August 12, 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows Lecture at Benchmark Books, Part 5: Q & A

By September 8, 2008

Curt Bench:  I’m sure you will agree that was a tremendous, brief presentation, a good introduction to the book.  Now we’d like to entertain any questions you may have, if you’d like to raise your hand we’ll get to you as soon as we can, and if you have a certain author in mind, just designate that OK.

Q:  To any and all of you, is it true that they, the perpetrators held prayer circles just prior to the massacre?  And if so what does this say about their mindset at the time?

Turley:  There was an early report that got repeated over and over again in Massacre literature that a prayer circle had been held in Mountain Meadows.  As best we can determine, including through the words of a participant that we found in the Andrew Jensen interview collection.  Andrew Jensen went down in 1892 and he interviewed some of the participants, and he asked specific questions, and that was one of them.  Actually, he didn’t ask the question, he had an interviewee read a report that happened to include that statement, and the interviewer said, no, no, no, no, there was no prayer circle, the older men just sat in a circle while they counseled during the night of Thursday into Friday, so that was no prayer circle.  So as far as we’ve been able to tell there was no formal prayer circle as such.

Q:  I can’t wait to read your actual text.  The question I have, is, there anything from Juanita Brooks book that is significantly different than what you have discovered in your research?  In other words, she didn’t have access to all of the material you did, but even that, is there anything you found that was not quite right with her book, or that significantly adds your book to what she’s written?  If that makes sense?

Glen Leonard:  Read the book.  He’s asking how far beyond our book goes beyond Juanita Brooks book, we’ve all enjoyed hers, it’s been a standard for fifty years.  Did we find things, and do we move beyond what she did? Significant things?  There were a lot of details she did not have, that we were able to flesh it out with, and some of these sources that she wanted to see and hadn’t, helped us.  Some she didn’t look for, and we found helped us.  Her foundation is solid, we feel like we’ve moved in the direction she was moving, and because we had more sources available, and were able to use those sources, there is an enrichment, and there is substantial new information and new ways of seeing things.  She was trying to shift the blame away from John D. Lee, we’ve evened broadened that, this is a mass killing, and a lot of people involved, and William Dame, and Isaac Haight, and John D. Lee share that in different ways.  The rumors that were coming down from the north, and the talk of things that were happening in Cedar City, we think we’ve made a step forward in sorting those out.  Poisoning, you’ll read is very different than what everyone thought it was going to be.  The broader context of the Utah War, in her 2nd edition she said I’d wished I’d given more attention to that, we give a lot of attention to that, plus the culture of violence.  So, I think we’ve broadened and built on her base, and we hope you’ll find ours worth reading, because it will give you some new insights.

Ron Walker:  I was just going to say, I think we’re probably not as gentle with John D. Lee as Juanita Brooks was.

Comment:  She wasn’t kind to John D. Lee!

Q:  Could you speak to how they involved the Indians?  Why did the Indians go along with this?  How were they involved?

RW:  You know that is one of the most difficult questions that we as historians had, and that is, finding the voice of the Native American, and the reason for that is, the sources just aren’t there.  Normally, you have this very rich oral tradition of the Native Americans, but you have such a high mortality rate of those who participated in the massacre, and you have a very high mortality rate of the descendants of those who participated, Native Americans who participated in the massacre.  So here is a limitation imposed upon us by our sources, and we just do our best with that.  But, it would indicate that the Native Americans probably were a cross-section, a diversity just like the Mormons were, and just like the emigrants.  There were probably a variety of emotions that drew them there, including booty, including participating in the mass hysteria of the times.  They had heard rumors of Indian poisoning further north, which may have stirred their emotions, but to come down and really understand how much of this was, affected the Indians, very, very difficult for us to say, and especially because of the slippery nature of the sources after the fact, so many of our sources are reminiscent accounts, which make it very difficult.

Q:  Was the high mortality rate of the Indians, intentional?

RW: No, no, no, no, that’s general across the board with Native Americans of the 19th century.  You end up with maybe one or two percent of Native American population in the year 1930 from what existed in the 19th century, tremendous mortality based upon disease.

