Reopening a Mormon Murder Mystery

New York Times/October 12, 2002
By Emily Eakin

On Sept. 11, 1857, a group of California-bound pioneers camping in southern Utah were murdered by a Mormon militia and its Indian allies. The massacre lasted less than five minutes, but when it was over, 120 men, women and children had been clubbed, stabbed or shot at point-blank range. Their corpses, stripped of clothes and jewelry, were left to be picked apart by wolves and buzzards

It was one of the worst American civilian atrocities of the 19th century. "The whole United States rang with its horrors," Mark Twain recalled years later. But despite two trials, one execution and many official investigations, the event - known as the Mountain Meadows massacre - remains shrouded in mystery and rumor.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - the Mormon church - has steadfastly denied responsibility, first blaming Indians and later a rogue church official for the crime. But now two authors who have studied the massacre say Brigham Young, the formidable church leader who built a Mormon kingdom in an oasis in the arid wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, masterminded the killings and then conspired to cover up his role.

"He did it," said Will Bagley, a history columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune whose book "Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows" (University of Oklahoma Press) has been a best seller in Utah since it appeared in late July. "The evidence is unambiguous."

Sally Denton, an investigative reporter based in Santa Fe, N.M., whose book "American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows" will be published by Knopf next summer, also holds Young responsible for the crime. "He was an absolute dictator," she said. "Nothing happened in the place that did not happen under his direct orders."

That conclusion is vigorously disputed by three Mormon church historians, who vow their own history of the massacre, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2004, will exonerate Young. "It's clear to us that this was not a headquarters-orchestrated project," said Glen Leonard, director of the Mormon Church's Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City and one of that book's co-authors. "It was locally planned and carried out."

The current round of debate may be the bluntest yet about the episode, which, in addition to investigative accounts, has inspired at least five novels in the last several years. The massacre stands out not only for its gruesomeness but also for the act of treachery that preceded it. After enduring a four-day gun battle with their attackers, the pioneers accepted a truce that turned out to be a deadly ploy. Promised safe passage from the area in exchange for surrendering their weapons, the besieged group complied only to be systematically slaughtered. Seventeen children, all under 7, were spared. Taken in by local families - including those of men who had participated in the attack - the children were eventually returned to relatives, some later providing devastating testimony about the massacre.

Federal investigators suspected Brigham Young of having had a hand in the crime but failed to produce sufficient evidence to convict him. In an 1858 report to the federal Indian commissioner, Young blamed local Indians and, by implication, the United States government, whose "fatal policy," he wrote, "treats the Indians like the wolves, or other ferocious beasts."

Then, in 1870, Young excommunicated John D. Lee, a Mormon official and militia leader in southern Utah, because of his participation in the massacre. Lee was tried twice for murder (he was convicted the second time) and executed in 1877. But rumors of a church-sponsored cover-up persisted. Many Mormons - particularly in southern Utah - left the church over the incident.

A plaque at the massacre site, erected by the Mormon Church in 1990, carefully avoided assigning blame, referring with baffling vagueness to "a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants" being "attacked while en route to California."

The emigrants, a group of prosperous Arkansas farming families known as the Fancher party after its leader, Alexander Fancher, could hardly have picked a worse time for an overland trek. Lured west by the promise of a wide-open range and a gentle climate - a boon for cattle ranching - the party left Arkansas in the spring of 1857, just as the Utah Territory and the United States were on the brink of armed conflict. Appointed governor by President Millard Fillmore seven years earlier, Young ran the territory as a Mormon theocracy, flouting federal jurisdiction over the courts and the local Indian population and, equally unnerving to East Coast politicians, practicing polygamy. (Young had at least 20 wives - by some estimates as many as 56 - and up to 57 children.)

By early 1857 the Mormons were stockpiling weapons, and all but one of the federal judges and officers overseeing Indian affairs in the territory had fled, fearing for their safety. In response President James Buchanan named a new governor to replace Young and sent him west along with 2,000 United States troops. Young retaliated by declaring martial law. The standoff, which lasted until the Army entered Salt Lake City and installed the new governor in June 1858, is known as the Utah War.

