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What Did Brigham Know, And When Did He Know It?

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What Did Brigham Know, And When Did He Know It?

Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. University of Oklahoma Press, 2002, 493 pages.

"I do not profess to be very good. I will try to take care of number one, and if it is wicked for me to try to preserve myself, I shall persist in it; for I am intending to take care of myself.” Brigham Young, July 26, 1857 (approximately 6 weeks before the Mountain Meadows Massacre) Journal of Discourses, 5:76-77.

The meeting was then addressed by some one in authority, I do not remember who it was. He spoke in about this language, “Brethren, we have been sent here to perform a duty. It is a duty that we owe to God, and to our Church and people. The orders of those in authority are that all the emigrants must die. Our leaders speak with inspired tongues, and their orders come from the God of Heaven. We have no right to question what they have commanded us to do; it is our duty to obey.”
John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled or The Life and Confessions of John D. Lee, 1877, p. 235.

"Stake President Haight led the men in a solemn oath never to discuss the matter, even among themselves, to keep the whole matter secret from every human being, and 'to help kill all who proved to be traitors to the Church or people in this matter.' "

Truth matters; or does it? If truth, honesty and integrity are governing values of Latter-day Saint religion, why is separating fact from fiction such a daunting task when it comes to the subject of the Mountain Meadows massacre? Is it possible that defending and maintaining a certain image for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is of greater value than the truth? While independent historian and Salt Lake Tribune columnist Will Bagley does not directly address this question in his award-winning 1 book Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, he does openly acknowledge the difficulty of the task of getting at the truth. He writes:

Once the Fancher party left Salt Lake, it disappeared into a historical maze built of lies, folklore, popular myth, justifications, and few facts. After the reports of Malinda Cameron Scott and Basil Parker, all information about the emigrants’ conduct came from men involved in their murder or its cover-up …

The skillfully crafted legends shrouding the fate of these murdered and maligned people make penetrating this mythology extremely difficult, but logic and common sense can test the evidence. The earliest sources tell a remarkable story, while the constants of time and distance provide a standard to sort fable from truth. Yet from the morning the emigrants left Corn Creek, nothing is certain about the Fancher party except that in less than three weeks every member who could have given a reliable account of its fate would be dead [emphasis added] (p. 99).

What a tangled web we weave …

Yet Bagley brings a semblance of order to the tangled historical web because he does more than retell the story. He puts the premeditated murder of 120 people into historical and cultural context helping the reader grasp both how and why a crime of this magnitude could take place and be sanctioned by LDS Church leaders. In the process he also explains how this lamentable event came to be shrouded in the ambiguity and misinformation that clouds the truth to this day.

And that is perhaps the most helpful, if disturbing aspect of Bagley’s work. For while we may never know exactly what Brigham Young knew about the massacre, and when he knew it, the inescapable conclusion is that both Brigham Young and the LDS leaders directly involved in the murders, lied, deceived, and obstructed justice in this case for years.

Murder in the Meadow

The basic details of the story are fairly well known. A wagon train going from Arkansas to California stops to rest and recoup for a while in a lush meadow in Southern Utah territory. It is the natural place to prepare for the final 400-plus mile segment of the southern wagon trail to Los Angeles, an arduous trek that includes crossing the Mojave Desert.

However, the Fancher wagon train, with about forty men, thirty women and seventy children is ambushed by whites painted as Indians and Southern Paiute warriors. The besieged travelers circle their wagons and dig in, and manage to hold off their attackers for five days. Then, after being approached by white men bearing a white flag of truce, the leaders of the wagon train agree to lay down their weapons in exchange for a promise of safe passage out of the area. The emigrants are cut off from water, and fearful for the lives of their women, children and wounded friends, so, understandably, they would cheer the Mormon militia and their Indian allies who come to escort them on foot down the trail. They are divided into three separate groups: men, women and children, and the wounded, each group separate from the others by a considerable distance.