Q:  Were the Indians paid?

RW:  Only with promises of booty.

Q:  About how many do you think participated?

RT:  The question was how many do you think participated?  It’s very difficult to get a handle around that question.  Some of the participants in the massacre, the white participants, put the number around 600, that’s far too high, there was some participation, we don’t know the precise number, we give the range in the book, we cite the various sources that exist, it is fair to say the following, that is the principle responsibility for the massacre rests on the shoulders of the white leaders who masterminded the massacre, and then sought to draw in native peoples.  So that’s the key conclusion.

Q: RT:  The question is what’s the possibility of members of the church learning about this without including it in the teaching materials?  That’s a very good question.  [laughter].  One answer to the question is that, we are, we live in an age today in which information is much more egalitarian, and so information about the massacre now spreads worldwide very quickly through the internet.  I wrote an article in the Ensign for example, that was intended to help introduce many people to the massacre.  That was subsequently, just sort of spontaneously translated into numerous languages around the world.  If you did a little google search, pretty soon you’d find in one language after another, just spontaneously popping up all over everywhere.  So I think word of the massacre is beginning to permeate the world at large.  Anybody else?

RW:  I’d like to just comment on that too.  I presented a paper several months ago at the Mormon History Association, in which I tried to give my own personal reflections, lessons learned, and what this might mean for Mormon culture, that article is forthcoming in the next issue of BYU Studies.  I think there are three things that our culture has to do to come to grips with this.  First of all you have to have an open disclosure, you have to know what happened, and then I think there has to be an acknowledgment of what happened, and we got that with the very generous and heartfelt remarks that Elder Eyring made several months ago at the massacre site.  Then 3rd, I think is a more difficult question, and that is:  How should we as a society remember this event?  And I think that question is one that we’re going to have to wrestle with over the next few years, and maybe a decade or two.  But, my own feeling is, we’ve probably got to say more about what happened, and be more forthcoming, in our public monuments especially about what happened down there.

Q:  You mentioned the poisoning of the cattle, and Anthrax.  How did you come upon that idea?

RW:  The question is, you know there were rumors that the emigrants had poisoned cattle in Central Utah, and we had to come to grips with that question.  Had they committed this atrocity?  What was interesting to us, we found that the emigrants were accusing the Mormons of poisoning cattle, so there was something going on here that reached beyond these rumors, and you know, we brought in a panel of physicians, and scholars to help us with this question, and we looked at it very carefully, we looked at the disease, what was happening in Central Utah, and we saw, what happened here was consistent with an outbreak of Anthrax, which 19th century citizens wouldn’t have had a clue about, they didn’t have any idea what this meant.  So you have as an element of the massacre, not the reality of poisoning, but you have the reality of these “rumors” of poisoning, which certainly played a role in the forming of the psychology of the time.

RT:  Just to give you another word about the methodology that we followed, we brought in this panel of doctors, and we talked to a large animal veterinarian as well.  When we first brought the panel of doctors together, this was a very distinguished group of doctors, and we presented the evidence that we had, and they looked at it and they said, “you know 150 years after the fact, nearly 150 years, just the symptoms that your giving to us here, we cannot make a clear diagnosis, it could be Anthrax, it could be all these other things, they said we need more data, so we went back and we combed journals, and we discovered during this same time period numerous instances in which people were skinning cattle, and ended up with sores, cankers on their hands or other body parts that turned to a dark black color, and we found these cases from Bountiful to San Bernardino, California.  With that additional data we went back to our doctors and this time they said “that is classic, textbook Anthrax”.  Interestingly, after we released the book, we recently got another note from a Dr.  Glen you got that note.  Do you want to tell them what it said?

GL:  As the Dr. was reading our book, and came upon the presentation of the story, we unfolded the story and described the symptoms in those who had this illness, and one who died from it.  He said:  “As soon as I read the symptoms I knew what was going on, I knew it was Anthrax.”  Something else that helped us in this study, is that we found that reading about poisoning in the culture of the time, that because there was no medical knowledge about microbes, bacteria, etc.  They did not understand Anthrax, they didn’t understand other infectious diseases, and so when something mysteriously died it was “poisoning”, or if some human died of something unknown it was “poisoning”.  Crossing the plains, one of the emigrants suffered an injury, it was “poisoning,” a spider bite.  So poisoning was an easy answer for things they did not understand.

