Mountain Meadows Massacre Site

While re-reading Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer last fall, I really found myself attracted to the subtitle of the book: A Story of Violent Faith. In support of this Krakauer discusses the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. This historical event has come up in many many accounts of early western history and I feel like I’d always sort of skimmed over the event until that re-reading.

Mountain Meadows was a part of the old Spanish Trail and later part of the California Trail. In 1857, a group of emigrants from Arkansas was attacked by the Mormon militia leading to the murder of 120 emigrants.

When I decided to make my trek to Washington through western Utah, one of the first non-hikes to make it onto my itinerary was a stop at Mountain Meadows (a National Historic Landmark, as of 2015).

Sprocket and I made our way to Mountain Meadows from Cedar City and walked around the cairn monument and then around the field to the west of the monument. My understanding of the event was still sort of superficial but it was still really sobering to be in a spot where over a 100 people had lost their lives.

I didn’t think to order a book focused on the massacre until too close to my departure date so I had Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard delivered to my mom’s house. I was really glad to delve into a more complete description of the events of the day than I’d had previously so I found the read worthwhile.


But.

All three authors of this account are part of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church. The book admittedly leaves an account of the aftermath of the attack, and what some would call a coverup, “to another day.” It also seems quick to acquit Brigham Young and other church leaders in Salt Lake City.

While I tried to put my finger on what was such a let down about this book, I read through some Goodreads reviews and had to nod heartily when someone suggested that having a single non-Mormon author would have helped address the culpability of the church as a whole.

This book did, however, make me wish I had taken the time to visit the Women & Children’s Memorial Site and the Men’s Memorial Site. When I drove by, I found the separation distasteful but when I finished Massacre at Mountain Meadows, I learned that the separation was historical in nature.

In an attempt to remedy my uneasiness with Massacre at Mountain Meadows,  I ordered a copy of Juanita Brooks’s seminal 1950 book The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Juanita Brooks was also part of the LDS church, however after the publication of her book about the massacre she was estranged from the church (yet not excommunicated).

Brooks’s book feels less readable to me but also feels less willing to simply let LDS leadership off the hook and pin responsibility for the Massacre on those in the southern part of Utah. Brooks does an excellent job in sharing the source material for her research (my copy is a 4th edition) so readers can better draw their own conclusions.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a weird chapter in American history. It seems abundantly clear, no matter which account you read, that white people belonging to the LDS church, tried to pin the attack on Native Americans and that innocent victims (who may or may not have poked a stick at the Mormon settlements but definitely didn’t deserve what they got).

On The Page: Under The Banner of Heaven

In early May, High Country News published a piece on the polygamous Mormon community of Short Creek. This reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven. I’d read this book a long time ago, back in college. I didn’t remember a whole lot about it and I’d learned much more about the history of the West, traveled through Mormon Country, and generally figured I was in a better place to absorb the book.

I wasn’t wrong. Getting deeper into Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was a lot easier for me now that I could picture the country on the Utah-Arizona border where Short Creek’s FLDS community is located. I’ve also read more about other exploration of the west. For example Krakauer suggests that perhaps Mormons who had been involved with the Mountain Meadows Massacre may have been involved with the killing of William Dunn and the Howland brothers who abandoned John Wesley Powell before they descended Separation Canyon (historians have long believed it was the Shivwits Band of Payutes who killed the explorers).

Also fascinating is the revisionist history of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Church, more commonly known as the Mormons. I honestly found this uneasy relationship between fundamentalist Saints and the mainstream branch of the religion more fascinating than the central narrative of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s crimes.

Ron and Dan struck me as “typical” religious nuts of any stripe. Killing their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her daughter because God told them to was just the culmination of a descent into increasing extremism. Brenda had stood up to Ron and Dan as they attempted to rope her husband Allen into their delusions.

I devoured this book on my trip down to Oklahoma City. Despite being really tired (definitely recovering from the end of the school year!) I was pretty happy to find a quiet spot and do some reading. Like all good books, this one lengthened my reading list but I learned a lot about how pieces of western history fit together.