Roundtable on Paul Reeve, RELIGION OF A DIFFERENT COLOR: Red, White, and Mormon.

By May 12, 2015

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One day several years ago, I was sitting in my office at the LDS Church History Library reading trial transcripts for the Mountain Meadows Massacre and it suddenly occurred to me that that language being used to describe the Mormons sounded a lot like late nineteenth century language to describe African Americans. The language was racial. This was not a group of early African American Mormon converts that were being described, but a group of Southern Utah settlers, mostly of English descent, whom I had never thought of as anything but white.

For many contemporary Americans the idea that race is a historical construct still seems foreign?race doesn?t change they might say, it just is. (If you fit in that category, perhaps start with this.) In the last twenty years, we have had a proliferation of studies of race built in mostly segregated histories: Indians, African Americans, and whiteness have been central. And while all of these studies have offered insightful arguments about how we construct race and how our perceptions change over time, few have offered intersections beyond oppositional definitions. Reeve?s brilliance is found in these intersections. Rather than starting with and emphasizing Mormon exceptionalism, Reeve broadly contextualizes the evolving concepts of race and the affect on Mormonism.

Reeve?s chapters 2 and 3 illuminate Elder Berry?s American Indian child concentrating on Mormons and Native Americans??Red, White, and Mormon??both the real and the perceived. In chapter 2 it is a Mormon and Indian alliance??Ingratiating themselves with the Indians? and chapter 3 Mormons playing Indian in ?White Indians? that center his analysis.

Reeve begins chapter 2 with a phrase well-known to anyone conversant with Mormon Missouri expulsion history, ?Nits make lice.? However, rather than beginning with the Mormon familiar, he begins with 17th and 18th century precursors?the English subjugation and attempted extermination of the Irish by the English and the Cherokee by Americans?and traces the phrase as it continued to play out in American contexts most often with American Indians but also with the Mormons. This is a continued pattern?the Mormon is important as it exemplifies or counters the contours of broader trends in American history and Reeve navigates them adeptly.

In contrast to other minorities, the Mormons provided their own underpinning for an understanding of a Mormon and Indian alliance. Mormons theologically elevated the position of Native Americans in the Book of Mormon and went on their first organized mission to the Delaware Indians?though none were converted. Reeve points to the poignant irony in that the Book of Mormon curse of blackness was understood to be on the ancestors of Native Americans?the supposed redskins. And though Mormons believed it was their duty to bring about the redemption of the natives, they often used the same language of extermination as other Americans.Reeve

With the 1830s letters of disaffected Mormon Ezra Booth, Reeve turns to one of the earliest critiques of Mormonism. In the letters, Reeve mines a familiar source that?s specific content is sometimes ignored, and finds the root of a consistent fear of a Mormon and Indian alliance and mythic Mormon-Indian savagery that persisted for two decades as the Mormons moved West. This perception became critical. Reeve eloquently argues, ?In their removal westward, Mormons descended the American racial ladder, away from white and closer to red.? (74)

While chapter 2 is a strong and consistent chapter, chapter three is much more intriguing to me, but at the same time possibly more fraught with complications. Within the ?Red, White, and Mormon? section, here Reeve focuses on the idea of white Indians. The concept can be traced to colonial times. Americans saw white Indians as choosing savageness as they played Indian (rather than some desire to regain an aboriginal past as did many whites who played Indian). Mormons marrying Indians, Mormon-Indian alliances, and Mormons dressed as Indians were all central to the perception of Mormons as white Indians. Many Americans were consistent in their concern over boundary maintenance.

I am particularly interested in a 1848 reference to Mormons believing that Indians were ?the Lord?s battle-axe.? (62) Later Reeve mentions that though the concept was attributed to Brigham Young however we only have a record of Young using the phrase once in 1855. Because that becomes a significant theme in how some interpret Young?s relations with the Indians, I would be quite interested in the attribution of the idea. I suspect Reeve would likewise. Were Catherine Lewis and Brigham Young just reading Jeremiah (51:21) as they choose their language or does the idea of a Indians as a battle-ax pre-date our written evidence? I would like to see if those biblical roots are also employed in relation to the Indians when not referencing Mormons.

Mormons positioned themselves to outsiders as triumphal agents of civilization. However positive the Mormon ideal, theological visions of redemption were very difficult to navigate in reality. Thought mercurial policies governed the role of Mormons marrying natives, it was generally approved among Indian missionaries. Mormons mainly saw miscegenation between Mormons and Indians as a positive that would bring whiteness and civilization and redemption to the Indians. To me, this almost seems like an intriguing inverse of the one-drop policies that would be codified in early twentieth century America for those of African descent (chapter 7). Marrying, baptizing, and becoming friends with the natives all crossed critical boundaries for many Americans.

