WASHINGTON, Utah (AP) — The seemingly benign act of erecting a life-sized bronze statue to honor a city pioneer has reopened generations-old wounds and again focused attention on the level of complicity of Mormon church leaders in the 1857 slaughter of all but 17 children of an Arkansas wagon train.
The Washington City Council this week reversed itself and decided against putting up a statue of founding father and civic leader John D. Lee, who also is the only man tried, convicted and executed in the Mountain Meadows Massacre — the name given to the September 1857 slaughter of 120 men, women and children headed to California.
The decision to mothball the $35,000 statue doesn’t even bother Lee’s descendants.
“I think that is probably the best thing to do,” said Leroy Lee, his 78-year-old great-grandson who lives 300 miles north in Salt Lake City.
Controversy has raged ever since sculptor Jerry Anderson proposed more than three years ago to honor Lee, whose statue would stand alongside four other Washington founders in an oval plaza in front of the city museum.
It prompted city leaders last year to mothball the Lee statue and instead only put up the other four in a redesigned horseshoe memorial.
City leaders went back to the original plan this year, and wanted to put the statue on permanent display May 7 during the city’s annual Cottonfest Days.
Although they had to wait a year, historical society members said it might even be more fitting since 2004 is the 150th anniversary of the first time Lee stood in the nearby fertile mountain valley and thought it a ripe place for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to raise cotton.
But the plan drew protests from as far away as Oregon and Texas, by critics who claimed such a statue would essentially pay homage to a killer. Just weeks after the council reaffirmed erecting the statue, a split council voted down the plan 3-2 Wednesday.
“My great-grandfather … was a victim to the Mountain Meadows Massacre as same as the ones murdered,” Leroy Lee said of his ancestor, who was taken back to the same meadow, sat on a coffin and executed by firing squad in 1877 for his role in the massacre.
But when the issue of the statue came back this year, it again raised questions about the involvement of 19th-century Mormon church leaders, whose modern-day counterparts to this day deny responsibility for the killings.
Burr Fancher, a 77-year-old retired Oregon educational consultant and president of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Monument Foundation, a group dedicated to educating people about the massacre, is dumbstruck by the proposed honor. Two of his great-grandmother’s brothers — both cousins to wagon master Alexander Fancher — were killed.
“It’s inconceivable to me that a city would want to honor a mass murderer,” he said. “If we used the same twisted logic, I think we could put up a statue to Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City.”
Supporters say the monument is a fitting honor for Lee, who recommended to his adoptive father, church President Brigham Young, in 1854 that the area be settled. Lee became a civic and community leader, building the first cotton gin, organizing county fairs, planting 3,000 peach trees and operating an inn.
The statue would certainly not, they say, commemorate Lee’s role in the 1857 murders.
“I think it’s time we forget and forgive and move on in a positive way,” said Kathy Staley, a historical society volunteer whose own ancestor is honored with a founders statue.
“I don’t think my great-grandfather, Peter Neilson, would feel at all uncomfortable having Lee next to him,” she said.
Staley said city leaders should honor the positive things Lee did for the town “instead of dwelling so much on that terrible, negative situation that happened.”
Added her husband, George, a math and biology teacher, “It’s sad with all the good things he did for southern Utah, and especially Washington, the Mountain Meadows Massacre kind of overrides things.”
Lee’s band of Utah militiamen and American Indians pinned the wagon train down in a field about 30 miles northwest of Washington in 1857.
The white southern Utah men, disguised in Indian war paint, expected a quick victory. But the scrappy Arkansans circled their wagons and dug in to fight off the attackers for about a week. That’s when, even after dispatching a courier to Salt Lake City to seek counsel from church leaders, the militia didn’t wait for an answer and decided to end the standoff.
Under the guise of a negotiated truce with the American Indians, Lee sent another man to tell wagon train leaders that if they dropped their weapons, the militiamen would lead them to safety past the Indians.
The Arkansans agreed and allowed the militia, many of whom — if not all — were members of the Mormon church, to escort them away. There was one armed man for each wagon train member. But when the Arkansans had been marched far enough away from their weapons, a signal was given and the wagon train members, including women and children, were slaughtered. Many were shot at point-blank range.
The death toll numbered about 120, but 17 children under the age of 7 were spared and adopted. George Staley says his great-grandfather and Lee drove two wagons out into the battlefield to collect the survivors.
But even Staley’s ancestor, Samuel Knight, couldn’t muster an answer when his wife asked if Staley was partly responsible for the slaughter.
“He couldn’t answer her,” Kathy Staley said, quoting from family diaries. “He just cried.”
Debate continues to this day about the role Mormon church leaders played in the massacre, and whether it was only local church leaders who knew of the attack plan or if the killings were approved by high-ranking church leaders back in Salt Lake City.
Lee wrote in a book published after his death that he never knowingly disobeyed Young’s orders.
“Brigham Young did not order or condone the killings,” said LDS church spokesman Dale Bills.
“Local militia acted on their own before Brigham Young’s instructions to let the Arkansas emigrants pass in peace were delivered by a messenger riding horseback from Salt Lake City,” Bills said.
That messenger arrived two days after the massacre and the wealthy wagon train had been thoroughly looted.
In his book “Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” Utah author Will Bagley contended the massacre was planned and organized before the emigrants arrived in Utah.
Leroy Lee lays the blame not on Young but squarely on southern Utah Mormon church leaders, and said they sold out his great-grandfather as the scapegoat.
“They should thank him that he took the blame,” Leroy Lee said. “He’s been persecuted and crucified about it. The truth will never come out.”
But one Texas woman, whose great-great-uncles also were killed in the massacre, believes the church was involved from the top down.
“Nothing happened without the knowledge of Brigham Young, and today nothing happens without the knowledge of Gordon B. Hinckley,” said Mary Migliore of San Antonio.
Hinckley, 93 and the current church president, in 1999 dedicated a mass graveside memorial at the massacre site. The site features a wall listing the names of the dead.
But Hinckley’s gesture was accompanied by the hint of a legal disclaimer.
“That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment on the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful and tragic day,” he said then. “But we have an obligation. We have a moral responsibility. We have a Christian duty to honor, to respect, and to do all feasible to recognize and remember those who died here.”
That, Migliore says, proves a 147-year cover-up remains. “Apparently, stonewalling is one church legacy passed down through the generations.”
The LDS church, she says, “is not at the forefront of repentance, let alone responsibility, restitution or remorse.”
She would like the Mormon church to pay for DNA testing on all the victims buried in the meadow, and then return the remains to families for proper burial.
Migliore, a board member of massacre foundation, also wants the church to fund scholarships at Arkansas colleges and universities in the names of her slain ancestors, John Prewit, 20, and William Prewit, 18.
Otherwise, she said, their only legacy is “names on a granite wall.”