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:
- Mountain Meadows Massacre by Juanita Brooks,
- Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley,
- American Massacre by Sally Denton,
- Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker,
- House of Mourning by Shannon Novak,
- Innocent Blood by David I. Bigler,
- The Jenson and Morris Collections by Richard E. Turley
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?