One of the most significant books in Mormon studies being published this year is Rick Turley and Barbara Jones Brown’s Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath. It’s been years coming, but is worth the wait. I’ll probably publish my own review next week, but wanted to highlight that Turley and Brown recently shared some about the book and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
The massacre is an event that is well-known, but to give a brief background on the topic:
On September 11, 1857, a group of Latter-day Saint settlers in southwestern Utah used false promises of protection to coax a party of California-bound emigrants from their encircled wagons and massacre them. The slaughter left the corpses of many dozens of men, women, and children strewn across a highland valley called the Mountain Meadows.
It is one of the most shameful moments of Latter-day Saint history. The first book in Brown and Turley’s series focused on the story of what happened–the crime itself. This second volume, however, deals with the aftermath–the efforts at punishment and all of the twists and turns along the way.
To be clear, the coverup of the massacre was an effort primarily by the local leaders who had orchestrated the event in the first place. As Turley and Brown explained:
Southern Utah leaders carried out the massacre before waiting to receive Young’s instructions to let the emigrants go in peace. The man who masterminded the massacre, Isaac Haight, sent Lee to Brigham Young to lie about the atrocity in order to protect the massacre leaders from blame—not only from outsiders, but also from top church leaders and their fellow Latter-day Saints.
When he arrived, Lee deceived his ecclesiastical superiors:
John D. Lee reported to Brigham Young on September 29, 1857, blaming the massacre exclusively on Native people in the area and even the victims themselves, claiming they deserved their fate. This lie carried out a plan the perpetrators had from the beginning to place blame on neighboring Paiutes in order to cover up local white leaders’ planning and participation in the massacre. . . .
Lee’s blaming of local Paiutes as prime movers in the crime led to generations of persecuting Paiutes and shielding those primarily responsible. The repercussions continue to be felt to this day.
This shaped the tellings of the story in the Latter-day Saint community for many years, even if it was not the truth of the matter.
While top leaders were told this story, local Saints and the surviving victims had a better grasp on what had happened. To maintain their cover-up:
Local leaders told congregants to ignore and forget what really happened and to encourage the surviving children to forget, threatening death to those who refused to comply.
This worked for a time, but not indefinitely.
Eventually, senior leaders of the Church gained a better understanding of what had happened. For example,
By 1859, however, Young had heard enough about what really happened to desire a federal investigation. From that point forward, he offered repeatedly to help bring the perpetrators to trial, so long as he could be assured the proceedings would be fair and carried out at a location where witnesses would not have to spend days traveling. . . .
Brigham Young came to gradually understand and accept that his people were involved in the horrific atrocity. His understanding culminated in an interview with massacre participant Nephi Johnson in 1870. That interview led Young to convene a meeting between October general conference sessions in which senior church leaders excommunicated John D. Lee and Isaac Haight for their roles in the massacre.
The federal officers who would have been able to carry out the investigation, however, shunned working with Brigham Young, leading to a lack of progress on the issue.
Eventually, however, the stars aligned and in 1877, John D. Lee was successfully tried for his role in the massacre and executed for murder. Given that he was the only perpetrator who was successfully prosecuted, there have been some who question whether he was simply a scapegoat. In addressing this, Turley and Brown wrote that:
John D. Lee was guilty of murder and deserved punishment. Contrary to myth, he was not fingered by Brigham Young for prosecution.
After his death, it was easy for other perpetrators and writers to blame the crime primarily on him when it was actually a case of group violence in which dozens of his fellow settlers participated.
Our book demonstrates that prosecutors continued to seek arrests and trials of other perpetrators after Lee’s execution.
The prosecutors just were never successful in arresting and prosecuting other perpetrators.
For more on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk.