When assigning blame for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, two figures who played a prominent role in raising tensions often don’t get talked about as much as others: President James Buchanan, and apostle George A. Smith. Historian Will Bagley tells how these two men created the environment which allowed a massacre to take place at Mountain Meadows.
Will: Buchanan thought that by extending America, purchasing Cuba and getting most of northern Mexico to open for the slaveocracy, that that could avert the Civil War. The Mormons are just sort of in the way and he’s convinced that if he can get them to move to Mexico, they’ll support his plan to defuse the slave crisis. Now, Brigham Young would have gone to Sonora at the end of the Utah war, but there wasn’t any way to get there.
GT: So you’re telling me that President Buchanan was trying to kick the Mormons out of Utah and send them to Mexico?
Will: He’s trying to scare them out.
Did you know that? We also talk about apostle George A Smith.
Will: Here we are, it’s early September. George A. Smith, the old funny potato saint who had starving people at Winter Quarters eat potatoes, he was quite a funny guy and quite beloved. He winds up touring southern Utah and giving hell raising speeches. This is where the widely held belief that there’s hysteria in Utah, war hysteria. Well guess what? There isn’t, and we now have direct evidence that people believe in Brigham Young. They’re completely committed to Brigham Young. Brigham Young says, “We’re going to use up the army. We’re going to completely destroy all these people who are threatening us.” So being true, believing Latter-day Saints at this time, they’re not worried. It isn’t hysteria that takes over Southern Utah, it’s fanaticism, and who’s down there stoking the fanaticism? George A. Smith. John D. Lee, in his autobiography, gives a very good account of how he does a mafia. What will happen if…? Smith has him out on the trail up to Mountain Meadows and he says, “What would happen if Indians attacked wagon train here?”
GT: George Smith says this to John D. Lee?
Will: Yes, and Lee says, “Well, the Indians would use them up, no doubt.” He says, “If Brigham Young doesn’t want us to do this, you’d better have him send a message because otherwise, I think I know what you want.”
Do you agree that Buchanan and George A. Smith’s role have been minimized with regards to the massacre?
Following Will Bagley’s 2002 release of Blood of the Prophets, Richard Turley published Massacre at Mountain Meadows in 2008, as well as some collected legal records in 2017. I asked historian Will Bagley his impression of Turley’s work, and was surprised by his reaction.
GT: Should we get your opinion of that book [Massacre at Mountain Meadows]? I’m curious.
Will: It’s just part of the cover up. It’s just part of the standard story. I went into Bill Slaughter’s office at Church archives. You can look at and you can see all of the old church archives. It was after Blood of the Prophets had come out, and they were saying that they were going to have their book out next year. But I said to Bill, “I think you can throw enough dirt in the air about whether Brigham Young ordered the massacre or not, but you can’t avoid the cover up”.
Will: The cover up is too damn well-documented, in the most impeccable Mormon sources, as Juanita Brooks said. Bill looks off in the distance and he goes, “We got our story, and we’re sticking to it”, which is the best summary of what the Church’s Mountain Meadows books are going to be about. They got their story, which was cooked up for H. H. Bancroft in the 1870s, and they’re sticking to it. [laughs]
GT: The story is Brigham Young wasn’t involved.
Will: [The story is] he would have been horrified at the whole idea. Absolutely, and then he didn’t know about it for 20 years, and when he did know about it, he excommunicated people. No, no, no, simply not true.
But, the thing about the massacre at Mountain Meadows is, when does [Turley’s book] stop? The day after the massacre. It has a coda in which they convict John D. Lee and put all the blame on him. But it’s an act of historical deception, to not address the entire story.
GT: Well, that’s what part two is supposed to be coming out, which hopefully is next year.
Now it’s your turn. Let’s hear your critiques of Turley and Bagley. What do they get right? What to they over and under emphasize? Do you agree that Smith & Buchanan’s roles should be emphasized more?