Moutain Meadows in the Supreme Court

De Toqueville once remarked on the strange habit that Americans had of eventually turning every great question of politics and policy into a lawsuit, and presenting the issue to the courts for resolution. As it turns out, the Mountain Meadows Massacre also eventually found its way into a lawsuit and in the fullness of time reached the Supreme Court of the United States.

The issue was put to the justices in the case of Thurston v. United States, 232 U.S. 469 (1914). Beginning in 1877, the estate of one of the victims of MMM had been seeking compensation from the U.S. government for the “depredation committed by the Mormons at the instance of Brigham Young.” Congress, however, was apparently uninterested.

In 1891, Congress passed “The Indian Depredation Act,” which allowed those who had suffered certain financial losses as a result of Indian attacks to petitition the United States government for compensation. In 1892, the hardy estate of the MMM victim filed a claim under the act. After losing in the courts below, the estate appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court, in an eminently forgettable opinion by Justice Van Devanter (of later four horsemen fame), rejected the claim. There were two problems. First, it seems that the estate’s claim was outside of the statute of limitations, and second, because the depredation was commited by Mormons “acting under the direction of Brigham Young” (Mr. Justice Van Devanter always includes the final clause) rather than Indians, the estate could not qualify under the 1891 Act.

I don’t think that there is any real significance to this opinion, other than the interesting (to a law-geek) fact that Moutain Meadows was still in the courts nearly sixty years after the event. If the estate had alleged in its initial petition to Congress in the 1877 that the Mormons had been acting in concert with the Indians (as in fact they were), the claim might have come in under the act. Perhaps there is a good legal practice point here: Never let the desire to get Brigham Young allow you to neglect expansive pleadings.

2 comments for “Moutain Meadows in the Supreme Court

  1. lyle
    May 4, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    Nate: cool research. Makes me feel guilty for not having written an article on “Mormons in the Supreme Court” for BYU Studies yet.

  2. May 4, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    Nice case, Nate. I always enjoy hearing what courts have to say about Mormon issues. I don’t want the relative lack of comments to dissuade you from posting similar cites in the future.

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