Sally Denton's American Massacre:
Authentic Mormon Past versus the Danite Interpretation of History
Sally Denton’s American Massacre: Authentic Mormon Past versus the
Danite Interpretation of History
Reviewed by Robert H. Briggs
In 1950 Juanita Brooks authored her now-classic history, The Mountain Meadows
Massacre.1 In 1962 she published a revised edition and in 1970 added a
new introduction, correcting minor errors and offering refinements in her views.
Then in 1976 William Wise wrote Massacre at Mountain Meadows.2 But
Wise was not up to the challenge of this daunting historiographical problem.
Based largely on secondary sources and full of stock heroes and villains from
the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anti-Mormon Danite genre, Massacre
at Mountain Meadows could not boast of nuance, rigor, or sophistication
in its treatment of sources. It is among the worst of the twentieth-century
treatments of the massacre.
In 2002 Will Bagley published Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and
the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.3 Although Bagley’s work was flawed by
his jaundiced view of Brigham Young and an inconsistent interpretive framework,
it at least had the advantage of his familiarity with the primary sources of
the massacre and with Utah and Western history generally. Now Sally Denton offers
us American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857.
Just as Wise borrowed heavily from Brooks, so, too, does Denton borrow from
Bagley, R. Kent Fielding, and others who have written recent treatments of frontier
Utah. Mostly, however, she relies on the old counter-Mormon literature. Unfortunately,
Sally Denton’s American Massacre has done little to advance our understanding
of the massacre or its many challenging historiographical problems.
American Massacre is divided into a prologue, three parts, and an
epilogue. The first part deals with the founding and growth of the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The second traces the 1857 passage of the
Fancher train through frontier Utah at the outbreak of the Utah War to the bloody
massacre at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah Territory. The third treats events
after the massacre: the settlement of the Utah War, the government investigations
in the late 1850s, and the trial, conviction, and execution of John D. Lee in
the 1870s. The brief epilogue sketches the impact of the massacre on such figures
as Mormon leader Brigham Young, perpetrator John D. Lee, mediator Thomas Kane,
Judge John Cradlebaugh, and survivor Sarah Dunlap. It concludes with the discovery
of human bones during repairs to the cairn monument in 1999, with some observations
on contemporary issues concerning the massacre site.
In part 1, “The Gathering,” Denton describes Joseph Smith and the
religious movement he founded. She traces the progress of the church from New
York to Kirtland, Ohio, and then to Jackson County, Missouri. Denton follows
the well-trod history of the growth of the church, the gathering of the faithful
into centralized locations, the clashes with old settlers and detractors, the
death of the prophet-leader Joseph Smith, and the beginning of the western exodus
under Brigham Young to the Great Basin of the American West. She leaves off
with the Gunnison massacre of 1853 on the Sevier River in central Utah.
Denton’s discussion of Joseph Smith is influenced by the controversial
psychoanalytical methods of Fawn M. Brodie and Robert D. Anderson.4 She seems
unaware of the weakness in these psychoanalytical approaches or in psychiatry’s
efforts to regain its scientific footing by distancing itself from the excessive
claims of Freudian analysis in its early history.5
Denton also relies heavily on the work of R. Kent Fielding, whose 1993 study,
The Unsolicited Chronicler,6 argues for Mormon involvement in the deaths
of John W. Gunnison, his Mormon guide, and six members of Gunnison’s survey
party in central Utah. In her acknowledgments, Denton lists Fielding first and
acknowledges her special debt to him. She cites the Fieldings’ works, The
Unsolicited Chronicler and The Tribune Reports of the Trials of John
D. Lee,7 some seventy times, more than David Bigler and Will Bagley combined.
Again, Denton seems unaware of the controversial nature of Fielding’s Gunnison
massacre thesis or that it represents a minority view among Western historians.8
She relies heavily on Fielding for her interpretation of both the Gunnison and
Mountain Meadows massacres.
Continuing her synthesis of questionable or controversial secondary sources,
Denton argues in part 2, “The Passage,” that the “heart”
of the Mormon reformation was “the revival of blood atonement” (p. 106).
However, there is stronger evidence that the heart of the reformation was instead
personal reformation, communal economic innovations, and a dramatic increase
in the number of those entering plural marriage. Having introduced her readers
to “Danite chief Bill Hickman” (p. 81), Denton henceforth conflates
every other Mormon marshal, militiaman, or church official into a “Danite.”
Thus she identifies Anson Call as a Danite (p. 85), she cites the alleged
work of Brigham Young’s “Avenging Angels” (p. 106), and
she claims that federal officials could not challenge the “vigilante tactics
of the Danites” (p. 108). She describes John D. Lee’s “status
with the Danites” in southern Utah (p. 154) and presents the Nauvoo
Legion’s tactical repulse of Colonel Johnston’s Utah expeditionary
force in eastern Utah as “the Danites [burning] Fort Bridger” and
“forty-four Danites [raiding] an army supply train” (p. 168).
When in summer 1858 the Latter-day Saints returned to Great Salt Lake City from
the “Move South,” Denton maintains that Brigham Young “surrounded
his properties with Danites” (p. 184). Describing Amasa Lyman as
“devout and kindhearted,” Denton says further that Lyman was “a
high priest, apostle, and Danite since the early days at Kirtland” (p. 212).
She notes that Lyman urged participants in the massacre to make “‘full
confession and take the consequences.'” Then, dramatically, she
concludes: “[Lyman] would be excommunicated” (p. 212). This
juxtaposition insinuates that Lyman’s observations about the massacre
may have cost him his church membership. Of course, it was his dalliance in
spiritualism and other matters, not Mountain Meadows, that led to Lyman’s
excommunication.9 Seeing Danites everywhere, it is only a small step for Denton
to conclude that the Mountain Meadows massacre was the work of Mormon Danites
under orders of the Mormon prophet Brigham Young.
