Historian Takes New Look at Massacre

The Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday, August 11, 2002

Almost 145 years after the darkest chapter in Utah’s history — the murders of 120 California-bound pioneers by a group of Mormon settlers and their Indian allies — a new book laying blame for the massacre at the feet of Mormon prophet Brigham Young is causing a sensation in Salt Lake City.

Church historians vehemently disagree with the premise of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, but author Will Bagley said circumstantial evidence points to Young’s involvement.

“Claiming that Brigham Young had nothing to do with Mountain Meadows is akin to arguing that Abraham Lincoln had nothing to do with the Civil War,” Bagley writes. “His own words reveal that both before and after the massacre, Brigham Young recognized the likely results of his acts.”

On the shelves only about two weeks, Bagley’s book already is a best seller locally.

And, after insisting earlier that the Sept. 11, 1857, massacre should be a closed chapter, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now is planning to publish its own book on the killings.

Author Richard Turley, the church’s chief historian, said his book will make clear that Young did not plan the murders.

The victims of the Mountain Meadows massacre were a group of men, women and children on their way from Arkansas to California.

Young at the time was the church’s prophet and president, its second, and the man who brought the faith’s headquarters West in 1847 after founder Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois. Under Young’s leadership, the territory that would become Utah operated as a “theo-democracy,” with Young as its head.

Ten years after the Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, however, the U.S. Army was preparing to squelch Utah’s pervasive anti-Americanism and its practice of polygamy, Bagley writes. As troops drew closer, Utah trained its own military and stockpiled guns, ammunition and food.

In the midst of growing war hysteria, wagon trains continued to move through the territory on the way to California, including the pioneers from northwest Arkansas.

By coincidence, a Mormon woman named Eleanor McLean returned to Utah from Arkansas about this time, with a tale of the murder of her former spiritual husband, beloved Mormon leader Parley Pratt, by her former temporal husband, an Arkansas man. And rumors about the Arkansas wagon train members’ involvement in Pratt’s murder spread across the state.

Bagley, who writes a Utah history column for The Salt Lake Tribune, said this coincidence helped seal the pioneers’ fates.

“Brigham Young considered this a righteous act of vengeance,” said Bagley. But he said Young also wanted to send a message to the United States that he controlled the road to California.

Bagley said the massacre was planned and organized before the emigrants arrived in southern Utah.

The Mormon settlers and Indians ambushed the wagon train of 40 men, 30 women and 70 children. The emigrants circled their wagons and dug in, surrendering days later when the Mormon settlers promised them safety if they disarmed.

Instead, the Mormon militia and the Indians killed them. Seventeen children under the age of 7 were spared and adopted into the community.

Bagley said his research extends and confirms the private conclusions of blame for the massacre reached by Juanita Brooks, the Mormon historian whose 1950 book, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, has stood as the first accurate account of the atrocity.

When church President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a new monument at the site of the massacre in 1999, he made clear that he did not believe Young had a hand in the violence.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 12, 2002.
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