It Does Not Die?: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

By July 1, 2008

Admin: Janiece (or JJ as we like to call her), is a PhD student at the University of Utah where her she is completing dissertation work in part on the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

In It Does Not Die, Maitreyi Devi wrote a “she said” to Mircea Elidae’s Bengal Nights, the “he said” semi-autobiographical account of his time in 1930s Calcutta and his relationship with Devi.[1] Unsurprisingly, Devi offered a very different version of events in her narrative. Academia (and even Oprah thanks to James Frey) has long debated the definition of memoir and its highly subjective nature. A comparison of It Does Not Die and Bengal Nights provides many aspects for analysis of events personally subjective and emotive while grounded in history. Can scholarship ever overcome personal opinion or reaction in highly emotionally charged historical events?

I first worked on the Mountain Meadows Massacre project in 2001-2002 as a research assistant. Initially, I was hired for six months. Who knew that I would work on Mountain Meadows for several months, leave Salt Lake City, go to Divinity School and get another graduate degree, and then return to work on essentially the same Mountain Meadows project for the following four plus years? Not I. And I am only one of many in the years of work, thousands of miles traveled, and endless hours of research.

Juanita Brooks provided an important foundation with her groundbreaking 1950 book The Mountain Meadows Massacre–a foundation upon which many a house has been built. The houses have come in a variety of shapes and colors, with an array of grades of materials, a wide expanse of woman/man hours, and significant differences in levels of workmanship. The forthcoming volume, Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ron Walker, Richard Turley, and Glen Leonard, is, in my opinion, easily the most comprehensive single research effort that has been made to date on the massacre itself. I believe that when the book is out in the next few weeks, this will be clear. This first book has also spawned additional prospective volumes on the aftermath of Massacre, the prosecution for the Massacre, the legal papers of the Mountain Meadows prosecution (including comparative analysis of the transcripts of John D. Lee’s trials), significant analysis of John D. Lee’s Confessions, Pauite Indian involvement, and many more potential works.

Yet–might it ever be enough to raise the discussion past “he said” and “she said?” Or “he said” and “they said” or whatever incarnation you like?

At the Mormon History Association in 2007, Gene Sessions, Utah War Historian and early Massacre at Mountain Meadows manuscript reviewer, said, “the single biggest problem with the book will be the three authors”: Ron Walker, now retired BYU History Professor, Rick Turley, current Assistant LDS Church Historian, and Glen Leonard, former director of the LDS Museum of Church History and Art.[2] The voluminous postings from the Deseret News article summarizing Rick Turley’s most recent MHA presentation on Brigham Young’s role in the massacre highlight the continued angst and personal emotion involved in any talk of the massacre. In contrast to Turley’s presentation, very little evidence was offered in the article, yet most who commented had very firm opinions of what did or did not happen. Can research and methodology overcome emotion and bias? Is that a necessary or an erroneous juxtaposition? Most people who know something about the massacre have already formed an opinion, can those opinions still be molded by evidence, or are they “steadfast and immovable?” (And not, I believe, “steadfast and immovable” in the way that King Benjamin might have envisioned.) Juanita Brooks was compelled to write her account from a harrowing deathbed exclamation. I cannot completely divorce myself completely from my own emotional responses, is it too much to ask others to try?

So in my first guest post, I just want to ask, “Will it ever die?”

(Whatever the answer, don’t worry I still have research plans for years to come.)

[1] Maryteri Devi, It Does Not Die, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, and Mircea Eliade, Bengal Nights, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

[2] My paraphrased memory.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. No.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 1, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  2. Given how at odds the MMM is with our own self-view of ourselves and the fact that Mormon scholars writing on Mormonism will always be suspect I don’t think it’ll ever end.

    Comment by Clark — July 1, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

  3. No. When a good cop shots an innocent kid, it will never leave him, even if others try to comfort him.
    I think the Church feels a collective guilt even today. And it’s goodness, will never let it have a peace

    Comment by Bob — July 1, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  4. No.
    Have you posted elsewhere under a pseudonym? I was waiting for you to post some stuff. We have a mutual friend so I know all about your brilliance from her.

