Thursday, June 19, 2008
Review: Massacre At Mountain Meadows (Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy)
Title: Massacre At Mountain Meadows (Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy)
Author: Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year Published: 2008
Number of pages: 408
Photos, Images, Maps included (not listed)
Index (listed but not included)
Reviewed by Melvin C. Johnson, Angelina College, Lufkin, Texas
Professionals and laypersons have long waited for this book, and finally an uncorrected advance reading copy of Massacre At Mountain Meadow by the Oxford University Press has been released for review. Authored by Ronald Walker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard, all important LDS scholars, it gives a detailed investigation of one of Western Americas greatest tragedies of the 19th-Century. This book will not end debate, however, concerning the context and responsibility for the massacre. It does try, in some fashion, to explain why fundamentally upright Utah Latter Day Saints wiped out an emigrant train at Mountain Meadows on September 11, 1857, the majority of victims women and children, to narrate the story and fix the blame.
In the spirit of open and full disclosure, the LDS Church has given Walker and his colleagues access to all pertinent church resources and documents, including restricted material in the First Presidencys records. Such access, coupled with the unparalleled cooperation and support of hundreds of other individuals and scores of institutions and libraries, should make this a definitive work. Secondly, here is the opportunity to demonstrate that the LDS church is ready to meet its history with open and full disclosure. Will the LDS church permit open access to all scholars, not just vetted historians that the church leaders approve?
The incident is worthy of renewed inspection. The massacre of 120 immigrants by Mormon militia and American natives on September 11, 1857, in southwestern Utah, has been the genesis for articles, histories, novels, and motion pictures. "Massacre At Mountain Meadows," however, is unique in that it is the first work created under the imprimatur of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Walker, et al, attempt to answer the question that has provoked all since the emigrants innocent blood soaked the killing fields. Who was responsible? Who decided to massacre men, women, and children? Right from the beginning many blamed President Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith. For more than a hundred years the LDS argued that their own were barely involved, blaming it on Federal Indian agent John D. Lee and local Indians, and Lee would be the only participant executed for his role in the crime. Nonetheless, the question of culpability and responsibility has intrigued scholars, professionals, and lay individuals alike. The writers have decided for themselves if the local LDS priesthood and militia leadership perpetuated the massacre on their own, or if they were working at the direction of President Brigham Young in Salt Lake City. These LDS historians condemn the local leaders in Parowan and Cedar, and, unsurprisingly, exculpate Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith of
The book is well structured with a Preface, Prologue, fourteen chapters, and an Epilogue. Four appendices give partial listings of the Emigrants and their Property, the Mormon militia members present at the Meadows, and the Indians who may have been present. Almost 140 pages of notes follow the narration. A Bibliography is not included. An Index is listed in the Table of Contents as beginning on page 409 but has been omitted from my copy of the book. No list is given for the nearly four dozen maps, sketches, prints, photos, and portraits in the work. This should be corrected for the official edition. Two of the maps, one of southwestern Utah and a more particular one of the killing ground, are particularly helpful in orienting the reader geographically to the events, thus increasing ones understanding of the storys timeline and locations.
Good history writing is good literature. Three writers styles and singular interests naturally provoke contradictions and conflicts of what is and is not important to a work, and that is certainly the case with "Massacre At Mountain Meadows." However, these authors always present a methodical and professional yeomanly work ethic; the narration is acceptable and at times grows better. The first three chapters are satisfactory in tone and mood, but the prose is uninspired, unlike the first chapter of Will Bagleys "Blood of the Prophets" unveiling powerfully the magnificence of the Meadows oasis before the California road drops down to the desert. The literary style improves and grows more intense as it tries to untangle and understand the motivations and confusions of the Southern Utah leadership as time contracted for coming to a decision whether to attack and kill the emigrants or to let them go. The story well conveys, after the massacre, the fearful uncertainty of immigrants and Mor-
mons alike during the next few days of Indian intentions along the wagon roads back trail to Beaver. The final chapter of the book unfortunately returns to the pedestrian prose of the books initial chapters.
Some researchers and historians may criticize the writers understatement of polygamy as an important cause for conflict between church and state in 1857 and the resulting tragedy at Mountain Meadows. Although unique marriage Mormon practices did concern many in Washington, D.C., the authors are correct in asserting that an anxious administration was far more troubled that Brigham Youngs leadership over, and control of, the Mormons in the West seemed to be busily creating an independent theocracy at the Crossroads of the Mountains. Another concern for some may be that the writers undervalued the role of Blood Atonement in the killings. While the murder of Apostle Parley Pratt in Arkansas that spring generated anger, I think the authors do well here to discount it as a major motive for the massacre. Mormons seemed more concerned with blood atoning defectors than mean gentiles.
