On September 11, 1857 a band of Mormons in Southern Utah lured a large group of California-bound emigrants from their defensive coral under a white flagged pretense of protection. With local Piutes under their direction, they then slaughtered all but the youngest children. The story of this bitter event has fascinated generations.
Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 448 pages. ISBN: 0195160347.
Brad: This, in some ways, is just the latest in a long line of books (many of them quite recent) written on the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. Historians, journalists, and others have told this story and furnished analysis from a wide variety of angles and perspectives, suggesting a multiplicity of explanations and implications of this devastating tragedy. There is a sense, however, in which this is not just one new take on what we’ve already seen so much of. This is a collaboratively authored work that took the better part of a decade to write. The three authors also relied heavily on collaboration with independent readers, researchers, and editors, so there is a sense in which the finished product is the work of literally hundreds of people. What’s more, all three main authors are practicing LDS who describe themselves as faithful Church members. One of them, Richard Turley, is even the Assistant Church Historian and has worked in various capacities for the Church History department for more than a decade.
According to the many statements and conference presentations the authors have made over the past few years as well as the preface to this volume, the Church has supported this project by providing what they call “full and open disclosure.” Because “[t]horoughness and candor” were governing priorities, the Church granted the authors unfettered access to all relevant documents in its history library and archives, including (wait for it) the archives of the First Presidency. These facts are important and make this book unique for two overarching reasons. First, the authors had unprecedented access to relevant historical materials, as well as the resources to conduct unusually thorough research, a process that extended well beyond the walls of the Church history library. Second, and perhaps more significant (or, at least, more attention grabbing), this work has enormous implications for what the future of Mormon scholarship will entail. Just how free and open is the Church prepared to be when it comes to granting access to sensitive materials to professional, scholarly historians? How candid will a Church-condoned history of Mormonism’s most disturbing, embarassing historical moments actually be? These authors set a task to answer the question: “How could basically good people commit such a terrible atrocity?” How sufficient is their answer? Do they offer more than transparent apologia for the perpetrators of this unthinkably vicious crime or sweeping, knee-jerk indictments of any and all involved and of Mormonism (and, perhaps, religion) itself?
What follows is our take on the issues outlined above, from methodology and source material, to analysis and historical reconstruction, to the larger questions of meaning, culpability, uncritical obedience, and honesty. But before we delve in, I’d just like to say something about the actual writing. This is a surprisingly short and very readable book, especially considering the scope of the project. The authors (no doubt with the help of good readers and ambitious, heavy editing) have put together a gripping narrative, complex yet comprehensible, and brevity has served them well. Last time there was this much anticipation for a Mormon History book, Richard Bushman delievered us just shy of 600 pages. Massacre at Mountain Meadows chimes in at a refreshing 231, plus 4 appendices and endnotes. Very nice.
J. Stapley: Upon receiving the volume, I flipped to the end to find the bibliography. While the proofs that we reviewed did not include one (something that is hopefully rectified in the formal printing), it did have an interesting table of abbreviations for the most common references that is helpful for a review of commonly cited materials. As the introduction indicates, the researchers found or gained access to some very crucial and previously untapped sources: “Among the most significant discoveries in the church’s collections were the field notes of assistant church historian Andrew Jenson, who collected several reminiscent accounts of the massacre in 1892. This discovery, in turn, led to the full collection of Jenson materials in the First Presidency’s archive.” I felt like a prospector who just struck gold. I can’t imagine how the guy in the vault felt. Further, Ron Walker and Richard Turley are preparing the Jenson papers for publication – a hugely important movement for Mormon historiography. A couple of other important sources that I found novel to this volume were Extracts from Jacob Hamblin’s journal, in Jacob Hamblin to Brigham Young, November 13, 1871 in the Young Office Files as well as Jacob Hamblin statement, November 28, 1871, Young Office Files. Hamblin’s journal is available at the Utah State Archives, but it has two sections of pages ripped out. Presumably this communication includes at least some of those missing entries. [UPDATE June 13, 2008 – Brian Reeves at the LDS Church Archives has informed me that Donald R. Moorman with Gene A. Sessions, Camp Floyd and the Mormons: The Utah War (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 137-8 (see also p. 304, notes 65-68) used the Hamblin letter and that, as per the preface of the volume, Moorman likely accessed the material in the 1960’s. The documents were transfered to the Young Office Files in the late seventies or early eighties and were made publicly available in 2000.]
