Monday, March 2, 2009

Massacre at Mountain Meadows (and Not Much Else): A Review

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is undoubtedly the darkest corner of Mormon history. When I first learned about it, I was sixteen years old and the grim details of the massacre--more than 100 men, women, and children slaughtered by a group of Mormons in southern Utah--were so shocking that I was convinced they were the product of some anti-Mormon propaganda mill. How could the Mormons, who had been so severely persecuted in Missouri and Illinois, be capable of such a crime?

Unfortunately, the massacre was no fabrication. On September 11, 1857, somewhere around 120-140 men, women, and children--California-bound emigrants from Arkansas--were massacred by a group of Mormon militiamen and their Paiute Indian allies. The attack occurred in the days leading up to the so-called "Utah War," when Mormons were receiving vague reports that the United States government had sent an army after them. Paranoia spread across Utah, and outsiders were looked upon with suspicion and scorn. At the same time, Mormons were in the midst of a spiritual "Reformation," which encouraged Mormons to rededicate themselves more firmly to living the precepts of their religion, including the defense of Zion.

While the massacre has never been as well known as other American massacres--such as the much, much smaller "Boston Massacre"--it has recently received some significant media attention. For example, the massacre became a matter of national news when critics of Christopher Cain's 2007 film September Dawn, which reduced the massacre (Titanic-style) to a melodramatic tale of star-crossed lovers, accused the director of making an "anti-Mormon" movie in order to disrupt the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. Several best-selling books, too, have been published in the last decade--most notably Judith Freeman's Red Water (2002), Sally Denton's American Massacre (2003), Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven(2003), and Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre (2004)--which examine the massacre in one form or another.

At best, the scholarly, fictional, and cinematic treatments of the Mountain Meadows Massacre seek to better understand the causes and consequences of the tragedy. Recently, some of this scholarship--Bagley's book in particular--points a steady finger of blame at Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who was no where near Mountain Meadows at the time of the massacre, but whose role as Prophet and President of the Church held no small influence over the Mormons. While no smoking gun has ever linked him directly to the massacre, Young remains a controversial figure in Mountain Meadows scholarship. So too remains Elder George A. Smith, a Mormon apostle who, in the weeks prior to the massacre, delivered a series of fiery sermons across southern Utah, which were largely designed to prepare the people for the rumored army invasion.

Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard's Massacre at Mountain Meadows (2008, Oxford University Press) is the most recent contribution to Mountain Meadows scholarship. Authored by historians employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the book draws its account of the tragedy from both traditional sources of the massacre and "documents previously not available to scholars," such as assistant church historian Andrew Jenson's 1892 field notes from his interviews with "massacre insiders" (xi). Throughout the study, the intent of the authors seems to be to show how generally good people come to commit abominable crimes. Their focus remains tightly on the Mormon perpetrators of the massacre, exploring the motivation (or apparent lack thereof) behind their crimes. Attention, too, is given to the victims, the Fancher-Baker Company, although not as much as one would expect.

In many ways, Massacre at Mountain Meadows is a milestone in Official (or quasi-Official) Mormon history, which has a reputation (understandably) for being interested more in the inspirational side of the Mormon story than in the tragic and embarrassing. The book does not shy away from the violent crimes the Mormons committed, nor does it entirely shy away from exploring its controversies (such as Young's involvement, Smith's sermons, or John D. Lee's alleged rape and murder of two teenage members of the Fancher-Baker company immediately after the massacre). That said, at 231 pages (not counting appendices and end notes) the book is far too slim to be an adequate study. The authors acknowledge this fact in the introduction, stating that "too much information [on the massacre] existed for a single book," suggesting another book on the tragedy's aftermath will be written sometime in the future (xii). Still, the lack of any substantial information about the consequences of the massacre is the most disappointing aspect about this book. Upon finishing the book, I found myself researching "the rest of the story" on Wikipedia.

Another downside to the book is its lack of narrative energy. At times, Massacre at Mountain Meadows drags when the authors strive too hard to be moderate in their storytelling. Often, for example, the personalities of the Mormon perpetrators go unexplored and underdeveloped in the authors' attempts to be fair to everyone. Consequently, no real antagonist emerges in the narrative, except, perhaps, Isaac C. Haight, the Cedar City stake president who kept the momentum for the massacre up until it finally came about. John D. Lee, likewise, is a close candidate for primary antagonist, since it was he who led the initial attack against the Fancher-Baker company, yet the authors seem to dismiss Lee as a deluded, reckless zealot. Personally, I would have liked to see a more complete portrait of Lee's psyche. To a large extent, such portraits are what generate interest in historical narratives and compel readers forward. A more intimate account of the Fancher-Baker company's experience while under siege to their Mormon and Paiute attacks would have also helped the book along.

Despite its brevity, Massacre at Mountain Meadows is adamant on the point that Brigham Young did not condone the attack on the Fancher-Baker emigrants. While not an overt rebuttal to Bagley's 2004 book, this new study is clearly responding to someone. Unfortunately, nothing in the book is as conclusive on the subject as one would hope. Still, the smoking gun remains undiscovered--and Young's involvement with the affair is still only a matter of conjecture. Personally, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Overall, though, I would recommend Massacre at Mountain Meadows to anyone who wants to learn more about the tragic event. It is certainly not a complete account of the massacre, but it seems like an adequate place to start.

But, then again, so is Wikipedia.