Damian Thompson reviews American Massacre: the Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 11, 1857 by Sally Denton
Until two years ago, the worst mass murder in American domestic history was the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which a wagon train moving across Utah was cut down by white men disguised as Indians. It happened on September 11, 1857, which explains why there has been a recent surge of interest in the incident. But the extraordinary thing is that it should have been forgotten in the first place. Anyone who reads Sally Denton’s investigation will be left asking: how could this tragedy, more horrible in every way than Custer’s Last Stand, have been reduced to a historical footnote?
The Fancher train consisted of 40 of the most richly laden wagons ever to set out for California. Its occupants, mostly Arkansas Methodists, trundled along at 12 miles an hour, slowed by their immense herd of cattle. They were looking forward to arriving in Salt Lake City. Founded only a decade earlier, the Mormon capital was, in the words of one historian, “the most ambitious desert civilisation the world has seen”. Its 132ft-wide streets radiated from the temple along the points of the compass; it advertised itself as a place where pioneers could re-stock before the difficult last stretch of the journey west.
What was not advertised was the fact that its leader, Brigham Young, under threat of invasion by US troops, had plunged Utah into a sort of Mormon Cultural Revolution. Expecting the Second Coming of Christ, he had revived the practice of blood atonement, in which dissident Latterday Saints were beheaded by a secret society of avengers known as the Danites. Hostile “gentiles” (non-Mormons) were also legitimate targets, and for some reason – no one is quite sure why – the Church leaders placed the Fancher train in this category.
The emigrants knew there was something wrong when, mysteriously, every store in Salt Lake City refused to sell them food. Pressing south, half starved, they met the same surly hostility. They were relieved when they reached the lush alpine grasses of Mountain Meadow: here was a place to recuperate. But at dawn on September 7, as the smell of coffee wafted over the campfire, a shot rang out and one of the children toppled over. In a rain of gunfire, seven men fell dead. The meadow was, in fact, a killing field, surrounded by rocky outcrops that provided cover for hidden assassins.
After a four-day siege, a Mormon militia leader, John D Lee, offered to broker a truce with the attackers, whom he identified as Paiute Indians. The Fancher party surrendered their arms and began marching towards the nearest town under Mormon escort. What happened next will never be entirely clear, but it seems that, on an order from Lee, disguised Danites shot the Fancher men and, in accordance with the law of blood atonement, slit the throats of the ex-Mormons who had joined the train. The women were shot or stabbed with bayonets. The only children left alive were those under eight years old, the Mormon “age of innocence”; one little boy remembered that the Indian murderers turned white after they washed their faces. By one account, it took just three minutes to kill 121 people. There was a public outcry, but the Civil War intervened, and in the end only Lee was brought to justice.
Denton’s fascinating study establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Mormons committed the massacre. She also demonstrates that, for more than a century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vigorously put about a false version of events. How convenient for her, though, that these conclusions should so closely match the prejudices of the East Coast literary establishment, exonerating the Indians while incriminating the ancestors of one of the country’s most despised minorities – the rich, white, secretive, Republican-voting Mormons.
What Denton cannot quite prove is that Brigham Young ordered the massacre. He may have done so, but the written evidence has never turned up. Until it does, the Mormons can wriggle off the hook. This is a religion, after all, whose scriptures chronicle the doings of Hebrew tribes in pre-Columbian America; it has developed a pretty thick hide when it comes to historical criticism. There are calls for the Church to apologise for the Mountain Meadows massacre, just as the Catholics have apologised for the Crusades. Don’t hold your breath.