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The Mormon Murder Case

Red Water

by Judith Freeman
Pantheon, 324 pp., $24.00


On September 11, 1857, one hundred and twenty men, women, and children—members of a wagon train party traveling west from Arkansas—were slaughtered in a valley in southwestern Utah, an event now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Until the 1985 Oklahoma City bombing and the events of September 11, 2001, the Mountain Meadows Massacre stood as one of the worst mass murders of civilians in US history.

Yet the incident has remained obscure. A historical plaque placed at the site of the massacre in 1932 read:

In this vicinity, September 7–11, 1857 occurred one of the most lamentable tragedies in the annals of the west. A company of about 140 Arkansas and Missouri emigrants led by Captain Charles Fancher, enroute to California, was attacked by white men and Indians. All but 17, being small children, were killed. John D. Lee, who confessed participation as leader, was legally executed here March 23, 1877. Most of the emigrants were buried in their own defense pits.

Beyond the mention of John D. Lee, the marker does not identify the killers. In fact, the obscurity surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been part of a long and purposeful campaign orchestrated by the institution whose leaders provoked and whose members largely carried out the massacre: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which subsequently organized a cover-up of its culpability that continues to this day.

Several new and forthcoming works—a novel, Red Water, by Judith Freeman; an authoritative history of the massacre, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by Will Bagley, a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune and editor of the series Kingdom in the West: The Mormons and the American Frontier; a biography of Joseph Smith in the Penguin Lives series, by Robert V. Remini; and the first full-length study of the Book of Mormon for a general audience, Terryl L. Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion—shed new light on the violence done to and by Mormons during the Church’s early years.

In particular, Will Bagley provides an exhaustive, meticulously documented, highly readable history that captures the events and atmosphere that gave rise to the massacre, as well as its long, tortuous aftermath. Bagley has taken great care in negotiating the minefield presented by what remains of the historical record. He writes in his preface,

From the time the Fancher party left Salt Lake until all the adult emigrants were dead, there is hardly a single account of their journey and fate that does not pose serious problems in its fairness or reliability…. Almost every acknowledged “fact” about the fate of these murdered people is open to question.

In 1857, the Church had been in existence for only twenty-seven years: the Book of Mormons was published, and the Church organized, in New York State, in 1830. A year later, Joseph Smith, claiming he was inspired by a revelation from the Lord, relocated his flock, first to Ohio, then to Missouri. But within the decade vigilante mobs, incited by an infamous “extermination order” to kill Mormons issued by Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs and inflamed by rumors of polygamy, drove the Saints to Illinois. In 1839, on the banks of the Mississippi, Mormons established the short-lived new city of Nauvoo, which quickly attracted 15,000 people, making it the state’s second-largest city. But by 1844, Smith and his brother had been assassinated—crimes for which no one was ever held accountable—and Brigham Young, the Church’s new leader, was preparing to lead thousands into the wilderness.

The Saints’ pilgrimage to the Salt Lake Valley and their perseverance in carving out a virtual nation-within-a-nation under horrifically harsh conditions are now legendary. But their conflict with the government of the United States, which reached its apex between 1857 and 1859, is less well-known. Removing themselves to Utah Territory, the Mormons had placed themselves beyond the reach of government, but several factors threatened to bring them into conflict with Washington. The Church’s 1852 declaration that polygamy was a sacred tenet of the faith was an irritant. Brigham Young, who was the governor of Utah Territory as well as an Apostle, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of his Church, was given to issuing defiant pronouncements—“I live above the law and so do this people”—often featured in the press. And Young chafed against the presence of US soldiers in the Salt Lake Valley, sent to investigate the 1853 murders of nine soldiers by Indians. Convicted of manslaughter, the Indians were allowed to walk away from jail; this and other instances of the Mormons’ manipulation of the judiciary in Utah set off a chain of events that brought Young’s extraterritorial fiefdom to the brink of a showdown with the US Army.

Meanwhile, rumors were spreading that Mormons dressed as Indians, or Indians incited by Mormons, were responsible for attacking and robbing wagon trains traveling to California on the route that passed through the southern part of Utah Territory. Mormon doctrine concerning the Indians was as potentially ruinous as the federal government’s own genocidal policies. Mormons saw native tribes as “Lamanites,” a people to be converted to the one true faith so as to wreak vengeance on gentiles, avenging the murder of the Mormon prophets and hastening the arrival of the Kingdom of God, in which every righteous Mormon male would be rewarded with his own kingdom on his own planet, to be peopled with his plural wives and children, sealed to him for eternity. Such rewards were thought to be imminent, for the Book of Mormon prophesied that the overthrow of “gentile governments of the American continent” was at hand. To the Mormon mind, the tribes of Utah Territory existed to defend what Young was calling the State of Deseret.

