Episode 139: ‘And the truth shall set you free’ — historians discuss the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath
Historians Richard E. Turley Jr. and Barbara Jones Brown join the Church News podcast to provide context and understanding to one of the grimmest episodes in Church history
Episode 139: ‘And the truth shall set you free’ — historians discuss the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath
Historians Richard E. Turley Jr. and Barbara Jones Brown join the Church News podcast to provide context and understanding to one of the grimmest episodes in Church history
“We believe it is our obligation to understand and learn from the past,” Elder Henry B. Eyring, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, remarked on Sept. 11, 2007, at an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The massacre is perhaps the grimmest episode in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — when brewing tensions between early Church pioneers and immigrants traveling through the Utah Territory erupted, resulting in the death of some 100 people.
In 2008, the book “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” explored the complicated history of the 1857 event. The sequel, “Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath,” is now available. Authors Richard E. Turley Jr. and Barbara Jones Brown join this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about this period in Church history.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: I think one thing that we can take from it is the importance of listening to other people and not vilifying even those who are radically different from ourselves. Along with that, there’s the need to talk through subjects that are sometimes difficult. We sometimes find ourselves in situations that are not that much different. Perhaps we’re not looking to massacre someone, but we may be on social media, and then we may polarize, and we may begin to believe rumors about the other side, we begin to look at people who are not the same as us and consider them to be “the other.” So, I think one of the most important things we can learn is that it’s important to listen to others who are different from ourselves, to be patient with them, not to vilify them, but to listen and try to respect them; to be civil.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sarah Jane Weaver: “We believe it is our obligation to understand and learn from the past,” then-Elder Henry B. Eyring remarked on Sept. 11, 2007, at an event commemorating the Mountain Meadows Massacre 150th anniversary. The massacre is perhaps the grimmest episode in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when brewing tensions between early Church pioneers and immigrants traveling through the Utah Territory erupted, resulting in the death of some 100 people. In 2008, the book “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” explored the complicated history of the 1857 event. Now, the sequel, “Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath,” is available. Authors Richard E. Turley Jr. and Barbara Jones Brown join this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about this period in Church history. Welcome, both of you.
Barbara Jones Brown: Thank you. We’re so happy to be here.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Thank you for the invitation.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I appreciate you coming. For anyone who doesn’t know all of the details about this episode in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can you give us just sort of an overview and tell us what happened and why it matters?
Barbara Jones Brown: Well, to briefly give you an overview, in September of 1857, an emigrant train headed for California was initially attacked on Sept. 7 at a place called the Mountain Meadows, which is in southwestern Utah. Five days later, after a five-day siege, the final massacre was carried out, in which — as you mentioned — some 100 men, women and children, innocent victims, were massacred by a group of southern Utah Mormon militiamen and a few Paiute Indians whom they had roped into participating with them so that they could ultimately blame the massacre on them and deflect blame from themselves.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And this is obviously a troubling episode in our history. What have we learned, and how do we put this into context?
Richard E. Turley Jr.: There are some lessons that can be learned from this. The first and probably most important one is that the massacre occurred during a time of social upheaval, and people began to pull into sort of polarized positions on various things. And then they began to listen to rumors that came down, which proved not to be true. And all of that created a kind of tinderbox situation in which only a small event kind of exploded. And in today’s world, we sometimes find ourselves in situations that are not that much different. Perhaps we’re not looking to massacre someone, but we may be on social media, and then we may polarize, and we may begin to believe rumors about the other side, we begin to look at people who are not the same as us and consider them to be “the other.” So, I think one of the most important things we can learn is that it’s important to listen to others who are different from ourselves, to be patient with them, not to vilify them, but to listen and try to respect them; to be civil.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So, Barbara, can you share with us some of the context and the events that were the forerunner to what happened at Mountain Meadows?
Barbara Jones Brow: Absolutely. So, in 1857, the newly elected president of the United States, James Buchanan, received word from some federal appointees that were in Utah Territory that the Latter-day Saints were practicing polygamy, that they had a theocracy and that they were, quote, “poisoning the Indians against the rest of Americans,” so-called Americans, “in the United States.” And so, these kinds of letters are coming into Congress and to President Buchanan’s Cabinet, as well as Utah Territorial Legislature sent some memorials or petitions to the federal government in January of 1857, saying that, “We don’t agree with the federal appointees you’re sending to us.” Territories at the time did not have the ability to elect their own leaders. They were ruled by federal appointees for the most part, with some exceptions. But they were saying, “If you continue to send us federal appointees that don’t seek to respect us in our ways of life, we will send them away.”
