Letter raises questions for Mormons

Church leader's role in 19th century massacre debated

MSNBC News, Associated Press/March 5, 2002

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Salt Lake City -- Historians have been revisiting a troubling moment in Mormon history since a National Park Service volunteer found a document that purports to blame the 19th-century massacre of 120 settlers in southern Utah on Brigham Young.

Were the letter true, it would deeply tarnish the reputation of Young, Utah's founder and a revered early Mormon figure. But several historians are casting doubt on the document's authenticity and the Park Service hasn't taken a position.

The letter was supposedly penned by John D. Lee, the only man held accountable for the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, when pioneers on their way from Arkansas to California were killed by Mormons and American Indians.

In the letter, etched with a sharp object in a sheet of soft lead, Lee writes that he and other Mormon authorities carried out the attack "on orders" from Young.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said there is no credible evidence of Young's involvement, while a church historian said it was too early to assess the letter's authenticity.

Gene Sessions, a Weber State University history professor and former president of the Mountain Meadows Association - a group dedicated to preserving the memory of those killed in the attack - is also among the skeptics.

The letter is replete with misspellings inconsistent with the Lee's diary, and was found on top of concrete laid decades after the Lee's death, he said.

"The idea is let's besmirch Young," said Sessions, who is almost sure the letter's a hoax. "By doing that ... we besmirch the church of today."

Letter's Location

Lee was tried and executed 20 years after the massacre, when Mormon leaders came under intense federal pressure to solve the case. Lee was an officer of the Mormon militia and an adopted son of Young, who led Mormons to the Utah Territory.

A volunteer for the Park Service, who has not been identified, says he found the lead sheet under several inches of dirt and rat droppings Jan. 22 while cleaning the floor of Lee's Fort on the Colorado River. The fort was built in 1874 with a dirt floor, but the letter was found amid debris over a concrete floor.

Lee supposedly wrote the letter "by my own hand" on Jan. 11, 1872, about 15 years after the massacre and two years before the fort was constructed.

In the document, the author says he is willing to take the blame for the attack. "Col. Dane-Maj. Higby and me - on orders from Pres Young thro Geo Smith took part," it says.

Chris Goetze, an archaeologist for the Park Service, said the letter was obviously not in its original location. The agency is trying to determine when the building was last occupied and by whom. It is also trying to date the letter by determining where the lead in the sheet was mined.

Park Service spokeswoman Char Obergh said the park service has no reason to question the credibility of the volunteer who found the letter - though agency officials have not said whether they think the document is genuine.

Obergh said the worker was invited in January to help with the restoration of Lee's Fort because of his interest in nearby Lee's Ferry, a historic Mormon outpost.

Too Good to be True

The church has long acknowledged that "some members of the faith acted independently at Mountain Meadows," said church spokesman Dale Bills.

But Young did not order or condone the killings, which occurred in a climate of war hysteria as Utah Mormons prepared for an invasion by federal troops, who were sent to deal with a defiant Mormon theocracy, Bills said.

Utah historian Will Bagley said the letter seems too good a find to be genuine, though people at that time were known to occasionally preserve records by etching them into lead.

Even though Lee was not high enough in the Mormon chain of command to receive orders from Young, he may have learned of them from superiors, Bagley said.

Scott Fancher, a lawyer in Harrison, Ark., and president of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation, said he believes Young sanctioned the massacre.

"The only thing that surprises me is it's taken this long to find the letter, not the admission of guilt or that Lee pointed the blame at Young," Fancher said.

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