Two years ago I wrote an article entitled â€œâ€˜Pursue, Retake & Punishâ€™: The 1857 Santa Clara Ambush.â€? You can read it here if this essay triggers your interest; the short version is this:
In 1857 four horsemen were ambushed in the Santa Clara canyon of southern Utah. Because one of them, John Tobin, was a son-in-law of Apostle Charles C. Rich, and because Tobin later gave well publicized anti-Mormon speeches, historians have claimed that an apostate Tobin was the target of apostolic rage. It turns out, though, that Tobin was the victim of mistaken identity and poor communications: Brigham Young had warned Mormon leaders along the southern route to watch the passage of two released convicts, and to execute the duo if they stole from the settlements. The convicts, however, behaved themselves, and because they had separated from the Tobin party they were not even present at the ambush.
My purpose was to correct an historical error and to raise some questions that I still cannot fully answer: To what extent was Brigham Young responsible for actions that he set in motion but which were not what he ordered? Was this incident an anomaly, or does it fit into a pattern of violence? Could the Mountain Meadows Massacre have been prevented by an appropriate response to the Santa Clara ambush?
I had long been aware of the ambush. As I prowled through unpublished documents in the Church Archives, I tucked away every scrap about John Tobin â€“ not because I was interested in violence, but because I knew others were. As a researcher-for-hire, I collected Tobin material â€œon spec,â€? along with vast quantities of other materials for which I might eventually find a use.
Before Tobin married Richâ€™s daughter, he had courted Alice Young. A friend interested in the Brigham Young families wanted to know more about that romance, so I searched my computer for Tobinâ€™s name. One hit was a letter from a southern Utah leader mentioning that â€œTobin, Peltro, and those from prisonâ€? had passed through town.
â€œThose from prison …â€?
These words, which I had not noticed years earlier when I had transcribed that letter, took my breath away that day. I remembered another letter in which Brigham Young referred to newly released prisoners. A few more keystrokes brought up that document, the date of which suggested that both letters referred to the same prisoners. In no more than 15 seconds, probably less, I knew what had happened that night in 1857. Of course there was tremendous work ahead to identify the convicts, to follow the trails of everyone involved, and to consider the implications, but I had the key.
Reaction to the article has been generally favorable. Some have been troubled, however, and a few angered. I ask anyone who is upset to consider this:
The documents were out there. I had them; anyone else could have found them at any time. Imagine the grotesque sensationalism that some would have employed: â€œDress Rehearsal for Mountain Meadows!â€? â€œBrigham Ordered Murder!!â€? But I looked for a context for the story, and I limited my claims to the narrow scope of the documents.
Many write as though Mormonism were to blame for every 19th century crime between the Missouri and the Pacific. They donâ€™t hesitate to scream â€œCulture of Violence!â€? and to claim that a lack of evidence only proves how successful the Danites were at covering their tracks. Baloney. If I could find this much evidence on a single instance of violence (check my footnotes â€“ more has turned up since publication), then why listen to anyone who cannot back his claims with the same level of documentation?