Reeve argues that more than anything the Utah War and Mountain Meadows Massacre raised fears of that Mormon-Indian alliance. Though Brigham Young worked to form a steadfast alliance with the natives, he was never wholly successful. Mountain Meadows became a critical turning point as imagined fears become the reality. In the American imagination Mormons were dressing as Indians before Mountain Meadows but after the massacre it was no longer merely perception?it was the ?most compelling evidence of those accusations.? (98)

In a minor issue, Reeve argues that the 1850s were ?replete with tales of Mormons and their murderous exploits as white Indians.? (90) Though Reeve walks through at least some of the dissemination of William (brother of Joseph) Smith?s 1850 story depicting murdering Mormons dressed as Indians and Alfreda Eva Bell’s 1855 Boadicia, I am not convinced it was ?replete.? There were plenty of stories of white Indians circulating in the 1850s and 1860s?both before and after the massacre many of which had no relation to the Mormons.[1] Even Brigham Young warned his people against white Indians, ?numerous and well organized band of white highwaymen, painted and disguised as Indians, infest several points on the road, who drive off stock by wholesale, and recent murders are rumored from that quarter.? [2] Only after the massacre, were some of these reports then thought to be Mormons. In the case of the San Joaquin Republican, which Reeve quotes, after the massacre they then knew the white Indians were all Mormons.[3]

Reeve spends considerable time with the theme of Mormons dressed as Indians, which catches like wildfire after the massacre. The attributed source of the original account of Mormons painted as Indians at the massacre was an Indian leader, Jackson. However, his testimony was elicited after U.S. Army officials were said to have ?caught [him], put a rope around his neck, draged [sic] him about, threatened to hang him, [until] he got away swearing vengeance.?[4] Though the Mormon source is clearly antagonistic to the Army, it points to the possibility of coerced or at least problematic testimony. (Mormon Ellott Willden provides another account, of just two Mormons painting themselves and playing Indian?however that source was not public until a few years ago.) Whatever the source, the description was repeated again and again mixing with the already present imagery to forcefully promulgate this very visual notion of white Mormon Indians. [5]

Reeve argues that the imagery would retain its power through the end of the 19th century, the last critical moment came as Mormons were brought into accusations about the Ghost Dance. Reeve importantly points out the similarities based in reality. Mormons, like the Indians, and the Chinese were seen to be racially inferior Others that troubled America. Mormon actions reinforced their own Otherness and their inability to find their American place.

As Ben noted in his overview of the book (here) in many instances Reeve has to choose between litanies of potential examples. Once you begin to notice the racial language, it is everywhere. My own research intersects with Reeve’s, as I read a constant stream of questions pass through my head–What about this? How does this specific example fit? Does this example offer a critique of the argument? There is an inherent difficulty in working to make a comprehensive argument while choosing a few representative sources to deeply mine. In these chapters, Reeve adroitly negotiates that difficulty as he demonstrated the specific peculiarities of the Mormon body as it became Indian ?and revealed [its] true nature to the suspicious outside world.” (105)


[1] ?Savage, the White Indian Chief,? Greenville Mountaineer (Greenville, SC), Thursday, 19 May 1853, 52: col. E; ?A White Indian,? The Cleveland Herald (Cleveland, OH), Tuesday 8 Feb. 1853, 33: col. D; ?Over the Plains,? Daily Alta California, 8 July 1857; the San Andreas Independent, [n.d.]. as cited in ?Further from the Plains,? San Joaquin Republican (Stockton, CA), 8 Nov. 1857; ?Later from Carson Valley?Arrival of Emigrants at Placerville?Affairs on the Plains,? San Joaquin Republican (Stockton, CA), 18 Aug. 1857; William H. Cureton, ?Trekking to California? Typescript, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, entry 23 Aug.; ?Immigrants,? Sacramento Daily Bee, 6 Oct. 1857; ?Reminiscences of an Old Traveler,? The Congregationalist, (Boston, MA) Friday, 28 Sept. 1866, 156:39 col. A; ?Local Intelligence,? The Weekly Arizona Miner (Prescott, AZ), Saturday, 25 Dec. 1869, 50; William Audley Maxwell, Crossing the Plains, Days of ?57. A Narrative of Early Emigrant Travel to California by the Ox-Team Method (San Francisco, CA: Sunset Publishing House, 1915), 135? 39; ?A.B. Greenwood to Jacob Thompson, 26 Nov. 1859,? in U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Accompanying the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior for the Year 1859 (Washington, DC: George W. Bowman, 1860), 21?22.

[2] “Emigration,? Deseret News, 13 July 1854.

[3] ?Mormons in the Capacity of Savages,? San Joaquin Republican, 29 October 1857.

[4] Wm. Dame to George A. Smith, 18 May 1859, George A. Smith Papers, CHL.

[5] Interestingly, the creek where the Mormons were said to have washed the paint from their faces after the massacre was alternately called both Pinto and Painter Creek in the John D. Lee trial transcripts.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating review, thanks JJ. I wonder how the Mormon reaction to being compared to Native Americans was shaped by the LDS belief in the redemption of “Lamanites.”

    Comment by J Stuart — May 12, 2015 @ 8:39 am

  2. This is a really great review, Janiece. Your thoughts about the book intersecting with material familiar to you resonated. I was aware of several documents/examples/cases that were not included, but that I thought were compelling. I was also aware that Paul was aware of a number of those. Consequently it was interesting for me to see how he curated his narrative. I have an impulse to be less selective, so it was a good exercise for me to evaluate those choices.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 12, 2015 @ 10:33 am

  3. Great stuff, Janiece. I was surprised at how much new stuff I read regarding the Mormon/Indian relationship in territorial Utah, and I enjoyed how Reeve used Booth as a useful framing for the dialogue that came after him.

    Comment by Ben P — May 12, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

  4. Great overview of the issues, Janiece.

    Two things in particular struck me from these chapters. First was that the Mormons themselves were at times ambivalent about the place of individual Natives/groups in relation to Mormonism, vacillating between Natives as Israelites and Natives as “Gadianton Robbers,” referring to the depraved Book of Mormon group (77-79). The complicated relationship “on the front lines” was ignored by critics of Mormonism, who portrayed the Natives and Mormons as allies. The story of Mormon enemies’ ascription of non-white characteristics and Mormon aspiration to whiteness continued, in this respect.

    The second thing that stood out to me was the sexualization of the Mormon relationship with natives, later fueled by fears of the extent to which polygamy would be practiced. The counsel to marry Indian wives was one of Booth’s criticisms of Mormonism (63), and its later practice in the Mormon West (with as many as 80 such marriages taking place) seemed to vindicate the ideas of Mormons as race-traitor savages contributing to the backwards digression of civilization (see 80-87, esp. 86-87; and Reeve’s earlier discussion on polygamy and the Victorian sexual ideal on 41-43)

    Comment by Nate R. — May 12, 2015 @ 12:56 pm

  5. Thanks, Janiece. Although secondary to Paul’s innovative reading of racialization, I think these chapters also provide the go-to account of 19th c. Mormon-Indian relations in print. It’s a real contribution. As part of this, Paul does a great job of highlighting indigenous agency in the Great Basin, showing how Natives worked with and against the Mormon settlers and the federal government.

    Comment by David G. — May 12, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

  6. Thanks all. It is a great book.

    JStuart- Though we don’t get much more than “They (the Americans) don’t even think we’re white” I’m sure the responses would go. Somewhere between that redemptive possibility to feeling like you’ve been called a Gadianton robber. I’m not sure they’d pleasantly whatever end of the spectrum.

    Stapley- I think there is a really great example of curation here. How much evidence and close reading is required to make a convincing argument?

    BenP- While much of the material wasn’t new to me, I thought Booth was a really effective way to frame it too. The presence of Booth’s letters is much better known than the specific content and the content is really significant.

    Nate-Thanks for mentioning the Gadianton/redemption spectrum. And omnipresent gender ideals. We can’t move far from polygamy in this period.

    David- Great point. It is a succinct and important synthesis. As a side note, I had BYUi Church History students read chapter 2 and they did really well with it. Chapter 5 was a little more trying.

    Comment by JJohnson — May 12, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

  7. J, I’m intrigued by your very last comment, that your students did “really well” with Chapter 2 and that Chapter 5 was “a little more trying.”

    In what ways did they find Chapter 5 more difficult? (I have an idea but don’t want to steer your response.)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — May 13, 2015 @ 9:17 am

  8. I agree with you that a lot of the material in these chapters wasn’t particularly new, but that it was well-summarized. I also agree with Nate R. above that a standout section was Reeve’s highlighting of how Gentiles took issue with intermarriage.

    There are more sources concerning Mormon “white Indians” than Reeve discussed. Indians were scapegoated for the Aiken murders, and Mary Ettie Smith claimed to be an eyewitness to Mormon men disguising themselves as Indians in order to murder Alonzo Bowman. The Gunnison murders were also blamed on disguised Mormons, though in that case the charge was clearly false.

    Comment by Chris Smith — May 14, 2015 @ 2:06 am

  9. I do think that much of this material will be new to many and I think David importantly points out that this is now the go-to piece on 19th c. Indian-Mormon relations. More than once I wished I had all of this as I worked on my diss. Thankfully, I now have it for the next version.

    Ardis- Part of it was the students that tried to present on it, but they really struggled with the complexity of the argument in Chapter 5. They got Paul’s comparisons–white slavery, black slavery, and indian slavery, but I’m not sure they could even process what was going on in 1852 in regards to race, even with the introduction that I offered them. Of course maybe that was inadequate….I will have to think about how I do it next time. I will likely teach the whole lecture without relying on students to understand and present it to others and just have students read an excerpt–maybe the primary source of Brigham’s speech. Maybe the others too. It will be great to have the further explication through LaJean and Paul’s work.

    Comment by JJohnson — May 18, 2015 @ 12:21 am

  10. […] other JI reviewers each raise incisive points of their own. J. Johnson points to the ?battle axe? of the Lord meme in Mormon-Indian history and wants a more complete cultural exploration of its origins and usage […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Author Meets Roundtable: Paul Reeve Responds — June 17, 2015 @ 8:05 am


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