Newell Bringhurst Discusses the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Mormon historian Newell Bringhurst recently published a new essay discussing the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre.  For those of you unfamiliar with him, he has written extensively on topics of Mormon history.  Some of his books are found here, and here is a short bio on him.

Here’s a brief background concerning the disaster.  The Fancher and Baker families were moving from Arkansas to California.  As they traveled through Utah, nearly all the men, women, and children were killed by Mormons–around 120 in all died.  Initially, the Mormons tried to blame it on the Indians, but as the evidence has come out, it appears the Mormons are primarily (some say entirely) responsible for the deaths.  It is the darkest chapter in Mormon history.  In his latest essay, Bringhurst discusses the most prominent books (both positive and negative) dealing with the Mountain Meadows Massacre:

The biggest questions we all have are:  (1) How could this atrocity have been performed by active church members?  (2)  What was Brigham Young’s role in the massacre and coverup?  (3)  What role did the Indians play in the massacre?  Different authors come to different conclusions, and Bringhurst summarizes them well for those of us unfamiliar with all the books.  Regarding question #1, Brooks highlights the environment that fostered this tragedy.  While none of these events excuse the barbarity, these events do shed light on events which affected the Mormon  mindset.  Quoting from Bringhurst’s essay (which can be found here), Brooks explained that the

Fancher-Baker Company had arrived at the worst possible time, in that they were just a step ahead of 1,500 troops sent by U.S. President James Buchanan to the Mormon-dominated Great Basin. Buchanan had proclaimed the territory to be “in a state of rebellion.” In September 1857, Mormons, therefore, looked suspiciously at outsiders as potential spies and collaborators. Exacerbating this situation, and in conjunction with Mormon preparations for war, local citizens stopped the sale of foodstuffs and other needed supplies to emigrants. The LDS community had also been stirred up through a series of lively sermons in the so-called “Mormon Reformation”— a wave of religious enthusiasm that promoted a sense of apocalyptic millenarianism, including the belief that the End Times were near. As for Young, himself, Brooks found no evidence that he had ordered the massacre, but she charged him with having provoked the attack through inflammatory rhetoric and with having creating suspicion by obstructing the investigation that followed.

Will Bagley believes that Brigham Young was highly involved in the massacre.  Bringhurst says that Bagley’s theory is

that Young wanted to avenge the murders of three important Mormon leaders: founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith (d. 1844) and Apostle Parley P. Pratt (d. 1857). The murder of Pratt, as Bagley documented, occurred in Arkansas and was committed by the husband of a woman Pratt had taken as a polygamous wife.

Investigative journalist Sally Denton concurs with Bagley in laying the atrocity at the feet of Brigham Young.  She says that the Indians played no part in the attack.  Professional historians Richard Turley and Glen Leonard’s book adds additional primary sources unknown to Juanita Brooks, and seems to back Juanita Brooks version of events.  Turley/Leonard claim the Indians killed the women and children.  Anthropologist Shannon Novak supports the Indians oral tradition that the tribe played “little or no role in the killings,” including the murder of the women and children.  Bringhurst summarizes the final 2 books very briefly.

Finally, two important recently published works of historical documents provide additional perspectives on the causes and consequences of the massacre. These are the volume by David L. Bigler and Will Bagley, Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (2008), and by Richard E. Turley Jr. and Ronald W. Walker, Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Andrew Jenson and David H. Morris Collection (2009).

This is a good synopsis of the books.  I recently purchased a copy of Juanita Brooks book, and plan to read it soon.  It will be interesting to look at the evidence presented to determine how culpable Brigham Young and the Indians were in this tragedy.  I do remember reading Great Basin Kingdom by Leonard Arrington.  He touches very briefly on the massacre, and states that Brigham Young wanted to run a telegraph line north and south to improve communication.  Arrington seems to think that if the line had been in place sooner, that Brigham’s message to leave the Fancher party alone would have been received in time to prevent the tragedy.