Once the women and children are out of sight, the men are lined up single file each with an armed Mormon man at their side. At a pre-arranged signal, the would-be protectors open fire on the men, and the Paiutes attack the women and children, while other members of the Mormon militia turned on the wounded men who were in a separate wagon, thus killing all the settlers except seventeen children under the age of seven. The killers swear an oath of secrecy, and immediately begin a campaign of misinformation that persists to this day. Since many accounts come primarily from those who did the killing, sorting out what happened and why, means sifting through contradictory stories, justifications and deliberate obfuscation. Bagley tackles this monumental task, building on Juanita Brooks’ research of 52 years ago, and draws on unpublished accounts, memoirs, journals and diary entries to winnow fact from fiction.

Brigham Young: Mislead Bystander or Accessory to Murder?

Historically, the predominant LDS position is that Mormon Church President Brigham Young had nothing to do with the massacre and was merely a misinformed bystander of events carried out by independent Mormon settlers acting wholly on their own initiative. At the September 11, 1999 dedication of the new Mountain Meadows memorial, on the advice of legal council, LDS President, Gordon B. Hinckley, included the following in his statement:

That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgement of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day. (p. 376).

In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune in February 2000, when President Hinckley was asked about the massacre at Mountain Meadows he replied:

I’ve never thought for one minute as I’ve read the history of the tragic episode that Brigham Young had anything to do with it. And it was a local decision and it was tragic. … Well, I would place the blame on the local people. (p. 376).

It appears that this standard LDS Church position will be upheld by three Mormon Church historians who are writing their own book on the subject, due to be published by Oxford University Press in 2004.2

Yet Bagley’s research led him to a markedly different conclusion than that put forth by current LDS Church leaders. The historical evidence has led him to conclude that Brigham Young both set in motion events that led directly to the attack of this wagon train, and was an accessory after the fact, covering up the incident that was planned, ordered and carried out by Mormon Church leaders. Bagley’s thesis and book cannot be taken lightly and have raised both interest and strong feelings as evidenced by Dennis Lythgoe’s review of Blood of the Prophets in the September 1, 2002, Deseret News. He referred to the book as “an anti-Mormon tract” and states it, “has a gigantic axe to grind,” while calling Bagley “a man with a sledgehammer agenda.”

However, thoughtful reviewers removed from partisan involvement find Bagley’s work helpful. Caroline Fraser in her November 21, 2002 article in the New York Review of Books, refers to Bagley and Juanita Brooks as “able historians” who have “unraveled much of what happened at Mountain Meadows.” Earlier in the same review Fraser praises Bagley for providing “an exhaustive, meticulously documented, highly readable history that captures the events and atmosphere that gave rise to the massacre, as well as it’s long tortuous aftermath. Bagley has taken great care in negotiating the minefield presented by what remains of the historical record”.

In his review for the Association of Mormon Letters, Jeff Needle writes:

"Blood of the Prophets" is the latest, and an impressive, addition to the literature covering a pivotal episode in Mormon history, the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Bagley's intense and detailed work attempts to separate the myth from the history, stepping outside the role of loyal member to curious historian.

C. G. Wallace’s October 11th Associated Press review, notes the debate stirred by Bagley’s book, as does New York Times reviewer, Emily Eakin. Eakin mentions another forthcoming book on the massacre by investigative reporter Sally Denton, who, like Bagley, holds Brigham Young responsible for the crime. Denton is quoted as saying, “Nothing happened in the place that did not happen under his [Brigham Young’s] direct orders.”

So wherein lays the truth? The myriad of source material cited by Bagley, conflicting and contradictory as it is, demands the issue be framed in terms of plausibility rather than absolute proof. What is most likely or probable to have happened? Given the nature of the evidence and our knowledge of LDS religious and social culture of that time period, which conclusion best fits what we do know to be true?

Is it likely that Brigham Young knew nothing about the involvement of Mormon leaders and thought it was only an act of Indian aggression till over a decade later? How feasible is it that he was lied to and systematically kept in the dark by some of the very Mormon leaders he had appointed, and that he never knew he was being deceived? If Young thought the Indians acted alone, why did he sign a voucher for $3527.43 worth of goods to go to Paiute chiefs and their bands less than three weeks after the massacre? (p. 178) And if Young were innocent of any involvement, why did he not use his power to help the U.S. Army track down and arrest the killers, since Army officers assigned to the case had concluded by May of 1859 that the Paiutes could have never pulled off a systematic killing of this magnitude? Major James H. Carleton of the U.S. Army discovered:

Skulls and bones bleached white by the weather lined the California Trail. Nearly every skull ‘had been shot through with rifle or revolver bullets.’ ‘I did not see one that had been “broken in with stones,” he said. He reported seeing several bones of what must have been very small children (p. 227).

