Mountain Meadows Massacre and Brigham Young discussion

Mountain Meadows Massacre and Brigham Young discussion

Date: Thu, 9 Apr 1998 16:33:09 EDT
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: [LDS-Bookshelf] Old Mormon History

On April 9, Will Bagley wrote:

“I don’t want to wade too far into this swamp, so I’ll try to stick to the facts.”

. . . . .

“More importantly, Johnston’s army had a detailed and very accurate report of the Mountain Meadows Massacre from Indian agent Garland Hurt by 4 December 1857. If you accept the stories of Mormon historians, this means that the Army Feds had an accurate account of the event long before the Federal official directly responsible for white-Indian relations in the territory–Indian Superintendant Brigham Young. Had Brigham Young actually been doing this job, he could have arrested John D. Lee and the other senior officers in the Iron County militia and tried them for the murder of 120 men, women, and children.”

The simple fact of the matter (sorry!  I mean to say, “subjective option among a host of plausibilities -this one likely innaccurate [relatively speaking] because it may not necessarily further the kingdom to share this data . . .”) is that Brigham Young did not desire to do “this job,” if we can believe John D. Lee’s later account that Brigham stopped him short when he tried to tell the Church President the full details of the horror.

In a carefully crafted letter to Thomas L. Kane two years later, (which I sold several years ago, dated December 15, 1859), Brigham Young was attempting to establish greater jurisdiction for local Mormon-controlled probate courts over that of the Federal and military “Bayonet” courts in Utah Territory.  He asked Kane to procure a written statement from the Attorney General of the United States (Jeremiah S. Black) on this crucial issue.

Pervading Young’s entire six-page build-up to this request was a highly politique report on affairs in Utah, aimed at portraying a scene of strictly legal, judicious conduct and order among the Mormons.  The text flowed carefully from a description of the Legislative Assembly’s orderly convening, through an almost lovingly deferential allusion to Governor Cumming’s “old and well known habit” (alcoholism?) to a controlled recital of local persecution at the hands of self-serving publishers of “a mean spirited and vilely libellous and scurrilous sheet printed in this City [the Valley Tan ].”  Then, in the most measured language possible, Young maintained a stance of quiet indignation as he dealt with the irritating realization, “from papers East and West, that the massacre at the Mountain Meadows still elicits more or less notice and comment, a good share of which is not very creditable . . .”

For two pages, Brigham Young attempted to smooth over this difficult matter. He denied having had prior knowledge that the massacre might take place, despite the fact that, according to modern historians, he had anxiously dispatched James Haslam, the messenger from southern Utah, back to the Mormon militia with orders not to commit the murders.  Writing to such a knowledgeable correspondent, Brigham essentially conceded in this 1859 letter that Mormons had participated in the atrocities when he wrote:

“. . . had I been apprized of the intended onslaught at the Meadows, I should have used such efforts for its prevention as the time, distance, and my influence and facilities would have permitted.  The horrifying event transpired without my knowledge, except from after report . . .”

There then followed an intriguing blend of coldness and humanitarian expression, in which the Mormon leader described his own emotions regarding the Mountain Meadows Massacre, while all the time emphasizing that he wanted to hear nothing about it until a (Mormon-controlled) court could investigate and “correctly” adjudicate the affair:

“. . . the recurring thought of it ever causes a shudder in my feelings. . . . and I have known and still prefer to know nothing touching the affair, until I in common with the people, learn the facts as they may be developed before those whose right it is to investigate and adjudicate thereupon.  Colonel, you may think this a singular statement, but the facts of the massacre of men, women, and children are so shocking and crucifying to my feelings, that I have not suffered myself to hear any more about them than the circumstances of conversation compelled.  But since some are prejudicially obtruding that affair upon public notice, and it appears uncertain when it will be better understood, . . . I have taken the liberty to transcribe, and herewith enclose, a letter addressed to me by Col. George A. Smith upon the subject. . . . So far as I am able to judge, . . . I presume that Col Smith’s accompanying condensation, from the various reports he deemed most worthy of notice, is the most reliable that can be obtained, until such time as the matter can receive an impartial judicial investigation.”

The text of the letter by George A. Smith was no longer present with the letter when I obtained it.  It may have corresponded to Smith’s letter to Young of August 17, 1858, which blamed the entire affair on the Indians, but which made a vague reference to “. . . John D. Lee, and a few other white men . . . on the ground during a portion of the combat . . .” (Comprehensive History of the Church  IV:162-5).  The “impartial” judicial investigators to whom Young referred frequently in the letter were the Mormon-controlled probate courts.  This becomes utterly clear (sorry again!  “plausible”) to the reader as Young devotes the final two pages of his letter to the central purpose of this entire lengthy communication.  Carefully allowing that there may be honest differences of opinion on this question, the prophet concludes:

“But this difference of view and action causes great hindrance in the conduct of judicial business, and affords opportunity for many plausible allegations as to tardy and inefficient administration of justice.  Under these circumstances, if it will not be asking too much, nor trespassing too far upon the courtesy of the learned Attorney, General of the U.S., I shall be highly gratified with a written statement of Judge Black’s opinion upon this question.”

Mild as such careful language may sound, this letter offers stunning evidence of the complexities and adroitness of Brigham Young’s style of leadership and control.  In southern Utah, Federal Judge John Cradlebaugh was failing in his efforts to indict Mormons in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the Administration in Washington was intent upon conciliation with the Mormons. Probably in direct response to the very letter I describe above, the Attorney General of the United States answered Brigham Young on July 12, 1860.  As we read in Norman F. Furniss, The Mormon Conflict  (New Haven & London, 1960), pages 229-30:

“Jeremiah Black later displayed an even more moderate approach, bordering upon cordiality.  When he wrote to Brigham Young, in itself a remarkable act, he announced the appointment of new and impartial judges, spoke of their selection for their “moral as well as intellectual qualities,” and added as though addressing the ruling power in Utah:  “That is what you need in order to give peace and security and safety to your rights of person, property, and reputation.”  Buchanan’s Cabinet had moved far from the verdict of its deliberations on the Mormon question in the spring of 1857.”

Rick (help lead Will deeper into the swamp) Grunder

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