- 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
At stake is not only the esteem of the church within its own ranks but how it is seen by an outside world with which it has fashioned a respectable truce.
Oddly enough, the most significant new contribution to the literature of the episode is the oldest published record. In the spring of 2000, the Western historian R. Kent Fielding compiled and edited all the Salt Lake Tribune ’s reports on the trials of John D. Lee, a comprehensive collection that presents an unmistakable portrait of Lee as a scapegoat and of Brigham Young as an active and impassioned participant camouflaging his own role in the massacre. The newspaper’s contemporaneous summaries of the trial transcripts show the involvement of dozens of Mormon leaders—from Philip Klingonsmith to William H. Dame, Isaac C. Haight, John M. Higbee, and many others—to have constituted an unbroken chain from church officials to their Prophet in Salt Lake City. The official concealment and subterfuge began, according to Lee’s later confession, the day after the massacre: The “brethren involved were sworn not to talk of it among themselves, and each one swore to help kill all who proved traitors to the Church or the people. … It was then agreed that Brigham Young should be informed of the whole matter.”
Fielding’s work, on the heels of a similarly revealing history of the massacre of Captain Gunnison and his party, establishes conclusively Brigham Young’s role in many depredations of the era, including Mountain Meadows, albeit most conclusively after the fact. The transcripts make clear that “the cause of justice in the Lee trials,” as Fielding wrote, “had been manipulated.”
Will Bagley takes it further. After a painstaking re-evaluation of original nineteenth-century sources and a fresh examination of supporting evidence in church documents, he contends that Young participated in the earliest decisions to slaughter everyone on the train. “He not only engineered the cover-up but gave orders to the Paiutes prior to the massacre about the distribution of the wagon train’s livestock,” Bagley concludes in his forthcoming work, The Blood of the Prophets , to be published next year by the University of Oklahoma Press. “Young was operating with a political purpose. He was in a terribly weak position with the U.S. government and had a ragtag militia and a ragtag group of Indians. His only hope against the federal government was to close the overland road to California.”
These events occurred at a time in history when instructions by cautious leaders were almost always oral. But it was also a time when an extraordinary amount of evidence was committed to writing. Young rarely met alone with any of his followers, and church records detailed every meeting with meticulous exactitude. “If the LDS church really wants to ‘heal,’ it will throw open its archives,” a dissident Mormon historian recently said. Such candor seems unlikely, however.
The backhoe incident, as the Tribune described it in a probing three-part series in March 2000, was “another sad chapter in the massacre’s legacy of bitterness, denial, and suspicion.” That series of articles prompted what The New York Times described last January as a “formal dressing-down” of the paper’s publisher by the church president Gordon Hinckley and has been cited as a primary reason behind the church’s intervention in a convoluted business transaction in which the rambunctious Tribune was sold to a company expected to be more congenial to church interests. Founded in 1871 by dissident Mormons who were then excommunicated by Brigham Young, the Tribune has been the independent voice of Utah’s non-Mormon minority for more than a century. But like the reburied remains, that voice just might be stifled as well.