Mountain Meadows

Over 150 years later, people still argue over its ghosts -- who gave the order? It is the episode in its history that, to this day, the Mormon Church has not fully come to terms with.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

Mountain Meadows may be that moment where you can look and say, "This is where Mormonism's own checks and balances failed them, and they lost control, and they burnt to the ground." This sense of being anointed, of speaking in the name of God, having work to do, being above the law -- Mountain Meadows may be the symbol of that. And until Mormonism itself comes to terms with Mountain Meadows and how that happened, it will remain alive for them as well.

When you reflect on it, what part of the context that's always used to explain Mountain Meadows … helps you understand that event?

[Historian] Juanita Brooks' explanation was a powerful one -- the hysteria over war by a group of people that have experienced war. This isn't an abstraction to them that the [U.S.] Army is coming. These were survivors of the mob action in Missouri and in Illinois, I think, and that needs to be taken into account; ... that these were people who were traumatized by the violence on the frontier, so we can't judge them by our own standards.

But by any standards what they did was horrific. And you can even say that it's horrific because you can see white people doing this with Native people. ... [But] what makes Mountain Meadows stand out on the frontier is that this is white people on white people.

And white people on children. ...

... And it's white people killing white people's babies, and it's white people killing unarmed white women. And then you have a religious people doing this. You expect religious people to act differently than you do soldiers. So all of that goes into making Mountain Meadows the horror that it was and is to us, and why we're still waiting for an explanation.

What I think gives Mountain Meadows its continuing power is our failure either inside or our failure outside the community to understand how that could have happened. And until someone does that, it will continue to illuminate.

Jon Butler
Jon Butler is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University and a professor of American history.

The controversy over the Mountain Meadows Massacre is emblematic of the Mormons' difficulty in dealing with the complexities of their own past. The massacre probably happened at the instigation of Mormon leaders and under the hand of Mormons. Mormons are human; Mormon leaders might have made mistakes. So might Lutheran leaders in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and so might Calvinist leaders in Nazi Germany and Roman Catholic leaders in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

These things happen. They happen inside religious institutions, and they probably happen inside and outside the Mormon Church. Only by acknowledging the mistakes of the past, figuring out the mistakes of the past, especially the rationalization for those mistakes, can you figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong, and you hope something might never go wrong again in the same way. That's what Mormon leaders have to figure out. As long as we continually rationalize and deny the existence of problems in the past, you can't solve the problems of the future.

Daniel Peterson
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.

People come in to me sometimes and they bring up Mountain Meadows. Mountain Meadows Massacre and say "I had never heard about this, until last week." And they're horrified. They think that Brigham Young ordered it. That the Church is lead by mass murders. Or something like that.

I think we make a mistake by not telling them about Mountain Meadows earlier on, and also making the case for, look, the evidence for Brigham Young's involvement is at best, thin. I think actually there's none at all, basically. But, we can inoculate them beforehand. Make sure they've already had a controlled dose of the disease, in effect. So that they're not shocked when another issue comes along.

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

Nobody's done more than President Hinckley in current times, in current terms, to try to get closure, to try to express regret, apologies or whatever -- not for the church, not institutionally. No, try as people may, there has never been any smoking gun in Brigham Young's hand or anyone else's at that level of leadership of the church. But there was clearly local responsibility. I don't think anybody's denying that. ... What we do know is that it was a tragedy. What we do know is that lives were taken, and that never should have been. ...

[In the context of the Mountain Meadows massacre,] have you ever felt Mormons are held to a higher standard?

I'm willing to be held to the highest possible standard, ... although I have thought why hasn't the Haun's Mill experience, prior to Mountain Meadows, why hasn't anybody been exorcized about that? What about the parents who lost children there? Now, two wrongs do not make a right. ... It should not be justification, but I think it's at least context, and it's history. And probably, while a great many people may or may not know the phrase Mountain Meadows, I don't know that anybody knows Haun's Mill. And I'm just very happy, frankly, that they don't. That's why I say two wrongs don't make a right. Let's not dredge up anything that doesn't have to be dredged up. ...

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

Here we are in the mid-1850s. Brigham Young is raining pitchforks from the pulpit. ... At the same time Brigham Young is telling the federal government to back off from the Utah Territory. ... This plays out against the backdrop of the American Union itself tearing apart: The South is making continual sounds toward secession. The issue of slavery and states' rights are playing out in dramatic fashion. There's a major financial panic back East.

And the person who's dealing with it is a president by the name of James Buchanan, a man who appears on the surface to have all of the qualifications necessary but none of the ability. And his Cabinet is telling him on a daily basis: "You have got to do something. Show some kind of leadership." ... Buchanan takes reports from the Utah Territory as the reason for him to act, to show that he is a tough president. He declares the Utah Territory in rebellion, and he marches 20 percent of the entire United States Army to the West to attack the Mormon empire, arrest its leaders and subdue the rebellion.

At the same time, the westward migration is full throttle. ... One of the groups is from Missouri and Arkansas; they're led by a man by the name of [Capt. Alexander] Fancher. At the same time as they are loading their wagons to head out, one of the most beloved members of the LDS Church is murdered in Arkansas while on a mission.