How this hostile atmosphere led to murder in a mountain valley 300 miles south of Salt Lake City, however, is fiercely contested. According to the version traditionally told by Mormon scholars - for example in a well-regarded 1985 biography of Young - the Fancher party provoked ill-will by taunting Mormon settlers in southern Utah. Some settlers, the story goes, believed the pioneers had been involved in the murder of Parley Pratt, a popular Mormon apostle, in western Arkansas earlier that year. Others believed the group was an advance guard for the Army.

More decisive to its fate, the Fancher party was said to have incited the murderous wrath of local Indians by poisoning their wells and livestock. In a confession made just before he was executed, Lee, the only person ever tried for the crime, blamed the Paiute Indians. The Indians initiated the assault, he wrote, and Mormon settlers joined them only reluctantly, fearing reprisals if they did not.

Mr. Bagley and Ms. Denton dismiss these explanations as falsehoods planted to deflect blame from church headquarters. "The legends attributed remarkable powers to the emigrant poison that match no substance known to modern pharmacology," Mr. Bagley writes, noting that a federal agent who investigated the tale dismissed it as "too improbable to be true."

Though obviously guilty of murder, Lee was the crime's scapegoat, not instigator, the authors argue, and the Indians had little to do with it. "The idea that this was an Indian massacre is just absurd," Ms. Denton said, citing a 1999 forensic analysis that found that many of the victims had died from gunshot wounds to the head. "There is no evidence the Indians had weapons required for a slaughter of this magnitude," she said.

Both authors quote a 5-year-old survivor who told a reporter two years after the event, "My father was killed by Indians; when they washed their faces, they were white men." (Although few Paiutes were involved, Ms. Denton said, the massacre broke up the tribe anyway: realizing they would be blamed for the crime, the Indians dispersed.)

Ms. Denton, who is descended from Mormon settlers, said the killings were inspired primarily by greed. For the desperately poor Mormon settlers in southern Utah, the Fancher party, with its hefty supply of cash, arms and hundreds of valuable horses and cattle, was simply irresistible. "It was the wealthiest wagon train ever to traverse the country," she said. "They had 1,000 head of longhorns, and longhorns had never been seen in Utah before." Children who survived the massacre later described seeing their parents' clothes and jewelry on the bodies of local settlers.

Mr. Bagley, who says he is a "Jack Mormon," or lapsed believer, contends that the attack had less to do with greed than ideology. According to Mormon doctrine, he points out, murder in defense of the faith could be considered just. In this case, he argues, Young saw bloodshed as a righteous act, one that would avenge the Arkansas murder of the apostle, Pratt, and send a sober warning to the United States government about the risks of invading the Mormon state.

"The party from Arkansas was probably doomed from the moment the Mormons learned of the death of Parley Pratt and the approach of the American army," he writes in his book. "The emigrants fell victim to Brigham Young's decision to stage a violent incident that would demonstrate his power to control the Indians of the Great Basin and to stop travel on the most important overland roads."

But though Mr. Bagley and Ms. Denton marshal an astonishing number of archival sources, their case against Brigham Young remains circumstantial. Mr. Bagley cites a diary entry made by Young's brother-in-law and Indian interpreter, Dimick Huntington, after a meeting between the Mormon leader and Paiute chiefs on Sept. 1, 1857. The crudely worded entry appears to refer to the Fancher party and suggests that Young encouraged the Indians to steal the group's cattle and engage them in a fight. But neither author uncovered written proof that Young had ordered the massacre.

That, say the church historians, is because no such order was given. Richard Turley Jr., managing director of the family and church history department of the Mormon church, said a file he and his co-authors discovered in the church archives confirmed that Lee was acting on his own. He said the file included the notes of a Mormon historian who, at the request of church leaders, conducted a confidential investigation of the massacre in 1892.

"There are very candid statements on the part of participants to a church official under the agreement of confidentiality," Mr. Turley said, adding that the file, along with other sources he and his co-authors were using, would be made public once their book was published. (Mr. Bagley and Ms. Denton said they had not seen the file but were skeptical it would alter their conclusions.)

But even if Brigham Young's complicity were not at issue, Mr. Turley conceded, troubling questions about the massacre remain: "It's an event that seems very incongruous with the people who did it."

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