Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book review: "American Massacre" by Sally Denton

When it was done, all that was left was the screaming and crying of the children. There were 17 of them left alive, ages nine months to 7 years, in the isolated Utah valley. Now they were hysterical, having just witnessed the cold-blooded slaughter of their parents, siblings and friends. Some 140 bodies lay on the ground around them.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 remains one of the greatest atrocities to ever occur on American soil. Yet today it is little remembered outside Utah.

In "American Massacre," author Sally Denton thoroughly outlines this tragedy and the reasons behind it. The killers were Mormons, zealous followers of Brigham Young, who somehow believed they were doing God's work.

The men, women and children who were shot or stabbed to death at Mountain Meadows were part of a wagon train heading from Arkansas on their way to start new lives in California. They were victims of both religious zeal run amok and the worst of bad timing. They entered Utah at a time when tensions were rising between the Church of Latter-Day Saints and the United States government, and Mormon leader Young was exhorting his followers to spill the blood of non-Mormons.

To explain the roots of the massacre, Denton takes us all the way back to the birth of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in 1823, and then traces the history of the Mormon movement up to 1857. At first I thought this seemed excessive, but it soon becomes apparent that it all ties together. Denton shows how the Mormons built up a history over decades of what they saw as persecution. In each place they tried to settle, they were eventually faced conflict and were run out of town.

But, as Denton describes it, the Mormons were hardly blameless. In each place they settled, the Mormons angered the locals with their arrogance, their practice of polygamy and their literal holier-than-thou attitude. They built the biggest temples and shunned those that did not share their practices and "one true God." In short, they were obnoxious.

Eventually, Brigham Young led the Mormons to Utah. A key question that has long dogged the subject of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is whether Young directly ordered the killings. The Mormon church has long denied it and there is no hard evidence proving Young's involvement. Still, given Young's dominant role in Utah at the time, Denton concludes that he must have had a role in the slayings.

"Within the context of the era and the history of Brigham Young's complete authoritarian control over his domain and his followers, it is inconceivable that a crime of this magnitude could have occurred without direct orders from him," Denton writes.

Even without a direct connection between Young and the killings, Denton makes it clear that Young set the stage for the massacre by whipping his followers into a excited frenzy, frightening them with the prospect that enemies from the East would soon be coming to attack them.

Denton has done a good job of assembling the many pieces of this story, though it's unfortunate that she sometimes relies on secondary sources rather than original documentation. Also, in her effort to bolster each key point, she is sometime over-meticulous is citing each piece of evidence. You will find places you'll want to skim ahead.

Today, the Mountain Meadows Massacre is marked only by a modest plaque that draws few visitors. Why has the episode been so forgotten? To gain a foothold in the public mind, history needs a clear and well-understood story. But for 150 years the Mormon church has done its best to stifle an accurate account of what happened at Mountain Meadows.

The church first denied any involvement in the killings, blaming Indians instead. Then the church blamed it on a renegade sub-sect of Mormons acting on its own. Church representatives, Denton says, destroyed documents and lied to handicap investigations. Brigham Young eventually gave up one of his own most ardent followers, John D. Lee, to end any further investigation of the murders. Lee, who was executed in 1877, was the only one ever punished for the massacre.


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