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.”

On September 5, 1857, the local Mormon leaders—Isaac Haight, the president of the southern “Stake,” a regional unit of the Church; John D. Lee; and several bishops—met and decided to gather their militiamen to “perform the work of dispatching these emigrants,” with Lee given the job of organizing Indians along with their own men, who met at a local farm to paint and dress themselves as natives. On the 6th, the emigrant party arrived in Mountain Meadows, a valley with good grass miles from the nearest settlement. At dawn on the 7th, Mormons and Indians crept close to the party and opened fire, killing seven and wounding others, but the plan did not go smoothly. The emigrant men quickly regrouped, firing back, circling their wagons, and digging rifle pits, where women and children were kept out of the line of fire.

The siege lasted five days, during which many of the emigrant men were killed by sniper fire. Soon the Mormon leaders began losing control over their own ranks, who were troubled by conscience, and over the Paiutes, who, Bagley says, “showed no interest in a long-running battle. They wanted the guns and beef they were promised, but they did not intend to die to get them.” The Saints found themselves in a serious predicament: having seen Lee, the emigrants likely knew that Mormons were among those attacking, and the attackers did not have sufficient force to overwhelm their prey without taking heavy casualties.

On the 10th, in response to a letter from Haight apparently asking for instructions on the fate of the emigrants—a letter that has disappeared from the meticulously kept archives of the LDS Church—Brigham Young, it is claimed, may have sent this:

In regard to the emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of. If those that are there will leave, let them go in peace.

The provenance of this letter is troubled, however. In an affidavit written in 1875 in which Young revised both the questions asked of him and his answers, Young claimed that his letter had been lost; by 1884, Mormon church officials located the draft quoted above in a “Church Letter Book.” Everything about it—its authenticity, the date when it may have reached Haight, the motivation behind that terse order, “You must not meddle with them”—has been the subject of debate.

The central question is, as Bagley asks, “What did Brigham Young know, and when did he know it?” Of course, Young’s letter may have been both authentic and sincere. The idea of the massacre may have arisen with the southern Mormons, and Young may have been trying to put a stop to it. But given Young’s apocalyptic preaching to his people and his bellicose rhetoric—“I shall not hold the Indians by the wrist any longer”—and given the then-common Mormon practice of “lying for the Lord” (Young himself once boasted, “We have the greatest and smoothest liars in the world”), it was likely that questions would attach themselves to this document. Bagley summarizes the concerns raised first by government officials investigating the massacre and ultimately historians:

The letter begs several questions: Why did Superintendent of Indian Affairs Brigham Young have to send orders to the south not to “interfere” with the emigrants? Why did he later deny knowing anything about the massacre until weeks after it happened?… Young’s shrewd reply seems calculated to correct a policy gone wrong if it arrived in time and to cover his tracks if received too late. Whatever the letter’s intent, it carried a hidden but clear message for Isaac Haight: make sure the Mormons could blame whatever happened on the Paiutes.

By September 11, the emigrants’ situation was dire: fewer than twenty-four men had survived the siege, and ammunition was low. Lee spent the morning stiffening the backbone of his troops and explaining his strategy: he would approach the emigrants under a flag of truce, convince them to surrender their arms, and then the Mormon militia—again painted and dressed as Indians, along with the remaining Paiutes—would lie in wait and fall upon them as he led them from the valley.

By that time, the emigrants had little choice but to surrender, and Lee’s plan worked. Late that afternoon, he led them to their deaths. The men were grouped together, with the women and children walking ahead, apparently out of a concern that the “innocent blood”—a category that included only the children too young, or so it was thought, to bear witness to the murders—be spared. After a brief march up the road, the men were dispatched quickly, but killing the women and older children was a messier, more chaotic affair.1 One of the emigrant girls, Nancy Huff, who was four at the time, later recalled:

I saw my mother shot in the forehead and fall dead. The women and children screamed and clung together. Some of the young women begged the assassins after they had run out on us not to kill them, but they had no mercy on them, clubbing their guns and beating out their brains.

Sarah Baker, only three, would later defend her memory of the event:

You don’t forget the horror. You don’t forget the blood-curdling war-whoops and the banging of guns all around you. You don’t forget the screaming of the other children and the agonized shrieks of women being hacked to death with tomahawks. And you wouldn’t forget it, either, if you saw your own mother topple over in the wagon beside you, with a big red splotch getting bigger and bigger on the front of her calico dress.