So, these memorials and these letters arrive in Washington about the same time, and President Buchanan believes he needs to replace Brigham Young — who’s been appointed as territorial governor — with a new governor, and also to send a small force to make sure that they will accept this new governor and to occupy Utah Territory. So, these troops are headed for Utah settlements in the summer of 1857, which leads to hysteria, some fears and concerns among the Latter-day Saints, who’ve only recently been driven from Missouri and Illinois in the prior decades. So, when they hear the troops are coming, they resolve to resist, and they come up with various resistance strategies, one of which is to convince the federal government that if you remove the Latter-day Saints from Utah — the Latter-day Saints, they claimed that they have been, using 19th-century stereotypes, controlling the Indians of the west, and therefore, emigration was not safe anymore if the Latter-day Saints are removed from Utah Territory.
So, publicly, Young begins saying, “If you send your troops here, I will no longer hold the Indians back but will say to them, ‘Do as you please.’” Privately, his interpreters are encouraging local Native Americans to raid emigrant cattle to make sure that that threat comes true. Now, in none of these cases did Young say to kill anyone, but he was encouraging cattle raiding, and we documented several raids or attacks on emigrant cattle companies in September and October of 1857. The group that was massacred in Mountain Meadows, something went awry there; it was never intended that a massacre take place.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And then, Rick, can you pick up where Barbara just left off, and just sort of finish the rest of that story?
Richard E. Turley Jr.: When the emigrants reached Cedar City, they were frustrated because when Alexander Fancher — one of the leaders of the combined emigrant company — had gone through the territory in 1851, Utah was in that stage of treating immigrants, kindly allowing them to buy goods. And so, many immigrants decided that rather than wear out their draft animals by filling their wagons with enough food to get them all the way to California, they’d just put half of it in, and then they’d re-provision in Salt Lake. Well, because of the Utah War that was going on, they weren’t able to get food or ammunition. Brigham Young, and other Church leaders, issued a mandate that they not give away grain or cattle.
So, when the emigrant company got to Cedar City, they were frustrated they haven’t been able to buy the goods that they needed for their children, for their families. So, they went to a local miller to have some grain ground; he charged them an entire beef for that. They went to the local store, and they were told things there were not for sale. Obviously, they were frustrated; they went to complain to Isaac Haight, who was the mayor of the city and the stake president there. He wrongly interpreted them as a mob. He called out John Higbee, who was the local law enforcement person, to arrest these people. And then they wouldn’t have kept them; they would have fined them cattle, which was again part of Brigham Young’s war strategy, see if he could get cattle to save, and save grain.
And so, the emigrants said, “We’re not going to allow you to arrest us.” They left town and thought that was the end of the circumstances. But Isaac Haight then wrote his military leader — William Dame, in Parowan — and said, “I want to call out the militia to surround these people and arrest them.” Again, they would have then fined them cattle. Dame was not sympathetic. He said, “Words are but wind. There hasn’t been anything wrong that occurred that would justify that.” At that point, Isaac Haight decided he would take matters into his own hands. He called John D. Lee up from Fort Harmony and asked Lee to gather together a group of people and go down and raid the company. Lee was supposed to wait until the company got down into the valley of the Santa Clara River. They jumped the gun.
Meanwhile, Haight had a council meeting on Sunday, explained what was going on, his council didn’t support what he had recommended. And so, he sent two messengers to call Lee off, but Lee and his group jumped the gun Monday morning. And by the time the messengers got to them, people had been killed. And because people had been killed, they then rationalized that if the company goes on to California, they’d bring an army from the west at the same time they were facing an army in the east, and they wrongly, very wrongly, rationalized it’s either their families or our families. They should have realized that when the company didn’t show up in California, people would know something was wrong and that this desire to cover it up by killing people would never work.
Barbara Jones Brown: Yeah, and part of that cover-up, as we’ve mentioned before, included blaming the whole thing on Paiute Indians so they believed that — people would know that there was a massacre, but they wanted to make it look as if the entire massacre — and this is how they portray it, in fact — that Paiute Indians were responsible for it. And the Paiute people for generations have also been victims in that the blame for this has been laid on their heads when it was the white settlers who made this decision and carried out and orchestrated the massacre primarily. So, that’s another thing that we hope to change through our books is to show who really should bear the blame for this.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And why don’t you share some of the new findings that the book will reveal.
Barbara Jones Brown: Wow, where do we start? There are so many in book two. So, one of the things that we found in studying the aftermath of the massacre was three sources in which people who counted the bodies immediately after the crime estimated that there were — two sources say — 95 victims, and another says 96. And, interestingly enough, that lines up with the number of victims that have been identified by descendants, groups and historians, the number that we have in the appendix of our first book, which again, includes as complete a list as we know of today, is 88. So, we believe that the number of 120, which was an estimate given by Jacob Hamblin to the army in 1859, based on his guess after he buried remains a year later, is exaggerated.
Now, why do we say that? We’re not saying that to try and make the massacre any less horrific than it is; it would have been just as horrific and wrong if even one person was murdered. But the reason why we feel it’s important to show that finding is that many people, including historians and descendants of victims, have been anxious to identify these 25 extra people or 30 people extra that we’ve never identified before. And I think we can rest assured now that we do know almost, if not all, of the names of the people who were wrongfully murdered. It also can help lay to rest rumors that have existed in the past that there was another group called the Missouri Wildcats that was traveling with the train and that they were slaughtered too, but there is no evidence to support that myth as well. So, that’s just one of the findings that we found. And I’ll let Rick chime in with another, maybe we could go back and forth a little bit, sharing new things.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: One of the questions that we’ve been asked repeatedly is “What did Brigham Young know?” and “When did he know it?” And as we wrote the sequel, we make that clear that Brigham Young did not know about the massacre in advance, he did not order it. He knew there was some type of difficulty with immigrants in southern Utah, and he sent a letter asking them to go in peace. Then he had a report given to him on Sept. 29, 1857, by John D. Lee, who was a participant, a major participant, in the massacre. He lied to Brigham Young, and then Brigham Young, over the next couple of decades, learned more and more about what happened. And his most revealing interview occurred with Nephi Johnson, a participant in the massacre. And the result of that was that between general conference sessions in October of 1870, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve excommunicated John D. Lee and Isaac Haight, the man who invited Lee to participate in the massacre and might be considered in many ways the the person who formulated it.
And so, Brigham Young’s understanding was gradual. That being said, by 1859 he was troubled enough by things he had heard that he went to the federal district attorney. We have a transcription of a conversation between them that has never been seen before because it was written in the Deseret alphabet, and we had our colleague, LaJean Purcell Carruth, transcribe it. And in this conversation, Brigham Young talks to the district attorney, and they go back and forth. And Brigham Young says, “Please prosecute it in the federal courts.” It’s often been said that Brigham Young wanted to prosecute it in the local courts because he wanted to control it. And here, Brigham Young is telling the federal people to take care of it because he doesn’t want it to just be left unexamined. He wants to have the case investigated.
And he also says to them, “Just be sure that you do it in a location that you’ll be able to get witnesses. If you put it in a very inconvenient location, then people won’t want to come if it takes several days to get there, if they have to ignore their farms,” and so forth. So, Brigham Young’s knowledge is gradual, but he’s disturbed enough by 1859 to want it investigated. He offers to help out at that time to bring the suspects into court. But for reasons we’ll explain in the book, political reasons, no one on the federal government accepts that offer from him until 1876.
Barbara Jones Brown: And just building on what Rick said, there has also been a myth that we were kind of surprised to discover the reality about that, after John D. Lee’s execution, that that was that, no one ever pursued trying to prosecute others who were also guilty of the crime. But what we show is that nine men were indicted for the crime. And after Lee’s execution, federal prosecutors continued to hope to be able to prosecute others. However, they were never able to catch many of these men. Isaac Haight, whom Rick has mentioned, lived on the lam; he was hiding throughout the rest of his life throughout the United States and even goes down to Mexico at some point.
Others like him are never caught. And so, that was one of the reasons why Lee was prosecuted is he was caught. So, what we found is that those prosecutorial efforts continued after Lee’s death. But again, no one else was ever caught. Other men, like William Dame, who were indicted, there was just not hard enough evidence to bring forth that conviction. And so, he was let off because there just wasn’t enough evidence.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: So of the nine men who were indicted by a federal grand jury that included both Latter-day Saints and other people, more than half were taken into custody. But they just couldn’t get sufficient evidence to prosecute more than Lee. They weren’t exonerated, they weren’t let go in the sense of they were found not guilty; they were simply let off because they didn’t have the evidence that they needed.
Now, one of the rumors that’s frequently repeated, that I hear from time to time, is that after the first John D. Lee trial, in which it ended in a hung jury, people have basically said, “Well, somehow or another, that was rigged.” Actually, what happens is that the trial is thrown, but it’s not thrown by the Latter-day Saints. It’s thrown by the Liberal Party members who are controlling the prosecution, for the reason that they wanted tougher legislation against Latter-day Saints in order to disenfranchise them and keep them from voting because they wanted political and economic control of the territory of Utah. So, they decided to throw the first trial in order to prove that Latter-day Saints would not convict one of their own, even someone who was obviously guilty. And so, that’s a very interesting part of the book; we are able to explain for the first time what happened there.
