- Historic Sites
What Happened At Mountain Meadows?
The truth is still emerging about the mass murder of more than 100 California-bound emigrants in Utah in 1857, and about the role of leaders of the Mormon Church in the atrocity.
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
When the camera was ready and the five-man firing squad in place, anonymous behind covered wagons, Lee rose. “I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner,” he said. His accusers hoped that to spare himself in the final moment, he would at last incriminate Young, who government prosecutors believed had ordered him to commit the atrocity. Instead, Lee shook hands with a few men standing nearby and methodically removed his hat, coat, and muffler. Blindfolded, he gave the riflemen a final order: “Center my heart, boys. Don’t mangle my body.”
At the volley he fell back silently onto the rough-hewn coffin, his blood spilling into the ground in symbolism all Mormons understood. Two of his 64 children, by 18 wives, took his body to nearby Panguitch, with his temple robes under his corpse. Of the dozens, if not hundreds, of men complicitous in the massacre at Mountain Meadows, Lee was the only one ever brought to justice.
The story, it would seem, had been laid to rest. The markers at the site remained obscure and hard to reach, the history texts vague and exonerating of the Mormons. Despite all the agitation over the last 144 years, despite the volatility of the issues, and despite the connection with a religion of 11 million adherents, amazingly little has been written on the subject, and the event has been dealt with literarily mainly in fiction and in a handful of nineteenth-century anti-Mormon screeds. The original 1871 edition of Mark Twain’s Roughing It contained an appendix about the massacre that was deleted from most later editions. A few authors wrote of the “Avenging Angels,” most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in A Study in Scarlet , but without mention of the massacre.
In 1945 the historian Fawn Brodie wrote a controversial biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History , for which she was excommunicated, and it encouraged Juanita Brooks to write her benchmark 1950 book, Mountain Meadows Massacre . That volume was an original attempt at exposing the massacre and its cover-up and resulted in the 1961 reinstatement of Lee into the Mormon Church. But only last year was it revealed that Brooks, herself a descendant of one of the participants, had admitted to burning crucial historical documents because “they were just too incriminating” of the church. The last critical study of the event was publishe a little-known nonfiction book written by a chill William Wise.
—by Stewart Udall, great-grandson of John D. Lee.Read at the reinterment in 1999.
What happened here that will not die? The Mountain Meadows Massacre is an American tragedy in a West full of atrocities. If the bones found in 1999 have been reinterred by official fiat, and most of the relics of the massacre remain undiscovered, the valley is still littered with the debris of unsettled history. For all the reconstructions of the scene, the precise site of the massacre has never been established. Nor do we know, except for the first fragments of evidence assembled by the scientists in 1999, exactly how the victims were killed and where more than a hundred bodies were disposed of.
This is an American mystery, and inextricably tied to that mystery is the question of Brigham Young’s part. Whatever other motives or circumstances shaped the terrible events of that September week, the extermination of the Fancher train was undeniably an act of religious fanaticism unparalleled by any other event in the country’s history. At the new millennium, the tragedy at Mountain Meadows was as hotly debated on the Internet and in e-mailed letters to the editor as it had been by telegraph and post during previous centuries. Today, as before, the conflict centers on the role of the religion’s revered Prophet Young, whose own reputation is in many ways indistinguishable from the institutional legitimacy of Mormonism. Brooks’s history leaves no doubt as to Young’s participation in the cover-up, but whether or not he officially ordered the deaths remains uncertain.
As a “Prophet, Priest, and Revelator” of the church, Young is deified and therefore considered not subject to the scrutiny or judgment of other mortals. “There has been no realistic handling of Young by Mormon scholars,” says the historian Will Bagley, himself a Mormon. “To continue to blame it on the Paiutes is disgraceful.” At stake is not only the esteem of the church within its own ranks of 11 million souls and as a $25 billion financial empire, but how it is seen by an outside world with which it has fashioned a respectable truce since overcoming the fears and suspicions of the nineteenth century.