Skip to main content


June 2024
1min read

Sally Denton’s article on the Mountain Meadows Massacre (October 2001) appears to be based on three main sources: the Salt Lake Tribune reports of the 187Os, The Confessions of John D. Lee ( 1877), and recent Salt Lake Tribune articles on the continuing Mountain Meadows saga. Using these limited sources, she unwittingly perpetuates partisan myths of the nineteenth century while spreading a few legends of her own.

Ms. Denton is correct to discuss the massacre in the context of the “Utah War” of 1857-58, but she fails to provide a balanced perspective. She concludes that the Mormons were “defying every federal authority” yet does not note that the claims of “rebellion” in the Utah Territory were highly exaggerated. True, distrust and suspicion led to misunderstanding and friction on both sides. The struggle between Protestant federal officials and Mormons in frontier Utah is just one example of the broader religious and cultural conflict between dominant Protestant America and “new” religions on the American scene. Denton also fails to put into context President Buchanan’s decision to send federal troops to Utah in 1857-58 in response to mere rumors. This was symptomatic of the aggressive spirit of that age; it is no surprise that this bellicose national mood erupted in civil war just three years later.

Denton implies that President Buchanan had broad political support in the East; in fact, many Easterners opposed his “adventure” from the start.

Viewing the massacre from within her narrow perspective, Denton concludes that it was the responsibility of Mormon “Danites” and that John D. Lee made a full and immediate confession of all details to Brigham Young. Thus, in barely a paragraph, she dismisses serious debates of 150 years’ standing. An evenhanded treatment would at least mention that Lee’s 1877 reminiscent account of his 1857 meeting with Young is uncorroborated, and that the contemporary accounts of those present in 1857 contradict Lee.

Denton relies heavily on the Tribune ’s reports on Lee’s trial yet shows no awareness of how biased that newspaper’s reporting really was. In the 1870s the Salt Lake Daily Tribune was the official organ of the Liberal party, and both the Tribune and the Liberals were openly and virulently anti-Mormon.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre was a terrible American tragedy reflecting decades of mutually escalating religious and cultural misunderstanding, resentment, bitterness, prejudice, and finally hatred that ignited into vengeful violence. On all sides of the tragedy, those involved shared ordinary human strengths and weaknesses while their motivations and actions, individually and collectively, were varied and complex. The greatest disappointment of Sally Demon’s piece is that its simplistic black-and-white portrayal of this horrible event robs it of the fascinating complexity of authentic history.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.