It’s sometimes been said that Brigham Young fingered John D. Lee to be a scapegoat, and that also proves not to be true. John D. Lee was among the five people arrested who had been indicted. Because they were going after William Dame — the highest military officer there, who was also a state president and the mayor of his city — because they were going after him, they needed the small fish to cop on the big fish. That’s something that is often done in a case of a conspiracy like this. So, Philip Klingensmith agreed to be a state witness, and they offered John D. Lee the chance to do the same. He had two counts against him. They said, “If you’ll agree to write a confession, we’ll drop the first count. If the confession is satisfactory, we’ll drop the second count.” He consulted his lawyers, they said you won’t get a better deal than that. So, when he agreed to do it, they dropped the first count. But when he wrote his confession, it was a really meager kind of confession. And they looked at it said, “It’s not sufficient, it won’t help us convince Dames, so we’re going to go after you.”
So, Lee ended up being prosecuted, mainly because he talked a lot, unlike the others who remained silent. He became the poster child for the massacre. And Brigham Young did not finger him as a scapegoat. Was he a scapegoat? Well, yes and no. The proverbial scapegoat in the Old Testament is one on whom the sins of the community are placed, and then it’s sent away. There were between 50 and 60 participants in this group violence who could have been prosecuted. Lee ends up being the only one who’s fully prosecuted and executed, so in that sense, the sins of the many were placed on his head, but he was not innocent. He had blood on his hands, both because he drew the emigrants out under a white flag, promising them protection, and because he participated in murdering people.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And we detailed much of what we know about this event in the first Mountain Meadows book. Rick, tell us how that book came about.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: In the 1980s and 1990s, there began to be a conversation taking place between the descendants of the victims of the massacre and the descendants of the perpetrators, into which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state of Utah and the United States National Forest Service were drawn. Growing out of that came a monument that was dedicated on Dan Sill Hill in 1990. President Gordon B. Hinckley, then the President of the Church, looked at another monument that had been built in 1932 in the valley, thought that it had worn down a great deal, and called a meeting in his office in which he invited the relatives of the victims, myself and others, to talk about how that monument could be rebuilt to be more respectful as a memorial to the victims.
The various people gave their input, and in 1999, that memorial was dedicated. At the same time, many of us who were working as professional historians at the time thought this is a good time in which we look at the Mountain Meadows as a subject and do so without the timidity that it’s sometimes characterized writing the past, particularly by people associated with the Church. And so, we resolved — myself and others at that time — that we wanted to write a book. We talked to senior Church leaders about it. They expressed their willingness. We said, “We want access to all the materials that exist on the subject. And we want to retain the editorial control.” They were willing that we do that. And we said, “We want the chips to fall where they may, regardless of whom they hit.”
So, that’s the way that that book came about. I then invited a couple of my colleagues — Ronald W. Walker, who had been a professor at BYU, history professor; Glen M. Leonard, who at the time was the director of what was called the Museum of Church History and Art, now the Church History Museum — and we started the project. And then along the way, we invited Barbara Jones Brown, who’s with me in the studio today and is co-author on the second book, to join us as a content editor. And we had a project that would initially have covered the whole waterfront, but partway through it, we realized we’d bitten off more than we could chew. And so, we split the project in half. We published the first volume, “Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” in 2008. And now the second volume, “Vengeance Is Mine,” is available for the public.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And when you talk about chips falling where they may, what were some of the conclusions of that first book?
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Well, one of the things we concluded is that Brigham Young did not order the massacre, contrary to popular belief. He did use violent rhetoric, and we talked about that in the first book and in the second book, and we explained the impact of that violent rhetoric and how — even though Brigham Young himself did not intend anybody to be harmed, and even though he initiated a series of attacks on supply trains through Lot Smith and others that have been heard, and as our book shows, also, through multiple raids on immigrant companies of their cattle — it was not his intention that anybody be harmed. But in the case of the Mountain Meadows, something went awry.
The main planners for the Mountain Meadows Massacre were local leaders: William H. Dame, who was the chief Nauvoo Legion leader in southern Utah, in Parowan; Isaac Haight, who was a military officer — and both of those men were state presidents, by the way; church and state were merged at this time, both were also mayors of their cities — and then Isaac Haight called upon John D. Lee to begin to carry out what went on. So, there were several people who were key leaders, and they were local leaders of the Church.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and anyone who has been to the Mountain Meadows site can actually feel how somber it is. When you visited, Barbara, as you have done this, this has to just be something that is sort of consuming.
Barbara Jones Brown: Yes, the Mountain Meadows has become a very special place to me in that the remains of the people who are victims of this atrocity still lie there. And so, I see it as a place of respect and remembrance of them. And so, each time I go there, I do feel that sense of respect for those whose remains lie there. And each time I go there, I feel a promise in my heart that I will always tell their story so that they are never forgotten and so their people know what happened to them.
