Notes from The Massacre at Mountain Meadows Panel, Part 1: John Mack Faragher

By September 5, 2008

It was standing room only tonight at the Salt Lake City Public Library’s main auditorium for a panel discussion about the recently published Massacre at Mountain Meadows.  Panelists were John Mack Faragher, Donald Fixico, and Phil Barlow with Richard Turley responding.  I spied Ardis busily typing away on what will be her own summary of the evening at her blog Keepapitchinin.  I spied a number of notables in attendance including Will Bagley, Katherine Daynes, Elder Marlin K. Jensen, Steve Olsen and others.  All in all the event was well executed and informative, so my congratulations to the many organizations and persons who combined to make it possible.  The whole of the proceedings were recorded and will be made available as a podcast on Monday. We’ll be sure to provide a link to it in the sidebar when it becomes available.  My notes I will here give in portions, and are largely taken verbatim, but for clarity I have paraphrased and placed some clarifying portions in brackets.  John Mack Faragher, professor of history at Yale University was the first speaker:

JMF: What a crowd, it’s an important topic. The question of frontier violence. At the onset, I am no means an expert in the history of Utah or Mountain Meadows Massacre [MMM hereafter] or Mormonism.  Neither in frontier violence, although it is a subject in which I am deeply engaged.  I hope to put some of that important context to this important book.  The most important question is this: what made decent people commit mass murder “so premeditated…” The book says that the men were neither fanatics or sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people. I want to comment briefly on the terms here.  Sociopath is not a technical term in academia.  I think it’s a straw man.  I don’t now of anyone who makes that argument (that they were sociopaths), though some may have been at some point.  The authors do represent John D. Lee as a modern Joseph of Egypt and a religious fanatic. If that’ doesn’t qualify him as a fanatic, I don’t know what does…Dame and Haight are said to be fanatics by Knight, guilty of “a dastardly deed” .  Perhaps we need a change in terms.  Instead of “normally decent people”, something less presumptuous would be to call them “ordinary men”.  Then the task is to address the problem of how ordinary men become mass murderers. I’m quite familiar with this literature and they [the authors] summarize it succinctly and use it fairly. 


Demonizing, fear, depravation, [etc.] were all present in Southern Utah in 1857. [These are] preconditions for collective violence. The literature suggests that the single most significant factor is the process the authors call “demonizing”, classifying a people as “the other” dehumanizing the other makes mass murder possible.   Mass murder is impossible w/o this precondition.  They provide a great deal of evidence that demonizing of non-members was present in Utah.  Absolute obedience and peer pressure, allowing, in the authors words, errant leaders to trump the moral [conscience of the people].  The Mormon reformation seems to have created such a structure of authority and obedience.  The authors spend too little time on this…I don’t care about whether Young ordered it or not, but the talks given by Young gave context, speaking of blood atonement….Id like more discussion about moral responsibility.  “The tough talk of blood atonement must have played a role…” but they spend too little time covering the reformation…there was much talk of blood-sucking gentiles and the necessity to strictly obey those over the people.  When some at Cedar City refused ot send their cattle to SLC, they were threatened by John D. Lee, even to the point of shedding the blood of the same.  My hypothesis is that the Reformation was a signal event in creating the conditions necessary to group violence…. it should have been emphasized more….


That the LDS responds to violence in Missouri and Illinois is noted, that the Mormons tired of turning the other cheek is understandable, but how the LDS leaders partook of the rhetoric of extermination is also notable…Sidney Rigdon’s sermon…”it shall be a war of extermination…we shall follow them until their last drop of blood….until one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.”  Such moral sanction for violence continued.  In Cedar City [a banner was carried around that said] “Terror to evil doers” Haight [was quoted as saying] “I’m prepared to feed the enemy the bread he fed my family” Nothing justified focusing that fear on the immigrant train.  In their narrative of the events, the authors offer compelling evidence for the lust for vengeance among the Mormons, a lethal combination…the use of the Paiutes was despicable, but damning also was that the final massacre was designed as a cover-up of the initial attack…In the end, self interest and moral cowardice led to the logic of extermination, men killed men, and women and children in cold blood, shooting at point blank because they feared the consequences of what they had already done…it came down to the most basic modus operandi–to destroy the evidence. 


Two critical points…the authors say 19th century US “could be a violent place” they greatly understate and underestimate the truth of this…w/in the wider realm of the frontier and western history, this theme of violence is not sufficiently emphasized…Max Weber defined the state as the social institution with the moral and legal monopoly on the use of violence.  The rise of the European states dampened down everyday violence, but at the same time in the mid 19th century, the US suffered a crisis of the state…the struggle of the legitimacy of the federal state and a loss of confidence in that state led to the break out of mass amounts of violence…where the legitimacy of the state was most heavily contested, in the west and south had greatest incidents of violence. 


The West was a place of conquest…Successive generations made the killing of Indian men women and children an element of the [US] military tradition, part of the shared American identity…lawlessness and vigilantism consistently characterized the American frontier.  The frontiers were places where no group had a monopoly on the use of violence….violent competition between two political institutions, the state of Deseret and the Federal Government retarded development of central authority. No doubt the frontier contributed to liberty, but also the legacy of frontier violence….the significance is strengthened by this context…we need to develop a more sophisticated approach to the whys and hows of frontier violence, patterns of social[ization?] taught Americans to see violent means as the most appropriate way of dealing with conflict.  There are non violent men and lethally violent men.  Western and frontier historians need to explain how such men existed. We take it for granted…that violence emerges [from the] developmental process that develops during childhood…[as a] witness of the violent abuse of a loved one or deliberate coaching in violent techniques.  You have to learn and be carefully taught to be violent.  


Documenting such a personal history or histories requires that we penetrate the curtain that has been drawn across domestic life.  The authors say that John D. Lee was raised by an aunt that knocked him down and beat him. Lee learned of violence at home and was accused of domestic violence.  He was a participant at the massacre of Bad Ax [?].  The MMM was not the fist time Lee had participated in an act of collective violence. I don’t’ know the evidence exists to trace the violent beginnings of the perpetrators, but it would be a step toward knowing how these men fond it so easy to kill.


See also parts 2, 3, 4, and 5.

See also a transcript of the three authors speaking at Benchmark Books in August.


  1. This is great work. Thanks Jared. Very complimentary to Ardis’. As I said over there, I think Faragher?s critiques I think were both valid and helpful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 6, 2008 @ 12:14 am

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