Knox, 2003. Hardback:
Suggested retail price: $26.95 (US)
Is there no end to the fascination with this episode? Will historians andothers ever allow the matter to rest? Will it ever just go away?
Not likely, nor should it. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is an unresolvedtragedy in the history of our nation, and more specifically in the historyof the Mormon church. Renewed interest in the event is healthy, and meritsserious scholarly attention. Is Denton's book a "serious scholarly" study?I have serious questions about the author's objectivity and use ofavailable sources. This will all come clear in this, admittedly, lengthyreview. I pray you will be patient with me.
In several introductory notes, Denton describes the modern discovery of theremains of some of the victims, and the scientists' inability to follow upwith forensics that may shed light on the incident. The reader is left towonder why there is so much opposition to such study. The ensuing pagesmake it all clear.
Denton begins with Part 1, "The Gathering." Her selective telling ofMormon history (and I don't mean that as a criticism, only an observationof the narrow scope of her inquiry) argues for the idea, expressed soeloquently in Will Bagley's "Blood of the Prophets," that the MountainMeadows Massacre was made possible largely because of an atmosphere ofdistrust and persecution fostered by Mormon leadership. Studying thedevelopment of the Mormon psyche prior to the incident, Denton providescircumstantial evidence that, in effect, indicts the Mormon church in thetragedy.
Part 1 comprises chapters 1-6.
My comments on chapter 1 will be lengthier than the others, since theyprovide a template of sorts for the rest of the book.
Chapter 1 serves as a good example of Denton's approach, both to thewriting and to the bias of the subject matter itself. Stylistically,consider the following. The author is discussing the Smith family's earlyturn to farming for sustenance:
Joseph Jr. scorned the land -- "He detested the plow as only a farmer's son can," wrote a historian -- turning his future, instead, to buried treasure. Before long, the entire family was "digging for money for subsistence," according to some reports. (p. 7)
"Wrote a historian" -- which historian? "According to some reports" -- which reports? The text has no evident footnotes. One does, however, finda substantial notes section at the back of the book. The reader finds atotal of eight notes referencing page 7. The note cites a few words fromthe text, and then gives the source. At first I was put off by this method -- I prefer numbered notes -- but later thought that this method may makefor a better read. I can't recall coming across this noting method before.
In constructing her picture of Joseph Smith, Jr., Denton relies on FawnBrodie's interpretive psychobiography of the Prophet. This bias is evidentin this introductory chapter. One comes away with two ideas:
1. Joseph Smith, Jr., was essentially a dreamer, not much of a prophet.
2. An amazing statement of Joseph's vicarious culpability in the MountainMeadows Massacre:
With a keen eye toward martyrdom, the inventive and resourceful new prophet would quickly learn to manipulate the myth and reality of persecution as a means to his own ends -- a manipulation that would culminate in the massacre decades later at Mountain Meadows. (p. 10)
Two pages later, we come to a troublesome paragraph. Here it is, followedby my comments:
Covering a thousand years and brimming with heroes and villains, bloodshed and miracles, army generals and covert operations, rich biblical symbols and autobiographical schemes, what was to be called the Book of Mormon was reflective of the unsophisticated mystical leanings of the day. At root was the conviction that all believers were on the road to Godhood, that a heaven existed where all men could be saved and then go on to create their own worlds. (p. 9)
It takes only a moment to see that the author doesn't understand "at root"what the Book of Mormon is all about. Where is the "road to Godhood," the"create their own worlds"? Of course these teachings are not present inthat book of scripture. It is to be assumed that Denton simply morphedwhat she'd learned about Mormon belief into an assumption that these thingswere taught in the Book of Mormon.
Chapter 2 covers the Kirtland/Far West period, introducing us to John DoyleLee. Approaching his life much as she did Joseph Smith's, Denton analyzesLee's turbulent childhood, his unfortunate marriages, and his subsequentvulnerability to the appeal of Mormonism, and especially to the Danites.She describes, very briefly, the Hauns Mill episode, the "ExterminationOrders," and the political upheaval that accompanied the rapid growth ofthe Mormon population.
