John D. Lee was the only person convicted in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Historian Will Bagley tells the awful details of the tragedy.
GT: Okay, so the first attack occurs on September 7. Basically, the Fancher party literally circle the wagons, and then they dig in because they’re trying to defend themselves.
Will: Yes, and they’re fighting back a lot harder than the clowns from Iron County who attacked them, including John D. Lee, who was put in charge of actually running the operation. It’s one blunder after another, and these people are tough. These are frontiers people from the south.
Will: [Lee] cooks up the story saying that he needs to divide them into three parties, the wounded and the youngest children, the women and the older children, and the men and he will put an armed guard at the side of every man. So the Indians don’t spring out of the bushes and kill everybody. Now, this is all fairly suspect, but what does Lee also do? He gives these Arkansans Masonic handshakes which are…
GT: A sign of protection.
Will: A sign. Masons do not betray other Masons, but John D. Lee did without a thought, and the Arkansas agreed to this.
GT: Because by now they’re running out of ammunition. They’re out of water.
Will: There’s no water. They’ve been shooting at them anytime they try to get to water. It’s a complete total mess. But what follows is very arguably the most horrible incident in the history of the American West, where white people kill white people. That’s the basic story of what Mountain Meadows is, and why it horrifies the rest of the United States so much, and why it gets the Mormons in such deep trouble.
It took 18 years to start the first trial of John D. Lee for the atrocities at Mountain Meadows. Why did it take so long? Historian Will Bagley believes LDS Church leaders covered up the crime. How does he come to that conclusion?
Will: But, what I’m saying is that the event that Wilford Woodruff records is staged, and in Lee’s account, which is of course untrustworthy, Brigham Young tells him, “Don’t even tell Heber about this,” which is a tribute to Heber C. Kimball. But we’re now dealing with the cover up, which begins in 1857, and for my money is still going on.
Will: But there’s so much of the cover up that I find despicable. For instance, the “investigations.” We have detailed accounts of the conspiracy that was mounted against Mormon leaders to deceive them. These are absurd notions. Who does Brigham Young send down to Southern Utah to investigate what caused the Mountain Meadow’s Massacre? George A. Smith! What better guy! It would be like send Dick Cheney to investigate what happened in Iraq.
But they actually visit the Meadows and they come up with a likely scapegoat, because at the end of one of Smith’s letters, he says, “And we don’t really know what John D. Lee was up to, but he seems to have been involved in this somehow.” So they already know who they’re going to eventually hang it on. And why did they pick John D. Lee? Because the other two guys are untouchable. The other two guys, senior officers are William Dame and Isaac Haight. Now in the church’s tale, they say, “Well, once Brigham Young realized what was happening in 1870, he excommunicated the main murderers.” No, he didn’t. He didn’t excommunicate Dame. He did excommunicate Haight.
Do you agree there was a cover up? What are your thoughts on Mountain Meadows?