So, what are your thoughts about this dark chapter in Mormon history?  How involved was Brigham Young in this tragedy?

13 comments on “Newell Bringhurst Discusses the Mountain Meadows Massacre

  1. My thoughts? It’s depressingly sad and depressingly frustrating. And its lessons should never be forgotten.

    Also, the best book out has to be Walker, Turley, and Leonard’s “Massacre at Mountain Meadows”.

    As for Brigham Young, he preached a discourse that may have stirred people up, but Bagley is just plain wrong to suggest he actually ordered it. That simply disregards the facts.

  2. And also, yes, clearly a telegraph line would have made a major difference.

  3. clean cut, I have heard that juanita brooks book is good, but based on older research. have you read her book? if so, how does it compare to the walker/turley book?

  4. This was a good brief of the events. Not mentioned was the connenctions to Haun’s Mill, Far west and Nauvoo. 19 years earlier One of the persons that carried out the crime was shot four times at Haun’s Mill, the militia acting on the governor’s extermination orders thought him dead. An other was whipped either at Far West or Nauvoo always reminded by the scares on his back. The most famous John D. Lee a member of the first group of the Mormon Militia and was a body gaurd to Joseph Smith. Lee was like a son to Brigham Young.

    The Mountain Meadows Massacre should have never happened.

    Brigham Young never ordered the attack, his concern was to prepair for the possiblity of an armed attack from the U.S.Government. The government had cut mail service to Utah which added to the problem.

    If you could change one fact to have the event not happen that would be the acts of sendind 2500 plus troops to utah without carring out a investigation as to the charges, this is Buchanan’s Blunder. Brigham Young was replaced within six month by Governor Cummins who was in charge when General Johnston who replaced another gerneral who was known for his harsh treatment when carring out attacks, the date of this transfer of command 11 September 1857.

    General Connor got his rank because he carried out a massacre of 250 men, women and children lost in history because killed were Native Americans. The Nineteenth Century was filled many cases, Trail of tears, ect..

    Again this act at Mountain Meadow was wrong and should have never happened. This was seen after the fact by those who carried out the crime. Lies were told to not only protect those who carried out the crime, but were also to protect their friend and neighbor in Sothern Utah From those that would have gathered from California.

  5. @Clean Cut
    Telegraph came later.

  6. @mh
    Brooks wrote her book in about 1950 the most important reads are “The Mountain Meadows Massacre”Juanita Brooks, “Blood of the Prophets” Will Bagley, Massacre at Mountain Meadows”, American Massacre” Sally Denton, I am sure there are other book to be read. Be careful none will know the whole truth for many lies were told or the truth withheld til memories drifted. Some of the writers had family in volved, some were hired by ex-members with the intent to make connections.

  7. I own the Turley and Walker book and it seem the evidence points to a local action. There no evidence for Brigham Young, only speculation. Bagley’s insistence that no one sneezed without Young is flawed. It seems that the right hand didn’t even know what the left hand was doing as this event culminated in a complete tragedy. A movie unlike the one in 2008 but looks at the devastating decisions that were made at each turning point would be fascinating.

    By the way, the Turley and Walker book stops at the actual massacre and deals nothing with aftermath or cover ups. Apparently there is another book planned for that.

  8. I haven’t read Brooks, but it is my understanding that “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” builds off of her very solid research and includes even more sources that were never available to her.

  9. thanks peter and richard. I did not know that turley and walker’s book did not deal with the coverup. I just started brooks book and she details haun’s mill and other atrocities in the first few pages. I note that many people view MMM in isolation, which is not fair. to be sure, nothing justifies what happened in Mountain Meadows.

  10. “Turley/Leonard claim the Indians killed the women and children. Anthropologist Shannon Novak supports the Indians oral tradition that the tribe played “little or no role in the killings,” including the murder of the women and children. Bringhurst summarizes the final 2 books very briefly.”