This is an extraordinary confluence of events: reformation, a president in trouble, westward migration, a beloved figure murdered in Arkansas. And here comes a wagon party from Arkansas on the trail. The Mormons are aware the Army is marching. Brigham declares martial law: Trade with no one; save the food; we could be under siege.

The [Baker-]Fancher party comes into the Utah Territory, and like all of the traveling parties, they're road-weary. They're hungry, they need water, and the Mormons tell them, "Absolutely not." Word spreads that they're from Arkansas, even some with Missouri roots, [and] the Mormons say, Missouri? The massacre at Haun's Mill. Arkansas? The brutal murder of our missionary. ...

The Fancher party starts to take offense, and they promise the Mormons: "When we get to California, we're going to let everyone know what your people truly are like. No one should treat another human being like this." ... We have the Army marching from the East; the worst possible scenario would be for an Army to also march from the West and catch us in a classic flanking motion. ...

The word starts to spread that the Fancher party must be stopped. They make their way into southern Utah; they find an old track of the Spanish Trail that runs through a mountain meadow in southern Utah. It's a place where there's some water. They circle their wagons, and the worst tragedy of immigration in the American West plays out.

... Briefly, what happened?

... In the encirclement they're attacked. At first they think it's by Indians, and then there's some doubts, because there's a lot of gunfire coming into the camp; men become wounded and are going down from bullet wounds. There's a great sense that they're surrounded and that there's no way out of this encirclement.

After a couple of days a white flag appears on the horizon, and a man walks out, and he's white. And he said, "I'm from one of the local communities, and we've talked to the Native American tribes. You put down your weapons; leave your goods behind. We've negotiated that you can leave this field, and your safe passage is guaranteed."

They think long and hard. They accept the offer, because it seems like there is no other recourse for them. So the wounded are put into a wagon; the youngest children are put into a wagon. Then the older children walk; the women walk; the men walk. They get about a quarter-mile outside the encirclement. Someone believes they see a signal -- one of the younger children reports that a long time later they see a signal -- the gunshots start to ring out, and then the clubbing of the bodies. By the time all is said and done, every member of the Baker-Fancher party, except the youngest children, is dead. The wounded have been shot in the wagons; as well the women, the children. The youngest children disappear and are secreted off and are taken in by Mormon households in the nearby communities. The bodies are left in place.

What do we know was happening in the minds of those people, and who were they?

Well, we know with absolute certainty that John D. Lee -- one of the most significant figures in southern Utah, a very close confidante of Brigham Young -- was tried 20 years after the Mountain Meadows Massacre and was executed. ... We know that with certainty; everything else we do not. And over 150 years later, people still argue over the ghosts of Mountain Meadows: Who pulled the trigger? Who gave the order? On one side you have those who say that nothing transpired in the Utah Territory that wasn't under the direct order of Brigham Young. On the other side you have those who point out that Brigham Young actually sent a note that said, "Let the wagon party go through unharmed." ...

Let's talk about the conspiracy of silence and the cover-up that started almost immediately.

John D. Lee would write years later that from the day the Fancher party was slaughtered on the field, there was a vow of silence and that the person who broke that vow would pay for it with their lives. ... And this is, in fact, ordered from the highest levels: that the murders on the field are attributed to the Native Americans. That's what the Mormons tell the rest of the world.

At what point do you feel the church starts to indulge the Mormon presence in that event? ...

The conviction of John D. Lee was the proof positive that this was not the aberrant act of a wild Native American band. ... The church obviously distances itself from John D. Lee, and John D. Lee sends out several lengthy letters. He says: "The charges against me are as false as the hinges of hell. I have been set up in a cowardly and dastardly fashion. I am not alone." ...

Brigham Young, interestingly enough, pays a dear price for this. This is very late in Brigham's life, and people in southern Utah communities turn their backs on Brigham Young because they believe Brigham Young has set John D. Lee up as a scapegoat. As he's making his last tour of southern Utah prior to his death, in communities where he's been greeted warmly for years, the townsfolk noticeably turn their backs on his entourage as they pass through town. ...

What's the next stage of the church acknowledging this part of their history? ...

President Gordon Hinckley made probably the most comprehensive statement ever by a leader of the LDS Church at the dedication of the new memorial in Mountain Meadows. Some looked at it and said, with gratitude, "It's more than has ever been said." But still others look at it and say, "He did not say enough." Here you go with the dilemma of Mountain Meadows: Will it ever be resolved? ...

Have you ever walked through Mountain Meadows?

Oh, yes. ... Mountain Meadows in the 21st century is very different than it was in the 19th century. ... It's been pretty well grazed over, and it's been subdivided to a certain extent, ...[but] no homes are built where the massacre took place. There are some memorials nearby; some rock cairns have been constructed. But you acknowledge it as a killing field, and you recognize that it's the place where men, women and children died at the hands of others. It's troubling. And nighttime is the cruelest time in Mountain Meadows: The wind blows a little cooler; the echo of a nearby brook is more chilling. It touches you in a unique and profound way. You don't hear voices, but it's not a silent ground.