Bagley found,

The army officers quickly concluded the Paiutes were entirely incapable of executing the massacre. Campbell thought they were ‘a miserable set of root-diggers, and nothing is to be apprehended from them but by the smallest and most careless party.’ The emigrants ‘could have whipped ten times their number of Pah-Ute Indians.’ Major Carleton argued that the ‘whole plan and operations, from beginning to end, display skill, patience, pertinacity, and forecast,’ which only the Mormon settlers possessed (p. 227).

Interestingly enough, this army report was corroborated in September of 1999 when University of Utah anthropologist Shannon Novak carried out thirty hours of forensic analysis on bones unearthed by a backhoe digging at the Mountain Meadows site.3

Brigham Young: “I gave them all the cattle …”

It should be understood that Mormon Prophet Brigham Young was both governor of the Utah Territory, and the U.S. government appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs. As such, he was the spiritual leader, social leader and a principle moving force in Indian–American relations in the Utah territory. Young was also predicting the overthrow of the United States and was in constant conflict with federal government officers assigned to Utah territory. According to Bagley’s research, “A series of federal officials either died mysteriously or fled to tell tales of rampant rebellion in the territory. Such stories offended politicians and inflamed the American public against this odd and unpopular minority” (p. 39).

By the end of May, 1857, U.S., President Buchanan had decided to send an army and a new governor to Utah. Brigham’s response was to accuse the U.S. government of sending a mob to invade Utah and prepare for war. “The rush of events had convinced the Mormon Prophet that the end of time was near … The cornerstone of his plan was to rally Utah’s Indians to the Mormon cause .… ‘they must learn that they have either got to help us or the United States will kill us both’” (pp. 81-82). Where emigrant trains that passed through Utah were once a means of trade and income, they were now seen as a way to intimidate the U.S. army to leave them alone. Bagley writes:

Young had to choose between his fidelity to the U.S. government and what he saw as his duty as a prophet of God and his loyalty to the Mormon people. The superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah Territory was charged with protecting overland emigrants from Indian attacks, and on August 16 Superintendent Young had declared he would abandon that responsibility if the army came to Utah. Now Young explicitly violated his sworn duty and sent agents to encourage Indian attacks on wagon trains, dispatching Huntington north to the camp of some one thousand Shoshonis near Farmington .… That the leading emissary of the Indian superintendent would encourage them to attack emigrant trains astonished the chiefs: this was something new. They ‘wanted to Council & think of it’ (p. 92).

Bagley weaves together a chilling story from historical records and reminiscences:

… Emigrants had no doubt who was behind these assaults. On reaching California, overlanders recounted ‘many sad evidences of outrage and murder’ that they swore implicated the Saints. For three hundred miles emigrants had to run ‘the gauntlet of Indian attacks and Mormon treachery,’ Richeson Abbot complained. His party was ambushed at City of Rocks, and he was ‘satisfied the attack was led by Mormons, as they heard them cursing in regular Mormon slang, and calling out to them to get out of the country, as they had no business there.’ The Saints boasted they would kill them all (p. 93).

… As the Fancher train made camp some seventy miles north of Mountain Meadows on the evening of September 1, 1857, Young met for about an hour with the southern [Indian] chiefs to implement his plan to stop overland emigration on the southern road. … Describing his meeting with the Paiutes in his journal, Young claimed he could ‘hardly restrain them from exterminating the ‘Americans.’’ In truth, that Tuesday night Young encouraged the Indians to seize the stock of the wagon trains on the southern route. Juanita Brooks recognized the importance of this crucial meeting but could only speculate on its purpose. Historians have long assumed no detailed eyewitness account of the interview existed, but the diary of Young’s brother-in-law and interpreter, Dimick Huntington, has survived in the LDS Archives since 1859. Describing the September 1 parlay, Huntington wrote: ‘I gave them all the cattle that had gone to Cal the south rout it made them open their eyes they sayed that you have told us not to steal so I have but now they have come to fight us & you for when they kill us they will kill you they sayd the[y] was afraid to fight the Americans & so would raise [allies] and we might fight’