Another area of particular interest includes those issues involving the roles and causes for Indian action against the emigrants. The authors present a good case for the real likelihood of infectious anthrax as the cause for poisoned animals and Indian deaths. This is far more likely than the Mormon rumor that the some of the emigrants poisoned cattle from which they suspected Indians would eat. One of the appendices at the end of the book reveals that the Indians were present in greater numbers at Mountain Meadows than has been recently suggested in some works, but still in numbers far fewer as Mormon apologists earlier suggested.
The authors rightly and righteously excuse the victims of any responsibility for the tragedy, and place it squarely on the Mormons in Southern Utah. The book uses an explanatory model of three linked causes to explain why generally good people commit horrific crimes. First, church and militia leaders in Parowan and Cedar City permitted the actions and sermons of the senior leadership in Salt Lake City to mitigate their own moral responsibility. Second would be the individual killers desire to conform with and be accepted by his associates and colleagues in murder group, as particularly demonstrated in the case of John D. Lee, both as actor and acted upon. Finally, the killers were able to categorize the victims as them, a breed distinct from us, a group to which the remedy of violence becomes not only acceptable but preferable.
Although the writers believe that President Young and others unwittingly crafted through militant sermons and directions to not trade with the emigrants an environment for potential violence against outsiders, Walker and his co-writers argue that Young did not directly or indirectly order the killings. They generally ignore Bagleys assertion in "Blood of the Prophets" that the Huntington diary indicts Young for unleashing the Indians in the Territory on the emigrants. They do strongly attack John D. Lees confessions (later edited and expanded by his attorney as "Mormonism Unveiled"), which documents Apostle George A. Smiths trip to Southern Utah to set the stage as he purportedly orders the local leaders to destroy the Fancher wagon train. The LDS scholars argue on Youngs behalf that Lees attorney had a financial stake in the book doing well and that Lee refused consistently to blame Young right up to and including the day of his execution.
Seven years have passed to get the work to this stage, and it still is incomplete. Almost sixty years ago, Juanita Brooks, in "The Mountain Meadows Massacre," set the standard for modern scholarship and investigation of the Massacre. Despite all the writing since then, only Bagley qualitatively furthered it in "Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows." The reader will do well to remember that Brooks and Bagley carried the great labor of their books almost entirely by themselves, while the authors of "Massacre At Mountain Meadows" have received assistance from many hundreds of individuals, as well as that of more than two hundred professional libraries and other collections. Despite all the help, these authors decided the best way to present our information was by narrating it, largely foregoing topical or critical analysis (xii). Great history writing involves interpretation of the narrative, but Walker, Turley, and Leonard have kept their promise and,
I believe, missed the mark.
For instance, Juanita Brooks wrote to Roger B. Mathison, the Gifts & Exchange Librarian at University of Utah in later November, 1968 (Brooks to Mathison, 21 November 1968, Juanita Brooks Papers, MS 486, Folder 14, Manuscripts Division, University of Utah Marriott Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2). She told Mathison that she changed her mind about Youngs responsibility for the massacre. She had underplayed, she admitted, the role of the Indians in her book, and now believed "that" Young "was directly responsible" for the massacre because he stirred up the Indians. She mentions the meeting with the Indians to which Huntington referred, and believes that Haslams letter from Young to the Southern leadership is further evidence of Youngs guilt. The Fancher wagon train was away to the south of Utah, and its Indian threat, Young admitted to the Iron County leaders, "might have been more real than I had previously supposed." The missive instructs that the leaders "should . . . preserve good
feelings with them [the Indians]", written at a time when a battle (or massacre) supposedly might occur, actually was occurring, or had occurred. The letters tone clearly reveals that the emigrantsâ€™ welfare to Young, at the very least, was on the low scale when compared to that of the southern Indians or Mormons. A minimal interpretation of Brooks understanding of Youngs counsel is that if the Mormons had to choose a side, it should be Indians over emigrants, and that is the tale that "Massacre At Mountain Meadows" tells.
The authors are still not done with this book. I have been privately advised that they have revised the work twice since the Advanced Reading Copy was released, an event of which they were apparently not advised. Some readers still will question the books objectiveness and thoroughness. Other readers may have a real problem with what they perceive as the authors bias on behalf of the LDS church. I believe they must grip Brooks later opinion of Youngs culpability, and amend their casualness toward Bagleys evidence that the Boss was responsible for the crime.
Massacre At Mountain Meadows could be a seminal history of the early American West. Its advance copy is not.