From that day to this, the Mormon Church has maintained that—with the exception of John D. Lee, who became the official scapegoat years later, and other “local people”—the Church leadership bore no responsibility for the massacre. For years, the Church claimed the Indians were solely to blame, although the Paiute tribe holds that their ancestors did not take part. As for the seventeen children left alive that day (all under the age of seven)—loaded on a wagon in their bloody clothes and eventually returned to relatives in Arkansas—they consistently testified that the Indians who murdered their families were not Indians at all. According to Bagley,

Rebecca Dunlap [six at the time] recalled quite a number of white men washing the paint from their faces. Martha Elizabeth Baker could “distinctly remember the group disguised as Indians. There was not a real Indian in the group, for they went to the creek and washed the paint from their faces.” While playing marbles with Josiah Gibbs in 1859, young Christopher Carson Fancher cocked his head and said, “My father was killed by Indians; when they washed their faces they were white men.”

In later years, Nephi Johnson, one of the Mormons there that day, came clean, saying, “White men did most of the killing.”


In Roughing It, Mark Twain’s 1872 narrative of travel in the West, Twain writes:

We were told…that the dreadful “Mountain Meadows Massacre” was the work of the Indians entirely, and that the Gentiles had meanly tried to fasten it upon the Mormons; we were told, likewise, that the Indians were to blame, partly, and partly the Mormons; and we were told, likewise, and just as positively, that the Mormons were almost if not wholly and completely responsible for that most treacherous and pitiless butchery…. All our “information” had three sides to it, and so I gave up the idea that I could settle the “Mormon question” in two days.

After a hundred and forty-five years, the question of the Mormons’ complicity in the massacre has still not been settled, thanks, in large part, to the assiduous efforts of Brigham Young, whose cover-up made him an accessory after the fact to the crimes committed at Mountain Meadows. Immediately after the massacre, John D. Lee and other local Mormon leaders swore their men to secrecy, and Mormons and Indians stripped the bodies, dividing up clothing, valuables, and cattle, with Lee himself acquiring some two hundred head. Eventually, the bodies were buried in shallow pits, but wolves dug them up. Travelers passing through the Meadows in the months and years following reported seeing bones and hair scattered on the ground.

The much-anticipated confrontation between Young’s Mormon militia and the US government never materialized; most of the US forces never made it over the mountains during the winter of 1857. Young instead found himself, for the next two decades, struggling to contain the scandal of the massacre, while expressing his private approval of it. In 1861, both Bagley and Juanita Leavitt, in her 1950 book The Mountain Meadows Massacre, write, he visited Mountain Meadows, where US soldiers had raised a wooden cross, inscribed with the words “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Young replied, “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord; I have repaid,” and had the makeshift monument destroyed.

Over the years, despite the fact that Lee had given him a full report on the massacre, Young told the federal government that Indians committed it, refusing to divulge information about the culpability of those involved. In what Bagley calls an “audacious fraud,” Young, acting as superintendent of the Indians, billed the government for the cost of the emigrants’ looted goods that were distributed to the Paiutes; he protected the killers, delaying their arrest and trial for fifteen years; and he rewarded Lee and Haight by sealing new wives to them in his private sealing room. Many documents relating to the massacre have vanished, including John D. Lee’s 1857 diary and key sections of settlers’ journals.

When pressure from the government to punish those involved became too great, Young excommunicated Lee and two others. In 1876, after his first trial resulted in a hung jury whose Mormon members were following Young’s instructions, John D. Lee became the only person ever convicted of the murders. In 1877, twenty years after the massacre, he was executed by a firing squad at Mountain Meadows. Brigham Young, the so-called “Lion of the Lord,” died six months later, at the age of seventy-six, never having accepted responsibility or expressed remorse for the events he set in motion.

Young’s cover-up did his church no favors; instead it gave rise to a persistent mythology about the violent mysteries of Mormondom. The Mormon subplot in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet (1887), may have been inspired by sensational accounts of the massacre. Recently a literary scholar has compiled a list of seventy-six works of pulp fiction with Mormon themes involving blood atonement and murder.

In the decades following Young’s death, the massacre faded from the country’s memory but lingered in the folklore of southern Utah. In 1919, a young Mormon schoolteacher named Juanita Leavitt spent several days maintaining a vigil at the deathbed of a patriarch of the faith. At one point, in his delirium, the old man called out “Blood! Blood! Blood!,” dying without regaining consciousness. The old man was Nephi Johnson, the same man who testified, at Lee’s trial, that his brethren had participated in the massacre.

Juanita Leavitt—Brooks after her marriage—was herself the granddaughter of Dudley Leavitt, who, like Johnson, had been a massacre participant, and she never forgot Johnson’s deathbed outburst. After graduating from Brigham Young University and earning a master’s degree at Columbia in 1929, she began collecting the diaries of Mormon settlers from southern Utah for history projects commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and California’s Huntington Library, at the same time acquiring information about the massacre. According to her biographer, Brooks was dismayed by references to blood atonement in the temple endowment ceremonies at her marriage, but she remained a devout member of her faith, famously saying, “I feel sure that nothing but the truth can be good enough for the church to which I belong.”

Her church felt nothing of the kind. While Brooks was researching her book, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, published by Stanford University Press in 1950, Church authorities refused to relinquish documents and information in their possession. The first and, for decades, the only accurate account of the massacre, Brooks’s detailed work outraged Mormon authorities by exposing Brigham Young’s cover-up of the murders and relating their own attempts to suppress the facts. Will Bagley—whose Blood of the Prophets incorporates previously unavailable material—defines her as “one of the West’s best and bravest historians,” and his own work as “not a revision but an extension of Brooks’s labors.” Unlike her fellow Mormon historian Fawn Brodie, whose 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, resulted in her dismissal from the Church, Brooks was not excommunicated, but she was ostracized by neighbors and fellow churchgoers in her hometown of St. George, Utah. She once wrote:

My local people, the bishop and the president of the Stake, and all the authorities here never refer to the book—they evade it with the delicacy and solicitude they might show to a mother who has given birth to a monster child. No one among the higher ups will admit that he has read it—as near as I can tell, few have.

In 1955, Brooks did what Bagley says “no male LDS authority had ever attempted”: she gave a speech at the dedication of a monument to the victims and survivors of the massacre in Harrison, Arkansas, in front of their descendants, acknowledging Mormon guilt and Mormon shame. She be-gan by saying, “Nobody can forgive murder.”

The great-great-granddaughter of Dimick Huntington, Brigham Young’s Indian interpreter, the novelist Judith Freeman was raised Mormon but left the faith as a young woman, never having heard the full story of Mountain Meadows. Later, she was shocked to discover the allegations in Juanita Brooks’s book. According to an author’s note, her novel Red Water is indebted to Brooks, who died in 1989. Drawing on Brooks’s biographies of John D. Lee and Emma Batchelor Lee (one of Lee’s nineteen plural wives, the English bride sealed to him by Brigham Young only months after Mountain Meadows), Freeman captures the aftereffects of the atrocity, felt not only in Lee’s family but throughout the southern Mormon settlements.

Told through the experience of three of Lee’s wives, the novel upends the Mormon order, in which men are privileged and women passive. Emma remains Lee’s helpmeet while growing into the defiant independence she would assume upon his death. Ann Lee, thirteen when she married, soon abandons Lee and the children she unwillingly bore. Rachel Lee—dogmatic and embittered against her husband’s enemies—cherishes the fantasy perhaps shared by all polygamous women, that she is “his one, true wife.” No matter what their limitations, all three are savvier survivors than Lee himself, whose weaknesses—vanity, sexual indulgence, greed—seen through flashbacks, are magnified by the Mormon hierarchical system.

All three of the wives’ perspectives—devotion, disillusionment, fanaticism—fill out the portrait of faith that Freeman draws here, bringing to life the moral ambiguities and familial entanglements of the religious experience. But it is Emma’s Jamesian interior monologue—her recollection, after Lee’s execution, of how she came to learn of the massacre and her reflections on the inevitably poisonous nature of polygamy, its jealousies, hypocrisies, and inequality—that is the heart of the novel. Asked at the end of the novel how the “Divine Principle” of polygamy could ever be abolished, she replies:

Well, perhaps God will change His mind once he sees it’s expedient to do so, for the assets of the church might well be confiscated and should that appear imminent, I have no doubt a revelation will be forthcoming, for when it comes to money or God’s laws, the Saints are generally shrewd enough to protect their purses first.

Emma Lee’s church bore out that prediction. It abolished polygamy in 1890 (although an estimated 30,000 polygamists still live in the West) and moved away from blood atonement, as well as the more racist policies and teachings of its early years. In 1830, the Church had six members; its membership now numbers eleven million, projected to reach a quarter of a billion by 2080. Its assets are estimated to be worth twenty-five to thirty billion dollars. Some sociologists believe that it is the first major new world religion since Islam.

A decade ago, few works not influenced by apology or apostasy were available about the Mormon experience. Recently there is an embarrassment of riches. Richard and Joan Ostling’s Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (1999) is an invaluable handbook, and Robert Remini’s new biography Joseph Smith offers a wonderfully succinct introduction to the early years of the movement; it navigates with aplomb the knotty scholarly problem of Smith’s golden plates. Best of all, anyone needing an exegesis of what Twain once called “chloroform in print,” can now mercifully bypass the official Book of Mormon for Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon, which lays out the complicated story of the book’s “transcription,” and examines its powerful role in the evolution of the Mormon Church.2

But while the world may be arriving at a fuller understanding of Mormonism, the Church itself has still not come to terms with its worst moment. On August 3, 1999, a backhoe operator beginning restoration of the monument at Mountain Meadows—on land owned by the Mormon church—unearthed thirty pounds of human remains, ultimately determined to belong to some twenty-eight or twenty-nine people, including three young children. The discovery touched off bitter recriminations and threats of lawsuits from survivors’ descendants in Arkansas and a five-week struggle over the remains between the state of Utah—which sought to fulfill legal requirements mandating archaeological examination of human remains—and the Church, which sought to rebury the remains immediately. The dispute was eventually resolved in the Church’s favor by Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, a descendant of Juanita Brooks’s grandfather Dudley Leavitt, a massacre participant.

But before the remains were reburied, on September 10, 1999, University of Utah forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak conducted thirty hours of forensic examination. Her conclusions lent scientific credence to the belief that Mormons armed with guns—not just Indians wielding clubs or tomahawks, as Mormon legend had it—killed women and children at Mountain Meadows. One woman’s skull revealed evidence that she had been shot in the head or face at close range; one child, aged ten to twelve, was killed by a gunshot through the top of the head.

On September 11, 1999, the one hundred forty-second anniversary of the massacre, over a thousand people attended the dedication of a new Mountain Meadows monument. Stewart Lee Udall, John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of the interior and a great-grandson of John D. Lee, read a poem. The poem, along with Udell’s recollections of growing up as part of the infamous Lee family, can be found in his new book, The Forgotten Founder: Rethinking the History of the Old West.3 The current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Gordon B. Hinckley, had this to say:

No one can explain what happened in these meadows 142 years ago. We may speculate, but we do not know. We do not understand it. We cannot comprehend it…. It is time to leave the entire matter in the hands of God…. I sit in the chair that Brigham Young occupied as president of the church at the time of the tragedy. I have read very much of the history of what occurred here. There is no question in my mind that he was opposed to what happened.

He went on to read a statement written by the Church’s attorneys: “That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment of the part of the Church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day.”

But able historians—first Juanita Brooks and now Will Bagley—have already unraveled much of what happened at Mountain Meadows. As Bagley writes, “Its causes and effects are not an impenetrable mystery. Those who pretend that the event is beyond comprehension apparently prefer not to understand it.” By ignoring clear historical evidence, Hinckley and his church have failed to confront, and atone for, the bloody consequences of their claim to be God’s anointed.

  1. 1

    The exact number and identity of those killed at Mountain Meadows may never be known. Around two hundred fifty emigrants left Arkansas in the spring of 1857, but some split off to take another route, leaving around one hundred forty present at the massacre (forty men, thirty women, seventy children). Hired hands—and perhaps some apostate Mormons, called “backouts” by their former brethren—may also have joined the emigrants and been killed.

  2. 2

    Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999); Robert V. Remini, Joseph Smith (Lipper/Viking, 2002); Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002).

  3. 3

    Island Press/Sheerwater Books, 2002.