Brad: Yes. I think the Jenson materials are enormously important. The authors clearly rely extensively on them to assemble their narrative. There is another significant source (in addition to the ones you mention) that warrants attention. They revisited all of the minutes from John D. Lee’s trials, and had an expert in the 19th-century shorthands used generate new transcripts. These records also figure prominently in the notes attached to the sections describing the days leading up to the attack on the Fancher party and the massacre itself. Significantly, it seems that all these “new” sources will be made public for other historians and scholars to scrutinize — a major coup for Mormon History nerds like ourselves.
The authors’ reliance on these sources also points up the complicated methodological and analytical problems associated with historical reconstruction of this nature. Observe the following paragraph, a narrative account found on pages 159-60:
Stewart and White backtracked toward Cedar City and eventually found their quarry. The two immigrants were on horseback returning to camp and had paused to let their mounts drink from Little Pinto Creek near Leach’s Spring. Stewart and White approached the unsuspecting men and struck up a conversation. The Mormons learned that one of the immigrants was William Aden, the other the much-talked-of “Dutchman.” Seeing a tin cup attached to Aden’s saddle, Stewart asked to borrow it to get himself a drink. When Aden turned to reach for it, Stewart “shot him through the head, killing him instantly.” The Dutchman “put spurs to his horse and fled,” dodging the bullets fired after him, one of which apparently wounded him. The men at Hamblin’s ranch saw him speed past. So did the besieging Indians, who tried unsuccessfully to bring him down.
The economy of prose here is impressive. Yet the question remains: How did they put together that story? There is one note at the end of the paragraph. The corresponding endnote mentions the following sources: An entry entitled “Ellot Willden” in the Jenson papers from the FP vault (meaning, presumably, a portion of Jenson’s interview with Willden that Jenson did not include in the report he made based on his interviewing); “Lee’s Confession” from an 1877 issue of the Sacramento Daily Record-Union; “Lee’s Last Confession” from an issue of the San Fransisco Daily Bulliten Supplement, also 1877; a repeat mention of the Willden entry in the FP-vault portion of the Jenson papers; an “Ellot Willden” entry in the Jenson’s actual report (not kept in the FP vault); the “Phillip Klingensmith” testimony from the newly recontsructed transcript of Lee’s first trial; and an 1872 interview with John D. Lee by SL Tribune reporter J. H. Beadle.
J. Stapley: More clear are the times when they quote their sources directly. For example, the execution of the Cedar City plan (pg. 140, see also pg. 151-152):
Working through Higbee, Haight first asked Ellott Willden, Josiah Reeves, and possibly Benjamin Arthur to go to the Mountain Meadows, where the emigrants were expected to camp eventually. (64) The three young men were told that the “plan was to…have the Indians ne[a]r to attack on [the] Santa Clara, instead of the civil authorities arresting the offenders in Cedar.” (65) Part of the men’s assignment was “to find occasion or something that would justify the Indians being let loose upon the emigrants.” (66) They were also to get the company “to move on”-and effort to hurry the emigrants into the trap. (67)
64. Ellott Willden, AJ 2; Marry S. Campbell, AJ1; Mary S. Campbell, AJ2; D.W. Tullis, AJ1; Ellott Willden, AJ1; McGlasan; Whitney, 1:699.
65. Ellott Willden, AJ1
67. Mary S. Campbell, AJ2; Mary S. Campbell, AJ1.
This excerpt highlights the level of detail that the new sources allow, but also in the absence of bibliographic details, makes me question what the differences in the two Jenson collections actually are. According to an email communication from Richard Turley, “Jenson sometimes expanded from memory on his sometimes cryptic notes in the the subsequent transcripts. He also rearranged information to make it more understandable or omitted details that may have seemed unimportant. Thus to give a complete picture, it is sometimes necessary to cite both the notes and the transcripts.”
Despite the lack of bibliographic clarity, I do not think we could overstate the insight of the new materials. As well as giving the details of the Cedar City plan of attack, the new materials crack open the later decision of the “tan bark council” between Haight and Dame to realize the ultimate slaughter and provide significant evidence for Brigham Young’s contemporary ignorance of the massacre.
Beyond these new sources, the historiography of this volume is quite similar to Brooks (Mountain Meadows Massacre) and Bagley (Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows). Just as Bagley adds to Brooks, this volume tries to fill the quiver. Many times that leads to similar conclusions. Other times, and most obviously in the footnotes, there are large differences. This is especially manifest in the use of Mormonism Unveiled; or The Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop, John D. Lee (e.g., 71-72, esp. notes 115 and 121). Elsewhere and in an example of the research team’s robust source criticism, the authors show that a critical Haight sermon, which was dated by both Brooks and Bagley to have been given in early September was actually delivered in late July (pg. 131, note 8).
