Ken Burns on the Context of the MMM

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ 1996 documentary series on The West.  It’s a 9 part series, so it takes a bit of effort to get through.  Of course Burns spends some time discussing the Mormons, and I found his treatment of Mormons within the context of the western United States very interesting. In Part 4: Death Runs Riot (available on on Netflix), the narrator claims that events in the West were precursors to the Civil War.  The Mountain Meadows Massacre (MMM) was just one of several atrocities leading up to the most deadly war in American history.  Burns has a narrator describe the events leading up to the Civil War.

Americans were now moving west in ever larger numbers, ahead of their government searching for new treasure, clearing land, building towns and cities, starting over.

But the new settlers brought with them their nation’s oldest and most divisive issue: slavery.  Once seen as the land of hope and new beginnings, the West became a breeding ground for the bloodshed that would eventually engulf the whole country.  And when war finally came, the result in the West was chaos.  Hatred consumed entire communities.  Criminals led armies, and no one was safe.  The federal government engaged in the struggle simply to hold the country together, could do nothing to stop it.

John D. Lee

A pious New Hampshire woman who moved west hoping to keep the region free from slavery instead would watch as her Kansas neighbors wantonly killed one another.  A devout Mormon who had fled west with his people to avoid persecution would take part in the worst massacre of innocent pioneers in American history.  A fanatical Methodist parson would transform himself into a celebrated soldier, and then try to build a political career based on murder.  While a Cheyenne chief, who wanted nothing but peace would find no escape time and again as his unsuspecting village time and again became a battlefield.

The film first discusses the problems in Kansas.  I wasn’t very familiar with the history of Kansas.  Historian Patrician Nelson Limerick said,

To hand the issue to Kansas is to ask for the most explosive conditions possible; to take the most unsettled kind of society and throw into that the issue that made congressmen want to kill each other.  If you wanted to design the worst possible conditions to dramatize how bitter these fights were, you couldn’t do better than what they designed for Kansas.

5000 Missourians flooded into Kansas to influence the vote.  More than 4 times the number of citizens cast votes.  Another group established a rival government in Kansas, both claiming to be legitimate.  Riots between pro-slavery and anti-slavery men broke out in Kansas.  The press was destroyed by enemies to prevent publication about slavery in which the opposition opposed.  (Sound familiar to Joseph Smith’s actions with the Expositor?)

A South Carolina congressman savagely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor.  On May 24, 1856 a man hacked to death 5 settlers with broadswords because he believed they favored slavery.  John Brown led a rebellion, leading to a time known as “Bleeding Kansas”; more than 200 were killed over the slavery issue. Brown was later executed.  Burns then turns to the MMM.

“We are gathered here to build up the Kingdom of God, to make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and fill these mountains with cities.  My soul feels, Hallelujah.  It exults in God that he has planted this people in a place that is not desired by the wicked”  (Brigham Young)

It had been 10 years since Brigham Young led his latter-day Saints west.  And while the rest of the country wrestled with the question of slavery, he continued to build his Mormon Kingdom in the deserts of Utah. Salt Lake City with nearly 10,000 residents was now the second largest city west of Missouri, eclipsed only by San Francisco.

New colonies stretched for 300 miles along the Wasatch Mountains.  The Mormons printed their own currency, drove federal officials out of Utah, and publicly announced that polygamy, plural marriage, was part of church doctrine.  Polygamy was mostly meant for important Mormon leaders.  Brigham Young himself had 27 wives.  Young’s chief lieutenant Heber Kimball had 43.  Most polygamists had no more than 2 wives, and four out of five Mormon men had just one.  Still the practice turned many Americans against them.

“As to polygamy, I charge it to be a crying evil, sapping not only the physical constitution of the people practicing it, but at the same time perverting the social virtues and morals of its victims.  It is a scarlet whore.  It is a reproach to the Christian civilization and it deserves to be blotted out!”  Congressman John A. McClernan, Illinois.

In the election of 1856, the brand new Republican Party ran on a platform opposed to what they called “the twin relics of barbarism: slavery and polygamy.”  The Republicans lost, but the issues would not go away.

“Mr. President.  I believe that we can supersede the negro mania with the almost universal excitement of an anti-Mormon crusade, and the pipings of abolitionism will hardly be heard amidst the thunders of the storm that we shall raise.”  (Robert Tyler)

Historian, “When Democrat James Buchanan won the election, to sort of take the heat off of this building tension over slavery, he did a very remarkable thing that’s only happened a few times in our history.  He sent an army against citizens of the United States.

