Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mountain Meadows Massacre Revisited

To: Abbottsville Fourth Ward
From: Former Stake President Stan Taylor
Subject: Mountain Meadows

Last year my travels took me back to St. George, Utah, the home of my maternal grandparents. It was no longer the sleepy town I visited in my youth. A housing tract now sat on my grandparent's land, their ward meetinghouse was bygone as well, along with the old diner and the five and dime. Instead I browsed the Barnes and Noble at the mall, dined at Applebee's, watched a movie at the new multiplex, then found a comfortable bed at the Marriott. I might have been in any small city in America. That is, until the following morning when I asked the perky hotel clerk for directions.

"Certainly sir," she said, then pulled one of those local map give-aways from a slot above her desk, and slid it toward me.

"Which way do I go to pick up Highway 18?" I asked, unfolding my reading glasses.

Her eyes clouded, but her smile remained intact. She laid a protective hand across the map. "Where're you headed, sir?"

"The Mountain Meadows Monument."

She drew the map back and returned it to its slot. "The 18 is a few miles north of here," she replied, and wished me a good day.

I drove for twenty minutes before realizing I had been misled. Was it by accident, or by design? In any small city in America, I would assume by accident. But this was Southern Utah, and I knew its history. I headed back towards town, feeling like I had returned to the St. George I visited as a boy. A stark, dry planet hanging in the void. Even in the 1940's, the town was much like Brigham Young intended, a solitary outpost, accessible by a single road, shunned and left to itself, a deep compost of Mormon shame. It was a reminder of the blood bath on September 11, 1857, the day a group of Arkansas pioneers known as the Fancher party was murdered at Mountain Meadows. The Mountain Meadow Massacre, our first 9/11. An American tragedy that the LDS Church continues to cover up.

I imagined the brave historian, Juanita Brooks, the author who aroused my passion for Mormon history.

In 1918, Juanita, then a young school teacher, was approached by the elderly Nephi Johnson. "I want you to do some writing for me," he told her. "My eyes have witnessed things that my tongue has never uttered. I want them written down. And I want you to do the writing."

Juanita agreed and promised to visit him on his ranch. Weeks later, when she finally made the trip, he was deathly ill and delusional, crying out, "Blood Blood BLOOD!" at the ceiling. It was then that she learned that Brother Johnson was a participant in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. At the time, the LDS Church officially claimed the crime to be the responsibility of St.George Mormon Militia leader, John D. Lee, along with the local Paiute Indians. Brother Johnson never recovered to tell her of his experience. But Juanita left him determined to record an accurate account of the event.

Juanita was a practicing Mormon as well as a devotee to the facts. "I feel sure," she once said, "that nothing but the truth can be good enough for the church to which I belong." In that spirit, Juanita spent the next five decades unearthing the diaries and records of Utah's early settlers and piecing together the actual chain of events. Her pivotal historical work, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, published in 1950, revealed that the brutal slaughter of some 150 people was carried out mostly, if not entirely by Mormons, some of whom were disguised as Paiutes. Brooks also concluded that the attack was inspired by Brigham Young's firebrand rants against church "enemies," early Mormon temple rituals depicting blood atonement, and the mistaken notion that members of the Fancher party were involved in the murder of Parley P. Pratt, a Mormon missionary proselyting in Arkansas. (He was instead killed by the angry husband of a woman that Pratt had attempted to take on as a "spirit wife.") In short, it was an act of domestic terrorism by a group of religious zealots acting upon the teachings of their prophet, Brigham Young, and the extremist doctrine of the early LDS Church.

Mary Elizabeth Baker Terry, a five year old survivor of the attack recalled: "Now I could see that they weren't all Indians. Whites had painted themselves to resemble their savage companions. With bloodcurdling yells they leaped on the defenseless pioneers. I sought shelter under a wagon and peered out between the spokes. I saw my father fall to the ground. . . The sight of blood sent them into a fanatical frenzy. One huge white kept shouting ,"For Jehovah." The fiends slackened their butchering only when there were no more victims. Dripping paint and blood, they stood panting, searching for any signs of life among the hacked and clubbed bodies . . . Some of the disguised Mormons were washing their paint (off) at the spring."

The LDS Church has officially refused to admit any involvement in the massacre, and continues to blame the Paiutes and a few local Mormons whom they claim acted without church approval. During my years as the LDS Institute director at Grafton College, I was not allowed to use Juanita Brooks as a source when teaching about Mountain Meadows. Likewise for Will Bagley's excellent Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Towards the end of my employ, I was banned from discussing the massacre at all.

I followed the sage brush lined road to the monument. The parking lot was empty, the early Spring air was crisp, and wisps of snow lingered on the sepia tinted soil. The walkway that wound to the stone cairn was spotless, and the site impressive. It possessed that sort of Walt Disney ambiance that many LDS attractions bear. Sturdy handrails, nicely patterned stone and concrete, well-made signs providing bland explanations, and a squeaky clean bathroom. The perfect mix of sobriety and cheerfulness. The same could be said of the monument's dedication in 1999. Rather than speak from his heart, the Mormon prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, spoke from a page prepared by his lawyers. "Nobody knows what happened here," he declared to a gathering that included the victims' families.

Up the hill I found a smaller monument bearing the names of the known victims, constructed by their people in Arkansas. I perused the names of the dead, said a prayer, then looked out at the quiet meadow. If only it could tell the story. But the silence was deafening.

History wasn't meant to be attractive and faith promoting. It was meant to recount the lives of flesh and blood humans, of their courage, cowardice, frailty and vision. But the LDS Church prefers the Disney version, their own Stepford history. Or, as my grandmother from St. George used to say, "Those clowns in Salt Lake want all of the credit and none of the blame."

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