming to them for not living the gospel or listening to God enough. There were people after 9/11 who said the same thing about America.

  20. Notice, I said journalist. I see journalists as storytellers who can draw you into a story well, make you curious about strange people, eager to understand more about them, who keep your attention riveted. I see them as like novelists but producers of shorter pieces generally with less literary elegance and more mired in fact.

    Krakauer’s depiction of the fundie-nutballs in Banner was riveting, his Into the Wild was fascinating, and his Thin Air, while heavily biased and self-exculpatory, still told a good, fairly fact-based narrative.

  21. PS there are rare journalists who are fastidious about facts, and I salute them. (some of them are friends.)

  22. Critics have used Brigham’s mid-1861 actions at the rock cairn set up at the meadows as if he consistently condoned the massacre. I think Brigham’s thoughts were a product of the misinformation he had received up to that point. Here is a snippet from Alexander:

    Moreover, as late as 1861, Young still believed the stories of Baker-Fancher crimes which led to the massacre, in spite of his efforts to bring the perpetrators to trial. On visiting the massacre site in May 1861, Woodruff recorded Young’s assessment that the plaque Carleton had erected on the mass grave which read: “Vengeance is mine and I will repay saith the Lord,” should read: “Vengence is mine and I [the Lord] have taken a little.” Young clearly refused to take responsibility for the massacre. Later, the same month, Young told John D. Lee that the emigrants “Meritd their fate, & the only thing that ever troubled him was the lives of the Women & children, but that under the circumstances [this] could not be avoided.”
    The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 slowed the investigation of the massacre. In 1863, however, Young again urged the government to bring the perpetrators to justice. He reminded an audience of his promise to Governor Cumming that if those accused were brought to trial before “an impartial, unprejudiced judge and jury’ he would do all he could to protect the court and allow the guilty to “suffer the penalty of the law.” The offer, he said, “still held.”

    Brigham’s sense of justice extended to the hereafter as well. In the end nobody was going to get away with anything. In May 1863

    “Young spoke to… [Lee] about the ‘Mountain Meadow.., [Lee] tried to blame the Indians for the massacre, but Pres Young, would not accept his testimony, and at last said, ‘John D. Lee, do all the good you can, while you live, and you shall be credited, with every good deed you perform, but, where God and the Lamb dwell, you shall never be.’ Lee, wept bitterly.” —David John Journals cited in Alexander

    Less than a month before the Massacre, Brigham’s diary demonstrates his belief in post-mortal justice: “I wish to meet all men at the judgment Bar of God without any to fear me or accuse me of a wrong action.”

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Smb, one of the great failings of modern journalism is that we expect journalism to not deal terribly well with the facts. It should be the opposite. That journalism is more often than not a form of sophistry is something to weep over…

  24. I guess I’m a half-hearted post-modernist about journalism. I do still hope that there are some scholars who do their best to bring reasonably accurate accounts to our attention. I’m skeptical enough that I don’t feel misled by the journalists that I read.

  25. Responding to Keller, # 22:

    Thanks for bringing Thomas Alexander into the discussion. It looks to me as if I need to add him to the list of MMM historians relying on plausibilities when hard facts are not available.

  26. Levi Peterson, thank you for your wonderful essay on the topic of Mountain Meadow. I agree with the observation you have made concerning Whitney’s views being influenced directly by Bagley. I too am confused at how Bagley does not share any of the feelings of anger at the atrocities the saints suffered. I am a little baffled at how Bagley’s views “will come to be appreciated as a service to my people and to history.” Being in a unique position, having an ancestor who was among the murdered from one side of my family tree, and having the LDS pioneer heritage from the other side, I anxiously await the release of the information forthcoming from Walker, Turley, and Leonard. I believe that I am able to objectively look at the situation and have found the study of it at times consuming. I am so excited that the topic has finally reached the “main stream” LDS populace with the release of the article in the Ensign. As an early morning seminary teacher I was instructed only four years ago when covering the areas of church history in connection with The Doctrine and Covenants course of study, not to mention the episode at all. In contrast I was invited to speak to my local YA Branch as soon as the Ensign article was released. In no way do I claim to be an authority on the subject and certainly have never reached the status of a scholar in this field (or any for that matter, lol), but believe that knowledge gives strength to our community of saints on any point of our history. As for myself, I have reconciled this historic event by considering feelings from all angles, and have concluded that it was a tragedy connected with the tragedies of war. I have not really thought of that as tribal justice, but I guess in fact I would have to admit it might be. It is like those incidents that we hear about, either in the aftermath of the battle as with all previous wars, or as in the case of our current military conflict simultaneously because of advanced media sources. For me, when viewed in this light it is explainable while still maintaining the thought that it is inexcusable.