In part 3, “The Legacy,” Denton narrates the two-decade period from the massacre
through the conviction and execution of John D. Lee. Borrowing again from Fielding
and Bagley, she analyzes the massacre. Then returning to surer ground, Denton
describes the events of 1858, including the work of Thomas L. Kane as mediator
of the Washington-Mormon disputes, the appointment of peace commissioners, and
the presidential pardon and resolution of the Utah War. By 1859, the influx
of government officials and soldiers temporarily energized the massacre investigation.
Denton describes the work of Judge John Cradlebaugh, Utah Indian Superintendent
Jacob Forney, U.S. Army Captains James Lynch and Reuben P. Campbell, Army surgeon
Dr. Charles Brewer, and U.S. Marshal William Rogers, who in the course of their
duties acquired information concerning the massacre and left reports or correspondence
later collected in important government documents. During most of the 1860s
the overriding governmental preoccupation was, of course, the Civil War and
its aftermath. Meanwhile, in 1861 Mark Twain described the massacre in Roughing
It. In the mid-1860s, disaffected Mormon Charles Wandell, using the pseudonym
Argus, published an exposé of the massacre in the Utah Reporter
and loudly queried why the perpetrators had not been prosecuted. As the 1860s
gave way to the 1870s, wealthy Mormon William Godbe formed the Godbeite group.
After his excommunication from the Church of Jesus Christ, Godbe started the
Mormon Tribune, which later became the Salt Lake Daily Tribune.
Eventually sold to gentile interests in Salt Lake City, the Daily Tribune
became the mouthpiece for the most vocal and strident of the anti-Mormons in
Meanwhile, in 1870 Brigham Young excommunicated John D. Lee, who moved with
his remaining families to Lonely Dell at the confluence of the Paria and Colorado
rivers in northern Arizona. Hoping to escape notice, Lee plied his ferry trade
on the Colorado. But in 1871 Philip Klingensmith, the former Mormon bishop in
Cedar City and a massacre participant, provided an affidavit to court officials
in Pioche, Nevada, that was leaked to the press and widely circulated in 1872.
This and other events rekindled interest in prosecuting massacre perpetrators.
Passage of the Poland Act in 1874 strengthened the jurisdiction of federal courts
in Utah. Sitting in the second district court in Beaver, Judge Jacob Boreman’s
grand jury issued an indictment for murder against nine alleged perpetrators.
The leading defendants were William H. Dame, Isaac C. Haight, John M. Higbee,
Philip Klingensmith, John D. Lee, and William Stewart.
Denton closes with the two trials of John D. Lee. The first, which took place
in summer 1875, concluded in a hung jury, nine to three for acquittal. For the
second trial in 1876, Sumner Howard had replaced William Carey as U.S. attorney
in Utah Territory. In a controversial move, Howard sought Mormon cooperation
in obtaining new witnesses to overcome the weaknesses of the prosecution’s
case in the first trial. With introductions from Mormon leadership, Howard interviewed
Mormon wagon drivers Samuel Knight and Samuel McMurdy and Indian interpreter
Nephi Johnson, all of whom had been at the massacre and near Lee. At the second
trial in September 1876, Howard presented a lean but focused case, calling these
witnesses as well as Jacob Hamblin who, while not at the massacre, had an interview
with Lee some days after it. Lee’s defense lawyers were not able to shake
the prosecution witnesses nor did they call any witnesses of their own in rebuttal.
The jury convicted Lee of first-degree murder, and Judge Boreman sentenced Lee
to death. Lee chose the option of dying by firing squad. After his legal appeals
and request for clemency were denied, Lee was executed at Mountain Meadows on
23 March 1877.
Denton, like Bagley, argues that there was a corrupt “deal” between
the U.S. attorney for Utah and the Mormon prophet. According to this argument,
the quid pro quo in the corrupt bargain was Mormon guarantees of a conviction
of John D. Lee in exchange for federal prosecutor guarantees that further Mountain
Meadows prosecutions would be dropped. This argument is entirely circumstantial,
while the countervailing evidence is the little-known, behind-the-scenes efforts
of Howard, Judge Boreman, and others to pursue prosecution of massacre defendants
and fugitives from justice—Isaac Haight, John Higbee, and William Stewart.10
But as Congress never approved the funding requests from Utah officials, the
fugitives were never captured. Besides, the nation was pursuing an impassioned
antipolygamy crusade against the Mormon leadership. In 1877, after the deaths
of Brigham Young and George A. Smith, there was more bang for the congressional
buck in antipolygamy measures than in Mountain Meadows prosecutions. Thus, as
federal antipolygamy efforts and funding increased, Mountain Meadows prosecutions
declined correspondingly. The public soon lost interest.
This third part is not without its shortcomings—examples include Denton’s
faulty massacre analysis in chapter 11 and her theory of a corrupt “deal”
between Howard and Young in chapter 15. Yet this section is better than either
of the first two since the errors of fact and interpretation are less frequent
and less glaring. Additionally, while still demonstrating her considerable skills
at synthesis and prose style, Denton shows that she can approach balance and
evenhandedness in treating the Mormon past, if not actually achieving it. Here
at least, the Danite interpretation of Latter-day Saint history is less apparent.