And I think — hearing from a lot of people recently who have visited the Mountain Meadows in their lifetimes, they always say, “It’s so hard and so difficult,” and they feel such a dark feeling. And while it is true that a horrific event took place there that we must always remember, I also feel that sense of just respect and honor for the people who lie there as well. So, I think people can feel both kinds of feelings. And I hope that after reading our book, people will come to learn more about the victims, you know, the names of the people whose remains lie there and think of them as well and honor them when they visit the site.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So, I just have to acknowledge that so many people who listen to this podcast do so to be uplifted and strengthened, and this topic feels very, very heavy. It’s hard to address a topic where you don’t feel like there’s happy endings.
Barbara Jones Brown: Though there was no happy ending for the victims of the massacre, Rick and I and others have experienced some happy things as we’ve reached out to the families and descendants of the victims in friendship and love and in a feeling of apology and sorrow, and also being able to share all of the research that we have done, including the research on their ancestors, the 17 surviving children who were spared the massacre.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak in Arkansas at an event of the descendants of the victims that they hold every September to remember their ancestors. And I was able to share with them a chapter from “Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath” that talked about the recovery of those 17 little children from Utah by federal authorities, and their being sent back to their loved ones in Arkansas, who were anxiously seeking their return. And as I shared all that information with the descendants of those 17 children, it was a profound experience. And everyone in the audience was so grateful to learn all of this additional information that came through years of research.
And afterwards, one little girl, who is a direct descendant of Alexander and Eliza Fancher, came up to me, and she said, “Can I have your talk, your paper, so I can share it with my school?” And I said, “Absolutely, this is for you.” And she was just thrilled to have all this information about her ancestors and to be able to share that with her school. So, there have been countless moments of reconciliation like that that have brought great joy. And again, we can do that by facing difficult history, accepting it, owning it, apologizing for it and moving forward.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: The truth really can make you free. Last September, I went to Arkansas by invitation and attended the dinner sponsored by the Mountain Meadows Massacre descendants and had an opportunity to associate with many of those people. And then the following evening, I was a speaker for the dinner of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation. And in that talk I gave, I summarized the contents of our new book, “Vengeance Is Mine.”
And I also talked about the efforts that we’ve made over the years to preserve the land on which the victims’ remains still lie today. And afterwards, I had a number of people come up to me and say to me, “We have never felt better about your church than we have tonight, after hearing what you’ve said.” They essentially said to me, “You’re finally recognizing the truth. And that gives us a sense that we’ve never had before about your willingness to take this very difficult topic and look it square in the face.”
Sarah Jane Weaver: As you have worked with descendants of both sides of this horrific issue, what have you learned about reconciliation?
Barbara Jones Brown: I know for both Rick and I, the reconciliation has been the most gratifying part of this whole project. Becoming friends with the relatives of the victims and hearing their story and being able to tell them and confirm to them and debunk any rumors that their ancestors had done anything wrong, to be able to have those conversations and say sorry to them has been an incredible, emotional and uplifting experience. And again, I think that reconciliation was made possible by the understanding, the deep understanding, of the history and what happened. And yes, this was a horrific event. But as Rick said, what we need to do today is say, “OK, how do we make things better today? How do we move forward?” And it’s, again, through the study of history, that reconciliation can take place.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Reconciliation requires facing and accepting the truth. People sometimes want to have reconciliation while still rationalizing what was done, and that simply won’t work. If you face the truth and are willing to accept that truth, whatever it might be, and then are willing to go forward and embrace those who might be different from yourselves, then reconciliation is possible.
Sarah Jane Weaver: As you have dealt with such a heavy, heavy topic, and such hard research to learn about, what kept you going?
Barbara Jones Brown: So, all of us who worked on this project suffered emotionally as we learned the horrific details of the crime. I remember hearing once someone saying to me, after they heard I was working on this project — a Latter-day Saint, a good Latter-day Saint woman, friend of mine — said to me, “Well, you know, those emigrants were asking for it.” My jaw dropped, and I thought, “I never want to hear anyone think that again.” Again, that was through a misperception of history, right? And so, what kept me going was I wanted to, along with Rick, tell the full truth of the wrong that was done to these victims.
It was an incredibly emotionally trying experience. And the first time I had the opportunity to meet a woman who was a direct descendant of Alexander and Eliza Fancher, and a woman who is a direct descendant of John Twitty Baker — two of the leaders of the wagon train — to be able to take their hands and tell them how sorry I was for what happened to their kin and how wrong it was for what happened to their kin. And they both, even though we had literally just met, embraced me, and the three of us stood there crying. That experience led to my continuing to want to tell the truth and continuing to want to meet more descendants of victims and express my sorrow for what happened and ask them, “What do you want?”
