Remembering 7/24 and 9/11 in Mormon History: A Photo Essay

By July 30, 2008

In his dissertation on the popular historical consciousness of Mormons in the American West, Eric Eliason suggested that the “commemoration of the cooperative and purposeful Mormon pioneer migration has achieved a particularly well-developed form” among modern Mormons — “the July 24th Days of ’47 celebration in Salt Lake City . . . [and] similar Pioneer Day events [that] claim the public space of Main Street in over 80 Western communities.” Last week, I headed down to small-town Southern Utah to experience what Eliason labeled “the flagship pioneer-reverencing event in Mormondom.”[1] 

Thursday morning, I gathered with my wife, siblings, parents, nieces, and about 40 other relatives in front of the old Bishop’s Storehouse along Main Street in Panguitch, Utah to enjoy the Pioneer Day parade.

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Afterwards, we headed a couple of miles down Highway 89 to the Panguitch Cemetery, resting place of many of my ancestors. Among the gravesites we visited was that of Hayden Wells Church, who converted to Mormonism in Tennessee in the 1840s with his family, but only he ever made it west to Utah (thanks to a stint as a soldier in the Mormon Batallion). Church died, incidentally, while on a mission to Tennessee in the 1870s, and is (perhaps fittingly) buried there today, near his parents and siblings. However, last year his headstone was brought from Tennessee to southern Utah, so that it could rest among the graves of his wife, children, and descendants. Fittingly, it has been decorated with a Mormon Batallion plaque.

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As I sat there listening to my relatives rehearse the heroic deeds of my ancestors, I wondered about the significance of historical landmarks and sites in the collective Latter-day Saint conscious. I witnessed in that cemetery some of my pre-pubescent and teenage cousins acting as enthralled and interested in their pioneer ancestors as my genealogically-devoted aunt. What was it about visiting these material markers that aroused the historical imagination and interest in all present?

Eric Eliason argued that “Collectively, civic Pioneer Day celebrations help sustain the pioneers’ place in Mormons’ regional imagination.”[2] But what about for individuals? Why does my otherwise antisocial 17-year old cousin actually care and converse when pioneer ancestors are brought up? Steven Olsen has suggested that “Church historic sites . . . in a very real sense . . . are the public places where the ‘work and . . . glory’ of God (Moses 1:39) have been most explicitly made manifest in this dispensation. Historic sites document the most significant events and key personalities of the gospel’s restoration.”[3] It appears that visiting the grave of one of our own ancestors in turn allows us to see our pioneer forebearers as being included among those “key personalities” that participated in those “most significant events.” I’m personally conflicted as to the benefits of this mindset. While I’m thrilled that it encourages otherwise apathetic individuals to take an interest in their history, it also holds the potential to further marginalize those who don’t come from “pioneer stock.”

Debating those issues and proposed solutions will have to wait for another post another day. While visiting the graves of deceased ancestors in Panguitch, I also made sure the grave of the infamous John D. Lee (located a hundred feet or so from those of my ancestors). 

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Expectedly, the conversation among those of us who gathered around Lee’s grave turned to the Mountain Meadows massacre. Having never visited, I decided that when I returned to Provo two days later, I would first head southwest to visit the site. While my wife had no interest in joining me, my dad agreed to come along. When we arrived on Saturday morning, the contrast between this historical site and those we had visited two days prior was striking (though not surprising). In addition to the geographical isolation of Mountain Meadows, the complete absence of any other visitors contrasted strongly with the multitudes gathered for the Pioneer Day parade on the 24th.

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Shannon Novak, author of the recently-released House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (reviewed here by Jared T.), and Lars Rodseth commented in a 2006 article on the problem Mountain Meadows presents to the celebration of pioneers in Mormon thought.

