Wednesday, July 24, 2002
BY GREG BURTON
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
A store of handwritten and typed court documents detailing the trial and execution of Mormon pioneer John D. Lee for his role in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre was briefly displayed by state archivists Tuesday.
Among the collection is Brigham Young’s 1857 deposition, an 1857 letter Utah’s territorial governor wrote to James W. Denver, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and an 1857 letter Lee wrote to Young about the massacre. Also included were various court pleadings, indictments, subpoenas and jury instructions, and an 1896 affidavit by the family of indicted co-conspirator John M. Higbee asking the court to dismiss charges against Higbee nearly 20 years after Lee was executed.
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The yellowing, brittle pages were squirreled away in a dark corner of the old Beaver County Courthouse and known to only a few Mormon scholars when archivists from the state learned of their existence last week.
State historians were told about the records by researchers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who found and copied them in late June.
Although copies of most of the documents are available elsewhere, the Higbee family affidavit could be the only existing original, said state archivist Arlene Schmuland.
In part, the affidavit reads: “That the wife and friends of the family of said Higbee are sincerely desirous to have this cause dismissed and the stigma removed from the children who have become men and women and fathers and mothers since the said Higbee left Utah, and feeling and believing that no injustice will be done to the people or dishonor to the law, we ask that you have the case dismissed.”
The motion was granted and Higbee, who had been in hiding, later died in Cedar City.
Initially, nine men were indicted for the murder of 120 men, women and children from Arkansas as they passed through Utah in 1857, but Lee was the only one to ever stand trial.
Higbee, a commander with the territorial militia, blamed Indians in a court affidavit for forcing Mormons to attack the Arkansas wagon train. Other evidence suggests Paiute Indians played a much more passive role, compared with the Mormon settlers, in the attack.
While the Higbee family’s attempt to restore their patriarch’s reputation was recorded by newspapers at the time, and historian Juanita Brooks wrote about the reinstatement of Higbee’s LDS Church fellowship in her landmark 1950 account, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, finding and preserving the court document intact is “what archivists dream about,” said acting State Archives Director Bob Woodhead.
“We have a find here that is significant,” he said. “How significant, we are not sure . . . We are very anxious [and] from this point on we are in the process of discovery.”
Historians were divided on the importance of the collection. Will Bagley, whose account of the massacre, Blood of the Prophets, is due in bookstores next week, says he traveled to Beaver County and copied the entire collection seven years ago.
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