August 12, 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows Lecture at Benchmark Books, Part 2: Ron Walker

By September 8, 2008

Ronald Walker:  What an honor it is for us to be here with you, we’re honored by your presence, and by all this attention, historians aren’t used to this kind of, this kind of excitement, so thank you so much.  I think what we want to do tonight is each one of us take maybe five, six, seven minutes to give you a feel for the book, and some of our thinking about the book, and then I think the uh, the vast majority of the time, I think we all agree should be Q&A.  That’ll be the most fun.

The first hint of my involvement with this project came in October of 2001.  Richard E. Turley, then managing director of the LDS Family and Church History Department telephoned to ask if I might be interested in working on this volume.  The idea was for Rick, Glen Leonard, and me to each write a section of the manuscript and have it finished in several months. [light laughter].  I never believed that, and that had far more optimism than in fact any kind of realism.  While the cooperation of the Church was promised, Rick said that we’d be on our own for our writing, and our interpretation.  Neither the church, correlation department, nor reading committee of church leaders, would have a role, Rick stated the mandate.

The massacre’s burden upon the church could only be lifted by total honesty.  We of course realized very soon that speed and quality are seldom allies in the historians’ craft.  Along the way we ended up writing a very different volume than we first intended.  We tried to have a single narrative voice.  We’ve written with the goal of engaging the reader, a general reader, while at the same time attempting to secure the highest professional standards, we tried to keep our words tight, and the story fast moving.  We came to realize that the story could best be told as we mentioned in two volumes, “Massacre at Mountain Meadows, An American Tragedy” is only the first.

We became convinced that our narrative should make no attempt at careful packaging, or sanitized knowing.  Our narrative demanded full disclosure of the truth, and nothing but the truth.  “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all,”” said Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Elie Wiesel, who survived Auschwitz, Buna-Werke, and Buchenwald, though his family did not.  On that point the three of us agreed, for whatever the conduct, or misconduct of the Fancher, and Baker Party as they traveled through Utah in 1857, that party certainly did nothing to justify its fate, these men, women, and children were victims, and their memory will always bear a terrible wrong.  The dedication of our book is offered to their memory.  Really there can be no alternative than to tell the truth. “The massacre is a ghost that will not be laid,” said historian Juanita Brooks before publishing her path breaking study “The Mountain Meadows Massacre”.

Since Brooks book was published in 1950 the stream of articles and books have continued, recently expanded by television programs, films, and web sites.  The demons will not be completely exercised until the public is convinced there has been a full disclosure, and that the hard questions about the massacre have been asked, and answered, and as historians we understand, it’s always the asking, and answering questions that is the most difficult thing a historian can do.  As we’ve written our book we’ve understood the need for scholarly humility, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” said British novelist L.P. Hartley.  It’s just not that the confusion of the event, or trying to get the story right, or trying to recreate the peculiar quality of Southern Utah life.  In hierarchal, theocratic Utah there were few places like Iron County.  But the Mountain Meadows historian also understands the implacable, pounding force of what took place, and the almost inexorable quality to the events.  “You know nothing about the spirit of the times,” one man who was present in Southern Utah in 1857, but who did not participate in the massacre, “you don’t understand, you can’t understand,” he told his son.

Storytellers as well as readers might ask themselves the uneasy question of what they might have done, had they been present in Cedar City in 1857.  Characters and events seemed drawn from a classical tragedy, and not just because of the force of circumstance, and events.  Mountain Meadows has the exaggerated flaws and shortcomings and protagonists that seem to be drawn from each one of us, as a result we may participate vicariously or personally in the story, and when the last page is turned there may be some of that pity and fear that Aristotle spoke of, when he prescribed the elements of catharsis.  It’s no accident that the structure of our book adopts the general form of Greek tragedy, and we hope that our readers, like the ancient Athenians will learn a few things about human nature, and about themselves.

Charles Upham, the early historian of the Salem Witchcraft Trials understood this idea, there are indeed few passages in history of a people to be compared with all that constitutes the pitiable, and the tragical, the mysterious, and the awful he wrote in 1867 of the events that took place at Salem 200 years earlier, and in so many respects parallel the times of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  He also knew the shame of descendants, literal descendants as well as members of a later religious tradition, but Upham was sure that there was value to the process.  Human nature never shines with more luster than when it arises amidst the imperfections or the ruins of our nature, arrays itself in the robes of penance, and goes forth with earnest and humble sincerity to the work of reformation, and restitution.  If these results could come from our book the last seven years have been worth the effort.  Thank you very much.  [applause].

See also Parts 1, 3, 4, and 5.


  1. […] also Parts 1, 2, 3, and 5. […]

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