This article first appeared in the News Watch column of the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number1 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Not since Mormon historian Juanita Brooks bravely penned her groundbreaking book The Mountain Meadows Massacre has so much attention been given to the wagon train led by Alexander Fancher and John T. Baker. For the past century and a half, most of the anniversaries of the massacre passed with little commentary. This tragic event, unheard of by most Americans, was brought to the forefront, however, in 2007 with the release of September Dawn, a film by Christopher Cain. The film recounts the treachery and brutal murders committed by more than fifty members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against 120 innocent men, women, and children on September 11, 1857. Only seventeen children, “too young to tell the tale,” survived the carnage.
September Dawn opened to a dismal box office attendance and received poor reviews. Mormon critics tended to run out of adjectives when expressing their disdain for the film. Bob Lonsberry, an excommunicated Mormon who still believes Mormonism is true, called the film a “carefully crafted attack on the LDS Church” and an “anti-Mormon sermon” replete with “distortion and bigotry.” The “entire movie is a vendetta,” he wrote, and “a heavy-handed smear job” (http://www.lonsberry.com/writings.cfm?story=2214&go=4).
Buried Evidence and Elusive Facts. Sorting out the truth about the massacre has been a difficult task. Speaking at a Mormon History Association conference in July 2007, LDS historian Richard Turley conceded that much of the evidence has long been destroyed. What little evidence remains has been under the control of the Mormon Church and emigrant diaries that could shed light on the incident are nowhere to be found.
Traveling from Arkansas to California, the Fancher-Baker party could not have picked a worse time to cross the Utah territory. Misunderstanding between the Mormons and the U. S. government had led President James Buchanan to detach a large contingent of soldiers to remove Brigham Young from his position as governor. Unable to purchase supplies from the Mormons, the train headed south to fatten their cattle before making the arduous trip across the desert. According to Mormon Will Bagley, author of the book Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, “once the Fancher Party left Salt Lake City, it disappeared into a historical maze built on lies, folklore, popular myth, justifications, and few facts.”
For years depreciatory comments against the emigrants have made the rounds in Mormon circles, giving many LDS faithful the satisfaction that somehow the victims deserved their fate. Such thoughts are now being rebuffed by a contemporary LDS Church that is not being allowed to let old fictions go unchallenged. For example, eight pages in the September issue of the Mormon magazine Ensign were devoted to the massacre. In this article, Turley addressed some of these rumors and concluded that they “are not accurate.”
Brigham Young and Bypassed Blame. Without question, September Dawn’s greatest offense was in showing Brigham Young to be directly complicit in the killing of the emigrants. While there is no extant evidence clearly indicting Young, there is enough circumstantial evidence available to keep the controversy alive. Richard Turley has joined two other LDS historians, Ronald Walker and Glen Leonard, in writing an LDS version of the event. The book, which is to be published by Oxford University Press, is expected to blame Isaac Haight, a stake president (an intermediate-level leader with authority over several congregations) from Cedar City, for giving the order to kill the emigrants. For some, the thought of devout Mormon men willing to kill innocent civilians mercilessly on the orders of someone so low in the priesthood chain of command is untenable.
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Walker admits that “there were statements made both in Salt Lake City and by local leaders down in southern Utah that tended to inflame emotion. There is a measure of culpability,” he said. Sermons calling for “blood atonement,” strict obedience to the leadership, and the threat of cutting the throats of “miserable scoundrels” who came to “Zion” certainly did not help calm the tensions Mormons were experiencing at the time.
Addressing the fact that evidence had been tampered with and destroyed, Bagley cites attorney Andrew Hamilton (1676–1741), who said that “the destruction of evidence ought always to be taken as the best evidence.” In a lecture given in downtown Salt Lake City, Bagley noted, “These documents were not destroyed because they vindicated Brigham Young.” Bagley feels that the LDS Church’s efforts to place blame solely on local leaders in southern Utah does not match the available evidence. “Brigham Young was the man in charge, and that’s where the orders originated,” he told a Salt Lake television station.
Bagley links the demise of the Arkansas wagon train to a Mormon temple oath repeated by participants vowing to “avenge the blood of the prophets” and to the May 13, 1857 murder of a Mormon apostle named Parley Pratt who had been killed in Arkansas by the estranged husband of a woman he had taken as his plural wife. Bagley believes that the “rantings” of Pratt’s widow to Brigham Young caused Young to view the emigrants as enemies. There is no evidence linking the Arkansas travelers to Pratt’s murder, but Bagley believes “it would forever be linked to their fate.”
Brigham Young’s first and only visit to the Mountain Meadows was on May 25, 1861. Two years earlier, soldiers under the command of Brevet Major James H. Carleton collected the still-exposed skeletons of thirty-four of the victims and buried them beneath a twelve-foot-high rock cairn. On top of the monument they placed a wooden cross that read, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.” Young, after reading the Romans 12:16 passage on the cross, added, “And I have taken a little.” Within moments the monument was completely torn down by those accompanying Young. Bagley agrees with historian David Bigler, author of Innocent Blood, that with this statement Young both “defined the authority and motive for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”
In recent years the LDS Church has been compelled to face the tragedy at Mountain Meadows publicly, but it has come short of offering descendants the apology many seek. In his commemoration message on the 150th anniversary of the massacre, Mormon Apostle Henry Eyring again declared Young’s innocence, and after blaming local leaders, he offered “profound regret” for the incident. Local Salt Lake media outlets interpreted this as an apology. Many Mormons also applauded their church for bringing closure to this issue, but it had not truly done so. Church spokesman Mark Tuttle later stated, “We don’t use the word ‘apology.’ We used ‘profound regret.’” For many of the victims’ descendants, the failure of the LDS Church to offer an apology means their wounds have yet to heal.
— Bill McKeever