Chapter 3, titled "Nauvoo, 1840," drags us kicking and screaming throughthe entire Nauvoo period. Here Denton continues her psychoanalytical viewof Joseph Smith, and tells in some detail the story of Brigham Young andhis rise to prominence among the Saints. Denton sees Joseph Smith's "rule"over the Saints in Nauvoo as ego-centered and dictatorial, a picture mostMormons today would argue with.
Brigham Young is described as a rough-hewn, untutored youth who, followingthe death of Joseph Smith, grows into a headstrong, dictatorial leader ofthe leaderless Saints. Denton has little good to say about Brigham Young.In her view, he cheats and steals, even from his closest friends, such asJohn D. Lee. He usurps the leadership position of the emerging church,leading them out from Nauvoo and, along the way, building outposts andseducing Indian squaws.
You will recall earlier I wrote that Denton assigns blame to Joseph Smith,although she doesn't name his influence as a proximate cause, for an eventthat would occur after his death, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Shemaintains the unbroken chain of apostolic responsibility by now assigningblame to Brigham Young:
Consulting with his devotee [John. D.] Lee every day, Young solidified his takeover plans. His proposal for the creation of an autonomous First Presidency that diminished the power of the Quorum of the Twelve met significant opposition. "Stirred up to do this by the spirit of the Lord," Young successfully overcame the resistance and finalized his own ascendancy. Now officially ensconced and elevated to a deity, he would govern with increasing totalitarianism for the next thirty years, an authoritarian dictatorship that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. (p. 55)
Statements such as this really underscore Denton's mission in telling thisstory. She rightly appreciates the monstrous nature of the massacre, andthen sets out to isolate, and name, the "monsters" responsible for the act.Having identified both Joseph Smith, Jr., and Brigham Young ascontributing, nearly-direct causes to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, sheproceeds to paint a picture of the men that makes her argument morecredible to the reader.
But is her treatment even-handed? And if not, is this a fault? We'lldiscuss this more fully later.
Chapter 4 covers the Winter Quarters/Council Bluffs period and introducesus to Thomas Kane, who would figure so prominently in the Mormon story.Kane is described as a somewhat effeminate, foppish, spoiled rich kid whotakes on the cause of Mormonism as something of a sport, but ultimatelycomes to embrace the vision of the young Prophet. But his motives are, atbest, mixed:
As always with this complex and calculating man [Kane], his motives were wider than his sympathy for the Mormons and their persecutions. His correspondence and conversations made clear he envisioned that he would join them in their trek to the wild uncharted country of the American frontier, writing a best-selling adventure story of such splendor and magnitude as to ensure his superiority over his dashing brother Elisha. If such a literary enterprise brought less fame or fortune than imagined, Kane nurtured the attendant and zealous dream that through his father's singular political influence he could be appointed the first governor of California. (p. 47)
Chapter 5 , titled "Salt Lake City, August 24, 1849," begins the story ofJohn Williams Gunnison, dispatched by the federal government to map out theAmerican west and, in turn, bring some measure of resolution to the Mormonsituation. Brigham Young had already laid claim to an enormous amount ofland in the west. Gunnison was to negotiate a more reasonable claim.Relations between the Mormon settlers and the representatives of thefederal government were tense at first, but the parties gradually warmed toeach other, and Gunnison and his team were able to complete their missionand return home. Gunnison decided to write a book about his experiences,and, in his telling first-hand of practices such as polygamy andblood-atonement, managed to enrage Brigham and the Mormon faithful.
Gunnison's book was widely acclaimed as being both accurate andsympathetic. But:
For all his evenhandedness and objectivity, for all his praising of the Mormon virtues of perseverance and resourcefulness, generosity and benevolence, communal spirit and organizational skills, Gunnison had deconstructed what the Mormons held most sacred -- polygamy and blood atonement. (p. 70)
By bringing to the public forum a first-hand account of those things which,until now, had only been whispered about, he galvanized Mormon oppositionand made himself persona non grata in the State of Deseret.
Chapter 6 brings the Gunnison story to a bloody and tragic end. The stageis set by relating the variously cordial and hostile relationships betweenthe native Indians and the Mormons. Focusing on the relationship betweenBrigham Young and Wa-Kara, the Indian chief, Denton describes the breakdownof the peace enjoyed, for a time, between the two. At the height of thetension, Gunnison returned to Utah to complete his survey work. He wasmurdered in cold blood. According to Denton, the Mormons blamed theIndians. But further investigation shed some doubt on this conclusion.