  27. Reading what your wrote, made me think that Helen Whitney is really more engaged in tribal justice than anything else. She is a participant rather than an historian,

  28. Neal Kramer says:

    Levi Peterson continues to be one of the most astute and careful readers of our texts and our culture. His sensitivity to Juanita Brooks, in particular, and his very beautiful Canyons of Grace give us deep insight into flawed people of faith seeking redemption in a harshly fallen and cruelly bitter world. This true generosity of spirit, from which I have personally benefited, allows us to see some of the more profound weaknesses of our culture. Levi’s grace, it seems to me, comes from his desire to understand love when others seek to perpetuate contention. This kindness may simply bespeak a scholar trained in a different era, but Levi has always allowed himself to remain above the fray and seek common ground even when he has been unfairly criticized.

    His contributions should be legendary by now. I hope we will turn to his work again and again to experience the fusion of concern and grace that suffuses his gentle prose, his sweet sense of humor, and his deep understanding of the sinner whom the Savior desires to redeem.

  29. Mia McKeown says:

    As someone who has grown up with the story of the Mountain Meadows tradgedy as a descendant, I have a very definite understanding of what happend regarding the Arkansas emigrants. One thing I will agree with Mr. Peterson about is that he did not have a snow-ball’s change in Hell to persuade Ms. Whitney of PBS of anything, fact or fiction. I spoke with her myself. But one of the first people she was directed to about this story (and thereby tainted) was a self-proclaimed “historian” who only writes fiction and does no primary research. He has convinced many that he is the greatest megalomanic in the this historic areana with his self-proclaimed importance, but unfortunately that has not been evident to all. In the last decade, many authors, screen writers, newspaper people, libriaries have been directed to a Burr Fancher of Albany Oregon for information on Mountain Meadows. He is a very convincing story-teller and has injoyed greatly the popularity he has created for himself. He was extremely persuasive with Ms. Whitney and I learned that she told one interviewee that if the story didn’t agree with Burr Fancher’s then it could not be true. Mr. Fancher is the type of person who needs to be thoroughly investigated by legitimate historians, but then as always, if you look in the front of his books, in tiny tiny print, you find his disclaimer that he made it all up. He has written two books recently that have been actully mistakenly put on “History” shelves instead of where they belonged in the fiction isle. He has been a very successful con artist in persuading people that his interpretation is the correct one. His victims, including Will Bagley, Helen Whitney, Sally Denton, Brian Patrick – they are not aware of the facts behind his own knowledge (or lack there of) on the subject. So, this creates only more problems for the stories of the descendants by clouding their credibility with his lies. There is enough truth out there to be told if people will take the time to research and fact check what they are being told. Anyone relying on Burr Fancher for any kind of history related to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, or any other story, will be at risk for questioning of their own credibility and research skills. As for Ms. Whitney, she never even heard of the MMM before this assignment.

  30. Ardis Parshall says:

    29: Wow.

  31. Clark Goble says:

    I think I’ll give folks like Whitney and Bagley the benefit of the doubt that they know how to fact check and not go by someone’s word.