Denton tells a rip-roaring tale with both economy and color. She also shows
skill in synthesizing secondary sources. With better knowledge of her sources
and more care in interpreting them, she could be a skillful popularizer. Although
she interjects the opinions of past writers on the massacre far too often—quoting,
for example, Stenhouse, Gibbs, Brooks, Wise, Fielding, Quinn, Bigler, and Bagley
at excessive length—she organizes her sources and maintains a coherent
narrative thread. How, then, did her project miscarry so badly?
Denton’s book is marred by errors of fact and interpretation too numerous
to list. These difficulties mostly stem from Denton’s uncritical use of
sources. The book’s shortcomings can be thus summarized:
- Of the many eyewitnesses to the massacre, John D. Lee is relied upon
- Lee’s views and opinions on militia aims, means, and motives need
counterbalancing, yet there are virtually no references to other militia eyewitnesses.
- A critical method for interpreting the John D. Lee accounts (or any
others) is lacking.
- Heavy reliance is placed on secondary sources and on counter-Mormon
sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
- There is no discernible method or effort to distinguish between evidence
(eyewitness accounts in primary sources) and rumor (e.g., in the works of
the Stenhouses and the Salt Lake Daily Tribune, etc.).
Denton cites sources by or about John D. Lee more than one hundred thirty times.11
Besides Lee, the only other perpetrator accounts she mentions are those of former
Mormon bishop Philip Klingensmith, whom she cites seven times. Are these sources
sufficient? Since the human enterprise we call “writing history”
condenses the complexity of the past, is the “history” (the narrative
account) representative of the “past” (the actual complex of events
and actors) under consideration? Specifically, is Denton’s narrative synthesis
representative of the authentic source material?
I have provided an appendix listing key primary sources. Before the reader forms
his or her opinion, consider the extent of the sources listed there. These were
witnesses to events surrounding the massacre or to important episodes in its
aftermath. Most are militiamen of the Iron Military District in southern Utah.
What the appendix shows is that, besides John D. Lee, more than sixty additional
witnesses provide approximately eighty-five additional primary documents, very
few of which Sally Denton considers in her study. On this ground alone, Denton’s
treatment of the massacre is inadequate.
Reliable Methods of Interpretation
To be sure, John D. Lee is an important source, and his statements should be
considered in reconstructing the massacre. By Lee’s own account, he played
a central role in the deadly affair. But Denton does not address the obvious
question about the reliability of Lee’s accounts: After Lee’s 1876
murder conviction branded him the most notorious mass murderer in the nineteenth-century
American West, wouldn’t he logically be tempted to shade his account to
justify his own conduct or deflect blame to others? Put another way, how reliable
are the accounts of John D. Lee?
In evaluating John D. Lee and every other witness or alleged perpetrator at
Mountain Meadows, one should require verification of details from other reliable
sources. Next, as I have argued elsewhere,12 close analysis of the text of the
perpetrator or witness narratives shows that they are composed of different
elements, some of which are more reliable than others. Among the perpetrators
of the massacre, their narrative accounts are a form of apologia—verbal
accounts structured as a defense or justification. Many of the accounts have
one or more main thematic points whose function is to excuse or justify the
narrator. These are sustained by subsidiary themes supporting the main themes.
To a surprising degree, however, many of the accounts contain a second component,
elements that admit or confess to participation in crime. Both common sense
and the common and statutory law of many jurisdictions interpret such statements
in this light: individuals would not make such admissions against their personal
interests unless they were true. Thus, given the improbability that a militiaman
would make such a confession unless it was true, these statements are reliable,
especially when independently verified.
The militia statements also contain a third element, “incidental detail.”
These are elements in the narrative that are neither part of the defense nor
of the (possibly unintended) confessions, about which each narrator would have
“no reason to lie.” When independently verified from other sources,
these elements are likely reliable. Thus within each militia statement we may
find elements of varying degrees of veracity. The most reliable element is a
confession or admission of criminal involvement. The next most reliable element
is incidental details, particularly when independently verified. The least reliable
is the apologia itself with its evasions, denials, and excuses.
If we impose the requirement of verification or corroboration on these categories,
it yields a useful hierarchy of reliability that we can apply to perpetrator
and witness accounts alike. Elements of a statement can be ranked from lesser
to greater reliability as follows:
- Accusations against others, uncorroborated
- Incidental detail, uncorroborated
- Confessions, uncorroborated
- Accusations against others corroborated by other reliable evidence
- Incidental detail corroborated by other reliable evidence
- Confessions corroborated by other reliable evidence
As a general rule, then, if one confesses his or her personal involvement in
crime and the involvement is verified by others, it is trustworthy. Similarly,
incidental detail (things about which there is no reason to lie), when verified
by others, is also reliable.
Consider the example of John D. Lee’s account as contained in Mormonism
Unveiled, the posthumous work edited and published by his lead defense
lawyer, William W. Bishop, upon which Denton relies so heavily. For this discussion
I will operate under the assumption that John D. Lee authored the manuscript
on which the first edition of Mormonism Unveiled13 was based and that
it substantially conforms to Lee’s (now lost) manuscript. However, readers should
be aware that even with the original 1877 Mormonism Unveiled, there
are lingering concerns about the reliability of the text because of possible
editorial changes made to Lee’s manuscript by Bishop or possibly other editorial
hands. Thus Samuel Nyal Henrie argues that after Lee’s death, “his manuscripts
were sent to a St. Louis publisher who padded them with anti-Mormon introductions,
commentaries, interpolations and appendices. His last writings, which were intended
only to recover some of his reputation by telling the true story, were instead
propagated in the Midwest and East under an unauthorized title, MORMONISM
UNVEILED.”14 Concerns about later editions, including the 1891 edition
upon which Denton relies, are magnified because of interpolations in these later
With this caveat in mind, we turn to Mormonism Unveiled.15 The John
D. Lee of Mormonism Unveiled presents an apologia consisting of defenses,
self-justifications, and accusations against others. But the book also contains
confessions and intriguing incidental details. Mormonism Unveiled and
the 1877 Lee-Howard statement contain admissions of John D. Lee that focus on
his own role before, during, and after the massacre, among which are these:
- Lee considered that killing the Arkansas company was in keeping with
his religious vows.