Bagley comments:

The language of Huntington’s critical journal entry is archaic, but its meaning is clear. Even a devout Mormon historian has identified the “I” in this entry as Brigham Young. The Paiute leaders had camped with the Fancher party only a week earlier at Corn Creek, so Young did not have to paint a picture for the chiefs to know whose cattle he was giving them. The donation of cattle to the Paiutes was not a direct order to massacre every Mericat (non-Mormon American) in southern Utah, but Indian Superintendent Young had told the apostles, ‘The Gentile emigrants [will] shoot the indians wharever they meet with them & the Indians now retaliate & will kill innocent People.’ He understood it was likely that innocent women and children would die in the Indian attacks he tacitly authorized (pp. 113-114).

What Brigham Knew

Bagley records a remarkable confession made by Brigham Young in July 1857. “I do not profess to be very good,” the prophet admitted. “I will try to take care of number one, and if it is wicked for me to try to preserve myself, I shall persist in it; for I am intending to take care of myself.” (p. 176) It would appear John D. Lee, a Mormon General authority and Brigham Young’s head clerk, was unaware how far Young would go to preserve himself. Though Lee was sealed to Brigham Young as a spiritual son in a now-abandoned temple ordinance known as the law of adoption (p. 19), Lee would be the only one found guilty of the murders committed at Mountain Meadows and die at the hands of a firing squad. While sitting on his coffin just before being executed he lamented his devotion to Young:

I studied to make this man’s will my pleasure for thirty years. See, now, what I have come to this day! I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner (p. 316).

According to Bagley’s research, following the massacre, Lee went directly to his Prophet and President and,

‘gave to Brigham Young a full detailed statement of the whole affair, from first to last.’ … Lee insisted he told Young everything, including ‘the names of every man who had been present at the massacre.’ I told him who killed the various ones,’ Lee said. ‘In fact I gave him all the information there was to give’ (emphasis in original) (p. 176 ).

In spite of this and other evidence, Mormon leaders since the time of the massacre have done their utmost to suppress evidence, alter historical records and shift blame. The author’s final chapter (“Nothing but the Truth is Good Enough”) and his Epilogue, aptly titled “The Ghosts of Mountain Meadows,” identify some of the repeated efforts of the LDS Church to suppress or whitewash what actually happened and who was to blame. (pp. 354-359) According to Bagley, church officials apparently went so far as to use their influence to keep the story from being made into a movie both in 1950 and in the late 1970s (pp. 359-360, 366-367).

The Poison Story – Blame the Emigrants

A fascinating aspect of Blood of the Prophets is the sheer quantity of historical material compiled by Bagley, as he sifts through huge amounts of folklore and rumor to find historical truth. One example of his research involves the oft-told story that the emigrants poisoned both water and the meat of a dead ox in an attempt to kill the Indians and in retaliation the Indians attacked the wagon train. Bagley cites numerous different Mormon versions of this story and how they were used to explain why the Indians would attack this wagon train.

However, he also found that the “poison story” had serious problems since it never seemed to be told the same way twice. Some of the most telling historical evidence comes from wagon trains that came through the area shortly after the Fancher party. They watered their cattle at the same place with no ill effects, found the Indians of the area friendly towards them and when asked about people dying from poisoned food, the Indians knew nothing of it (pp. 106-108). Bagley found that:

Emigrant George Davis gave the most telling assessment of the poison tale: everyone in the Duke’s train regarded the story as ‘a fabrication, on the part of the Mormons to clear themselves of suspicion, and to justify the Indians in murdering that company of emigrants.’ Davis camped at Corn Creek just ten days after the Fancher party, and over four days he ‘never heard anything of the poisoning.’ ‘We used the same water,’ he reported, ‘and between five and six hundred head of our cattle and horses used the water, yet we discovered no poison, nor heard anything of it, til we got to Parowan .… Yet the poison story actually preceded the Fancher party on their trip south’ (pp. 109-110).

