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Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 67, Number 2, April 2003
pp. 568-569 | 10.1353/jmh.2003.0181

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The Journal of Military History 67.2 (2003) 568-569



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Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. By Will Bagley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8061-3426-7. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxiv, 493. $39.95.

For the Mormon Church, the legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 1857 is a monster that will ever haunt the faithful. On an overland trail through southern Utah, a wagon train of Arkansas emigrants bound for California fell victim to a combination of Paiute Indians and Mormon militiamen. For five days the emigrants stubbornly held out as the Indians, unwilling to sacrifice lives for plunder, gradually slipped away. With the aid of the few who remained, the Mormons completed the task. Promised safe conduct, the beleaguered Arkansans finally laid down their arms and surrendered. The victors led them out and systematically slaughtered forty men, thirty women, and seventy children, sparing only seventeen children under the age of seven. [End Page 568]

That Mormon militiamen, some painted as Indians, took part in the atrocity has long been known. Why has been explained by a combination of truth and falsehood. Under Brigham Young's inspired leadership, Mormons had trekked westward to escape persecution and build their own Zion in the Utah wilderness. They strove to erect a theocracy within the U.S. territorial system. When federal officials contested the political authority of Young and the priesthood, they encountered such opposition and harassment that most abandoned their posts. In 1857 President James Buchanan dispatched an army to impose federal supremacy. Its approach led Young to organize a military defense, threaten to shut down overland emigration, and create hysteria among the Mormon citizenry. It was not a good time for emigrants to pass through Utah.

But the Fancher train of Arkansans deserved none of the accusations hurled by defensive Mormons. They did not bully their way through the settlements. They did not poison flowing springs and a dead oxen that took Paiute lives. They harbored none of the Missourians who had murdered the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Even so, they fell to the "blood atonement" inflicted by a people obsessed with vengeance by holy murder.

Ever since 1857, the Mormon Church has vehemently exempted itself and Brigham Young from any complicity in this crime against humanity. Church-approved histories embrace this interpretation when they mention it at all. The official church historians and custodians of the massive church archives have carefully avoided the issue. Parts of the archives have been "lost," restricted, sanitized, and even manufactured. Mormon historians who probe beyond the prescribed limits face isolation at best, excommunication at worst.

Such is the prospect for Will Bagley. Building on the pioneering research of Juanita Brooks, whose 1950 book exposed much of the truth, Bagley takes on the two central questions. Was the church as an institution involved? Was Brigham Young involved? Bagley has researched deeply, consulted sources unavailable to Brooks, and built logically and plausibly toward his conclusions with well-documented and consummate care. Yes, the Mormon Church was involved (and still is), mainly in a massive coverup that violates the canons of historical scholarship. And yes, Brigham Young was involved, both before and after. True, Young did not give a direct order to his militia officers to annihilate the Fancher train, but the orders he did issue had that inevitable consequence, as he intended. And Young it was who betrayed his faithful apostle John D. Lee by ensuring that only he paid any penalty for the barbarity: a firing squad.

Will Bagley has made a major contribution to western American history. Already, the church counterattack has begun. He is likely to take some painful personal hits, but his scholarship will withstand the professedly scholarly hits.

 



Robert M. Utley
Georgetown, Texas

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