- In a militia planning meeting in Cedar City, Lee discussed plans for
an attack on the emigrant company with fellow militia major, Isaac Haight.
- Following that meeting and while en route to his home at Fort Harmony,
Lee told Paiutes bound for the Mountain Meadows that he would meet them there
and lead them.
- He conveyed orders to other militiamen to send Paiutes to the Meadows.
- On the day of the first attack, Monday, 7 September 1857, Lee was the
only white man present.
- In one incident that day, Lee was so close to the fighting that he was
shot through his shirt and hat.
- He had multiple interactions with the Indians during the week.
- He was seen by the emigrant camp at a distance and by two emigrant boys
at close range.
- During the night before the main massacre, Lee was present in the militia
council at Mountain Meadows that developed the massacre plan.
- On the day of the main massacre, Friday, 11 September 1857, Lee went
to the emigrant camp and delivered deceptive terms of surrender to decoy the
emigrants from their protective enclosure.
- He was selected to convey to Brigham Young an account of the massacre.
- In his role as Indian farmer, he made a false financial report of expenses
for Indians involved in the massacre.
Implicit in Lee’s confession is his position as the senior militia officer with
operational command and control of the militia in the field at Mountain Meadows.
Thus, the John D. Lee of Mormonism Unveiled admitted his criminal involvement
in key aspects of the massacre and its aftermath. Since many of these elements
are also verified by other sources, they are highly reliable.16
At the opposite end of the reliability scale are the elements of Mormonism
Unveiled containing Lee’s self-justifications or accusations against others.
- At the outbreak of the Utah War in late summer 1857, when Mormon leader
George A. Smith toured the southern settlements, Smith discussed with Lee measures
against overland emigrants, not U.S. expeditionary troops.
- In a militia planning council in Cedar City in early September 1857,
Lee acted under compulsion, not voluntarily, when he assumed the role of leading
the Paiutes at Mountain Meadows.
- Lee arrived at the Mountain Meadows after the first attack but was not
present for any part of it.
- After the first attack, Lee discouraged rather than encouraged further
Paiute attacks on the emigrant company.
- In the militia council at Mountain Meadows the night before the main
massacre, Lee was the lone voice pleading that the emigrants be released unharmed.
- On the day of the massacre, Lee acted under orders, not on his own initiative
as a leading militia field officer, when entering the emigrant camp.
- During the massacre, it was his fellow militiamen, not Lee, who killed
the wounded men and women riding near Lee.
- In his meeting with Mormon leaders in Great Salt Lake City some weeks
later, Lee disclosed fully the role of the Iron County militiamen in the massacre,
including his central role, rather than suppressing these facts.
As contained in Mormonism Unveiled and the Lee-Howard statement, Lee’s
defense is to blame others. Therefore, unless verified by other reliable evidence,
we should be skeptical of these accusations.
Where Denton goes awry, then, is in her nearly exclusive use of Mormonism
Unveiled for eyewitness observations and her failure to use any discernible
critical method in interpreting it. Before relying on the unsubstantiated portions
of Mormonism Unveiled, serious students of the massacre must grapple
with the reliability issue. This Denton fails to do.
The Larger Issue—Bias in the Nineteenth-Century Counter-Mormon Canon
Besides John D. Lee, Sally Denton cites the nineteenth-century works of the
Stenhouses, Rocky Mountain Saints and “Tell It All,” some
sixty times.17 Next, she cites the most virulent anti-Mormon nineteenth-century
Utah newspaper, the Salt Lake Daily Tribune some thirty-six times.18
Denton cites other works in the same mold: C. V. Waite, The Mormon
Prophet; C. P. Lyford, The Mormon Problem; Ann Eliza Young,
Wife No. 19; Bill Hickman, Brigham’s Destroying Angel; Nelson Winch Green,
Fifteen Years among the Mormons; B. G. Parker, Recollections of
the Mountain Meadow Massacre; Josiah F. Gibbs, The Mountain Meadows
Massacre; and Frank J. Cannon, Brigham Young.19
These works are representative of a larger body of literature that we may term
the nineteenth-century counter-Mormon canon. It is not that these works are
wholly unreliable. If nothing else, singly and collectively, they remind us
of the virulence of the period. In addition, they contain perceptions and interpretations
of past events useful to the historian. But to illustrate the problem of both
patent and latent bias in these early sources, let’s briefly examine a
similar problem in another context: the problem of bias in Euro-American sources
of Native American peoples.
Beginning five hundred years ago, the Indians of North America were uprooted,
first by Europeans and then by Euro-Americans. Not surprisingly, the history
of these successive eras has largely been written by Euro-Americans. By and
large, what survives from that long period of colonization is European and Euro-American
source materials. These sources contain the unconscious biases, prejudices,
and assumptions of the Euro-American colonizers. Similarly, the majority of
the Euro-American histories of Indian peoples have unconsciously received and
reflected the biases and presuppositions in the sources.