Narrator, “In the summer of 1857, 2500 troops headed toward Utah to reassert federal control.  At the same time, the army slowly made its way west, a lone wagon train entered the southern part of Mormon territory.  They were settlers mostly, families traveling with small children on their way to California and a better life.  But riding with them were a band of men who called themselves the Missouri Wildcats, and they were bent on causing trouble for the Latter-day Saints.

“They swore and boasted openly that Buchanan’s whole army was coming right behind them and would kill every goddamn Mormon in Utah.  They had 2 bulls which they called one Heber and the other Brigham and whipped them through every town, yelling and singing and blaspheming oaths that would make your hair stand on end.” (John D. Lee)

On September 7, 1857, the wagons reached a grassy area called Mountain Meadows.  There some 200 Paiute warriors encouraged by the Mormons attacked.  The emigrants drove them back.  The Indians settled in for a siege, then asked the Mormons to join them in destroying common enemy.

Elders sent a message to Salt Lake City asking Brigham Young what they should do.  Young sent a courier back with orders to let the wagons go.  But before the message arrived, the Mormons at Mountain Meadows resolved to wipe out the wagon train and blame it on the Paiutes.

One of the men ordered to lead the fighting was John D. Lee, a Mormon so loyal that Brigham Young himself had adopted him as a spiritual son.  Lee was used to following church orders. He was, as he said, as clay in the hands of the potter when it came to carrying out the wishes of his elders, but even he was stunned at what he was now being asked what to do.

“The orders said to decoy the emigrants from their position and kill all of them that could talk.  This order was in writing.  I read it, and then dropped it on the ground saying ‘I cannot do this.’  I bowed myself in prayer before God and my tortured soul was wrung nearly from my body by the great suffering.  If I had then 1000 worlds to command, I would have given them freely to save that company from death.”

But in the end, John D. Lee decided to follow orders.  On the morning of September 11, he rode out to the besieged wagon train under a flag of truce.

[Historian], “John D Lee and some others came to some others came to them and said throw down your arms.  We’ve got the Indians under control.  You come out with us and you’ll be safe.  And they were reluctant to do it but they finally did and as they marched out, the order was given ‘do your duty’.

The Mormons opened fire, each man assigned to shoot the immigrant walking next to him.  Lee’s task was to kill the sick and wounded riding in a wagon in front of the others.  Then the Paiutes swept in and finished off the rest.  In less than half an hour, 120 people had been butchered at Mountain Meadows.  Only 17 children were spared, thought too young ever to tell the horrible story.  The dead were stripped of their clothing and belongings, which the Mormons sold at auction.  They were hastily buried in shallow graves and soon dug up again by wild animals.

Stuart L. Udall, Former Secretary of the Interior, “Well I’m a great grandson of John D. Lee.  My middle name is Lee.  I’ve studied his life and his tragedies.  I will always believe that it could only have  happened at that particular moment, that if this wagon train come through as they had before two weeks earlier or two weeks later, they might have gone on unscathed.  It’s almost a Greek tragedy.”

Narrator, “Two days after the massacre, Brigham Young’s messenger finally arrived at Mountain Meadows with the orders to let the wagon train pass.  John D. Lee was chosen to ride to Salt Lake City and tell Brigham Young what had happened.  Precisely how much the Mormon leader was told of his people’s role in the slaughter is unclear.  Publicly Young blamed it all on the Paiutes.

Meanwhile winter had stopped Buchanan’s army’s advance and the Mormon War ended before it really began.  In a negotiated settlement, the president pardoned Young and his followers for inciting a rebellion, and Young in turn resigned as governor, but he remained in effective control of his people.  The attempt to divert the nation’s attention from slavery had failed.

Four years later, Brigham Young stopped at Mountain Meadows.  Federal troops, outraged at the massacre had erected a makeshift monument to those who had been murdered.  On it were the words ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord, and I will repay’.  Young gazed at it for a time, then ordered the monument torn down.  “Vengeance is mine” he muttered, “and I have taken a little.”

Burns turns to tell a story about the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848.  The U. S. government did not keep the promises of the treaty.  In  California, New Mexico, and Texas, many Mexicans in the area were denied the opportunity to vote, lost their lands in court, and were often persecuted.  On July 13, 1859, Juan Cortina saw a sheriff pistol whipping a Mexican.  Cortina shot the sheriff and rescued the man.  Three weeks later, he freed 12 more prisoners and shot 3 men.  The Texas Rangers then went against him, but he continued his defending Mexicans for 15 years.  Burns turns back to the problems in Kansas.

