This Is The Place

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St. George is a busy enough place that I found the activity distracting after days of small towns and lonely roads. But I took in the sights dutifully until it was time for the appointment I had made with Mayor Karl Brooks to learn more about the darker side of Mormon history.

Mormons are unlikely to let a Gentile enter one of their buildings without some attempt at contact by missionary guides.

From across his desk Karl Brooks handed me a poem written by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. As literature it may not have been much—“Now the descendants of the slain and sons and daughters of the slayers come, arm in arm, to end the tragic story”—but the tragic story was of great interest to me, and to anyone else interested in Mormon history.

It occurred in September 1857. The Mormons had offered the Fancher-Baker train, a hostile group of California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, safe passage to Cedar City if they would lay down their arms. When the besieged party complied, the Mormons, about eighty of them, and some Indians suddenly turned on the emigrants, killing 120 and sparing only 17 very young children. The slaughter took place in the grassy clearing west of Cedar City from which the event took its name, the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Although many, including, it is believed, Brigham Young, knew the details, an attempt was made to shift the blame to a few individuals like the Mormon leader John D. Lee, who was executed twenty years after the crime. And there the story remained, a half-hidden secret that nobody would talk about until Karl Brooks’s mother, Juanita Leavitt Brooks, entered the picture.

In 1918 an old settler told Juanita Leavitt, then a young schoolteacher living in the Mormon town of Bunkerville, Nevada, “My eyes have witnessed things that my tongue has never uttered.” When he died not long afterward, she learned that he had been present at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. As she researched the event, she uncovered more and more Mormon involvement, including that of her own grandfather. “If he did not help with the massacre,” she wrote in the preface to the book she eventually wrote, “he still did nothing to prevent it.”

Writing a book on such a sensitive subject became, her son said, “a secret endeavor”; his mother kept the ironing board set up next to her typewriter so she could leap to an innocuous chore should an inquisitive neighbor drop by. Although the book was not well received by the LDS hierarchy, Brooks’s obvious sincerity and meticulous research defused much of the criticism. “I feel sure that nothing but the truth can be good enough for the church to which I belong,” she wrote.

 

Brooks also offered some mitigating factors: The Mormons in 1857 were on edge; a federal army, the largest peacetime force ever assembled in the country, was on its way to occupy the territory; the Fancher-Baker party, it was rumored, had poisoned springs used by the Indians; anti-Mormons among the Fancher group had insulted the Mormons and threatened to return with an army from California to aid in the occupation of Utah. The Mormons’ hysterical reaction was, she concluded, “a classic study in mob psychology.”

Karl Brooks’s copy of Udall’s poem is inscribed in Udall’s hand: “for Karl Brooks—whose wonderful mother made this forgiveness possible.” Certainly the publication of her book was the first step in the reconciliation that occurred on September 15, 1990, in Cedar City, Utah. There descendants of Fancher party survivors, wearing blue name tags, came together with Mormon descendants, wearing red tags. A choir sang “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,” and a Fancher read from the Book of Mormon: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive. But of you it is required to forgive all men.” Finally they went by bus to Mountain Meadows to dedicate a new memorial.

The memorial, located atop a knoll and reached by a short path from the parking lot, looks out over a valley of orchards and farmland. The names of those who died are engraved on a rectangular granite slab, and the inscription reads: “In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants … was attacked while en route to California.”

The wording struck me as vague, which is perhaps why the monument had been defaced. For there, in crude, black, hand-printed letters next to the words “was attacked,” someone had written: “By white Mormons from Cedar City and New Harmony and ‘Danites’ from SLC. The party surrendered after four days and all but small children were executed.”

The words were all the more disturbing for being so dispassionate. Also, in referring to the Danites, the so-called Destroying Angels that some believe Brigham Young used to enforce his will and eliminate apostates and enemies, the words brought up another murky period in the Mormon past.

I drove away wondering if the handwritten words had been inspired by hate or a desire to set the historical record straight. Unfortunately, the latter seemed the less likely possibility.