And as Rick mentioned, one of the things they wanted was the land protected so that it would never be developed, the burial place of their ancestors. And the other thing they’ve always asked us is, “Please tell the story. Please make sure our ancestors are never forgotten and people know the truth about what happened to them.” That, for me, has been the driving factor that has kept me going through this very difficult writing.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Studying the Mountain Meadows Massacre can suck the life out of you. I’ve been studying the topic for more than three decades, and I will tell you — if I could speak openly — that it has given me nightmares at night. It has caused me to zone out in the middle of the day and see myself at the Mountain Meadows as the massacre is about to take place, running among the various people and screaming and yelling, “Don’t do it.”
It’s brought me to tears. It’s sickened me as I’ve read the details of it. But what’s kept me going is the recognition that the truth can make you free. And by bringing that truth out now in these two books plus three other documents books that we’ve published, and then being able to acknowledge that and preserve the land on which the victims were murdered, as well as take the hands of those who are the relatives of those victims, embrace them, express how sorry I am that this thing took place, this horrible atrocity.
And then also to feel their love and their expressions of kindness and to feel that in doing all of this, mutually we’re making some good progress, not only in terms of individual healing but also in terms of group healing. I’ve seen people in southern Utah and elsewhere who are descendants of the perpetrators of the massacre feel a collective group pain that should be lifted by facing the truth. I’ve seen the victim’s relatives also feel lifted as we face the truth.
Barbara and I both went to Washington, as I mentioned, in order to advocate for having the Mountain Meadows Massacre Historic Site be a National Historic Landmark. And on that occasion, I was privileged to be asked by the three Mountain Meadows organizations to represent the victims in the speech that I gave. So, I gave a speech to the committee that had to decide on whether to advance this proposal or not that was from the victim’s point of view. And I have to tell you that that was one of the most difficult talks I’ve ever given. I was feeling tremendous emotion when I gave it, and it took everything I had to keep me from just breaking down in tears.
Barbara Jones Brown: Another thing that’s driven me is after “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” was published and after I began working as a co-author with Rick on “Vengeance Is Mine,” I was doing some family history. And because of my knowledge of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and knowledge of the names of those who participated, I discovered I was a direct descendant of a perpetrator. And though he’s not here — his name was William S. Holly — he’s not here, and he can’t change what he did. What I can do is try and, with everything I can do today that’s possible, right the wrongs that he committed against these innocent people. So, that drove me as well.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I want to talk about this era that we’re in in Church history, which feels more transparent than we’ve been in any other period in the past. Why is it important that as a church, we’re transparent about our history?
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Well, I’ll give a couple of reasons for that. First of all, I will say that the idea I came up with to write a book on Mountain Meadows had a lot to do with this idea of transparency. I thought to myself, “What is the worst incident in the history of the Church,” and to me, it was the Mountain Meadows Massacre. So, I thought, “OK, let’s take that. Let’s take the worst incident, and let’s just look at it straight on. Let’s shine a bright light into a dark corner. Let’s take on a topic that was previously taboo and look at it and let the chips fall where they may,” in my mind thinking, “If we can tackle that subject, then we can tackle any subject.”
Jesus said in the New Testament, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The only way to face an incident like this that’s terrible is not to cover it up. The Doctrine and Covenants says you shouldn’t cover your sins or try to justify the wrongs that you’ve done, but instead, you should confess them and make them known. So, what we’ve sought to do here is to provide a bright light on a dark place and to dig deeper than anyone has ever done before to bring the full truth of it out.
So, it’s our great desire that when people study the Mountain Meadows Massacre, they don’t attempt to justify it, they don’t attempt to condone it, they don’t attempt to rationalize it, or to blame the victims — which has so often been the case in the past — that they don’t try to shift responsibility to the Paiutes, when the white leaders were the ones who were the key players in all of this; but that they instead look at it in an open, honest, transparent way, recognize that wrong was done by people who might have been ancestors of the person thinking about this, and then realize that that’s just the way it is. History is what it is; you can’t change it.
Barbara Jones Brown: And I love that Rick brought up that scripture because that was exactly the scripture, the biblical scripture, that was in my mind, “the truth shall make you free.” Because of our learning about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, I personally, early on, was invited by descendants of the victims to come visit them in Arkansas in 2007 at a reunion where they were reenacting the leaving of the wagon train from Beller Spring, Arkansas, in April of 1857. And there I met many of the descendants of the victims, and I was able to listen to their pain and listen to how they were still upset — of course, understandably, as they should be — about what had happened. But because of my understanding, because I had been studying this horrific atrocity, I was able to sit with their pain — and in some cases, their anger — and just listen and be able to say, “I’m so sorry. It’s so wrong what happened to your kin,” and their just hearing that was incredibly healing for them.