Now, however, new historical aims and methods have changed the field. Part of
these new approaches involves a self-conscious effort to shed past prejudices
against native peoples. Of course the old, biased sources are still used. But
now the historian or ethnohistorian makes conscious efforts to shear away the
blatant prejudices and even the hidden biases of the past. Used consistently,
this interpretative method is a means to achieving a sympathetic treatment of
Indian peoples and cultures, one that reflects their own self-understanding
rather than a Euro-American one.20
Robert M. Utley’s 1984 study, The Indian Frontier of the American West,
1846-1890, illustrates this approach and makes an additional point. In
the foreword, distinguished Western historians Howard R. Lamar, Martin Ridge,
and David J. Weber comment on one of the “arresting themes” in Utley’s study:
“that two thought worlds existed neither of which ever understood the other.”21
This observation is equally true of Protestants and Latter-day Saints in nineteenth-century
America. Both strove to be the Christian light on a hill to the world. Both
made exclusive claims to be God’s chosen. This made their positions irreconcilable.
Further, more than is generally recognized, many Protestant reformers pursued
the moral and political crusades of the nineteenth century in the hope that
America would be established as a Protestant nation. Abolitionism, Southern
reconstruction, antipolygamy, prohibition, and Sunday closing laws were among
the most prominent of these crusades.
Focusing on the antipolygamy crusade, we are shocked even today by its energy,
zeal, and excesses. We need only recall that the antipolygamy legislation, from
Morrill (1862) to Edmunds-Tucker (1887), eventually criminalized the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members, including law-abiding
monogamists. Thus, to vote in Idaho, each male of legal age had to deny affiliation
with the church, even if, like most of the Saints, he was monogamous. The effect
was to disenfranchise all Mormon males. In Davis v. Beason (1890),22 the United
States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, upheld the government position,
noting that the free-exercise clause was bounded by the concept of “general
Christianity” and the recognition that legislatures could criminalize
those acts “recognized by the general consent of the Christian [i.e.,
Protestant] world in modern times as proper matters for prohibitory legislation.”23
American courts began the nineteenth century by reading the common law as
protecting or privileging general Protestantism. They concluded the century
by reading constitutional law in a similar light: they viewed the United States
Constitution as incorporating and protecting general Protestantism. The Latter-day
Saint position was swept aside by the assumption that the Constitution
protected general Protestantism, which in turn could define those acts to criminalize
under the law. In keeping with Protestant assumptions, the penal law criminalized
bigamy and, by extension, polygamy. Thus it was impossible that there could
be a valid constitutional basis for the plural marriage system under the First
Amendment free exercise of religion clause. Why? Because general Protestantism,
not the upstart Church of Jesus Christ, defined and dictated the limits of the
free exercise of religion.24 Ipso facto, the Latter-day Saint position was beyond
What does this have to do with the Mountain Meadows massacre and its sources?
Everything. It means that, like whites and Indians, Protestants and Latter-day
Saints constituted “two thought worlds . . . neither of which
ever understood the other.” It means that whatever the theological differences
over the Godhead, the Christian canon, or religious authority, it was polygamy
that antagonized the Protestant majority. It was polygamy that made the Saints
seem more “Asiatic” than American to most Protestants. It was the
direct challenge that Mormon polygamy hurled at Protestant public morality that
caused late nineteenth-century Protestants to view the Church of Jesus Christ
as a counter-Protestant, if not anti-Protestant, religion. And it was polygamy
that galvanized widely divergent Protestant denominations into a united politico-moral
crusade against the church. The resulting clash produced bitter hostility among
the antagonists. That virulence of feeling is reflected as a blatant anti-Mormonism
in most late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature on the Saints,
including the sources and literature dealing with the Mountain Meadows massacre.
Of course, the Saints had both patent and latent biases, too. But in the historiography
of the massacre, historians have been aware of an LDS bias in the LDS sources,
yet not always fully aware of anti-Mormon bias in the non-Mormon sources.
An interesting example is the Fieldings’ Tribune Reports on the trials
of John D. Lee. In their commentary, the Fieldings do not consider whether the
Salt Lake Daily Tribune might have been slanted toward the anti-Mormon
political propaganda objectives of the Liberals. Unconsciously they accept the
Liberal party line and are oblivious to bias in the Daily Tribune‘s
reporting. Thus, the Salt Lake Daily Tribune‘s series on the Lee trials
reflects nineteenth-century anti-Mormon prejudice while the Fieldings’ commentary
reflects how that prejudice is perpetuated in the twenty-first century. The
Salt Lake Daily Tribune was known for its bitter hostility and antagonism
toward the “Mormon priesthood.” Even among other anti-Mormons of Utah, the Daily
Tribune distinguished itself as “ultra” anti-Mormon. It was the political
organ of the Liberal Party in Utah, whose platform was the expansion of gentile
interests and influence in Utah’s political and economic spheres and the diminishment
of Latter-day Saint influence. Considering the political balance of power in
Utah, they recognized that statehood would further entrench LDS influence. Thus,
they aggressively opposed LDS initiatives for statehood. Their main lobbying
tools against the Mormon priesthood were polygamy, Mormon “meddling” in political
and economic matters, and Mormon “lawlessness.” Mormon violations of the antipolygamy
laws and the Mountain Meadows massacre were for them prime examples of this
lawlessness. In reporting on the Lee trials and casting light on the massacre
nearly two decades before, the Liberals and the Daily Tribune had a
political ax to grind.
That prejudice, in short, is what makes the Mountain Meadows massacre such a
vexing historiographical problem. That is what requires the interpreter of this
awful event to develop a sophisticated method for shifting the sometimes maddeningly
contradictory source material. That is what demands that the historian consistently
and rigorously apply his or her interpretative method to all source material.
