"Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Dilemma of Blame"
by Christopher Smith ("The Salt Lake Tribune", March 14, 2000)
MOUNTAIN MEADOWS -- As LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley delivered words of reconciliation at the Sept. 11, 1999, dedication of a rebuilt monument to emigrants slaughtered by Mormon militiamen and their Indian allies 142 years earlier, he added a legal disclaimer.
"That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day," Hinckley said. The line was inserted into his speech on the advice of attorneys for the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The statement, seemingly out of sync with Hinckley's desire to bring healing to nearly 150 years of bitterness, caused some in attendance to wonder if any progress had really been made at all. If the Mormon Church leadership of 1857 was not at least partially to blame for an estimated 120 people slain at Mountain Meadows, then whom should history hold responsible?
"Well, I would place blame on the local people," Hinckley told The Salt Lake Tribune in a subsequent interview Feb. 23. "I've never thought for one minute -- and I've read the history of that tragic episode -- that Brigham Young had anything to do with it. It was a local decision and it was tragic.. We can't understand it in this time."
For families of the slain emigrants and descendants of LDS pioneer John D. Lee -- the one participant convicted and executed for the crime -- Hinckley's delineation of the church's position on Mountain Meadows compounded many of the misgivings they had about the entire chain of events during the summer.
First, a church contractor's backhoe accidentally exhumed the bones of at least 29 victims Aug. 3 while digging at the grave, even though the church had pledged not to disturb the ground. That was followed by a failed attempt at secrecy, leading to wild speculation and a schism among descendants.
There was a heated debate over whether a state law requiring forensic analysis of the bones should be obeyed, with Gov. Mike Leavitt finally intervening to prematurely terminate the study and ensure that all bones be reburied before the dedication. New forensic anthropology studies done on the bones before reinterment provided the first graphic evidence of the brutality, and a new, unwanted reminder of the horror.
Now, those who had hoped to hear some sort of apology on behalf of the modern Mormon Church from the man who had done more than any of his predecessors to salve the wounds, were left feeling they had come up short.
"What we've felt would put this resentment to rest would be an official apology from the church," says Scott Fancher of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation in Arkansas, a group of direct descendants of the victims. "Not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement of neglect and of intentional obscuring of the truth."
Others closely involved in Hinckley's participation in the new monument project believe the LDS Church went as far as it's ever going to go in addressing the uncomfortable details of the massacre.
"You're not going to get an apology for several reasons, one of which is that as soon as you say you're sorry, here come the wrongful-death lawsuits," says Gene Sessions, president of the Mountain Meadows Association, the organization that partnered with Hinckley on the project.
"If President Hinckley ever contemplated he was going to open this can of worms he never would have bothered to do this, because it asks embarrassing questions. It raises the old question of whether Brigham Young ordered the massacre and whether Mormons do terrible things because they think their leaders want them to do terrible things."
Noted Mormon writer Levi Peterson has tried to explain the difficulty that Mormons and their church face in confronting the atrocity of Mountain Meadows.
"If good Mormons committed the massacre, if prayerful leaders ordered it, if apostles and a prophet knew about it and later sacrificed John D. Lee, then the sainthood of even the modern church seems tainted," he has written.. "Where is the moral superiority of Mormonism, where is the assurance that God has made Mormons his new chosen people?"
Mormons are certainly not alone in trying to square the shedding of innocent blood in the name of God. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church established courts of the Spanish Inquisition, gaining confessions of heresy through torture and punishment by death. In 1692, Puritans in Massachusetts executed 20 people for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
But acknowledging any complicity in Mountain Meadows' macabre past is fundamentally problematic for the modern church.
"The massacre has left the Mormon Church on the horns of a dilemma," says Utah historian Will Bagley, author of a forthcoming book on Mountain Meadows.. "It can't acknowledge its historic involvement in a mass murder, and if it can't accept its accountability, it can't repent."
The massacre also shows a darker side to Mormonism's proud pioneer heritage, an element used today to shape the faith's worldwide image.
"The problem is that Mormons then were not simply old-fashioned versions of Mormons today," says historian David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom.. "Then, they were very zealous believers; it was a faith that put great emphasis on the Old Testament and the Blood of Israel."
Brigham Young's theocratic rule of the Utah Territory -- he wore the hats of governor, federal Indian agent and LDS prophet -- was at its zenith in 1857 when the mass murders at Mountain Meadows occurred. Reformation of the LDS Church was in full swing, with members' loyalty challenged by church leaders. Young taught that in a complete theocracy, God required the spilling of a sinner's blood on the ground to properly atone for grievous sins. It was the Mormon doctrine of "blood atonement."
The modern church contends blood atonement was mainly a "rhetorical device" used by Young and other leaders to teach Saints the wages of sin. Yet some scholars see its influence even today, pointing to such signs as Utah being the only state left in the nation that allows execution by firing squad. There is widespread disagreement, but some historians have concluded that blood atonement is central to understanding why faithful Mormons would conspire to commit mass murder.
