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?
I think historians should tell history. Once they start assigning blame, they are no longer doing history. As the TV detective said, “Just the facts…”
Sorry to detract but did anyone else see the picture and think that the interview was with Mark Hammel?
“Assigning blame” is pretty important to a good historian.
Over the next few weeks, we will get into more of the events, and I think Will pokes some gaping holes in the Church’s official narrative, but he does rely on some speculation to support his views. I agree with Will that the Church protected John D. Lee for over a decade.
Both Turley and Bagley have their strengths and weaknesses. And both worth the read. Still, I think BY had something to do with MMM.
ji, how would we tell the story of the Holocaust without blaming Hitler? Or the story of historical massacres without talking about factors behind the massacre and evidence suggesting one or another party to be behind the massacre? I’m not saying you have to believe that BY is guilty, but that you can’t really write history without attributing massacres to someone. Writing history is an argumentative process. It isn’t just chronicling (I.e., this happened then this happened). It also isn’t a legal defense or prosecution narrative before a jury, where we try someone before charges for a jury who if they deliver a guilty verdict will be sentenced by a judge. Since no living person is being issued a sentence by a historian, the standards of acceptable evidence are lower for historical arguments.
The interesting thing is how so many Mormons are willing to say that past leaders were imperfect and products of their time and yet will not go beyond that. They refuse to say what those imperfections were and entertain the idea that BY created the conditions for an actual massacre.
Will per Rick: “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.”
John W, “BY created the conditions for an actual massacre.”
Will’s comments on Buchanan’s intention were new to me. But, why not say all three of those men, together with others, contributed to the development of conditions for a massacre? Unless, of course, one is eager to blame one and ignore the others.
I was also surprised at Will’s comment on the Turley book ” just part of the cover up. ” I’ve been listening to the Turley book and can’t imagine how anyone would think it exonerates BY or that it put all the blame on John D. Lee, even if it did show that Lee took an active role sometimes in conflict with other leaders’ earlier plans. I thought it pretty clearly showed that BY and others, including but not limited to church leader Isaac Haight, contributed to the conditions for the massacre. Maybe Will was irritated that the Turley book didn’t also the subsequent cover-up history.
I appreciated Elder Cook’s Oct 2020 general conference talk acknowledging church leaders making mistakes, but John W is right that many such acknowledgments stop far short of identifying what mistakes were made. Some such acknowledgments can be found in gospel topics essays. I have on occasion been dumbfounded that certain reasonably bright and educated members cannot countenance admitting a mistake even when one church leader teaches something directly contradicting the teaching of another. I wonder how they do that.
Of course there is a lot of blame to go around, and I do believe Lee, while certainly guilty, has taken a disproportionate amount of blame. As Juanita Brooks said, at minimum, Brigham deserves at least blame for inflaming tensions. I think Buchanan and George A Smith deserve more blame than they have typically received to this point. Few people know about the roles of Isaac Haight, William Dame, and Phillip Klingensmith.
There are even more unnamed people who participated in the massacre. John D. Lee didn’t kill all 100+ people by himself.
“[H]ow would we tell the story of the Holocaust without blaming Hitler?”
By relating the facts based on the record. Hitler did this, and Hitler ordered that, and so forth.
For John W and Ji:
To tell the story of the Holocaust properly, Hitler must be blamed. But to blame only Hitler is a poor rendering of the Holocaust. The debate goes on, 75 years after WW2. Does Pius XII deserve blame for his public silence? Should the Allies have targeted the death camps for bombing, in an attempt bid to earlier stop the genocide? To what degree does the German people bear collective guilt; a great many were aware of what was going on, and either tacitly approved or ignored it. Many people, including Germans, did not learn of the death camps until the very end of the war, when the death camps were liberated. (My own father-in-law in the US Army helped liberate one of the concentration camps, and he had no idea that there were such things.) A good case can be made that the Allies deserve some indirect blame for the Holocaust, because the punitive peace terms levied on Germany after WW1 created such economic devastation that the Germans turned to an evil madman.
The issues of primary and secondary blame also apply to the MMM. Plenty of blame to go around. If I recall correctly, Juanita Brooks specifically labeled BY as an accessory after the fact.
I agree with Wondering: to describe Turley as part of the cover-up is quite a stretch.
What is it about Mormon history that makes skeptics foam at the mouth and focus on the negative, and causes apologists to indulge in cringe -worthy distortions and exonerations, so that people can think that the Mormons never did anything wrong? Juanita Brooks said it best in her preface to her book: what the Mormon pioneers accomplished was so important that we should tell the story, warts and all, because it can withstand the honest gaze of truthful history.
Since Quentin Cook’s talk was mentioned, I think we are seeing an early attempt to direct the narrative on the early members’ treatment of indigenous people. This topic is seeing “air time” in books, articles, social media, and podcasts these days as historians nationally are taking an interest.
Cook tells a lovely story (no doubt true) of Coronel and Mrs. Kane’s trip with Brigham when their host family treated native guests very well.
This while sitting across the table from the Lion of the Lord that ordered massacres throughout Utah and subjected natives to slavery.
Does anyone detect a faint whiff of gas?
ji, here is the problem. There is no documentary evidence of Hitler directly ordering the Holocaust, or any element of it. Evidence of Hitler’s involvement had to be derived from other documents and artefacts. And such lack of direct evidence has allowed for Holocaust deniers to thrive. Similarly there is also a lack of direct evidence implicating Talat Pasha in the Armenian Genocide. Armenian Genocide denial thrives even more because Turkish nationalists won a war right after WWI and effectively pushed out Britain, France, and Russia (as well as remaining Greeks and Armenians), making it so they could not reconstruct the country. By contrast, the Allies completely defeated Germany in WWII and reconstructed the country, and along with it they constructed a deep, well-evidenced narrative of guilt and shame for Hitler and the Nazis. Nazis and Turkish nationalists destroyed evidence that would implicate them if defeated. Prosecutorial attorneys need that evidence to reach a conviction. Historians don’t need such evidence to construct a convincing narrative of blame.
Taiwan, the idea that Allies bear some responsibility because of punitive peace terms after WWI sounds like a stretch. Still, I agree that Turley being part of the cover-up is a stretch. Bagley is certainly given to exaggerations. Yet I think his arguments about BY’s involvement have some merit worth considering.
Thanks for your reply. This is actually a discussion among serious, non-fringe historians, and Martin Gilbert has particularly brought it up. This is not to absolve Germany and Hitler of responsibility. It simply notes that the victors in WW1 were vengeful, and levied punitive damages against Germany that the Germans were simply unable to meet. When confronted with this reality, the Allies refused to moderate their terms. Germany went into hyperinflation, widespread hunger, and devastation of industry. The German people were desperate, and were beguiled by a madman. He at first seemed to make things better, so it was no big deal that he eliminated opponents and persecuted Jews and Socialists. But after the German people accepted Nazism, the result was eventual ruin. The WW1 Allies did not cause this, but they helped create an environment in which it could happen. WW2 is generally viewed as a continuation of and resolution of, WW1.
As to constructing a narrative of guilt and shame, the postwar de-Nazification program faded after only a few years, as the wartime ally became the Cold War enemy (the Soviet Union), and the US realized it needed the German people as Allies. The postwar German government did not begin serious education efforts about Nazi atrocities until the mid 1960s.
Back to MMM: I agree that BY was involved, but I think Juanita Brooks‘ description of him BBC as an accessory after the fact fits best.
The whole concept of individual guilt, and how it has to be balanced with collective guilt, whether for MMM, the Armenian Genocide, or the Nazi Era, is worth a future post.
Thanks for your comments.