What Sally Denton has done is interpret the Mountain Meadows massacre from
Mormonism Unveiled and similar works from the nineteenth-century counter-Mormon
secondary sources. Shunted aside are many dozens of other eyewitness accounts,
the majority of them not known to Juanita Brooks a half century ago (see appendix
below). In them lies the genuine history of the great calamity at Mountains
Meadows.26 Even for a journalistic treatment like American Massacre,
Denton’s decision to jettison the new source material in favor of antiquated
nineteenth-century anti-Mormon secondary sources was an unfortunate choice.
It’s a shame, too, because she has obvious talent as both a synthesizer of complex
material and a prose stylist. In the final analysis, the deepest disappointment
is this: In finding a Danite under every cedar and sage in frontier Utah, Denton
unwittingly robbed American Massacre of the fascinating complexity
of authentic history.
Eyewitnesses and Sources to the Mountain Meadows Massacre
This bibliography lists eyewitnesses to the massacre or to important events
in its aftermath. Where a position in a militia unit is identified, these are
from the 1857 muster rolls of the Tenth Regiment or Iron Military District.27
This district covered the Mormon villages of Beaver, Parowan, Paragoonah, Cedar
City, Washington, Pinto, and Gunlock and the small “fort” villages
of Fort Johnson, Hamilton Fort, Fort Harmony, and Fort Clara. The regiment consisted
of nine companies in four battalions. Each company had four to five platoons,
but for simplicity’s sake the platoons are omitted.
Anonymous militiaman, witness, or participant at Mountain Meadows–interview,
Anonymous Ute Indian, witness, central Utah—interview, 1857
Arthur, Christopher J., adjutant to Captain Edwards, Co. G, 3rd Bat.—interview,
Ashworth, William B., witness—autobiography, undated
Barton, William, 2nd lieutenant, Co. C, 1st Bat.—interview, 1892
Bradshaw, John, private, Co. F, 3rd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Bringhurst, John B., witness, Toquerville, 1873–74 (observations of Isaac
Call, Anson, witness, Bountiful, 1857 (observations of J. D. Lee)—affidavit,
Chatterley, John, private, Co. F, 3rd Bat.—statement, 1919
Farnsworth, Philo T., captain, Co. A, 1st Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Campbell, Mary Steele, witness, Cedar City—interview, 1892
Clews, Joseph, private, Co. F, 2nd Bat.—statement, 1876
Edwards, William, private, probably attached to Parowan unit—affidavit, 1924
Fish, Joseph, private, Co. C, 1st Bat.—autobiography, undated
Hakes, Collin R., witness, Beaver and Mountain Meadows (Lee execution)—affidavit,
1907; statement, 1914; affidavit, 1916
Hamblin, Jacob, 2nd lieutenant, Co. H, 4th Bat.—journal, 1857; interviews,
1859; affidavits, 1859; statement, 1871; Lee trial testimony, 1876
Hamblin, Rachel, witness, Mountain Meadows—interviews, 1859
Hamblin, Albert, witness, Mountain Meadows—interview, 1859
Hamilton, John, Sr., private, Co. F, 3rd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Hamilton, John, Jr., 2nd lieutenant, Co. F, 3rd Bat.—Lee trial testimony,
Hancock, George W., witness, Payson—interview, 1857
Haslam, James H., regimental fifer—Lee trial testimony, 1876; affidavit,
Henderson, John H., private, Co. C, 1st Bat.—interview, 1892
Higbee, John M., major, 3rd Bat.—statement, 1894; statement, 1896
Higgins, Henry, sergeant, Co. G, 3rd Bat.—affidavit, 1859
Hoag, Annie Elizabeth, witness, Fort Harmony—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Hoops, Elisha, private, Co. A, 1st Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Jackson, Samuel, private, Co. F, 3rd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Johnson, Nephi, 2nd lieutenant, Co. D, 2nd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1876;
interview, 1895; affidavit, 1909; statement, 1910
Kershaw, Robert, private, Co. A, 1st Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Klingensmith, Philip, private, Co. D, 2nd Bat.—affidavit, 1871; Lee trial
Knight, Samuel, private, Co. H, 4th Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1876; interview,
1892; interview, 1895; affidavit, 1896
Macfarlane, John M., adjutant to Major Isaac C. Haight, 2nd Bat.—Lee trial
Macfarlane, Daniel, adjutant to Captain Joel White, Co. D, 2nd Bat.—affidavit,
McMurdy, Samuel, sergeant, Co. E, 2nd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1876
Martineau, James H., regimental adjutant to Col. William H. Dame—statement,
1890; statement, 1907
Morrill, Laban, private, Co. D, 2nd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875; autobiography,
Morris, Elias, captain, Co. E, 2nd Bat.—interview, 1892
Nowers, Willson Gates, sergeant or private, Co. A, 1st Bat.—interview
and statement, 1892
Pearce (Pierce), James, private, Co. I, 4th Bat.—Lee trial testimony,
Pete, Indian boy, witness, Pahvant camp near Beaver—interview, 1857
Pitchforth, Samuel, witness, Nephi—diary, 1857
Platt, Benjamin, private, Co. H, 4th Bat.—autobiography, undated
Pollack, Samuel, sergeant, Co. E, 2nd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Riddle, Isaac, private, Co. H, 4th Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Roberts, William, private, Co. B, 1st Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Robinson, Richard, 2nd lieutenant, Co. H, 4th Bat.—Lee trial testimony,
1875; interview, 1892
Rogerson, Josiah, court reporter, Beaver and Mountain Meadows (Lee trials and
execution)—stenographic record, 1875, 1876, 1877
Shelton, Marion Jackson, witness, Fort Harmony—diary, 1858-59
Shirts, Don Carlos (Carl), 2nd lieutenant, Co. H, 4th Bat.—interview,
Smith, Silas S., captain, Co. B, 1st Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Smith, Jesse N., captain, Co. C, 1st Bat.—journal, 1857; Lee trial testimony,
Spoods, Ute Indian, witness, southern Utah—interview, 1857
Thompson, Edward W., 2nd lieutenant, Co. A, 1st Bat.—Lee trial testimony,
Tullis, David W., private, Co. H, 4th Bat.—interview, 1859; interview,
White, Joel W., captain, Co. D, 2nd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875 and
White, Mary Hannah Burton, witness, Hamilton Fort—interview, 1892
Willden, Elliott, private, Co. F, 3rd Bat.—interview, 1892
Willis, John Henry, 2nd lieutenant, Co. G, 4th Bat.—Lee trial testimony,
Willis, Thomas T., private, Co. G, 3rd Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
Young, William, private, Co. I, 4th Bat.—Lee trial testimony, 1875
- Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1950).