Alternate explanations have included speculation that Indians threatened to prey on local inhabitants if Mormon settlers did not help them raid emigrant wagon trains. There also are the oft-repeated "evil emigrant" stories, accounts that the Arkansas wagon train antagonized Mormon settlers with epithets, poisoned watering holes that resulted in the deaths of Mormon children and Indians, and boastful claims of one contingent called the "Missouri Wildcats" that they were with the Illinois mob that killed LDS founder Joseph Smith.
Retold as fact in many accounts and in the National Register of Historic Places nomination for Mountain Meadows, the veracity of those stories has been called into question since the earliest investigations of the massacre..
Historian Juanita Brooks, in her seminal book, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, believed the emigrants met their doom in part through their own provocative behavior and because they came from the Arkansas county adjacent to the county where beloved LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt had recently been murdered.
In his forthcoming Blood of the Prophets, Bagley points to new evidence that seems to blunt this one point of Brooks' landmark research.
"[Noted historian] Dale Morgan alerted Brooks in 1941 to the likelihood that the emigrant atrocity stories had been 'set afloat by Mormons to further their alibi of the massacre's having been perpetrated by Indians,' " Bagley writes, quoting from Morgan's letter to Brooks. "Even then it was well-established that the Fancher party came from Arkansas, and Morgan had never been satisfied with tales that the company included a large contingent of maniacal Missourians."
That a wagon train mainly of women and children would be slaughtered for belligerence and taunting seems too farfetched to many historians today.
"When you have 50 to perhaps more than 70 men participate in an event like this, you can't just say they got upset," says Bigler, a Utah native. "We have to believe they did not want to do what they did any more than you or I would. We have to recognize they thought what they were doing is what authority required of them. The only question to be resolved is did that authority reach all the way to Salt Lake City?"
Fifty years ago, when Brooks broached the question of Young's role and blood atonement in her book, she was labeled an apostate by some and "one of the Lord's lie detectors" by others, such as the late philanthropist O.C. Tanner. Brooks noted her own LDS temple endowment blessing was to "avenge the blood of the prophet," a reference to Smith's 1844 murder. References to vengeance on behalf of slain church leaders eventually were removed from endowment ceremonies.
The journals kept by Mormon pioneers, who considered maintaining diaries a religious duty, continue to shed more light on the questions Brooks raised.. Among key developments in the historical record:
-- The Sept. 1, 1857, journal of Young's Indian interpreter, Dimick Huntington, recounts Young's negotiations with the Paiute Indians, who were offered a gift of the emigrant wagon train's cattle. When Paiute leaders noted Young had told them not to steal, Huntington translated Young's reply: "So I have, but now they have come to fight us and you, for when they kill us they will kill you."
-- Young, as superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Utah Territory, ordered the distribution of more than $3,500 in goods to the natives "near Mountain Meadows" less than three weeks after the massacre.
-- The patriarchal blessing given to the commander of the Mormon militia in Beaver, Iron and Washington counties called on Col. William Dame to "act at the head of a portion of thy brethren and of the Lamanites [Indians] in the redemption of Zion and the avenging of the blood of the prophets upon them that dwell on the earth."
There is also additional support for Brooks' original premise: That Young wanted to stage a violent incident to demonstrate to the U.S. government -- which was taking up arms against his theocracy -- that he could persuade the Indians to interrupt travel over the important overland trails, thwarting all emigration. She was the first to note a frequently censored phrase from Young's Aug. 4, 1857, letter to Mormon "Indian missionary" Jacob Hamblin to obtain the tribe's trust, "for they must learn that they have either got to help us or the United States will kill us both."
Hinckley has declared, "Let the book of the past be closed" at Mountain Meadows and believes it is pointless to continually speculate on why it happened.
"None of us can place ourselves in the moccasins of those who lived there at the time," he said in an interview. "The feelings that were aroused, somehow, that I cannot understand. But it occurred. Now, we're trying to do something that we can to honorably and reverently and respectfully remember those who lost their lives there."
Sessions, the Weber State University historian who serves as president of the Mountain Meadows Association, says Hinckley's efforts at reconciliation this past summer "may be the most significant event to happen in Mountain Meadows since John D. Lee was executed."
Attitudes are changing, he says, pointing to the church's acceptance of interpretive signs at the meadows that better explain who did the killing. As to who ultimately is to blame, perhaps that's not for anyone to judge.
"Somebody made a terrible decision that this has got to be done," says Sessions. "I don't justify it in any way. But I do believe it would have taken more guts to stay home in Cedar City on those days in 1857 than it would to go out there to the meadows and take part. "You couldn't stay away. You would have been out there killing people."
Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.