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…

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