August 12, 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows Lecture at Benchmark Books, Part 3: Richard Turley

By September 8, 2008

Richard Turley:  I would like to talk a little bit about our methodology in writing the book, when we launched this project, our goal was not to work principally from the secondary sources that had been created in the past, but rather to find every primary source that we could find, and then let that evidence tell the story, and that task sent us, or those who were assisting us across the country looking for Mountain Meadows Massacre information, because this was a celebrated case during it’s time, and because the people who either participated in the massacre or later investigated it got scattered across the country, the bits and pieces were scattered like a giant jigsaw puzzle across the continent.

We ended up doing research from New England to Southern California, from the Pacific Northwest, to the Southeast, with a lot of time spent in the South Central States that were the home of many of the victims, and also cumulatively months of research at the national archives.  The result of our work became what we describe in our preface as an embarrassment of riches, despite my initial optimism in completing the book in short order, we found that merely reading through all the materials we collected, was by itself a mammoth task.  Then we had to take all these little pieces of the puzzle and try to fit them together.  Just to give you some idea of the bulk of the material that we collected, we are in the process right now of cataloguing it so we can make it available to others to use, and if I recall correctly it exceeds about 100 linear feet of shelf space, so just imagine for a moment, reading all that material, and then trying to fit all the pieces together, and having them make sense.

Well, it took us six or seven years, but by the time we finished, a picture did emerge.  Not a perfect picture, not a picture without some holes in it, but a picture nevertheless that is more rich and textured than any picture we have had of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  I would like to talk too about our approach to this information, broadly speaking, since historians and others began to tell the story of the massacre they followed one of three main approaches, the first two are poles apart.  One approach portrays the perpetrators as good people, and the victims as evil ones who committed outrages supposedly during their travel through central and southern Utah.  The 2nd approach, a pole apart from this, looks at the massacred emigrants, and the evil of their killers who are at best described as followers of misguided religion.  Readers of our book will find little sympathy for either one of these polar interpretive positions.  Each one of those polar positions overlooks how complex human beings can be, good and evil after all are widely shared human traits, in fact there’s some in all of us.  Nor do these two approaches recognize how diverse the two groups were, moreover, each of these two polarized explanations breaks down logically.

As Ron mentioned, and as I would like to repeat now, nothing, absolutely nothing that the emigrants did, or even purportedly did, comes close to justifying their murder.  There was not enough justification in all of the rumors that were collected to justify the killing of a single man, woman, or child, and most of the victims were women and children.  This wagon company was made up mostly of young families traveling through the territory towards California in pursuit of their dreams.  The leading men and women among them had been substantial citizens in their Arkansas communities, and promised to make a mark in California as well.  Likewise most of the killers led exemplary lives before and after the massacre, except for their experiences during a single nightmarish week in September of 1857.  Most of them were hardworking, ordinary, frontier individuals with otherwise little to distinguish them from many other pioneers, some in fact would have been pillars in any community.

The 3rd main approach to understanding the massacre attempts to navigate between the extremes of the other two.  This approach is partly a commonsense recognition that both victims and perpetrators were decent people whose paths crossed in a moment of history that resulted in a terrible atrocity.  Juanita Brooks’s 1950 book had this insight, and it is one reason we admire her work, though new information now permits a more complete and accurate telling of the massacre.  In fact for those of you who have followed Juanita Brooks’s efforts over the years as recounted in her works, we were able to obtain access to the materials that she sought, but couldn’t obtain.  This 3rd approach, the one that we’re following, however gives rise to a very troubling question.

How could basically good people commit such an atrocity?  Our feeling is, that if you understand the Mountain Meadows Massacre only from these two polar extremes that we’ve talked about, polar extremes that allow an emotional distance in many ways from the events themselves.  Polar extremes that allow us to stand back with righteous indignation and condemn whichever side we view as evil in this circumstance.  If that is our only understanding, we don’t really understand the massacre, because the reality is, if we put ourselves into the middle of that circumstance in September 1857, we should feel emotion, we should feel great emotion, and we try to lead the reader through the circumstances in such a way that when you put the book down, you can feel that you not only know the facts of the massacre, you feel the horror of the atrocity.

How then could basically good people commit such a horrible deed?  There are no pat answers, but the professional literature dealing with 19th century American violence does offer a starting point.  In the early to mid 1800’s the United States could be a very violent place, particularly for racial, ethnic, and yes, religious minorities.  The period between 1830 and 1860 has been called the turbulent era, and indeed it was turbulent for many Latter-Day Saints.  These men and women experienced violence in Missouri, and Illinois, and when an army marched towards Utah territory in 1857, the year of the massacre, they believed, at least some of them, that they were about to become victims again.  One of the bitter ironies of Mormon history is that some of the people who had long abhorred the injustice of extralegal violence became its perpetrators.

In carrying out the Mountain Meadows Massacre they followed a familiar step by step pattern, used by vigilantes elsewhere.  Scholars who investigated violence in many cultures provide other insights based on group psychology, episodes of violence often begin when one people classify another people as the other, stripping them of their humanity, and mentally transforming them into enemies, that’s what happened at Mountain Meadows.  The literature also suggests that other elements are often present when good people do terrible things, usually there’s an atmosphere of authority and obedience which allows errant leaders to trump the moral instincts of their followers.  Atrocities also occur when followers do not have clear messages about what is expected of them.  Poverty likewise increases the likelihood of problems raised by concerns for survival, and I think many people have a difficult understanding just how poor southern Utah was at the time.  Many people in Cedar City, which was the focal point for much of what went on at Mountain Meadows, many of those people didn’t even have shoes to wear, and they lived in homes that today by nearly any modern standard would be considered as sub-standard.  So in conclusion the conditions for mass killing, demonizing others, authority and obedience, peer pressure, ambiguity, fear, and depravation were all present as the backdrop for the events that became the massacre at Mountain Meadows. [applause].

See also Parts 1, 2, 4, and 5.


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