    Comment by mmiles — July 2, 2008 @ 1:36 am

  5. No, like the Crusades, it will never die as an emotional historical issue. But for individuals, it can move from being “an issue” to being just an unfortunate event.

    Comment by Dave — July 2, 2008 @ 2:00 am

  6. I agree with the “nay”-sayers. What would it take for it to die? I see three possibilities:

    (1) The church disappears. With no one claiming heirship to Brigham Young’s spiritual or institutional mantles, the Mormon/anti-Mormon emotion dissipates. At best, MM maintains its place on a list of mean things Americans did in the 19C in present-vs-past narration and/or in religious-vs-non-religious narration. The only people perhaps still vested become survivor descendants. But, no longer needing to contest the interpretation, they probably maintain private remembrances but slowly lose the collective sense of identity rooted in history. [Note: I don’t know any survivor descendants personally or know any scholarly studies on their collective identities. I’m making a generic statement about how collective memories tend to fade unless they perform contemporary work.]

    (2) The opposite: everyone on Earth joins the church. MM becomes a thing from long ago that scholars study but that doesn’t impinge on anyone’s sense of self—until folks start unjoining the church and MM narration serves a useful sociological function again.

    (3) Prolonged devastation or conflict pushes the folks vested in MM interpretations into a common camp in need of unifying narration. If remembered at all, MM becomes footnote on the “joy of fratricide” (see Benedict Anderson)—until the devastation passes and the unifying narration with it. (Alternate interpretation: driven by desire for Mormon food storage, hungry folks bring MM to the fore, narrating that Mormons have always murderously withheld food from non-Mormons and should be deprived thereof by violence.)

    I don’t see (1) happening. (2) and (3) are only temporary deaths that allow for re-animation.

    Comment by Edje — July 2, 2008 @ 6:09 am

  7. The only hope I have comes in the form of a young man and fairly new convert from the hill country of Arkansas that came into the Special Collections at BYU-Idaho when I was working there quite a few years ago. He had one of the most unique Southern accents I have ever heard–it was some combination of Southern and Celtic mixed together. He was from a very insular community in the Southern hills. He was learning all that he could about the massacre because he was descended from one of the survivors of the Fancher-Baker Party. Obviously, his family was very hostile to the Church, but he told me about his touching conversion story. Last thing I knew about him was that he was serving a mission somewhere. To me, he represents the hope for reconciliation someday–though we must always hold the massacre up as an example of what terrible things Mormons are capable of doing when their religious fervor goes wrong.

    Comment by Joel — July 2, 2008 @ 7:04 am

  8. Die for whom is the real question. There are constituencies within and without the church for whom the MMM holds very little interest, and when the Bagley-based slugfests unfold, they tend to turn away and look for something more interesting to read about. There are others who will be forever enwrapped by the controversy of the massacre.

    Comment by smb — July 2, 2008 @ 7:55 am

  9. Joel, your story of the Arkansas convert made me think about the little bit I have read about Rene Girard and his theories of imitative desire and violence. He came to the conclusion that Christianity in its truest form is the only way of breaking these cycles of scapegoating and violence for injuries often generations in the past. Problem is that Christianity, including our Mormon faith, has its own baggage we are still dealing with. Institutionally, it probably won’t die, but perhaps individual by individual, the balance can be tipped towards a more rational balance.

    Comment by kevinf — July 2, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  10. I agree that there will be those for whom it will never die, no matter what is accomplished. I do believe that the church’s support for the MMM projects is portent of good things to come. I’m currently most intrigued by what continued interest in the massacre tells us about those propelling the continued focus. Academically, I’m focusing my dissertation on what the prosecution for the massacre tells us about mid-19th century Americans. Likewise I think it’s an interesting question in a contemporary context.

    interestingly, that young man isn’t the only descendant who has converted.

    the blogging world is new to me. i suppose i try to ward off potential addictions. 🙂

    Comment by Janiece — July 2, 2008 @ 10:59 am

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