With the close of chapter 6, the stage is now set for the Massacre itself.
We come now to Part 2, "The Passage."
Chapter 7 introduces us to the Fancher family and the families of theothers who made the trek with them. Described as wealthy and adventurous,they were desirous of becoming part of the "gold rush" taking place inCalifornia. They had no expectation that they'd meet any resistance alongthe way. They had already planned on stopping over in Salt Lake City. Thecity had become fairly well known as a place friendly to folks passingthrough, giving them a chance to rest up, feed their animals, and trade forgoods. The Mormons welcomed visitors, and even announced such arrivals inthe Deseret News to allow locals to take advantage of tradingopportunities.
But Chapter 8 turns ugly. Denton sees several contributing factors to theugliness:
The cricket invasion had wiped out much of the agriculture in the Valley, leaving less to trade with visitors.
The partial failure of the emigration program, resulting in the need for handcarts and a more perilous passage for the newcomers. The loss of life along the trail was, according to Denton, blamed squarely on Brigham Young and his lack of good planning.
Multiple apostasies, even from the highest ranks, were causing Young to become more isolated, more hostile.
Add to this mix the murder of Parley P. Pratt, and the announcement thatPresident Buchanan was sending troops into Utah to restore order, and thesituation was ripe for tragedy.
[John D.] Lee impressed upon [George A.] Smith that the southern Saints remained under the influence of the recent reformation, and were still "red-hot for the gospel." Lee told Smith in no uncertain terms that *any* emigrant train that passed through in the near future would be "used up" -- a euphemism all Mormons understood to mean slaughtered. "I really believe that any train of emigrants that may come through here will be attacked, and probably all destroyed," Lee told Smith, making it clear that any desired outcome *other* than complete destruction should be specifically ordered by the hierarchy. "You must inform Governor Young that if he wants emigrants to pass, without being molested, he must send orders to that effect to Colonel William H. Dame or Major Isaac C. Haight." (p. 116)
However Latter-day Saints consider the Mountain Meadows Massacre, I suspectmost see it as a tragic misunderstanding. But behind this is the question,what was the default action? Absent specific orders, were the emigrants tobe allowed to pass through, or were they to be killed? That the defaultwas the latter, in particular in an age when communications were slow atbest, seems like a remarkably poor choice.
While Denton at least implies that Brigham Young created such an atmosphereas to make Lee's idea reasonable, she provides no direct link between Youngand Lee on this matter.
With Chapter 9 we track the progress of the Fancher party as they travelthroughout the Utah territory in search of provisions for themselves andtheir livestock. At nearly every turn, in every town, they're turned away.The few Mormons who offer help are, in Denton's words, punished severelyfor their actions, at least one beaten senseless. And all the while, theFancher party is mystified by this hostile reception. All they'd readdescribed Salt Lake City as a traveller-friendly town.
Denton moves from the telling of the story into the mind of Brigham Youngin an intriguing paragraph:
The severe treatment of a band of God-fearing emigrants by God-fearing Mormons has bewildered historians and other writers for more than a century. Laden with young children, the train could not have credibly have been feared as an advance guard of the U.S. Army. Nor had its members been accused of a crime or caused a disturbance, though some contemporary reports refer to the massive cattle herd as destructive of private property. Some of the earliest observations drew unwanted attention to the obvious -- the train was resplendent in its supply of arms, ammunition, clothing, household goods, longhorn cattle, fine well-groomed horses, and what one fellow emigrant called "considerable funds." (p. 123)
It is clear what Denton is doing here. In a previous chapter, she outlinesthe financial troubles the Mormons were facing -- crickets, emigrationfunds, etc. -- and determines that the real motive for the massacre hadnothing to do with popular conceptions. Readers will certainly haveencountered various theories -- the murder of Parley P. Pratt, even themartyrdom of Joseph Smith -- in essence, an act of revenge. Dentondismisses this and calls the massacre an act of pure greed.