Q:  It’s my understanding that there were some documents that were missing some significant portions…….what kind of hole did they leave in your research??  What hole did they leave?

GL:  As you know we did find some new documents which helped strengthen our study.  Yes, occasionally we would find some physical evidence that a page was torn out of a diary, but we had so much evidence that we felt comfortable that as we put the pieces together we were reasonably certain that we got the story right.  We’d like to have those missing pieces, there may be a diary here or there that’s hidden away in a family closet that could come forward, but uh, it’s likely not to change the story.

Q: Voice of the Indians is virtually not heard, or not available, I assume that the voices of the victims were similarly, quiet and not available.  My question is the overwhelming amount of information that is available in the journals.  What extent was that information held by the church?  Was there a flood of information that just finally came out? He also asked to what extent were some of the documents they used, held by the church.  [hard to make out]

GL:  Your right, not only did we find it almost impossible to find the voice of the Native Americans, but the emigrants were dead, a few of the older children were able to talk, and to point the finger at the white settlers, but no I wouldn’t say that new sources came rushing towards us.  There were people who drew our attention to some things that we already had copies of.  How much new information?  I guess we went out and found it, didn’t we Rick?

RT:  As I mentioned we combed the archives and private collections across the country, and we teased out the information that was hiding there.  Let me just give you an example:  A discovery had been made some time ago in the National Archives, there were a series of affidavits that were filled out by people who were making claims on, largely on behalf of the Baker family and their neighbors, but there was no mention of Alexander Fancher, and his associated family members and neighbors that went with him.  We found in all places, in Indiana, a letter that had been written by the husband of one of the surviving children, who had gone around the neighborhood in Arkansas, and asked some of the neighbors.  What did Alexander Fancher have when he left Arkansas?  So we were able to fill that hole in, and we went just from piece of the puzzle, to piece of the puzzle, and gradually filled in all of these bits of information.  We did talk to Paiute Indians, we recorded their oral traditions.  We found some oral traditions that had been captured in print by white interviewees or other people from 1857 til more recent times.  So they’re not completely absent, they’re just not there in the richness that we would like them to be.

RW:  Just another comment, some of the most important sources we found were available to Juanita Brooks and others.  These are contemporaneous travelers just behind the Baker-Fancher Party who follow Baker-Fancher through Utah, and make their way to California, and quickly publish their experiences in the California newspapers.  These documents, again sort of fill in this pattern, that we were looking for that made the other statements consistent, and seemed to us, to make them more reliable.

Q:  You mention that you don’t coddle John D. Lee as much as Juanita.  Could you give me an A, B, C, D, F, grade on Lee’s last confession?

RW:  I think Rick may want to comment on that.  One of the interesting things in our research is, you know Lee in one of the most exceptional cases in American jurisprudence, is taken to the Meadows for his execution in 1877.  When he goes to the Meadows, he speaks with reporters from throughout the United States who were there for the event, and as he speaks with reporters, for the first time he really starts to come clean with what he had done, and the account that he gives the reporters moments before his death, substantially contradicts his earlier statements, long standing statements of 20 years.  For example:  He clearly puts himself at the initial attack.  Is that right? [turns to the other authors].  But he does concede that he was involved in the killing on the 11th of September.

RT:  Ron, earlier mentioned my optimism in getting the book finished more quickly than we did.  That optimism was based in part on our initial assumption that certain of the major sources on the history of the massacre were good, solid bedrock sources, among those John D. Lee’s Mormonism Unveiled, his last confessions.  Among them, the trial transcripts of the John D. Lee, two trials in 1875, and 1876.  What we discovered is that as we walked out on what we thought was bedrock, it crumbled under our feet, much like the ground does at Yellowstone, and what we discovered is those sources were not entirely reliable, and I’ve got an article coming out in the next issue of BYU Studies that will talk about some of those sources very, very briefly.  But, just to let you know we have been working for example on the trial transcripts of John D. Lee, we’ve gathered legal sources from many locations, we brought them together, we found out that the trial transcripts were not created at the time.  They were created later on for other purposes, and as we began to compare them they differed from one another, so then we recognized that we had the original shorthand notebooks taken by the court reporters in the church archives, and also at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.  So we got those shorthand transcripts, found a woman who could transcribe them, and she spent the last several years helping us transcribe these.  We now have, I think 3400 pdf files of these legal records, we’ve taken all of them, and we’ve lined them up in columns.  The shorthand for the two reporters, the various transcripts that were created, the newspaper accounts, and so on, so that we can get a good, final picture of what really happened at the John D. Lee trial.  You’ll be interested to know that even though John D. Lee’s gotten the most attention, in 1874 there were actually nine people indicted for the massacre, we found the original indictment, of those nine people why only John D. Lee tried and executed, that’s the story of the next book.  [laughter].  Let me just give it in a nutshell.  In a nutshell, they wanted to go after William Dame, he was the highest official that had been indicted, they arrested him very quickly, shortly after they arrested John D. Lee, in fact they took about half of those nine indicted people into custody.  They went after Dame, they tried to use Lee as the person who was going to cop on Dame, very typical type of approach for a prosecutor.  So they went to Lee and said: “You’ve got two indictments against you, we will automatically drop the first indictment if you’ll just agree to give us a confession, if your confession is quote “satisfactory”, close quote, we drop the 2nd count and you walk.  So John D. Lee checked with his lawyers, they said, “best deal you’re going to get, go for it.”  So he agreed to write a confession, they dropped the first indictment, he wrote the confession, presented it to them, they said, “nope, not satisfactory, and since we don’t have enough evidence to go after William Dame, we’re going to go after John D. Lee.”

Curt Bench:  We could go on all night, but unfortunately we can’t.  I hope it’s very clear to everyone how much knowledge is here tonight, and uh, this is just a fraction. [applause].  I want to also point out something that some of you have already figured out, we’ve never seen anything like this before.  The church did not officially, they did not publish this book, it’s not a church publication, it’s not endorsed by the church, but church resources were made available to these authors, and we have seen something here that I have never seen in my lifetime, the doors that were opened, the possibilities that were explored, largely because Rick Turley thought that this was something that should be done, and he deserves a lot of the credit for that.  [applause].  I think it’s a very positive step, I welcome it, I think along with something like Richard Bushman’s “Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling”, we are seeing a new era in church history, and I welcome it.  I think with Rick as Assistant Church Historian, Marlon Jensen as the Church Historian, I think this is just the beginning, that’s my hope and prayer anyway, and I think that these gentlemen deserve a lot of credit, and have opened some important doors here, and have dealt with a subject that has been ignored or whitewashed for a long time, and this will go a long way to promote the kind of healing that they’re hoping will take place, and our thanks to you for doing that.  [applause].

See also Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.


  1. […] August 12, 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows Lecture at Benchmark Books, Part 2: Ron Walker: August 12, 2008 MassacreJuvenile Instructor » August 12, 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows Lecture at Benchmark Books, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » August 12, 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows Lecture at Benchmark Books, Part 1: Introduction — September 8, 2008 @ 12:43 am

  2. Thanks for all of these, Jared.

    I think I have had enough of MMM now and that my thirst for horrible massacres is quenched. No wonder Andrew Jenson was sick to his stomach after doing all of his interviews.

    Comment by Ben — September 8, 2008 @ 9:09 am

  3. Seriously. I’d like to see before and after pictures of each of the many historians that worked hard on this project. I’d wager that most of them have prematurely aged because of this, literally giving their lives to bring this out for us. I, for one, am grateful.

    Comment by Jared T — September 8, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  4. Thanks for the transcript, Jared. Very helpful for us expats out in the hinterlands.

    I finished reading my copy a couple of weeks ago, and am still sorting out my feelings. The honesty of the accounts was both refreshing and chilling. I’m going to give it another read in a few more months, but it is definitely a haunting experience.

    Comment by kevinf — September 8, 2008 @ 4:42 pm


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