  32. I’m with Clark. I’m not buying it.

  33. Will Bagley says:

    An excellent essay, Levi, but the vitriol and reliance on personal assassination in the replies is even more interesting. Who could tell from the slurs that folklorist Burr Fancher has two Ph.D.s and was a professor at Oregon State University? Or that Helen Whitney was passionately in love with the Mormons? I did not expect to be hailed as a hero in the hall of mirrors that is Mormon history for writing “Blood of the Prophets,” but the passion and even hatred a simple history book evoked did take me by surprise. Given the smear campaigns associated with the massacre—see what the Brethren tried to do to and continue to do to the Fancher party, the Paiute Nation, Judge Cradlebaugh, Robert Baskin, John D. Lee, and now Isaac Haight–I should have seen it coming.

    Levi, I think you misrepresent at least one of Mrs. Brooks’s conclusions as an enduring mystery. She settled the issue.

    Levi: 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?

    Juanita: While he did not order the massacre, and would have prevented it if he could, Brigham Young was accessory after the fact, in that he knew what happened, and how and why it happened. Evidence of this is abundant and unmistakable, and from the most impeccable Mormon sources . . . . The church leaders decided to sacrifice Lee only when they could see that it would be impossible to acquit him without assuming a part of the responsibility themselves…. this token sacrifice had to be made. Hence the farce which was the second trial of [John D.] Lee. The leaders evidently felt that by placing all the responsibility squarely upon him, already doomed, they could lift the stigma from the church as a whole. (The Mountain Meadows Massacre, 219-220).

    I was disappointed to see you join the posse that claims to expose my “agenda”: thanks for not posing as a mind reader. I regret that most of the background material in my book on the suffering of the early Mormons wound up on the cutting room floor, but this is hardly an untold story. BOTP was partly a reaction to what I see as the fundamental dishonesty that pervades the New Mormon History and its failure to reflect a more balanced view of the religion’s history of conflict. Do we need another chronicle of poor poor persecuted us? Even so, I tell more of the story than Brooks did or the Brethren will. And if telling the untold story of the massacre participants who were driven mad or to suicide in the face of ecclesiastical indifference does not “evoke sympathy for the Mormons who participated in the massacre,” I don’t know what would. Did I share Juanita’s love for John D. Lee? No, but neither did I vilify him (nor Isaac Haight or Philip Klingensmith or Nephi Johnson or Charles Wandell or George A. Hicks, come to think of it).

    I defined my “agenda” in the Preface:

    To comprehend what is widely considered the darkest episode in Utah’s history, this book examines the intertwined religious beliefs and political conditions that led to the crime. . . . History is story, and this work attempts to bring to life forgotten victims and heroes. Recent research by descendants has produced a wealth of detail about those who died and the lives of the children who survived. These memories humanize the once faceless victims, and the experiences of these families reveal surprising details of life on America’s overland trails, which were torn by crime and violence executed more often than not by white criminals and not red warriors. This book tells the stories of the many Mormons who bravely resisted participating in this great evil or who refused to countenance its cover-up, often at great personal risk . . . . I have tried to tell this American story so that it will make sense to thoughtful Americans. The massacre was not an isolated aberration–it was the logical culmination of a long process. These events took place in the context of a young republic torn by economic volatility, millennial strivings, riots, “mobbings,” and civil outrages that often escaped punishment. Like many new faiths, nineteenth-century Mormonism had a dark side of violence and fanaticism. The devotion of early Latter-day Saints and their mix of politics and religion repeatedly provoked conflict with their neighbors. The Saints regarded such opposition as persecution of their righteousness, and battles with their neighbors drove them from Missouri, Illinois, and finally into Mexico in 1847. Oblivious to the provocative nature of their more radical doctrines and their claim to being the only true church, early Mormons developed what two modern historians have called “the myth of persecuted innocence.” Each new struggle generated further bitterness and zealotry, which in turn provoked more hostile resistance and opposition. This vicious cycle inexorably fueled the bitterness and emotions that led to Mountain Meadows . . . . I sought to tell a story that would make sense to a reasonable person and to avoid speculation beyond the facts, reserving my personal conclusions for the end of the book. By telling the story of what happened, I trust readers to form their own opinions about why it happened.