One is tempted to demand some evidence for causation. Is Denton's link -- between the Mormons' need for cash and the Fanchers' ready supply -- thereal motive for the massacre? Can this be demonstrated? If so, and thereader must beware of such a set-up, then laying the blame for the MountainMeadows Massacre squarely at the feet of Brigham Young is inevitable. Andsince Denton has already declared this to be the case, the current pointappears to be yet one more "nail in the coffin," one more piece of"evidence," to support her thesis.
The reader may very well stop here and wonder whether Denton can ultimatelysucceed in weaving together a credible account based, not on assumption andpre-supposition, but on documentable fact. She never gives up on thistheme -- to the end, she reminds us that bishops' wives wear the clothes ofthe victims, bishops drive the wagons left behind by the victims, Mormonwomen wear the jewels of the victims. It is a constant drumbeat -- Dentonreally wants us to focus on the greed factor.
Part two ends with chapter 10, a chronicle of the massacre itself. Thischapter should have come with a parental warning notice. It is bloody,brutal and heartless. The Mormons are, in Denton's view, calculating,scheming liars, who will stop at nothing to bring about the utterdestruction of the Fancher party.
Once again, Denton is relentless is assigning blame to Brigham Young.After describing Mormon efforts to blame the Indians for the massacre, andthe wide order to keep silent about what really happened on MountainMeadows, she offers the following:
The scheme to blame the atrocity on the Indians -- even to use the term "massacre," one so often associated with Indian barbarity -- was indeed conceived, crafted, and disseminated with the characteristic meticulousness for which Brigham Young was famous. (p. 142)
I mention this because, on the previous page, Denton's link from theplanning and execution of the massacre to Brigham Young seems to be basedon John D. Lee's diaries. The problem is that Denton seems to pick andchoose which of Lee's words to believe. When they appear to beself-serving and aimed at self-vindication, and when they don't serveDenton's purpose, she dismisses them and deems them unreliable. But hereshe accepts, at face value, what Lee wrote.
As a reader, I have a concern for the author's consistent use of sources.If there is a question of reliability, then the basis for judgment should,in my view, be other evidence, not whether the source supports the author'sbias. I found this to be a bit disturbing.
Chapter 11 begins Part 3, "The Legacy." Denton tries, with greatdifficulty, to reconstruct the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Shefocuses on what she sees as Brigham Young's attempt at establishing"plausible deniability" in the affair. While she is fairly certain thatthe story of the letter from Young, instructing the Saints to allow theFancher party to pass safely, but arriving too late, is a fabrication, sheadmits that the evidence is too inconclusive to afford a positive view.
Some of this narrative is hard to follow. She opens the chapter with aconversation between Isaac Haight and William Dame, with Haight veryreluctant to allow Dame to report the details of the massacre to BrighamYoung (p. 147). However,
...within the context of the era and the history of Brigham Young's complete authoritarian control over his domain and his followers, it is inconceivable that a crime of this magnitude could have occurred without direct orders from him. (p. 152)
I'm not clear, given this sentiment, why any of the participants would havebeen reluctant to report to Brigham Young the extent of the massacre. Ifhe had ordered it, why the reluctance on Haight's part?
Despite Denton's certainty, the reader is left to sort out the stories,rumors and fabrications that fill this chapter. The extent of BrighamYoung's involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre is not established;there simply isn't enough documentary evidence.
Chapter 12 brings us to an important turning point in the state ofrelations between the Mormons and the U.S. government. U.S. ArmyQuartermaster Stewart Van Vliet arrives in Salt Lake City and is greeted bya surprisingly welcoming and open Brigham Young. He is given a tour of thecity and introduced to prominent residents. But then, as if on the turn ofa hair, Young turns against Van Vliet and rouses the townspeople to opposeany federal intervention in their affairs. Denton fails to indicate whythis sudden change of heart, and one needs to read little between the linesto interpret her portrayal of Young as unstable and erratic. It is not aflattering portrait.
And now Thomas Kane re-enters the picture. It appears that the government,under orders from Pres. Buchanan, is about to act forcefully against theSaints in Utah, in part due to reports of the massacre. But Kane wants toact as an intermediary, in an attempt to bring peace. Having worked out adeal with Buchanan, Kane brings a deal to Young. It results in the Saintsfleeing south, leaving Salt Lake City, and the U.S. Army marching into anessentially empty town. (I know this is a very compressed account; thestory is sufficiently well known and needs no repeating here.)