And it’s also been healing for descendants of perpetrators to know — they just want to know what happened, what their ancestors were involved in. And because of the truth setting us, both groups, free, we’ve been able to see a lot of reconciliation, a lot of healing. And so, I think that’s why it’s so important just to face all history, even the troubling history, and be able to learn and grow and actually be better because of knowing it.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: We’ve often said that no one alive today bears any responsibility for carrying out the massacre or planning it, but we are all responsible for how we treat this topic. If we try to justify it or condone it or vilify the victims or blame others who are not primarily responsible for it, then we haven’t been transparent, we haven’t been honest, we haven’t been straightforward.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And there’s also some interesting learning I appreciated at the very onset of this podcast, that you spoke about what can happen when we act without having complete information. We talked about violent rhetoric that can lead to greater things. What can we take from this incident that can help define our lives in this era?
Richard E. Turley Jr.: I think one thing that we can take from it is the importance of listening to other people and not vilifying even those who are radically different from ourselves. Along with that, there’s the need to talk through subjects that are sometimes difficult. Intriguingly, in the case of the Mountain Meadows, there were councils held from time to time about various matters, and when a full council met, and when everyone had the opportunity to express an opinion on the subject, generally the council made the right decision. When people decided to go contrary to the council decision — go off on their own, go rogue, if you will — then, more often than not, they made the wrong decision. So, we should take difficult topics, discuss them thoroughly with a wide variety of opinions being expressed, and we’re more likely to come to a good determination than if we try to do something individually.
Barbara Jones Brown: I would add that something I’ve learned and that I would recommend to others approaching a very difficult and troubling topic like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, to not be afraid of history. Yes, it can be painful to learn that our people or our predecessors, in some cases even our ancestors, participated in such a horrific thing. But when we learn about it, it makes us more empathetic. It makes us more compassionate. It makes us more understanding of people who are different from ourselves. And ultimately, I think it can make us a better people if we just allow ourselves to accept the history and let it go through us and make us feel sorry for things that have happened in our past, for example. It can only help us, I believe, to be better people.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Sometimes Latter-day Saints get caught in patterns of what I’ll call toxic perfectionism, expecting themselves to be perfect or their family members to be perfect or their neighbors or ward members or stake members or Church members. I think it’s important that we recognize that all of the people who have lived on earth or will live are human — with one exception that we name our Church after. And because they’re human, they have failings, they have foibles, they have weaknesses, they make mistakes, and we make mistakes ourselves. And I think we need to be able to recognize that even our ancestors who we want to glorify often and turn into great heroes, they may not be perfect, but we need to learn how to accept imperfection and not just look for perfection.
Barbara Jones Brown: Sometimes I’ve had — in speaking about the Mountain Meadows Massacre — I’ve had members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approach me afterward and say, “What should I do if I ever meet someone who’s a descendant of a victim? Or someone who’s from Arkansas, or somebody who knows about the massacre? What should I do?” And I said, “There’s only one response you can have. And that is just say you’re sorry that it happened. And, you know — sincerely sorry for what happened.” And that’s all that people generally want to hear. And it means so much to people to hear that, particularly descendants of victims.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: And along with that, I think it’s very important that we preserve the land on which these people died and where their remains are to this day. So when people visit the Mountain Meadows, we hope that they feel a sense of reverence, a sense of respect for those who died there and a willingness to confront what actually happened, without any excuse.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I did want to ask you about that because senior leaders of the Church, including several Church Presidents, have worked very hard to make sure that that land is taken care of and respectful and dignified. What experience, Rick, have you had as you’ve talked about this with Church leaders?
Richard E. Turley Jr.: When I first became involved in the Mountain Meadows in the 1980s, the Church owned just 2 1/2 acres where the 1932 monument existed. And over time, we became aware that some of the land in the area, with all of the vacation homes being built in southern Utah, some of it was going to be developed into vacation homes. When we were standing on Dan Sill Hill and recognized that the property between the monument on the hill and the monument in the valley was going to be developed into ranchettes and that it would destroy the viewshed, we talked to Church leaders, and they provided the funding necessary in order to purchase that and preserve it.
Likewise, when we found that some of the property to the north — you know, over a mile square of property — was likewise going to be developed, we talked to Church leaders, and once again, they provided the money to preserve it. And then, when the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation — soon joined by the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants and the Mountain Meadows Association — petitioned for the Mountain Meadows to be a National Historic Landmark, we talked to Church leaders about that, they agreed that should be done. They provided the funding for consultants to be able to write the proposal necessary.
