LDS Church researchers call massacre documents a 'web of conflicting information'
By Carrie A. Moore
Published: May 24, 2008
SACRAMENTO — Researchers with the LDS Church's historical department say conflicting accounts and missing documents have vexed historians looking to determine exactly how the Mountain Meadows Massacre came about and who had prior knowledge of the plan to murder about 140 men, women and children in southern Utah.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association on Friday, a trio of researchers shared details about documents — and their historic interpretation — surrounding questions that remain and may never be answered definitively.
Brian Reeves told the audience in a packed conference room about documents relating to the massacre that have either been "lost, suppressed or destroyed." He began by noting that prior to the publication of Juanita Brooks' 1950 book on the massacre, she was "denied access to relevant documents by the (church's) First Presidency," which will be detailed in a book to be released this summer by LDS historians.
"Massacre at Mountain Meadows" is scheduled for release in July, according to researchers who helped examine and look for documents, some of which were known to exist at some point but have disappeared.
The appendix in Brooks' book contains the transcript of a deposition by Brigham Young during the second trial of John D. Lee, the only man ever convicted of participating in the massacre. Young said he received a letter from Isaac Haight, a stake president in southern Utah, a few days before the massacre, but that he did not have it at the time of the deposition. He told the questioner he had "made a diligent search for it but cannot find it," Reeves said.
Another document known to exist but which subsequently disappeared chronicled the testimony of William Dame, a southern Utah church leader who authorized the massacre in September 1857. He gave testimony regarding the events, which was recorded in full when two LDS apostles were in southern Utah in 1858 asking about the events. But the surviving record of testimony taken at the Dame hearing "contains only condensed minutes" of the testimony. "We don't know what became of his full account," Reeves said.
Another document known to exist was a roster that members of the ill-fated Fancher wagon train drew up while they were staying at Mountain Meadows, including an itemized list of their property. The immigrants were apparently "hoping it would reach California" in the event they did not, Reeves said.
The letter was found near a murdered man after the massacre and was at some point apparently destroyed, though an LDS leader in southern Utah, Jacob Hamblin, was "acquainted with the nature of its contents. He possessed the letter for a time," Reeves said.
Hamblin was in Salt Lake City at the time of the massacre and returned to his ranch near the massacre site 18 days after the murders to find two child survivors being cared for there by his wife. At Young's request, Hamblin wrote an account of his experiences that month, Reeves said..
"Two pages of that journal ended up missing. In 1969 it was given to the church archives. The pages preceding the missing ones tell of his journey to Salt Lake City before the massacre, noting that while there he was invited several times to the office of the First Presidency about "caching, probably caching of grain," Reeves said.
He said the LDS Church history library has another copy of Hamblin's journal from the time, made by clerks in June 1859, with the "two pages also removed from this volume. The missing section logically would have included his experiences in Salt Lake City and the things he learned about the massacre when he met LDS leaders in southern Utah on his way back home," Reeves said.
Images show someone intentionally removed pages from both the original and church's copy of Hamblin's journal. "We're still trying to sort out what happened," he said.
William R. Palmer, who Reeves said was a respected historian and church leader in Cedar City at the time, wrote the minutes of the Cedar City Stake from 1856 to 1859, but "irregularities in the minutes call into question their authenticity." He said problems with dates and alteration of the record occurred a year after the massacre, "likely made at the behest of stake president Isaac Haight or P.K. Smith, both of whom played prominent roles in the massacre."
Early in the record, Palmer signed his name to the minutes, but he "stopped signing the minutes attesting to their veracity during the time of the massacre and following," Reeves said.
John Higbee, who served as town marshal in the area at the time of the massacre and gave the signal to initiate the murders, authored a statement dubbed the "Bull Valley Snort" shortly after the killings, writing under a pseudonym.
When Brooks wrote her book on the massacre, she had access to a copy of his handwritten statement. Although the original "has gone missing," Reeves said, "a facsimile copy has been preserved."
Surviving documents relating to the massacre "form a massive web of conflicting information," he said. "Understanding the history of the sources themselves is a vital tool for arriving at some approximation of historical truth."
During the question and answer session that followed, church history department historian Richard Turley, one of three authors of the forthcoming book on the massacre, said the documents originally denied to Brooks when she wrote her book were available to authors of the new volume.
"We did use those documents at some point in the book, and at some time they will be accessible to you," he said.