Brad: That Haight sermon is an excellent example. Though we should note, in Bagley’s defense, that the alternate dating is based upon documents to which he did not have access (a letter from William R. Palmeer to Dabney Otis Collins in the “First Presidency, General Administration Files” of the Church History Library).
I’d like to move into another element of what makes this book’s contribution to our understanding of the massacre. The authors engage key theoretical strands in sociological literature on group violence. This is an analytical sphere that closely overlaps portions of my own theoretical training, so I was a bit disappointed in the lack of depth of their engagement. In the end, however, their analysis is not primarily sociological or anthropological. Their most important sources are Roy Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence, Ervin Staub’s The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, and Stanley Tambiah’s Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. They also cite Regina Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, as well as a Deseret News article entitled “Killings in Iraq by ‘Bad Apples’? Probably Not,” with analytical perspectives drawn from the work of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram.
Based upon this literature they develop a heuristic model for answering one of the driving questions of their analysis: how did basically good men end up committing such a horrific atrocity? According to this model, there are three separate social factors that set the stage for enabling atrocities of this kind. 1) Actors allow “the dictates of ‘authorities’ to trump their own moral instincts;” 2) conformity — the unwillingness to act differently from ones peers; 3) the dehumanization of potential (and actual) victims. This approach is critical for getting to the bottom of the questions of How and Why. Earlier authors have either focused on demonstrating blame for the conspirators and actors but not adequately explaining why (Brooks) or fixed inordinate attention on the role of Brigham Young (Bagley), treating his complicity as furnishing the greatest explanatory power for the massacre, and, implicitly, relegating the actual murderers and local leaders to the role of mindless automatons, driven only by their obsession for vengeance-taking and their uncritical obedience to Young’s directives. And while this volume does address the question of Young’s direct complicity, it also frames the question differently, presuming that Young’s orders would not be enough, by themselves, to ensure the bloody outcome and that deeper, more localized and immediate context is required to account for Mormon participation in the slaughter.
But, one step at a time. First, the question of Brigham Young. The authors argue, in a nutshell, that while Young does shoulder a fair share of the responsibility for creating the tinderbox conditions within which the massacre could occur, there is no real historical evidence that he in fact set the spark by ordering, directly or cryptically, the massacre of the Fancher party. Bagley, who has most persuasively argued for Young’s ordering the massacre, lays down a case based primarily on two pieces of documentary evidence. First, John D. Lee – the only massacre participant to be convicted (and executed) for his crimes – penned a series of “confessions” which, after his death, his defense attorney, William Bishop, compiled and edited into a book, Mormonism Unveiled. In this book, Lee pins responsibility on Brigham Young who, he claims, sent George A. Smith to Southern Utah in advance of the Fancher party to cryptically order their destruction at the hands of Mormon settlers in cooperation with local Paiutes. The second piece of textual evidence Bagley cites is an excerpt from Dimick Huntington’s diary in which he describes a September 1 meeting between Young, Huntington, Jacob Hamblin, and several Indian leaders from throughout the territory. Young tells the Southern Utah Indian leaders that they can have all the cattle belonging to California-bound emigrant parties along the southern road.
J. Stapley: I’ll happily concede the sociology of violence terrain to you. However, I did notice that they seemed quite intent on making everything fit into their heuristic model. For example, fairly early in the narrative the authors claim that “for the most part, the men who committed the atrocity at Mountain Meadows were neither fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people” (pg. 128). While I’m not sure if they are using a clinical definition of sociopathy (as compared to psychopathy), the authors repeatedly highlight how the actors and circumstances feed the three impetuses you mention. At the same time Lee, who appears to sustain the brunt of the narrative’s causal weight, is portrayed precisely as a fanatic. Lee was a “religious zealot” who viewed the events as “God’s purpose” (pg. 144). He figured himself to be a “modern-day Joseph of Egypt,” an interpreter of dreams – a persona that Lee invoked to affirm the Piute shock troops’ resolution for battle (pg. 157-158). Further, the authors quote Samuel Knight who had intimate knowledge of the massacre as claiming that both Haight and Dame were “fanatics” (pg. 213).