    To me, this is one of the simpler of the controversies. Newell’s essay makes it clear that the Turley/Walker book props up the notion that though the white men did most of the killing. They push the notion that it was the Native American’s that killed the women and children. In the author’s narrative, they didn’t correct this notion. I’m hearing that even the staff working on that project were torn over this issue and does not represent the opinions of some if not many who worked on that project.

    This seems that the larger failure of the project was not to build a consensus among those historians and present that consensus. Major opportunity lost and the project is now, so much more ephemeral.

    As for Brigham Young’s knowledge or participation in the planning of the Massacre. This is a bit of a squirrel chase. The fact that there is near consensus that he created the atmosphere that lead to the massacre is all I really needed to know. It’s like my present ward. The regular folk in the neighborhood are easygoing good folk. But one or two outspoken radicals in leadership positions can greatly change the tone for the whole block and can even create a dangerous situation.

    Tom K

  11. And a “Peach” a little bird shared with me.

    “Two months after Lee’s execution, attorney Sumner Howard pointed out
    what he learned in his preparation for Lee’s second trial: “. . .
    whatever written communications . . . sent by Brigham Young . . . have
    long since been taken care of . . .” because Young was not “. . .a
    fool or so indifferent to his own safety as to allow written evidence
    of his own guilt to remain in the hands of men over whom he as supreme
    control for all the time since this crime was committed, now about
    twenty years.” Knowledge that all factual substantiation placing
    responsibility on Young had been destroyed, is another consideration
    to in Howard’s failure to attempt any overt link of Young to the crimes.”

    “Howard’s Defence,” New York Herald, May 9, 1877.

  12. Interesting points Tom. Since I haven’t really delved into the MMM saga, I guess from my uninformed opinion, I really don’t think the Indians had anything to do with the killing of the Fancher party. It seems to me that the Indians here played the same role they did in the Boston Tea Party. People dressed up like Indians and threw tea into the harbor, but everybody knew it was the white people responsible for the whole affair. I have yet to read the Brooks and Walker/Turley opinion, but I think they would be hard-pressed to show the Indians as complicit in this crime.

    Now, this “peach” of an idea is really interesting, because it makes Brigham Young sound like Richard Nixon with the missing 18 1/2 minutes….but if the allegation is true, Brigham seems to have been more thorough than Nixon.

    The hard part of proving a coverup is the so-called evidence is missing. This reminds me of the recent discussion we had on the Solomon Spalding manuscript. Of course, the original theorists believed that Joseph burned the Spalding manuscript. Then when it was found and shown to be different from the Book of Mormon, Spalding theorist invented a 2nd manuscript to keep the theory alive. So, it will be interesting to look at Bagley’s evidence for the coverup. Is it innuendo like the Spalding guys (which I don’t find convincing), or is there more to it like the Nixon coverup?

    From what I understand, Brooks gives Brigham plenty of blame for fomenting the milleniest fervor. From my limited knowledge of the time period, I think Bagley probably has a point that Mormons wanted to avenge Pratt’s murder. From what I understand, Bagley discounts anything the Mormons say as unreliable. Well, I think it takes more than a theory that Brigham Young ordered the deaths–of course the missing evidence is extremely problematic. Was Brigham simply involved in the coverup to protect Mormon leaders in Southern Utah? I think the evidence probably seems to say “yes” Brigham was involved in a coverup. Did Brigham actually order the massacre? I’d be hard-pressed to believe that without some pretty good evidence.

    Peter mentioned that nobody sneezed without Brigham Young’s knowledge. Now, I think Brigham was very powerful, but there are evidences of people defying Young. As I recall, at least 2 wives divorced Brigham. He was effective in setting up United Orders, but his force of personality couldn’t make them all function efficiently. Certainly, Brigham adapted many of his methods to meet community strengths. But without reading Bagley’s book yet, I don’t think he was quite as powerful as I understand Bagley makes him out to be.

  13. […] up the tragedy and blame it on the Indians.  I have previously discussed the massacre here and here, if you’re interested in more detail.  Families of the Fancher party along with the LDS […]

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