Our New England friends may wonder that the warlike spirit has taken such hold upon those who, until they came to Kansas, were as complete pacifists, as the most orthodox Quakers.  But sir, such individuals need the Kansas experience to understand the matter.  (Julia Louisa Lovejoy)

On Oct 16, 1859, John Brown brought his Kansas brand of abolitionism east to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia where he tried to start a slave rebellion.  Ten people were killed.  Brown was captured, tried, and sentenced to hang.  As he was led to the gallows, he handed a guard a slip of paper.  ‘I am now quite certain’, it read, ‘that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but by blood.’  The whole country was now beginning to experience the fear that had gripped Kansas for so long.

In 1860 the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president, pledged to halt slavery’s further spread in the west.  One by one southern slave states left the union, and on April 12, 1861, rebel guns fired on Fort Sumpter.  The Civil War that had already begun in the west now exploded in the east.

I found it really interesting that Burns credited the violence of the Civil War as originating in the West, of which the Mountain Meadows Massacre was just a part of the violence.  It was also interesting to hear Burns credit anti-Mormons with fomenting problems with Mormons as a means to turn the nations attention away from slavery toward an easy whipping boy: the Mormons.

What do you think of Burns depiction of the MMM as just one of the events leading up to the Civil War?


8 comments on “Ken Burns on the Context of the MMM

  1. Indeed there is a thesis that the Utah War was the “first Civil War”. http://www.amazon.com/Mormon-Rebellion-Americas-First-1857-1858/dp/0806141352

  2. Well, that is a bit of a different context than Burns hypothesis. Yes, Bigler and Bagley make the case that the “rebellion” in Utah could be considered a civil war, but not THE Civil War like Burns does.

  3. I love the work that Ken burns does he makes history so interesting.

  4. I enjoy Ken Burns, and interestingly put this documentary in my Netflix queue recently just to see what – if anything – he had to say about Mormons.

    That said, I don’t see the incidents listed here as a prelude to the Civil War. The common thread to me is the culture of frontier violence that springs up where life is harsh and ‘civilizing’ factors minimal. And even that culture is just a background to each of the incidents, which had their own driving factors. The West continued to be violent in the decades after the Civil War, especially with respect to the Native Americans, so the linkage of frontier violence to the war doesn’t seem very strong to me.

    The obvious exception is ‘Bleeding Kansas’, which isn’t so much a direct cause IMHO as it is the simply the most violent fault line in the debate over slavery. But as long as it was confined to the frontier, it didn’t have the power to cause the war. The crisis came when John Brown brought his violent vision of emancipation east to Harper’s Ferry, horrifying the South, electrifying the North and bringing slavery front and center just in time for the 1860 presidential campaign. To the extent that Lincoln’s election is linked to violence in Kansas through Brown, I can accept Burns’ connection of frontier violence and the beginning of the war.

    But I don’t see the linkage between Kansas and MMM, or problems along the Mexican border, or Indian resistance to western expansion — other than the common thread of frontier violence. Nor do I see how those other events can be linked, even tenuously, to the violence that finally erupted with secession.

  5. Perkunas, like I said, it is about 18 hours (or more) to get through the entire series, so it is a lot to digest. Burns makes the case that both the North and South had competing interests regarding whether slavery would be allowed in the territories. Buchanon sent an army to Utah to distract the nation from the slavery question, so it is indirectly related to the issues of the Civil War. Burns makes the case that many of the problems in the West were the result of the federal government trying to assert more control over the West (and that included controlling the Indians.) Really, Burns spends much more time discussing the mistreatment of the Indians; Mormons are a minor part of the series.

    On my Facebook account, I’ve gotten some comments that Burns info on MMM is outdated. Some scholars contend that the Indians played no (or much smaller) role in the Massacre. I’ll have to check out the newer treatment by Bagley and Turley to better flesh out that issue.

  6. Sounds like the argument should be that MMM is indirectly caused by the looming Civil War, rather than the other way around! 😉

    I’ll take a stab at the series, despite the length. I’m a Civil War buff who thinks Burns’ series on that subject is the definitive documentary (which is why I couldn’t help but comment on your post!).

    I haven’t come around to reading the recent works on MMM sitting on my shelf, but from what I’ve gathered, I agree that the documentary’s facts on MMM sound a little dated.

  7. Yes, Perkunas, I believe that most people have always argued that “MMM is indirectly caused by the looming Civil War, rather than the other way around!” That’s why I found Burns take rather interesting. I guess it’s a chicken/egg question.

  8. The fact that Brigham Young was a zealous religious leader, governor of the territory and in control of distributing aid to indigenous peoples tells me that a Utah Territory resident couldn’t take a pee without considering the consequences.
    When Chief Jackson of the Paiute tribe was interviewed by Carleton of the U.S. Military, he claimed Brigham Young requested him to attack the wagon train.
    At any rate, there are published accounts of where the possessions of those who were murdered ended up.
    This documentary was not well researched by the authors.

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