And then Barbara and I were among those who went to Washington to advocate this with relatives of the victims and representatives of the state of Utah. So, I think that a lot has been done to try to preserve it. And that’s why when people go down there, they can get a sense for what it was like in 1857. You know, there’s been some development, some homebuilding. But in general, you can stand on Dan Sill Hill, or stand at the monument site, and look in most directions and imagine what it was like in 1857 when this terrible event took place.
Barbara Jones Brown: I would just add that the majority of the wonderful things that Rick has described took place after we began the research for “Massacre at Mountain Meadows.” In years past, unfortunately, many years past, the area was not respected, and some of the monuments had fallen into disrepair and were even destroyed early on. I believe that was because there wasn’t an understanding of what had actually happened. But because — again, this is why I believe history is so important and understanding history is so important — because of that understanding, because of the research that we’ve done in modern times, with that understanding, it made people want to do more to preserve this land and to, you know, issue apologies and things like that. So, the importance of history is just paramount.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And anyone can read this history in both books, “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” plus the sequel, “Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath.” We have a tradition at the Church News podcast where we always give our guests the last word. And we ask them the same question. And so, Barbara, we’ll start with you, and we’ll end with Rick, and the question is “What do you know now after studying the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath?”
Barbara Jones Brown: I first learned about the Mountain Meadows Massacre when I was 22 years old from my father mentioning it to me. And because he didn’t know much of what had happened, he just simply repeated these myths, these rumors about these people had done horrible things, and then it brought on this horrible massacre. So, ever since then, I always wanted to learn how people that I understood to be good people, good Latter-day Saints, could participate in such a horrific crime. So, when Rick extended an offer to me to be the content editor of “Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” I jumped at that opportunity because I wanted to learn what had happened.
And through studying that, through studying history, I’ve learned that there’s the capacity for both good and evil in every human being, and we have to give place for the good. And as we’ve mentioned earlier in the podcast, we give place for the good when we’re willing to accept weaknesses, accept mistakes, learn from them and do everything we can to be better because of what we learn. And for me, I have learned to become a better person through studying this subject for me, now, 18 years I’ve been on this project, I’ve learned compassion for people who are different from me, I’ve learned to love and look for similarities in people that I would, might otherwise perceive as being different from me.
And so, ultimately, while it’s been an emotionally, incredibly challenging, emotional effort to work on this horrific subject for so long, I’m grateful I had the opportunity because of those good things it has left for me, and it really has increased, again, my love for others.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: I first learned about the Mountain Meadows Massacre in high school and then read more about it over time. In the mid-1980s, when I was in my late 20s, early 30s, I began to study it in more detail. I was invited to co-author the article that appeared in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, published in 1992. So, I’ve been writing about this subject for more than three decades.
And there’s been a great deal that I’ve learned from it. I echo what Barbara said about the importance of being kind and generous to other people. I’ve traveled around the world to many, many countries, and what I’ve discovered is that people are largely the same everywhere in many ways. There are differences, of course, but our similarities outnumber our differences. And that even if we think people are radically different from ourselves, we need to accord to them the basic humanity that we all have and that we need to respect them and respect their points of view, even if they differ from ours.
I also learned about the importance of cutting through a lot of rumor, and the sort of popular history that we sometimes devour, in favor of serious history that looks at the real evidence about something and draws conclusions based on that evidence. In our social media world in which we often are served up very, very short messages, people sometimes want to jump to firm conclusions based on rumors or just tiny bits of evidence that are fed to them. I’d encourage people to withhold judgment until they’ve received enough evidence to be quite confident of the conclusions. I would also say that it’s important that we show love for each other and a great amount of tolerance in spite of differences, that we be civil to each other.
Finally, after learning about the massacre and associating with the descendants of the perpetrators and the victims, I’ve learned about the importance of healing and reconciliation. It’s been deeply gratifying to me, and I know it has been for Barbara, in particular to meet with those who are the descendants of the victims, to understand them and their backgrounds, to understand their ancestors, and to recognize that the people who came into the Mountain Meadows in 1857 and were slaughtered, there were not evil people.
They were not bad people. They were not people who somehow or another deserved to receive any kind of pushback at all. They were normal people who were proceeding on their way from what we now call the Midwest to California. And perhaps any other year, they might have gotten peacefully to their destinations, but because of unsettled conditions, they were butchered. People, local people, did the unthinkable to them.
And we need to recognize that all of us in our hearts may think that we are incapable of doing something like that, but we need to watch ourselves. And if I had one question I would have people ask themselves after reading the book, it would be this: not “What would I have done if I had been there?” because most people say, “Well, I wouldn’t have done it.” But “is there anything in my life that causes me to lean in the direction of being extreme to the point where I want to harm somebody either physically or in any other way?”
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.