Devout Mormons have a powerful identification with their ancestors (whether biological or spiritual) in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. . . . Always the victims and never the victimizers, Mormons of the nineteenth-century are routinely portrayed as morally heroic and tragically misunderstood. No other event challenges the credibility of this image as does the Mountain Meadows massacre.[4]

As Novak and Rodseth documented, the massacre at Mountain Meadows is an event rife with contested meanings among involved groups and individuals. Over the last 151 years, descendants of the victims, the institutional Church, historians, and individuals in Southern Utah all have contributed to the ever-changing meanings associated with what happened on Septmeber 11, 1857. In doing so, Novak and Rodseth argue, they have “redrawn social boundaries.” Cooperation and conflict among the groups have at times marginalized some groups and at other times created wider (and sometimes unexpected) social alliances. “Commemoration itself,” the authors suggest, “becomes a path to wider social alliances.”[5] Henry B. Eyring’s statement last year at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the tragedy touched on this theme.

It is important and appropriate that we meet together on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. We gather as relatives of the massacre victims and perpetrators and as unrelated but interested and sympathetic parties. We gather to remember and to honor those whose lives were taken prematurely and wrongly in this once lush and pastoral valley.

But again, what about individual remembrance? Why did my dad and I choose to go visit the site of the most unfortunate and inexcusable event in Mormon history? I went because I’m a historian. I’m not sure why my dad went. When we arrived, he was full of questions about what exactly had happened and why it happened. I don’t think my answers satisfied him. They contextualized the tragedy, but they were ambiguous in specifically addressing why this group of otherwise faithful and good Mormons would do such a thing.


Later that day, my dad described the experience to my mom as “interesting.” It was a somber experience, and I don’t know whether he was glad he accompanied me or not. So now I’m left with lingering questions and unresolved ponderings. Is there value in making the pilgrimage to sites like Mountain Meadows for Latter-day Saints today? It’s clear that this issue “will not die,” but what place does Mountain Meadows deserve in our historical consciousness? I’m not advocating letting it ruin our celebration of pioneer courage and determination, but can and should it be incorporated into our individual narratives of Latter-day Saint history?  


[1] Eric A. Eliason, Celebrating Zion: Pioneers in Mormon Popular Historical Expression (Provo, UT: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History and BYU Studies, 2004), 1.

[2] Eliason, Celebrating Zion, 59.

[3] Steven L. Olsen, “Historic Sites as Institutional Memory,” in Telling the Story of Mormon History: Proceedings of the 2002 Symposium of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University, ed. William G. Hartley (Provo, UT: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, 2004): 122.

[4] Shannon A. Novak and Lars Rodseth, “Remembering Mountain Meadows: Collective Violence and the Manipulation of Social Boundaries,” Journal of Anthropological Research 62:1 (Spring 2006): 4.)

[5] Novak and Rodseth, “Remembering Mountain Meadows,” 19.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Chilling…yet important questions, Chris. I enjoyed this post at both a academic and personal level. (I am also always a sucker when pictures are involved…)

    I’ve never really been that big on Utah history, so I have never been more than just conversant on topics like Mountain Meadows. But, now that I am almost finished with the new book, I am enraptured with the significance that event means for our tradition–both in what the actual historic proceedings along with how we have chosen to (mis)remember it.

    I feel the most important “place” this event deserves in our historical conciousness is an example of when our “checks and balances” system failed; a lesson in never letting up on our idea of right v. of wrong in order to allow others to think for us.

    As to how to incorporate this into our individual narratives…I don’t know. We (not just Mormons, but humans in general) tend to be very selective of what we hold up, and we often choose only that which is uplifting and inspiring, something MMM is not. As your post states, we like to be the victims who later trimphed rather than the victimizers who took others’ lives.