As tensions rose during the mid-1850s, Young began a Mormon Reformation, whipping his people into what Will Bagley, in Blood of the Prophets, calls “an orgy of religious extremism.” He chastised his followers: “We need a thorough reform, for I know that very many are in a dozy condition with regard to their religion…. Now it is time to awake, before the time of burning.” Reformation rhetoric focused obsessively on the doctrine of blood atonement: the notion that Mormons were divinely justified in killing their enemies. Bagley reports that Young preached, in early 1857, that sinners—including Mormons who betrayed their faith or leadership—should “beg of their brethren to shed their blood.” Jedediah Grant, another fiery Mormon orator, thundered: “We have those amongst us that are full of all manner of abominations, those who need to have their blood shed, for water will not do, their sins are of too deep a dye.” Only those of “innocent blood”—including children under the age of eight—could escape retribution; indeed, those who shed innocent blood were themselves subject to blood atonement, a belief that would play a role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Young was also preparing to go to war with the United States, arming his Mormon militia in anticipation of the arrival of a newly appointed non-Mormon governor for the Utah Territory, accompanied by two thousand federal troops. It was in such an overwrought climate, in April 1857, that around 250 emigrants, consisting of four family parties—the largest led by Alexander Fancher, a veteran of the westward trails—left Arkansas for California.

Two weeks after the emigrants set off, Parley Pratt, one of the original Mormon Apostles and a beloved figure in Salt Lake City, was murdered in Arkansas by the outraged husband of a woman Pratt had taken as his own wife. His widow was immediately brought to Salt Lake, where she called for atonement for the shedding of Pratt’s “innocent blood.” Although the Arkansas emigrants had nothing to do with Pratt’s murder, their presence in southern Utah would be treated by Mormon leaders as another gentile outrage.

Brigham Young bragged about the divine power of his militiamen but realized that his influence over the Indians was, as Bagley says, “his trump card against the federal government’s overwhelming strength.” Young’s own Indian interpreter, Dimick Huntington, spent weeks with the tribes in 1857, exacerbating fears of US troops and assuring them of Mormon friendship. Counting on his relationship to the tribes, Young knew he could close the crucial route to California, telling a US Army captain:

If the government dare to force the issue, I shall not hold the Indians by the wrist any longer…. If the issue comes, you may tell the government to stop all emigration across the continent, for the Indians will kill all who attempt it.

In August 1857, another Mormon Apostle, George A. Smith, visited the southern Utah settlements, carrying letters from Young in Salt Lake City to the local Mormon leadership, which included one of Young’s adopted sons, John D. Lee, whom Young had appointed presiding elder of the settlement of Harmony. Lee took Smith to meet with local Indians and told them, as he had before, that the Americans—or “Mericats,” as the Indians called them—were enemies of Indians and Mormons. Lee later wrote that Smith had said to him:

Suppose an emigrant train should come along through this southern country, making threats against our people and bragging of the part they took in helping to kill our Prophets, what do you think the brethren would do with them? Would they be permitted to go their way, or would the brethren pitch into them and give them a good drubbing?

Lee replied, “I am sure they would be wiped out if they had been making threats against our people,” who, he said, were “anxious to avenge the blood of the Prophets.” Of Smith’s intentions, Lee wrote: “I thought it was his mission to prepare the people for the bloody work.”

So when the Arkansas emigrants passed through Salt Lake City and headed south, they were the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accompanied by hundreds of well-fed cattle, they were traversing one of the most desperately poor regions in the country, where both Mormon settlers and Indians had been barely staving off starvation in the harsh desert terrain, struggling with recent bad weather and grasshopper plagues. The tense atmosphere in the Utah territory helped to bring the wagon train in conflict with the local people, who refused to sell them grain or other supplies. Later, charges were made that the emigrants had provoked the attack on them by poisoning local water supplies or verbally harassing local Mormons. But, as David White and several other historians have observed, such charges were spread after the massacre by the murderers themselves.

The plot to attack the wagon train was underway by early September. Bagley writes: “Someone had to gather the interpreters and rally the Indians…, and it could not be done overnight.” He cites documentary evidence—a diary entry made by Dimick Huntington—that Young met with Indian chiefs, who knew him as “Big Um,” on September 1 and concludes that Young “encouraged [them] to seize the stock of the wagon trains.”

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