- William Wise, Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Legend and a
Monumental Crime (New York: Crowell, 1976).
- Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at
Mountain Meadows (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).
- The editions Denton consulted were Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History:
The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf,
1971), and Robert D. Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography
and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999).
- See the discussion of Robert D. Anderson’s study in Michael D. Jibson, “Korihor
Speaks, or the Misinterpretation of Dreams,” FARMS Review of Books
14/1-2 (2002): 223-60.
- Robert K. Fielding, The Unsolicited Chronicler: An Account of the Gunnison
Massacre, Its Causes and Consequences, Utah Territory, 1847-1859: A
Narrative History (Brookline, MA: Paradigm, 1993).
- Robert K. Fielding and Dorothy S. Fielding, eds., The Tribune Reports
of the Trials of John D. Lee for the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, November,
1847-April, 1877 (Higganum, CT: Kent’s Books, 2000). The Fieldings’
book is engrossing, although not for the reasons Denton favors. The Tribune
Reports grant a revealing view of the extremes of anti-Mormon prejudice
in frontier Utah. In our current era of relative civility and tolerance, the
blatantly anti-Mormon stance of the nineteenth-century Salt Lake Daily
Tribune is jolting. The prejudices of some in Protestant America of that
era—whether anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, or anti-Mormon—were extremely virulent.
- The consensus view of the Gunnison massacre is that Gunnison’s government
surveying party was attacked and killed near the Sevier River in central Utah
by a party from the Pahvant band of the Ute tribe in retaliation for the deaths
of their fellow tribesmen killed earlier by a passing emigrant train. A detailed
article is Josiah F. Gibbs, “Gunnison Massacre—1853—Millard County, Utah—Indian
Mareer’s Version of the Tragedy—1894,” Utah Historical Quarterly
1/3 (1928): 67-75. Standard treatments are found in Robert V. Hine,
“Kern Brothers: Edward Meyer (1823-63) and Richard Hovendon (1821-53)”
and Richard A. Bartlett, “Transcontinental Railroad Surveys,” in The New
Encyclopedia of the American West, ed. Howard R. Lamar (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1998), 593, 1120; and Brigham D. Madsen, “John Williams
Gunnison,” in Utah History Encyclopedia, ed. Allan K. Powell (Salt
Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994), 241. Will Bagley does not credit
the accusation of Mormon involvement; see Bagley, Blood of the Prophets,
44-45; and David Bigler concludes, “there is no convincing evidence
or motive for such involvement.” David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The
Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Spokane: Clark,
- Ronald W. Walker, “When the Spirits Did Abound: Nineteenth-Century Utah’s
Encounter with Free-Thought Radicalism,” Utah Historical Quarterly
50/4 (1982): 314-15, 318, 321.
- At the time of Lee’s second trial in September 1876, the prosecutors
agreed not to prosecute Philip Klingensmith and William H. Dame. The trial transcripts
and legal pleadings in the two trials of John D. Lee are in HM 16904, Jacob
Boreman Collection, Mormon Americana Collection, The Huntington Library, Art
Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA.
- The five Lee sources upon which Denton relies are John D. Lee, Mormonism
Unveiled; Including the Remarkable Life and Confessions of the Late
Mormon Bishop John D. Lee; (written by himself) and Complete Life
of Brigham Young (St. Louis: Vandawalker, 1891; reprint, Albuquerque:
Fierra Blanca, 2001); Journals of John D. Lee, 1846-47 and
1859, ed. Charles Kelly (1955; reprint, Salt Lake City: University of Utah
Press, 1984); Robert G. Cleland and Juanita Brooks, eds., A Mormon Chronicle:
The Diaries of John D. Lee, 1848-1876 (Salt Lake City: University
of Utah Press, 1983); Juanita Brooks, John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer
Builder, Scapegoat (1973; reprint, Logan: Utah State University Press,
1992); and Writings of John D. Lee, ed. Samuel N. Henrie (Tucson:
Hats Off Books, 2001).
- Robert H. Briggs, “Wrestling Brigham,” review of Blood of the Prophets:
Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by Will Bagley, Sunstone,
December 2002, 62-65; a longer version, “Mountain Meadows and the Craft
of History,” was previously available online at www.sunstoneonline.com.
- John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, or the Life and Confessions of the
Late Mormon Bishop John D. Lee (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand, 1877).
- Writings of John D. Lee, 6.
