Review of Massacre at Mountain Meadows

By Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

The “Mountain Meadows Massacre,” as it has been called, has intrigued historians and laypeople alike for more than a century and a half. The story involves a group of southern emigrants to California on September 11th, 1857 (the original “September 11th”) who, for all intents and purposes, were horribly annihilated by their enemies soon after the white flag of truce caused them to put down their guns and leave the secure fortress of their circled wagon trains.

Running out of ammunition, food, and water, the emigrants really had no choice but to surrender to their Mormon attackers. Then, as they walked away from this secure surrounding, dozens were mercilessly shot and butchered in a senseless fashion. Just who was it that ordered this crime? What involvement did the Mormon leadership have? And were the Indians who were involved savages or merely the pawns of conniving white men?

Three Latter-day Saint authors with ties to the Mormon Church tackled these issues in Massacre at Mountain Meadows. On page xi, they explain how they had access to the “archives of the First Presidency, the church’s highest governing body. Church leaders supported our books by providing full and open disclosure.” They also had the “field notes of assistant church historian Andrew Jenson,” with a collection where “massacre insiders told what happened, at times defensively, but in some cases with self-incriminating honesty.”

While they don’t hold back any punches as to the events surrounding the atrocity, the authors take a position that not everyone will agree with. Though some—including Will Bagley, a historian with Mormon ties—believe that second LDS President Brigham Young had a role in the killings, Walker, Turley, and Leonard are very clear in their belief that Young—though he was the top leader—should not have the blame placed at his feet. Instead, they point to lower-level leaders including John D. Lee—who was later executed for his role in the murders—and Isaac C. Haight.

Regardless of who ordered the killings, the authors do give details concerning the reality of the situation. They write that “nothing that the emigrants purportedly did comes close to justifying their murder. . . . Likewise, most of the killers led exemplary lives before and after the massacre. . . most of them were ordinary humans with little to distinguish them from other nineteenth-century frontiersmen. Some in fact would have been pillars in any community” (p. xiii)

The killings involved cold-blooded murder. Describing how the murders were planned, the authors write page 191:

When the militia meeting began, Higbee and Lee gave the men detailed instructions. All the emigrants except the small children were to be killed. The emigrants would be lured from their camp by “a flag of truce.” They would be told that “the Indians were determined on their destruction” and that the Mormons “dare not oppose the Indians, for we were at their mercy.” Instead, if the emigrants would “trust themselves in our hands,” then “the best we could do for them” would be to place a few of their belongings—including their guns—in two wagons and escort the emigrants to the settlements. The wagons would also carry “the small children and wounded,” and the emigrant women would “follow the wagons and the men next, the troops to stand in readiness on the east side of the road ready to receive them.” When Higbee finally gave the signal “Halt,” the militiamen were to kill the emigrant men and older boys, while the Indians were to “dispatch the women and larger children.” Higbee ordered most of the militiamen to put their horses out on the range. He wanted them walking next to their victims, ready to fire at close range.”

For the most part, the plan succeeded “because it was so calculated, because the emigrants had no real options, and because it was so improbably sinister. Even many of the tough and practical emigrants, used to surprises on the trail, could not have imagined anything happening to them that was so premeditated, evil, and cunning” (p. 199).

The killings proved to be incredibly brutal:

The first volley was like “one loud shot,” said one of the militiamen, and the firing went on for a minute or two. When the heavy smoke lifted, blood and horror were everywhere where the emigrant men once stood. The militia had killed at close quarters, sometimes face-to-face. Many of the bullets hit their victims in the front or back of the head. Several of the Mormon men “shed tears at the sight of the dead lying before them, and only in obedience to what they considered legitimate military authority would they have done what they did,” reported one (p. 200).

On pages 205-206, the authors report,

The carnage was astonishing. “I saw the bodies of men, women, and children, butchered in the most horrible manner,” Samuel Pollock said. “Some of the children with their heads mashed in by rocks, I suppose.” Klingersmith gave a similar description. “I found [the bodies] in almost every condition,” he said, “some with their throats cut, some heads smashed, some shot.”

Although children under the age of eight (who, according to Mormonism, are considered innocent) were not supposed to be killed, some were. “Although the militia leaders had planned to spare those ‘too young to tell tales’” at least a half dozen of these young children became part of the terrible harvest, too” (p. 205). The small children who weren’t killed were typically later adopted into LDS families.

The Indians—perhaps as many as several hundred were involved—played an important role as well. Their participation was just as brutal. For example, a witness “saw one Indian use a large rock to crush life from a teenage boy who had fallen. Two or three times, the man raised the rock and crushed it into the boy’s chest” (p. 201).

Regarding how the Indians were convinced to participate in the attack of the wagon trains, the authors explain on page 147:

Less than two weeks after the massacre, an Indian from northern Utah reported meeting a large band of Paiutes who acknowledged their role in the killings and said the Mormons had “persuaded them into it.” According to their account, “John D. Lee came to their village and told them that Americans were very bad people, and always made a rule to kill Indians whenever they had a chance. He said, also, that they often killed the Mormons, who were friends to the Indians. He then prevailed on them to attack the emigrants…and promised them that if they were not strong enough to whip them, the Mormons would help them.

According to the authors, Lee was not the fall guy. Rather, he is portrayed as being most responsible for the killings that took place, based on his own admission. The authors explained on pages 203-204,

In the first two weeks after the massacre, Lee would tell others of his killings. Then, for the next twenty years, he repeatedly denied taking any life. Shortly before his death, however, he privately acknowledged having “killed five emigrants and possibly six.”

Meanwhile, Brigham Young is exonerated throughout the book as someone who would had never purposely killed innocent people. For example, on page 93, the authors explain how there was general tension in those months before the massacre event between the Mormons and emigrants, including some who supposedly boasted that they helped drive the Mormons from Missouri as well as participated in the killing of Mormonism’s founder. The authors wrote,

Some Mormons took the bait and made plans to give the emigrants “such a drubbing that if the[y] survived the[y] would not forget.” Park said Young learned of the plan and summoned the Mormons to his office, where he dressed them down “as only Brigham Young could do.” He did not want “a finger” raised against any of the emigrants, some of whom, Park believed, were later killed at Mountain Meadows.

Young seems a likely suspect by even the most amateur investigator. He appeared to have a tight rein on the church’s leadership. And would lower level leaders have had the fortitude to order innocent people to be killed? The authors say Young was not as omnipresent as some might assume, especially in these pre-Internet days. With communication so difficult with couriers on horse, the smoking gun is missing. Throughout the book, the authors explain why John D. Lee and other local leaders with no ties to the Salt Lake City leadership were the instigators. Despite the fact that many want to point to Young, “Lee himself affirmed just the opposite. He repeatedly denied that Young ordered the massacre” (pp. 228-229).

Even though they do not hold Young responsible for ordering the killings, the authors say he does own some blame along with practically everyone who was involved or killed. They write,

We believe errors were made by U.S. president James Buchanan, Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders, some of the Arkansas emigrants, some Paiutes, and most of all by settlers in southern Utah who set aside principles of their faith to commit an atrocity (p. xiv).

The question must be asked, did these authors perhaps have an agenda to minimize Young’s involvement? If Young really did participate in the ordering of the attack on these wagon trains, wouldn’t that make the entire religion of Mormonism culpable? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Should Young be completely blamed? Maybe not. However, to suggest that he played no role in either knowing about the situation or perhaps even ordering the killings seems almost unfathomable. The truth may never be known.