    How interesting that the assaults of hysterical apologists focus on three of the last pages of the book, which extend a few of Juanita’s conclusions, but not very far. Whether Brigham Young was an accessory to murder both before and after the fact is a red-herring: it avoids the central question: where does moral responsibility for the atrocity lie. Again, Levi, you can look to our Mrs. Brooks for an answer: “While Brigham Young and George A. Smith, the church authorities chiefly responsible, did not specially order the massacre, they did preach sermons and set up social conditions which made it possible.” Will the Brethren be so forthright? Don’t get your hopes up.

    “My purpose is to examine how decent men, believing they were doing God’s work, committed a horrific atrocity,” I wrote long ago. My answer to that very difficult question was somewhat circular: they did it because they believed they were doing God’s work. You have come to a related conclusion: “At Mountain Meadows, the Mormons acted according to tribal justice. They were giving as they had received.” In extracting this blood price, these deluded men were also fulfilling their vows to avenge the blood of the Prophets.

  34. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    I’m just glad Levi Peterson is in my tribe.

    Likewise, if Mia McCuen’s equally valid family tradition (and understanding of her “tribal history”) is of a variant strain from that of Dr. Burr Fancher’s–or, indeed, if the values informing Pres. Boyd K. Packer’s historiography vary from those informing his coreligionist, Mrs. Brooks’–I just say, let’s just call for a grand peace-parley powwow and truce!

  35. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    I mean Mia McKeown

  36. Levi Peterson says:

    Will, I admire your book greatly. As I said, I think it will become the classic treatment of the massacre for non-Mormon readers.

    It is true that I believe you lack a basic sympathy for the perpetrators of the massacre that Juanita had in abundance. I believe that because of the body language of your book–the arrangement of chapters and sections, the connotations of the words you choose, and your choice of plausibilities (as distinct from proven fact).

    I don’t see this as a fault on your part. Your book is truly an achievement. And I appreciate your cheerful personality and your generosity in sharing historical sources. You are a major figure in the historiography of Mormonism.


  37. Will,
    As I hope Levi has made clear, there are some (I assume many) here who greatly value your book.

    As for me and my house, we read sections of it in family home evening as part of our research into the religious and social context surrounding the relatively unknown extermination/massacre of the Utah Lake Utes in February, 1850.


  38. Will, as one who appeared to be opposed to what you said on another site, I echo Stirling. I deeply appreciate what you have contributed.

    I have to add, however, that I don’t read much in the way of “personal assassination in the replies” here on this thread. Granted, #29 is over the top, and there are three other comments that express reservations about a few aspects of your work, but overall the tone has not been one of “vitriol” here. May I humbly suggest that your view of these replies is influenced by the beatings you undeservedly take elsewhere – and one comment (#29) that is not representative of the rest of us?

  39. Not a cool kid says:

    Will is an amazing writer and excellent researcher. He has two amazing strengths: the ability to find new sources, and the ability to dish out criticism.

    Unfortunately, that is tempered by his two greatest weaknesses: His inability to accurately interpret new sources, and his inability to take criticism.

  40. 39, you missed another relative strength both Will and Levi have: they attach their name to their blog comments.

  41. Not a cool kid says:

    Yes, I’m a coward. But L. Peterson and W. Bagley are at the the top of the clique. They are certifiably cool.

    In my case, not being part of the clique, there would be serious social and professional consequences if I used my real name.

    So, I’m a filthy coward. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. (This also should not be construed as a criticism of the clique. I think cliques are fine as well as a natural and useful part of the social order).

  42. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    Chipper up, Not a cool kid. In “Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning,” L. Peterson occasionally shows Charlie Brownish self-doubt too.

  43. Not that anybody’s paying attention to this thread anymore, but the American Religous History Blog just linked to this thread here:

    The context was in a discussion of this article ( ):

    at Christianity today, which has the following to say:
    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.


  44. Levi Peterson says:


    Thanks for calling the Turner review to my attention. It confirms my contention that Bagley has emerged as the history of the massacre of choice for non-Mormon readers.

  45. Now if we could get BYU scholars to debate like you guys…hmm…

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