    Comment by Ben — July 30, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  2. Here is a passage from Massacre at Mountain Meadows that I found particularly powerful which goes along with your post:

    People in every society build a memory or reconstruction of the past–the way in which past events are seen or interpreted by new generations. This tendency was certainly true with many of the Mormons and their view of the events leading to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The terrible tragedy was hardly over before a version of events began to form that downplayed the settlers’ wrongs and built up the emigrants’ This retelling made the incidents…into an explanation that gave the atrocity a sense of grim inevitability…
    There were conflicts on the southern road. But the emigrants did not deserve what eventually happened to them at Mountain Meadows. The massacre was not inevitable. No easy absolution for the perpetrators is possible…The best that could be argued was that during a time of uncertainty and possible war, some of the Mormons, like other men and women throughout history, did not match their behavior with their ideals. (pg. 115)

    Comment by Ben — July 30, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  3. Christopher, I don’t have anything particular to add, except my appreciation for a thoughtful post.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 30, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  4. Thanks for this post, Christopher. My uncles always joke that they couldn’t drive past a cemetery without Grandma itching to stop to look for ancestors. That’s in my blood too, I guess, because we regularly go and visit graves of ancestors and historic figures — we visited 2 cemeteries on a road-trip in Minnesota earlier this week.

    I only visited the MMM site for the first time this year too. Like you, I found it a somber experience.

    Comment by John Hamer — July 30, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  5. Ben, thanks for providing the excerpt from the new book, and for your thoughts.

    J., thanks for the kind words.

    John, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I must admit that some of your past posts that included pictures motivated me to do the same with this post. Good to know my family isn’t the only ones who go searching through cemeteries for ancestors and historic figures.

    Comment by Christopher — July 30, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  6. Chris, thanks for this post, it has inspired me as well.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 30, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

  7. Thanks, Chris, for the great pictures and thought-provoking post. I especially like how you juxtapose collective memories that Mormons like to emphasize with the memories of an event that we’d like to forget. Perhaps because I grew up outside of Utah I’ve only recently begun to identify with Pioneer Day as a holiday, but I agree with Eliason about its importance. Likewise with Mountain Meadows. I don’t recall hearing about it growing up, but as an adult I’ve visited the site twice and, as with other sites marked by violent histories, I think it has a sacred aura to it (whether that’s a purely human construction or something that the place actually possesses is debated in the literature).

    Comment by David G. — July 30, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

  8. Chris – Thanks for this. Fascination with our ancestors is deep in our bones for reasons of its own, I think, but here the trope serves two purposes: 7/24 reminds us of our ideals; that we are, as Luther said, iustus, justified, children of God. 9/11 reminds us that simultaneously we are also peccator; sinners, and fallen. Together, I think, this makes a usable Christian past.

    Comment by matt b. — July 30, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

  9. Thanks, Jared, David, and Matt.

    The juxtaposition of the competing memories struck me in ways it never has before, David, probably because I experienced them back-to-back.

    And, Matt, your suggestion that this “makes a usable Christian past” resonates with me and makes sense. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — July 30, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

  10. Chris,

    I don’t have much to add, but I wanted to thank you for the thoughtful post.

    Comment by Joel — July 30, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

  11. Christopher,

    An excellent post and thoughtful questions. I don’t think our collective memory should forget what happened at Mountain Meadows. I am pleased that the Church Historical Department has worked so hard retrieving documents and will shortly make them available. I think the CHD writing a book of the events and it now being available is a positive move.

    I turned to “Blood of the Prophets” and read some interesting history about the historical treatment of the massacre and monument at Mountain Meadows in the twentieth century. One should read chapters 18 and 19 for a full treatment. Here’s a couple of items.

    Joseph Fielding Smith’s “Essentials in Church History” was very destructive for the Lee family. It caused one of Lee’s granddaughters to be ostracized from her Mormon community. Even Anthony Ivin’s told the Lee family Smith’s portrayal was wrong. Heber Grant spoke to the Arizona legislature asking them not to name a bridge span “Lee’s Ferry Bridge”. Ivin’s agreed with Grant saying “We can see no reason why the name and memory of Lee should be perpetuated”.

