Authors Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr. and Glen M. Leonard have written the clearest and most accurate account of a key event in American religious history. In Massacre at Mountain Meadows they offer the most thoroughly researched account of the massacre ever written. Below we have excerpted from the Preface.
On September 11, 1857, Mormon settlers in southern Utah used a false flag of truce to lull a group of California-bound emigrants from their circled wagons and then slaughter them. When the killing was over, more than one hundred butchered bodies lay strewn across a half mile stretch of an upland meadow. Most of the victims were women and children.
The perpetrators were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aided by Indians. What did the terrible atrocity say about the killers? What did it say about their church and its leaders? Did early Mormonism possess a violent strain so deep and volcanic that it erupted without warning? And what did the Mountain Meadows Massacre say about religion generally? A modern age wants to know whether people might be better off without their religious beliefs.
While these questions can only be partly answered by any book, they are the themes of our story. The massacre “is a ghost which will not be laid,” said historian Juanita Brooks before publishing her pathbreaking study, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, in 1950. “Again and again, year after year, it stalks abroad to cast its shadow across some history, or to haunt the pages of some novel. Even books to which it is not natural, either from point of time or location, reach out a long arm and draw it in . . . until it has been made the most important episode in the history of the state [of Utah], eclipsing every achievement and staining every accomplishment.”
Brooks may have exaggerated to make her point, but the stream of articles and books goes on—recently expanded by television programs, films, and websites. The past fifteen years have seen a flood of new materials on the subject. And more are on their way. If Brooks thought her book would exorcize the demons, she was wrong.
Why then our book? During the past two decades, descendants of both emigrants and perpetrators have worked together at times to memorialize the victims. These efforts have had the support of leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, officials of the state of Utah, and other institutions and individuals. Among the products of this cooperation have been the construction of two memorials at the massacre site and the placing of plaques commemorating the Arkansas emigrants. In 1990, at dedication ceremonies for the first of the recent memorials, relatives of the victims joined hands with Brigham Young University president Rex E. Lee—a descendant of one of the most prominent participants in the massacre— in a gesture of forgiveness and conciliation. He suggested that in the future the Meadows should symbolize for those now living “not only tragedy and grief, but also human dignity, mutual understanding, [and] a willingness to look forward and not back.”
One participant in this ceremony, Judge Roger V. Logan Jr. of Harrison, Arkansas—who could count some twenty victims and five survivors among his relatives—later reminded the public that there had to be some important looking back. “While great strides have been made in recent years,” Logan said, “until the church shows more candor about what its historians actually know about the event, true reconciliation will be elusive.” That much seems sure: Only complete and honest evaluation of the tragedy can bring the trust necessary for lasting good will. Only then can there be catharsis.
Thoroughness and candor have been our ideals in writing this book, but with so many minds already made up about the role and guilt of participants, we are sure to disappoint some readers. We have done our best to go where the evidence led us, which meant changing some of our early opinions. We hope our readers will have the same spirit of discovery—even if our findings might run against their previously accepted ideas.