Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., Glen M. Leonard (Oxford University Press, 2008)
This is a book written by three Mormons in an attempt to explain the circumstances that led up to and allowed the terrible wagon train massacre of September 11, 1857 to occur. They do not attempt to justify it, but to try to explain how it happened. They acknowledge the many other attempts that have been made to explain this remarkably aberrant incident in Mormon history, some trying to justify it and others condemning it, and strive to remain as objective as possible. Ronald W. Walker is a retired Professor of History who has specialized in LDS history. Richard E. Turley, Jr. is Assistant Church Historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Glen M. Leonard is the former Director of the LDS Museum of Church History and Art. Together they have done what I believe is quite a remarkable job of researching this tragic event, including providing lists of those believed to have perished, as well as those who were presumably involved in the massacre. This is information primarily intended for those with a more serious interest in the subject than non-Mormons. I believe they have tried to remain as objective as possible, but at the same time there is a built-in kind of bias in that they are all Mormons, by far the most useful information available inevitably comes from Mormon accounts of what happened rather than accounts of non-Mormons or outsiders. There is some information that was apparently gleaned from the accounts of the Indians who were involved, and little else.
I had heard of this massacre, of course, but I knew nothing about it. I also knew very little of the history of the Mormons. After reading this detailed account I have concluded this was perhaps the single most cowardly, deceitful, premeditated, unnecessary, and violent atrocity ever perpetrated on a small group of perfectly innocent people.
The attack was conceived and planned by a small number of Mormon leaders who were in charge of various militias that had been organized and trained for what Brigham Young believed was an inevitable war that was coming with the government of the United States. The original plan was to stage a surprise attack on this particular wagon train, to be carried out early in the morning, and to kill all of the approximately 150 emigrants, two-thirds of which were women and children (can you believe this). They recruited a number of the nearby Indians to participate and planned to blame the incident exclusively on them. No Mormons were supposed to be known to be involved. Indians were apparently offered some of the cattle, horses, and other loot that was anticipated. They were also told that when the Government troops arrived they would kill the Indians as well as the Mormons.
The initial ambush did not succeed as planned, apparently because someone fired prematurely. Although a few emigrants were killed, the others managed to arrange their wagons in a circle and dig themselves in for protection, a fierce resistance the attackers had not anticipated. As Mormons had been involved and had been seen they now feared that news would manage to leak out and they would potentially be punished for the attack. They decided, in a private meeting, it would be necessary to kill all the survivors, except for the youngest children who would not be able to testify as to what happened. They stationed the Indians hidden in the surrounding brush, approached the survivors with a false flag of truce (can you believe this), and convinced them they would try to save them from further harm. Although there was some suspicion on the part of the survivors they had little choice but to accept the offer. They agreed to put their guns and whatever other items they wanted to save in two wagons, along with the smallest children, that would lead the procession. Following the wagons on foot were the men and behind them the women. When they reached a certain spot they were attacked and killed, all but seventeen of the smallest children. Many were shot, others had their throats cut, and it was a terrible scene of blood and gore. The Mormons attempted to bury the victims in shallow graves but wolves and coyotes unearthed some and consumed them. In fact, different parties passing by that way were burying bones for months afterwards.
So how is it possible that Mormons could have done such a terrible thing? What led up to this horror? The authors suggest a number of factors were at play. First, there was the resentment about what had been done to the Mormons in Missouri and Illinois. There was also the fear they had of the impending arrival of Government troops they had vowed to resist. And there were the harsh words and threats they had endured by members of the wagon train when they attempted to buy much needed supplies and were refused. It was rumored that one or more of the emigrants had boasted of killing Joseph Smith previously, and threatened to return from California and kill Mormons. Somehow, according to the authors, all of this combined and grew out of proportion to the point where the emigrants associated these particular emigrants with the coming Government troops, became more and more enraged at the threats, and decided they needed to kill the emigrants before they could return and attack them. The authors suggest there may also have been an economic motive involved as this particular wagon train was believed to be wealthier than most, in cattle, horses, and even money. And finally they point to the general turbulence of the times when violence was commonplace and people often took the law into their own hands. They also very briefly mention studies of mob psychology.
This may well prove to be the best explanation possible for this tragic event as by now the various accounts have been garbled, interpreted and re-interpreted, until it is impossible to know the truth. For what it is worth, I do not personally find their explanations entirely convincing. First, it seems to me if they were truly fearful of the imminent arrival of Government troops, murdering a wagon-train filled with innocent people would have been the last thing they should have done. As far as the threats from the emigrants go, the Mormons had already heard many such threats before, and it is highly unlikely they could have believed that emigrants wanting to go to California in search of new lives would have felt strongly enough about being refused supplies they would have returned to kill them. The boast of having been involved in the killing of Joseph Smith they had also heard before from others. Trying to blame what happened exclusively on the Indians, when they had enlisted them to do it, also seems like a foolish thing to have done. The Mormons were on friendly terms with the local Indians and wanted them to fight with them against the Government, so blaming them for a massacre would have brought about a massive Government reaction against them and would probably have not endeared them to those who urged them to kill. What had happened to the Mormons in Missouri and Illinois was past history, there may well have been resentment, by why would this take the form of murdering innocents? My innate cynicism leads me to believe the economic motive may have been much more important than anything else. The Mormons, especially those living in the area, were not doing well, they were relatively impoverished even compared to Mormons in other parts of Utah. The perpetrators certainly looted everything they could get their hands on, including even the bloodstained bullet-riddled clothing. But remember, I know nothing of the episode other than what I read in this book and mine is a very questionable opinion.
Massacre at Mountain Meadows basically ends at the end of the massacre and then skips to a final chapter where John D. Lee, probably the most important of the perpetrators, twenty years later, is returned to Mountain Meadows and executed by a firing squad. There is no account of what happened during that past twenty years. This is because a second volume is intended to deal with the subsequent investigation and punishment.
So what does this tell us about Mormons, especially contemporary Mormons. Well, it tells us exactly what the genocide of the American Indians tells us about contemporary Americans, what the Stalin purges tell us about contemporary Russians, what the Holocaust tells us about modern day Germans, what the Armenian genocide tell us about modern day Turks, in short, nothing, other than the fact that the history of the human species is fraught with such atrocities. As Aleksandra Solzhenitsyn has said, “The battleline between good and evil runs through the head of every man,” which seems to be an unfortunate truth now as it has always been.