    At the other end was Cedar Stake President William Palmer who organized and raised funds for the monument to the victims that was built in 1932. Palmer had done this even after church leaders had told him “stay away from there and leave things alone”. Juanita Brooks said about the dedicatory prayer offered by John T. Woodbury “We were humbled before the enormity of what had been done here; we were lifted with a hope and a desire that we should help to right the wrong…Gone were all thoughts of bitterness, or revenge, or scorn”.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — July 31, 2008 @ 12:37 am

  12. Pioneer Day, like Independence Day and other cultural and national celebrations are stylized renditions of the past that mainly serve to celebrate the best of our humanity and to inculcate and encourage positive traits. I think Mountain Meadows carries a more nuanced message that is best considered in a spirit of reflection. While the massacre cannot be hid and should not be ignored, I cannot imagine how it could appropriately be celebrated. Parades would be macabre. A pageant would distort this fact or that, misrepresent parties, and invite recrimination through ritual renewal of the harm done. I think a memorial is fitting because it stands as silent witness, serves as a focus for reflection, and could even be viewed as a mark of covenant showing that such shall not happen again.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — July 31, 2008 @ 12:45 am

  13. […] 2, 2008 Earlier this week, I posted the following over at my other blog, The Juvenile Instructor (a blog run by 10 other LDS graduate students in either history or religious studies and myself), […]

    Pingback by Pioneer Day and Mountain Meadows « CJK — August 2, 2008 @ 2:45 am

  14. Joel, thanks.

    Joe G., Thanks for weighing in. I agree that the new book is an important step. Thanks also for the additional information.

    Ugly Mahana, thanks as well for you thoughts. I certainly am not advocating celebrating MMM in any way. And I agree that the monument(s) erected are an appropriate reminder and witness. As mentioned, the experience was both a somber and touching experience. But within our own individual narratives of LDS history, does it have a place? Is there something Mormons can learn from understanding this tragic and terrible event? If so, should I recommend that others visit the site?

    Comment by Christopher — August 2, 2008 @ 2:58 am

  15. Christopher,

    I must have misunderstood your question. Regardless, I found your comments and the ensuing discussion quite interesting and valuable. Thank you for the photos and the thoughts.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — August 2, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  16. I know this thread has been dead for over a week, but I thought I would add a comment from Ron Walker’s presentation at Sunstone this last weekend related to this subject.

    He said that the Church needs to do three things in order to move on from this horrible event:

    1. We need to know what happened (hopefully the book fulfills this part).
    2. We need to admit guilt and show sorrow (Ron thinks that Pres. Eyring’s “profound regret” statements fulfill this).
    3. We need to come up with a way to remember the tragic massacre in a way that would be both truthful and proper. Obviously, this is still yet to be seen.

    Comment by Ben — August 11, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  17. I should also add that during the question and answer session for this presentation, someone sitting next to Sandra Tanner seriously asked if the Church had paid Oxford to publish the MMM book.

    Comment by Ben — August 11, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  18. I was doing a search on Hayden Wells Church for info for our local pioneer trek in Texas and came across this article. I have always admired Hayden for his faith and courage. I am a descesdant of his brother Isaac Emmons Church. You said Hayden was the only member of his family to make it west, but his brother Thomas Holiday was in Utah in 1880 and died there. I am not sure when he got there, however. I was glad to see that Hayden’s old tombstone finally got to Utah. He has a newer tombstone in Tennessee. And so you will know…some of the descendants of Isaac Emmons Church moved to Texas and are strong members there. Another brother of Hayden’s, Charles Houston Church, started to Utah and his wife got very sick. They went back to Tennessee and his family were strong members there and still are. Thanks for the article.

    Comment by Linda — February 16, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  19. Thanks Linda for the additional info. on the Church family. I appreciate the corrections and general comments.

    Comment by Christopher — February 16, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

  20. […] Remembering 7/24 and 9/11 in Mormon History: A Photo Essay […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From the Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, June-August 2008 — July 3, 2009 @ 4:28 am

  21. Just saw this. Church was my great-great grandfather (not sure if that’s enough ‘greats’). Any additional pictures would be great.

    Comment by Jacob B. — June 3, 2010 @ 12:51 pm


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