163 years ago this month a terrible massacre occurred in southern Utah: the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Juanita Brooks was the first LDS scholar to examine the massacre, and her book published in 1957 set the standard for Mormon scholarship. In our next conversation with Will Bagley, we’ll get acquainted with him, and he will give his impressions of Brooks’ famous work.
Will: That takes me to my next subject, which is how much I admire and respect Juanita Brooks. When I began working full time on the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1995, the first thing I did was read the second edition, but this is the first edition of her Mountain Meadows Massacre. She did a minor update, which I’ve got around here, someplace, in 1970. I don’t agree with everything Juanita Brooks concluded, but I can’t help but recognize her courage and her dedication to the truth.
It was courageous book. She worked within very narrow confines but did an absolutely beautiful job. I want to read a quote… It’s not very long, but it’s absolutely the essential documents and everything that had emerged that Juanita Brooks found in her long life, because she was 52 when the book came out, and she came to four basic conclusions. The first one was, while Brigham Young and George A. Smith, the Church authorities chiefly responsible, did not specifically order the massacre, they did preach sermons and set up social conditions which made it possible. Now to me, that is assigning who holds the moral responsibility for the worst event to ever happen in Utah, outside of a couple of massacres of Indians. I think that pretty well defines who deserves to be held accountable.
Do you agree?
Just a few years before the Mountain Meadows Massacre was the Willie & Martin Handcart disasters. Will Bagley has some surprising allegations about Brigham Young concerning these disasters.
Will: Brigham Young gets word of this through Franklin D Richards, and goes into Conference–it’s late October by this time. How does he deal with the crisis? He lays it on the bishops. He says, “You guys get stuff and send it up and feed the handcart pioneers and bring them on in.” So the bishops do it, and they do a remarkable job of a rescue effort. But still, hundreds of people die, miserably. It is not a pleasant way to go.
I did a long article on this for the Journal of Mormon History. It’s available on the internet. But I was shocked when I found out what Brigham Young’s priorities were, and what did Brigham Young put ahead of the lives of these people? His steam engine. He was importing through A. O. Smoot, who’s come into the news lately as a slave owner in Utah. But he’s also Brigham Young’s agent and man on the trail. He led a lot of freight trains to Utah with stuff that Brigham Young really wanted, and they included a steam engine. We have no idea what Brigham Young wanted to do with a steam engine. It may have been that he intended to have a steam yacht on the Great Salt Lake. But some of these things are still mysteries.
Will goes on to talk about other things Brigham wanted, besides the steam engine. We’ll talk about how the Mormon Reformation ratcheted up Brigham’s fiery sermons leading to the terrible disaster on September 11, 1857.
Will: But at the same time, they’ve got the Reformation underway. That started in September of 1856. Utah has been through a famine. They’ve had really hard times. The famine breaks in 1857. But in 1856, it’s still very hard times. Brigham Young decides it’s the people’s fault, because it can’t be his fault. It’s everybody else’s fault. This is what the Reformation does, and he assigns, or I think Jedediah Grant decides he’s going to be in charge of it.
GT: See, I always thought Jedediah Grant was kind of the driver behind the Reformation, and Brigham just kind of let him do his thing. Is that right?
Will: That’s how it’s sold, but it’s not what happened. They’d even used reformations earlier in different periods, but he was the face and voice of it. He gets out and he’s baptizing people in creeks in December and dies of pneumonia, probably.
GT: Jedediah Grant.
Will: Yeah, and in the faithful telling of the Reformation, it ramps down, it’s virtually over. But it’s not true. It lasts well into 1857.
Brigham Young has often pushed a lot of blame on Franklin Richards. Do you think he deserves more blame in the Martin-Willey Handcart Disasters?