Yet even with the lack of solid evidence available today that the Fancher party ever did anything to incite the Indians to violence, some LDS historians continue to assert the Fancher party provoked and abused the Paiutes (p. 110).

“Priviledged to … avenge the blood of the prophets”

Bagley gives us a glimpse into life on the Mormon frontier during difficult times when once again LDS people anticipated persecution from the government and non-Mormons. He also provides insight into the mentality of men like Brigham Young, John D. Lee, Col. William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight, and sheds light on the attitudes of the Mormon people toward authority, the United States government, Native Americans and non-Mormon emigrants.

Illustrative of this is Bagley’s treatment of the attitudes and actions of the Mormon leaders involved immediately following the killing. He writes:

After the burial detail completed its grisly chore, Nephi Johnson said the men formed a circle to hear ‘a great many speeches.’ According to Lee, he, Dame, Haight, Klingensmith, Higbee and Charles Hopkins spoke, praising God for delivering their enemies into their hands and ‘thanking the brethren for their zeal in God’s cause.’ The officers stressed ‘the necessity of always saying that the Indians did it alone, and that the Mormons had nothing to do with it.’

At Dame’s request Haight told the men ‘they had been priviledged to keep a part of their covenant to avenge the blood of the prophets.’ The men closed the circle, each putting his left hand on the shoulder of the man next to him and raising his right arm to the square. Higbee, Haight, Lee and Dame stood at the center, facing the four points of the compass. Stake President Haight led the men in a solemn oath never to discuss the matter, even among themselves, to keep the whole matter secret from every human being, and ‘to help kill all who proved to be traitors to the Church or people in this matter.’ Lee recalled the men voted unanimously to kill anyone who divulged the secret. It would be treason to the men who killed the emigrants and ‘treason to the Church.’ (emphasis in original) … ‘The orders to lay it all to the Indians, were just as positive as they were to keep it all secret,’ Lee wrote. ‘This was the counsel from all in authority.’ … The meeting ended after Colonel Dame blessed the men (p. 158).

A Legacy of Lies Continues

The final chapter contains a positive note for it chronicles the LDS Church’s recent involvement in constructing a monument to the innocent victims of the massacre. But it resounds with a word of exhortation as well:

In the face of such complexities, the sincere efforts of Mormon leaders to bring healing to the subject are admirable, but their hope that ‘the book of the past is closed’ is futile without an acceptance of the religion’s role in this event … Church leaders might wish until the end of time that the matter could be forgotten, but history bears witness that only the truth will lay to rest the ghost of Mountain Meadows’ (p. 382).

There is no doubt that Bagley has an agenda. His research led him to the thesis that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was enabled, encouraged and carried out by Mormon Church leaders. Ultimately, each reader will decide if he has successfully supported that thesis with historical evidence. However, no matter what conclusion one comes to after reading Blood of the Prophets, Bagley has painted a dramatic picture of 19th century Mormonism under Brigham Young. It was a society that both used and justified lies, falsehood and deception as a means to their own ends—that of protecting the image and existence of the Mormon Church. This legacy continues to this day with current President Gordon B. Hinckley’s repeated dodging and dissembling on sensitive historical and doctrinal issues,4 raising once again the question, what is the higher value within the Mormon Church? Is it truth, or is it image and self-preservation?


1. Winner of the 1998 Utah Arts Council Publication Prize.

2. LDS Church historian Richard Turley, Ronald W. Walker, a BYU history professor, and Glen Leonard, director of the LDS Church’s Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, vow their own history of the massacre will exonerate Young and show that the attack was locally planned and carried out, according to Emily Eakin’s October 12, 2002 article in the New York Times, reprinted in the Salt Lake Tribune.

3. Caroline Frasier, in her article for The New York Review of Books, wrote regarding Novak’s work that:

Her conclusions lent scientific credence to the belief that Mormons armed with guns—not just Indians wielding clubs or tomahawks, as Mormon legend had it—killed women and children at Mountain Meadows. One woman's skull revealed evidence that she had been shot in the head or face at close range; one child, aged ten to twelve, was killed by a gunshot through the top of the head. (

4. Richard & Joan Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, p. 296; “Dodging and Dissembling Prophet?”, Luke P. Wilson,

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