Thursday, September 13, 2007

9/11 150 years ago

A review of "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" by John G. Turner (an assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama) in Books and Culture...

On Friday, September 11, 1857, a Mormon settler named John D. Lee used a white flag to approach a besieged emigrant train in southwestern Utah. Unexpectedly, the pioneers had traveled into a maelstrom. As they made their way from Arkansas to Utah, roughly one-third of the entire American army was journeying toward the Great Basin, escorting a non-Mormon governor designated by President James Buchanan to replace Brigham Young. Only 13 years after the murder of Joseph Smith and with stark memory of his people's expulsion from Missouri and Illinois, Young prepared for war, ordering Mormons not to sell needed food or ammunition to gentile emigrants. Throughout August, tensions between Mormon settlers and the pioneers flared as the group made its way through southern Utah.

When Lee approached them, the emigrants had been holed up for four days at a lush watering place called the Mountain Meadow. On Monday, a barrage of Indian gunfire and arrows had surprised them at daybreak. After losing a dozen or so of their number, the pioneers successfully circled their wagons, dug fortifications, and fought back. By Friday, however, they were running low on ammunition, parched from thirst, and out of hope. Lee, a major in Utah's Nauvoo Legion militia, offered to help. If they would surrender their weapons, he and his men would protect them from the Indians.

Despite their suspicions, the emigrants accepted Lee's offer. Lee placed the wounded and young children in wagons; behind them marched the emigrant women and older children, followed by the men. Next to each unarmed man marched a Mormon soldier. Alongside the trail, Paiute warriors were hidden in the brush. When Nauvoo Legion Major John Higbee gave the signal, the escorts turned and shot the emigrant men at point-blank range. The Paiutes, joined by some of the Mormons, butchered the women, older children, and wounded adults. No one escaped, although the attackers spared seventeen young children. The exact number remains uncertain, but roughly 120 men, women, and children perished. It was a premeditated and perfectly executed mass murder.

After the slaughter ended, the Mormon leaders gathered the surviving children and distributed them among area families. Chillingly, some lived with massacre participants; others occasionally recognized Indians and Mormons from their gruesome memories. Two years later, U.S. government agents recovered the children and returned them to relatives. The Paiutes and Mormons also plundered the wagon train, with the Mormon settlers claiming most of the emigrants' cattle and valuables. Some of the loot eventually arrived at the church's General Tithing Office in Salt Lake.

Although Brigham Young had been preparing his people for war against the United States, he soon negotiated a peaceful end to what became known as "Buchanan's Blunder." Alfred Cumming, the new governor, assumed his office in the spring of 1858. With the reestablishment of an uneasy peace, it became essential not only to the perpetrators of the crime but also to the church hierarchy to maintain a veil of secrecy over the massacre. Mormon leaders feared that a true account would fuel already red-hot anti-Mormon sentiment. However, early attempts to blame the murders entirely on the Paiutes collapsed as information quickly spread to California and into the national press. Over the years, Mormons in southern Utah perpetuated allegations of emigrant arrogance, taunts, and foul play (the most significant story involved the poisoning of a creek that allegedly killed an indeterminate number of Indians and Mormons).

Thirteen years after the massacre, the church excommunicated Lee, who was arrested in 1874. The cooperation of massacre participant and former Mormon Bishop Philip Klingensmith helped a prosecutor build a strong case against Lee, but a heavily Mormon jury deadlocked. A second jury convicted Lee, and he was executed at Mountain Meadows in March 1877. Before his death, Lee expressed bitterness at what he considered Brigham Young's unjust betrayal, but he never accused his Prophet of ordering the massacre. Other local leaders who helped orchestrate the massacre fled indictments and were not pursued vigorously after Lee's execution. Lee, though certainly guilty himself, became the convenient scapegoat killed for the sins of his brethren.

Two questions comprise the heart of recent studies of Mountain Meadows: Why would a group of Mormon settlers abandon any shred of decency and murder scores of men, women, and children? And who was responsible for the decision to commit the massacre? In particular, did Brigham Young either order or condone the massacre? Juanita Brooks, in her courageous and ground-breaking Mountain Meadows Massacre, identified the long history of Mormon persecution, the frenzy surrounding the army's impending invasion, and the belligerent attitude of the emigrants themselves as factors that led to the mass murder. Although Brooks alleged that Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith preached incendiary sermons that "made it possible," they "did not specifically order the massacre." She labeled Young an "accessory after the fact" because of his failure to vigorously investigate the massacre and help bring the perpetrators to justice.

Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, is the most significant book on the subject since Brooks'. Bagley's account sparkles with clear and eloquent writing, contains impressive research on the emigrant train and the role of the Paiute Indians in the attack, and chronicles the church's response to the massacre...


At September 13, 2007 at 6:38 PM , Blogger Doug said...

I recently read "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. It's a good read, and he devotes a fair amount of time to the massacre.

At September 14, 2007 at 4:14 PM , Blogger said...

Compare the horrendous crimes committed under the banner of heaven to the horrendous crimes committed under the banner of atheist states.

That doesn't excuse crimes executed by religious folk, but underscores the point that it's not religion. It's human nature.

To name a few such atheists:

Fidel Castro, Josip Broz Tito, Saparmurat Niyazov, Mao Tse-Tung, Hugo Chavez, Joseph Stalin, Antonín Novotný, Pol Pot, Daniel Ortega, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Nicolae Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Nikita Khrushchev, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Walter Ulbricht, Slobodan Milosevic, Kim Jong Il, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, Wojciech Jaruzelski, A.G. Lukashenko, Todor Khristov Zhivkov, Kim Il Sung, Deng Xiaoping, Erich Honecker, Enver Hoxha, Mehmet Shehu, Lubomír Štrougal, Lajos Dinnyés


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