- One thing that makes the Mountain Meadows massacre so difficult for Latter-day
Saints to discuss even today is that it is still amazingly divisive within
the LDS community. It is the closest thing we have to a family feud. There
are still strong partisan positions among the descendants of Brigham Young,
George A. Smith, Isaac C. Haight, John D. Lee, Jacob Hamblin, Samuel Knight,
Samuel McMurdy, and Nephi Johnson, to name only a few. Each of these individuals
now has thousands of descendants. The descendants of the much-married John
D. Lee probably now number in the tens of thousands, many of whom are faithful
members of the Church of Jesus Christ. In discussing the motives and actions
of John D. Lee as contained in Mormonism Unveiled and the Lee-Howard
statement, I do so to illustrate the results that can be obtained by applying
a rigorous method that distinguishes between confession, incidental detail,
and exculpatory statement. I do not mean to cause pain to Lee’s descendants,
although I appreciate that the process may be painful nonetheless. But since
Mormonism Unveiled forms a key part of Denton’s American Massacre,
analyzing this alleged work of John D. Lee is unavoidable.
- Robert H. Briggs, The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows Massacre: Toward a
Consensus Account and Time Line (St. George, UT: Dixie State College,
2002), lecture delivered 13 March 2002 for the Juanita Brooks Lecture Series
in St. George, Utah.
- The editions cited by Denton are T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain
Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons, From the First Vision
of Joseph Smith to the Last Courtship of Brigham Young (London: Ward,
Lock, and Tyler, 1871); Mrs. T. B. H. Stenhouse, “Tell It All”:
The Story of a Life’s Experience in Mormonism, A Thrilling Record of Woman’s
Life in Polygamy (Hartford, CT: Worthington, 1874).
- As noted above, many of these references are to the Fieldings’ Tribune
Reports of the Trials of John D. Lee, an edited version of the Salt
Lake Daily Tribune‘s running series of reports on the progress of the
criminal proceedings against Lee from the beginning of Lee’s first trial in
summer 1875 through his execution in March 1877.
- Denton’s bibliography cites these works as follows: Catherine V. Waite,
The Mormon Prophet and His Harem (Cambridge, MA: Riverside, 1866);
C. P. Lyford, The Mormon Problem: An Appeal to the American People
(New York: Phillips and Hunt, 1886); Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19
(1875; reprint, New York: Arno, 1972); William A. Hickman, Brigham’s Destroying
Angel: Being the Life, Confession, and Startling Disclosures of the Notorious
Bill Hickman, the Danite Chief of Utah (Salt Lake City: Shepard, 1904);
Nelson W. Green, Fifteen Years among the Mormons (New York: Dayton,
1859); B. G. Parker, Recollections of the Mountain Meadow Massacre
(Plano, CA: Reed, 1901); Josiah F. Gibbs, The Mountain Meadows Massacre
(Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Tribune Publishing, 1910); Frank J. Cannon and
George L. Knapp, Brigham Young and His Mormon Empire (New York: Revell,
- For a discussion of this and many other issues facing historians of the
New Indian History, see the essays in Donald L. Fixico, ed., Rethinking
American Indian History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,
- Robert M. Utley, The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), xv.
- Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 343 (1890).
- Analyzed and quoted in Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question:
Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 227.
- Gordon’s treatment of these complex political, religious, and constitutional
issues in The Mormon Question is excellent.
- Postcolonialism offers an even more provocative example. Postcolonial studies
focus on West versus East; European colonizers versus the non-European colonized;
Eurocentric assumptions and European domination; and cultural imperialism,
political control, and intellectual-cultural hegemony through controlling
the content and transmission of texts. Norman J. Wilson, History in Crisis?:
Recent Directions in Historiography (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice
Hall, 1999), 125-36. Analogizing to the Mormon experience in nineteenth-century
Protestant America, are there any interesting points of comparison? We may
need to reevaluate the manner in which Protestant America dominated Mormon
Utah, its subservient colony. While the Protestant antipolygamy crusade failed
to crush Mormonism, it did succeed in establishing Protestant hegemony on
the issues of Mormon marital practices and direct church involvement in politics
and economics, a substantial exercise of control. Moreover, as Protestant
elites in all three branches of the federal government oversaw the criminalization
of the Church of Jesus Christ and forfeiture of most of its assets, leading
Protestant denominations (e.g., Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians,
and others) increased their “colonizing” efforts in Utah. The period is commonly
called the “Americanization” of Utah. But was it not in fact an overt attempt
to “protestanticate” Mormonism through compulsive means? The larger implications
of the analogy are beyond the scope of this review. But cultural imperialism
or dominance over the colonized through control of texts is not. The Mountain
Meadows massacre occurred nearly one hundred fifty years ago. It was an awful
disaster and should never be forgotten. But what of the virulent anti-Mormon
treatments of it that have continued unabated for a century and a half? Are
these not continuing attempts at cultural dominance through control of texts—texts
here meaning, or at least including, history texts?
- Although some of the new sources show that Juanita Brooks’s view of the
massacre needs updating, they also show that she was not far off in her landmark
study, The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Further, these sources reinforce
the insight that she emphasized in later editions of her book: that the massacre
“could only have happened in the emotional climate of war.” Brooks, The
Mountain Meadows Massacre, rev. ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
1962), vi. I’m sure that many of the new details concerning military matters—from
the Iron Military District muster rolls to the threat southern Utahans perceived
of military invasion from Texas or California; from the role of militia couriers
and communiqués to the reliable chronology that Private Joseph Clews
affords of “massacre week”—all these and more would have fascinated Brooks.
- Utah Territorial Militia (Nauvoo Legion), 10th Regiment Battalion and Company
Muster Rolls, 10 October 1857, Utah State Historical Archives, Salt Lake
City, Utah. This roster reflects the militia positions or offices as of September
1857 and has some slight changes from the previous militia roster in June 1857.
The June 1857 Iron County Militia Roster is archived as MSS 801, L. Tom Perry
Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo,