The Mountain Meadows Massacre in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

By November 8, 2012

Brigham Young ?has never been less than the tyrant of the Mormon church, and if there does not cleave his soul today the deadly crime of wholesale murder in the massacre of Mountain Meadow, there will be forever, probably, cleave to his name the guilt of that awful slaughter, in the conviction of the American people, who would have indulged in no reprehensible joy, if he had been brought to the bar of human justice for that and the involved iniquities that defame his memory and disgrace his name.?[1]

Young had just died. I?m fascinated by this editorial declaration that on the off chance that God is not holding Young accountable for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the American people will continue to hold him responsible??probably? forever. This is not an aberration. By my estimation, more national column space was devoted to Mountain Meadows on the occasion of Young?s death than the execution of John D. Lee. For this, John Turner accurately calls the massacre a ?dark stain?left on Young?s reputation? and Turner has woven the massacre as a significant thread in his biographical tapestry of Young. (397)

Assessing the role and narrative space allocated to the massacre in Turner?s work is instructive in terms of the choices an author makes in shaping a biography. Any biography is a balancing act. Turner?s attention to the MMM is clearly a response to the consistent attention to Young?s role in the massacre rather than a desire to fuel the consistent suspicions that Young ordered the massacre. The massacre looms large in the last twenty years of his life and in the perception of Young through time. Turner has quite adeptly tried to balance responding to the outside perception of Young and the actual person as he assesses the massacre in Young?s life.  Turner chose to walk through a synthesis narrative of the whole massacre without dependence on Young?s involvement.

Importantly he places the MMM in a larger American context of violence and race in contrast to the majority of insular MMM narratives. Throughout the nineteenth century the MMM was labeled as an unparalleled atrocity, Turner finds similarity in the Sand Creek massacre. He moreover introduces the possible interpretative racial difference between white-on-native (or native-on-white) massacres and ?white-on-white massacres.? (279) He perceptively notes that 1838 Haun?s Mill Massacre stands with the MMM as an exception to the standard massacre narrative of whites versus people of color (or vice versa) in U.S. history.

Any MMM scholar is dependent on Juanita Brooks? foundation and Turner follows in this mode. In building his synthesis, Turner relies heavily on Will Bagley?s Blood of the Prophets narrative without adopting Bagley?s hyperbole and venom in regards to Young. This basis is interspersed with elements from Ron Walker et. al.?s Massacre at Mountain Meadows and a smattering of his own primary research to produce an overall balanced, often nuanced, though sometimes uneven account.    

Turner ignores some of what I see as significant contributions of MatMM. He follows Bagley?s argument that the 1 September meeting of Brigham Young and native leaders leads directly to the massacre. He does not give weight to the MatMM finding that none of the native leaders left Salt Lake in time to reach Southern Utah before the massacre siege began.[2] Later he asserts that local southern Utah leaders surely had knowledge of Young?s new policy without addressing a medium to pass that information. (280) For Turner, Young?s change in Indian policy was to encourage violence rather than choosing to no longer risk Mormon lives to defend emigrants from the Indians.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Turner had to step out to create his own narrative of the investigation and prosecution for the MMM. The result is a broadly drawn narrative of a complicated period. Again he begins to place the prosecution for the massacre in a broad American context, importantly observing that despite the years it took to gain a conviction, the ?failure of justice was not an aberration? mass murder in the years surrounding the civil war ?frequently went unpunished.? (389)

Young?s involvement in the prosecution narrative is limited for Turner and his analysis largely rotates around a single letter between former U.S. attorney turned defense attorney George Bates and Young?s son, J.W. Young. There is very fertile untilled ground here to examine Young?the absence would be problematic in a larger work, but is understandable within Turner?s constraints. Since the prosecution history is my focus, I am particularly attuned to a number of minor errors in this section, though none make really significant interpretative differences.[3]

As others have done previously, Turner focuses considerably on the continued relationship between Young and Lee. Turner uses this relationship as evidence of Young?s capacity to betray, yet the evidence for intimacy is almost entirely one-sided. Young ritually adopted Lee in a sealing ceremony along with 8 other couples in 1846 (Lee was one of more than 30 adopted sons of Young). I have a difficult time reconciling this portrayal of their relationship within the adoption ritual and the waning of ?day-to-day implications? of the ritual as time passed, particularly in light of Jonathan Stapley?s assessment of Lee as ?the frequent locus of conflict? regarding adoption. Further analysis would be required to make Turner?s portrayal convincing.[4]

I was happy to see Turner critique Lee?s (and W.W. Bishop?s) problematic Mormonism Unveiled, one of the most common sources for Young fodder, maintaining, ?that one should hesitate before accepting [Lee?s statements in Mormonism Unveiled] as evidence.? (396) Turner was also privy to newly decoded telegraphs regarding Young?s anxiety over the possibility of arrest for Mountain Meadows. (I?ve talked about that here). This builds on the anxiety that Ben noted during the succession crisis (here), further offering nuance and complexity to the image of an arrogant and confident Lion of the Lord.

Both Amanda and Steve (here and here) have previously commented on Turner?s middle of the road approach, this extends to the Mountain Meadows narrative. As Steve noted, ?Violence incubated by reformation rhetoric, ordered by local church authorities, and tacitly approved of by Young thus foreshadowed, in miniature, the horror of Mountain Meadows. I was somewhat surprised that Turner did not underscore this point more forcefully, but it remains an obvious implication nonetheless.? Throughout the MMM sections, Turner insinuates some powerful implications but couples the insinuations with the prior historiography and then lays out a more explicit analysis of Young?s involvement and accountability.   For Turner, ?there is no satisfactory evidence that Young ordered the massacre,? but Young still bears ?significant responsibility for what happened at Mountain Meadows.? (280) And his inaction post-massacre may have made the ?dark stain? of the massacre indelible.


[1] ?Brigham Young,? The Chicago Standard reprinted in The Cherokee Advocate, 19 September 1877.

[2] MatMM, 147. I acknowledge that the decision of the MatMM authors to rely almost entirely on primary sources without engaging secondary interpretations makes it difficult to recognize the significance of some of these interpretative differences.

[3] A couple examples of this: Turner writes of the letter Isaac C. Haight sent to Young asking his direction and then states that in an affidavit just prior to Lee?s first trial Young ?falsely denied that the letter was in his possession.? (280) Turner bases this on the coded telegram from 1874 in which Young instructs D.H. Wells to put the book with the copy of his response to Haight in the safe. In the affidavit he only commented on not knowing the location of the original letter sent by Haight, rather than his response.  There are also a number of small errors in the investigation and trial chronology: as an example Asst. U.S. Attorney Robert N. Baskin did not give an opening address, only a closing address.


[4] Jonathan Stapley, ?Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,? Journal of Mormon History, 37:2 (Summer 2011), 54-117.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period


  1. Thanks, Janiece. Your perspective is helpful here.

    Comment by David G. — November 8, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  2. Good stuff, Janiece. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — November 8, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

  3. Great stuff, JJ. I love when we have experts to review certain topics.

    Comment by Ben P — November 8, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

  4. Janiece, perhaps this is outside of your review, so I understand if you do not want to comment. JS was famously (and arguably overly) quick to accept those who were willing to at least pledge loyalty to him and the Saints. Do you see any of that dynamic at play with BY, with regards to violence and/or the MMM? That is, was he willing to tolerate the bad behaviour of team members, or was it a utilitarian compramise to preserve the community as a whole, or something else all together?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 8, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  5. Thanks all.

    J.- I think that this is outside my specialty as the legal actions are my major concern. But I think that Young valued loyalty and likewise offered loyalty–particularly as he hunkered down against his federal overseers–at least the federal judges. Speculatively, I think this might have been part of his problem in regards to his lack of action in the prosecution for the massacre.

    Comment by JJohnson — November 8, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

  6. […] JJohnson: The Mountain Meadows Massacre […]

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