Alongside all this is a growing national interest in the massacre, as newsof the atrocity spreads by word of mouth and newspaper reports. Fueledlargely by ex-Mormons, Americans are demanding an account of the tragedy.It would be John D. Lee who would pen the official account, accepted byBrigham Young, and promulgated as accurate and authoritative.
Chapter 13 introduces Judge John Cradlebaugh, the newest federal appointeein Salt Lake City. Initially very friendly toward the Mormons, evenconsidering them "Christians" and worthy of a fair hearing, he turns into abitter foe as he investigates the Mountain Meadows Massacre. At the sametime, a strong effort is made to repatriate the surviving children of themassacre. Family members in the east were insisting on the return of thechildren.
In the process of telling this part of the story, Denton's prose isreminiscent of that of Zane Grey in "Riders of the Purple Sage" in itspositive glee in relating bloody and grim details. I must confess to somediscomfort in the reading.
Am I over-reacting? I don't know. By the time Denton reaches this pointin the book, you realize she has abandoned any claim to objectivity. And,of course, she never makes any such claim at all. Instead, one is remindedof popular fiction where words are used to shock and scandalize, ratherthan to illuminate and educate. But more about this later.
Chapter 14 sees the furor over the massacre dying down as the nationbecomes embroiled in the coming civil war. The events at Mountain Meadowsdon't seem that important anymore. But as the Gentile population of SaltLake City grows, and an alternative press arises, the issue once againresurfaces, with people inside, and outside, the church demanding answers.And as the matter comes to a head, Brigham Young distances himself fromJohn D. Lee, a heretofore favorite "son."
In what seems like an odd place in the story to come to the defense ofwider Mormonism, Denton inserts this thought:
It would be part of the larger historical tragedy of Mountain Meadows that the outside world would level collective blame and guilt at Mormons in general. For there were untold numbers of faithful and believing Mormons profoundly disturbed by the church's role in the slaughter and the subsequent dissembling, which they termed "lying for the Lord." (p. 212)
I was very relieved to read at last something positive about the Mormons.It took 212 pages, but I finally found it.
Finally, Chapter 15 ends the saga with the account of the deterioration ofthe relationship between Brigham Young and John D. Lee. We learn of Lee'sattempts to flee the immediate area, change his name, and elude lawenforcement. Ultimately, Lee is arrested, tried (twice), and finallyexecuted.
Now, for me, the real kicker: In the "Acknowledgements" section, not readby everyone, is a piece of information I insist should have been madeavailable at the outset. although neither she nor her husband are Mormon,she comes, through her father's family, from pioneer Mormon stock. Herfather often took her to Mountain Meadows:
...my father never passed the spot without stopping. He didn't say anything about it except to make vague references such as "This is where the Mormons dressed like Indians and attacked a wagon train." (p. 293)
That the author is of Mormon stock, and that her father made a point ofmentioning the Massacre so often, should, in my view, have been revealed atthe outset of the book. The reader is left to assume that she is ahistorian, one who has taken an interest, from a historians point of view,in the massacre. Instead, we learn that there are familial connections.
That these connections should be hidden, behind the indices and notessections, in a page few people ever read, was disappointing me. Did shedeliberately save this tidbit until last? Did she feel her "objectivity"would be questioned if folks knew of this up front?
On the plus side, "American Massacre" is eminently readable. Her prosestyle is familiar and not at all challenging. The design of the book -- the footnoting style I mentioned earlier -- may in itself contribute to thereadability.
Where she fails, in my opinion, is in her attempt to marshal evidence toprove her thesis -- that Brigham Young was directly responsible for themassacre. That she has already reached this conclusion is beyond dispute.She isn't about the task of seeking out facts, she is instead a purveyor ofselective fact-telling.
As such, the book has little value as a historical work. I didn't readanything that came as a complete surprise. She retraces steps already trodby Will Bagley (to whom she gives much credit) and others.
If the Zane Grey-type of writing -- the anguished wrenching of the agony oflife, the stereotypical picturing of heroes and villains -- appeals to you,then this book is perfect. But if you're looking for new information, newground being broken on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, then this isn't thebook for you.
Jeff Needle email@example.com
© 2003 Jeff Needle < firstname.lastname@example.org >