Now, regarding Brigham Young, the new material in this volume does dismantle much of Bagley’s argument. Parshall and Reeve’s review of Blood of the Prophets in Mormon Historical Studies is where you see Bagley’s use of the Huntington diary excerpt shredded, and I didn’t see that the authors of this volume brought it up, though they treat the meeting. Mormonism Unveiled, they argue, was posthumously expanded by Lee’s attorney to implicate Young, a credible assertion considering the attorney’s pecuniary interest in the volume and Lee’s consistent and deathbed claims to the contrary. Still, the lingering question of Young’s involvement could be betrayed by his September 10th response to Cedar City, wherein he wrote, “In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away” (pg. 184). This sentence absolves Young only with the presupposition that Young knew nothing of the Mormon involvement in the first Fancher attack. Otherwise, it is simply a tactical instruction that has no moral or strategic prohibition on violence against the emigrants and even gives provisions for it. In my estimation, however, the evidence presented by the authors, virtually all of which is previously unpublished, indicates that Young did not know of the Mormon involvement with the immigrants.
The area where I see the authors insufficiently treating the subject material is the ever-popular “blood atonement” rhetoric of the Mormon Reformation (pg. 26). Only one moderate paragraph broaches the subject and no effort is given to contextualize or clarify the ramifications of the sermonizing. This lacuna is perhaps shaded by authors’ quotation of Heber C. Kimball’s words at the July 24 canyon celebration. They ultimately temper Kimball’s comments by not showing that the words immediately preceding those quoted, curse the US President and his staff in the name of Jesus and by the Mormon Priesthood (pg. 44). Is this a systemic perspective in the volume?
Brad: The blood atonement sermonizing was a surprising omission on the part of these authors. My sense is that Bagley and others correctly assess its overall significance, but misread how it actually figured into the social context for the massacre. Researchers, amateur filmmakers, and historians encounter the sermons in question and envision Mormons chomping at the bit to enact blood-letting vengeance on anyone remotely suspected of having been involved with Mormon persecutions or the murders of the prophets (the Smith brothers, Parley Pratt). But blood atonement was more about Mormon apostates than Mormon enemies. It was a rhetorical threat that loomed over those who would disregard the injunctions of Mormon priesthood and the imperatives of Mormon colonizing, a theological dressing-up of religious authority on the frontier, buttressed and enforced by violence – particularly during the Reformation of 1856-57. This radical and disturbing doctrine – preached up and down the Utah Territory by Young and other key Mormon leaders – contributed to the massacre, not by inculcating a murderous obsession for vengeance against imagined enemies in the Fancher party, but by ensuring an unwillingness on the part of the perpetrators to disobey their leaders.
The centrality of intensified authoritarianism in war-ready Utah territory is difficult to overstate. The book provides an illuminating example. The strategy that Young had implemented to put the Mormon kingdom on war footing included (in addition to a prohibition against selling supplies to traveling emigrants and decision to cease mediation between emigrant parties and local Indian tribes) a policy dictating that cattle be sent to Salt Lake for rationing. A group of Mormon settlers in Cedar City brandished guns in defense of their refusal to send their livestock North. They were threatened by local military leadership with execution for sedition in “a time of war” (pg. 63). Significantly, the men who carried out the attack, in addition to being Mormons, were members of the militia, and the conspiring orchestrators of the massacre, in addition to being their ecclesiastical leaders, were also their military commanders.
As far as the Huntington diary goes, it bears mentioning that at precisely the time when Brigham Young was ostensibly sealing the fate of the Fancher party (to paraphrase Bagley) by telling Indian leaders they could have the emigrants’ cattle, Haight and Lee were already conspiring with Indian leaders in and around Cedar City to attack the Fancher party and promising shared spoils. Of course, the fact that no evidence has been discovered directly implicating Young in the conspiracy (or the refutation of existing claims of such evidence) does not in itself constitute evidence that Young was not involved. Yet we should be careful not to ride that logic too far. Part of the appeal of the conspiratorial view of history – in addition to furnishing simple, often satisfying explanations for otherwise complicated and difficult-to-comprehend phenomenon – is that is governed by a circular logic that self-reinforces. When you look for mustache-twisting puppet masters pulling history’s levers, the absence of evidence can be taken as evidence of the hypothesized conspiracy. The logic is not just circular; it entails a reversal of evidentiary standards. The fact that actual evidence cannot be discovered, rather than leading to a revised theory of what happened, actually reinforces the theory for which evidence is elusive.
Part of the problem with focusing so single-mindedly on a very technical, legalistic question of Young’s complicity is that it sidesteps far more interesting and important questions. To what extent, for example, does Young bear responsibility for what happened even if he did not order the attack on the Fancher party or the massacre to cover it up? How do intensely hierarchical social structures become self-reinforcing and to what extent can the effects of panopticism account for what happened? If the massacre was perpetrated by good Mormons, many (if not most) of whom retained their good standing in the Church and their communities despite widespread knowledge of what happened, what does that mean for those of us who claim that religious and historical heritage? By emphasizing the on-the-ground run up to the massacre, the tensions that built between Fancher party members and local leaders, the authors offer a compelling (if not totalizing or comprehensively explanatory) narrative in which violent, escalating frontier conflict mixed with undeviating obedience, religious conviction, in-group/out-group dynamics, and war hysteria leads to a horrible crime that takes on a momentum of its own, leading eventually to a cover-up of staggering proportion and unimaginable wickedness. All of which was carried out by believably human, conflicted actors.
J. Stapley: Agreed. Concluding that Brigham Young did not order the massacre is a nice sound-bite, but authors don’t make much of an effort to detail the degree to which his actions and beliefs contributed to the three factors of violence that they use to explain the massacre. Your evaluation of the blood atonement sermonizing, for example, connects some of those dots.
Brad: I should mention what I consider to be a major weakness of the book. The authors go to great lengths to portray the Mormons involved in the massacre as complex human beings and historical agents, whose actions have explanations that, while defying rational or moral justification, do not defy basic understanding. This is a far more sophisticated reading of history than one in which the murderers figure only as the mindless tools of their insane, bloodthirsty prophet. The problem is that such sophistication is not really extended to the non-Mormon participants – the Paiutes who were convinced by Lee and Haight (among others) to attack the Fancher party to begin with and, after the extended siege, to help clean up the mess by slaughtering them in the most cowardly manner. The Indians in this account feel a little like Mormons in the Blood-Atoning-Brigham readings. That they would agree to what the Mormon leaders propose is taken almost as a given. No effort is made to understand how these basically good men participated in this atrocity. They are pawns in the hands of the insidiously manipulative Cedar City leaders. Subsequent scholarly treatments of the massacre, in my view, must do for the Indians what this volume has done for Mormon settlers: flesh out their motives and their behavior in ways that acknowledge their agency, their humanity, and the inhumanity of their actions.
I’ll end with my most tentative conclusion. As noted above, where some sources end and others begin is, at times, less than clear in this account. But based on my reading of the notes, my provisional conclusion is that the materials heretofore confined to the First Presidency vault dealt primarily with the scheming of Haight and Dame. This means that if the Church leadership deliberately and purposefully withheld documents relevant to the massacre from public scrutiny, it was in an effort to cover up the complicity of the Cedar City High Priesthood. Here it is appropriate to note that this is only volume 1 of 2, the second of which will deal primarily with the cover-up of the massacre. One assumes that volume 2 will be far less exculpatory for Brigham Young.
J. Stapley: I would say that the vault material is further reaching than Haight and Dame, but that there it is most dramatic. With the laborious and definitively not hasty publication of this volume, I do not have any expectations for the proposed second volume.
Never again will scores of researchers dedicate a decade to the massacre at Mountain Meadows. This is a life’s work compressed and the result is clear and exhaustive narrative. With a collection of sources spiked by previously unavailable material, the reader follows new paths in the story that has been walked by historians, antagonists and apologists with vivid and sometimes mistaken zeal. But was it worth it (consider the resources which were diverted from other projects)? Yes, though it is perhaps the Mormon people that will feel the greatest effects, not the academy. I don’t think that Mormons are any more ready now than they were a half a century ago. Juanita Brooks would have little to quibble over this book; but that the Mormon Church feels like it can now stand with her and allow its historians to tell the story the most truthfully they can, even facilitating the process, demonstrates that this is truly a new era. We now can remember the killers and the killed and be confident in the sentiments of the nineteenth-century LDS First Presidency: “We are anxious to learn all that we can upon [the Massacre], not necessarily for publication, but that the Church may have the details in its possession for the vindication of innocent parties, and that the world may know, when the time comes, the true facts connected with it” (xi).
With all future work on the massacre, historians will be required to consult Massacre at Mountain Meadows as the starting point. The volume reads mostly as if it were written in a narrative vacuum. However and fortunately, the authors, whether by their own volition or that of their reviewers, engaged some of the work that is now part of the bibliographic terrain. Bagley, Denton, Krakauer and those that will follow them may very well persist in their interpretations; but they must consider the careful evidence and analysis of Walker, Turley and Leonard.