Guest Post: Turley on the Mountain Meadow Massacre

David Keller, a USU Ph.D student in Electrical Engineering and main contributor to the Mormons and Catholics blog ( ). David also volunteers for FAIR and helped formulate the main response to the latest mass-distributed anti-mormon video that the Church’s website directed people to. He has previously guest blogged on Millennial Star about Thomas Alexander’s lecture about the Mountain Meadow Massacre last Fall. A special thanks to David for sending in his notes from the Richard Turley lecture.

Last night [Mar. 29th] Richard Turley came to USU and delivered a lecture on the MMM. Here is the things I remember:

  • He themed some of the discussion around the dysfunctionality of militias, which were a holdover from the Revolutionary War (as a backlash of the standing army under the King’s control during peacetime) and the forerunner of the National Gaurd. Militias can degenerate to organized mobs, and this was illustrated with Missouri mob actions.
  • Hence it appears the upcoming book will stress the war hysteria-war crime hypothesis. Turley said he sees the MMM as a series of escalations, with Missouri persecutions as quite fresh on Mormon minds.
  • Turley did some debunking. The sickness thought to have come from a poisoned well near Salt Creek (?) is better accounted for by records of spreading disease that can be traced as far away as Bountiful (I have sketchy memory of the specifics here.)
  • However, even though the wagon train likely wasn’t guilty of that incident, Mormons had a hard time giving outsiders a benefit of a doubt. It is what was believed that mattered, not what was true.
  • More setting the record straight: The Turner/Duke party really were Mormon haters/fighters and caused many of the problems that later conveniently transferred to Fancher/Baker one as an excuse.
  • Turley talked about Buchanan’s blunder and cast the tension between the US and Utah as typical of the US and other territories. Territories had their carpet bagging governorship appointed for them rather truly representing them. Turley described a Mormon letter desiring statehood as patriotic and as channeling shades of Revolutionary War rhetoric desiring more self-government. Buchanan read the letter as rebellious.
  • General Harney, the original guy who was to lead “Johnston’s army” was a competent soldier but a notoriously cruel monster. Turley related a story of Harney torturing one of his slaves to death on flimsy provocation.
  • Turley saw war strategy to stockpile grain and cattle as a contributing factor. (I admit to some uneasiness about this because it is going to be difficult to distinguish between a general policy and the implementation of it through unethical means, especially the connections Bagley tried to make from SLC to MM.)
  • The southern Paiutes were not particularly adept at carrying out violence against wagon trains, but now and then they might target stragglers and strays. Turley did not particularly emphasize the utility of keeping an alliance with them or their role in the Massacre. They were mostly just tools of the Mormons. This to me leaves some unanswered questions of just how they were manipulated so easily to get involved.

The above informations served as a preamble. Turley then increased the amount of detail got to the main points he wanted to emphasize. He gave a play-by-play of the action mostly from Isaac Haight’s point of view, and compressed other parts of the events (For example, he didn’t talk much about what was happening mid-week at the MM and he didn’t mention express riders, etc.)

1. The Baker/Fancher party bought some wheat from someone, even though Mormons were in general trying to stockpile. Typically wagon trains planned on re-furnishing when they arrived in Salt Lake, but the war preparations created tensions and drove up prices.
2. Some members in the part stopped at Haight’s mill wanting to get flour ground, but they felt the asking price of one cow was exorbitant. (Turley said the party had 900 head of cattle, much higher than previous estimates.)
3. Party members complained, used fowl language, and made threatening overtures. They did something that was against city ordinances and worthy of arrest.
4. The party boisterously went from the mill to Haight’s home to complain to him. Haight, a temple guard from Nauvoo, interpreted this group as a mob, escaped out his back door and went to the town sheriff to get an arrest.
5. Turley than referenced typical interactions between passing through trains and local laws. They would either give up the guilty in their party and let him pay fines, make amends etc or band together and help that person resist arrest and get out of town. The Fancher party went with the latter.
6. This was unacceptable to Haight who then asked Dame if he could use the militia to help make an arrest. Dame denied the request, pleading with Haight to let them go. There is some quote about harsh words blowing over, but I don’t recall it.
7. Haight was still angry, so he began to plot for extra-legal revenge. The plan seems to escalate from recruiting the indians to engage in a “brush” (steal some cattle) to wiping out the entire train. John D. Lee was present for this escalation and it would be his job to be a behind the scenes field commander. Turley seemed confident that it was a planned massacre from the beginning and not something that escalated over the week. [As an aside this goes against my prior conception of the massacre, namely that it was initially planned as a cattle raid (with not much concern about casualties) and a way to form an alliance with the natives; then escalated when John D. Lee was spotted, the Indians were not competent by themselves to carry a raid out successfully, the indians desired revenge to for losses they suffered, and needed to be kept happy so as not to turn on the Mormons.]
8. Kind of a continued aside here, but premeditated Mormon masterminding is harder to deal with then panic-escalation on the ground with John D. Lee at the epicenter. I wanted to challenge Turley during the Q and A on this point.
9. Some reports of Lees difficulties reach Dame, who visits Haight to find out what is happening. Haight feigns surprise and both conduct an investigation.
10. A council meeting rules against carrying out the massacre or at least delaying it.
11. Haight meets Dame after the meeting and convinces Dame to let him go forward with the massacre plan. Dame seems to have been a Pontius Pilate (my description) here, not really consenting, but willing to let Haight have his way.
12. Turley describes the decoy and deploy plan as Haight’s.
13. Then Turley described the massacre in all its morbid details. He began the lecture by calling it the worst atrocity in Mormon history and something he has lost a lot of sleep over. He talked about Lee shooting some teenage girls that the indians wanted to keep alive.
14. He then talked a little bit about the unsuccessful cover up from Lee’s perspective, such as burying bodies in shallow graves (which were easily found later) and Lee altering documents.

I think around this point he ended his lecture and began a formal Q and A. The only good question I remember was asking him about the status of the book. Some of the better questions were given a read and find out answer. I was frustrated I couldn’t get my question in. Turley said that the manuscript had already been sent to Oxford, and that Oxford was a jury press. Essentially that means a lot of people will be reading advanced copies and there is an lengthy voting/approval process and a need for revisions. Turley suggested that the book might not be out until the beginning of next year. Turley dropped some hints about a second book in the works. Initially he said, referring to Brigham’s knowledge after the massacre, “A book could be written about that subject.” (IIRC) Which meant to me that the upcoming Oxford book won’t address it in detail and perhaps plans for publishing a second book and the choice of venue were still tentative.

Postscript (6/23): The LDS website has made an article that will published in September’s Ensign available early. It was authored by Richard Turley and has some content similar to that reported here. The Mormon Wasp blog has some excellent coverage of the upcoming film September Dawn well worth checking out which have been summarized at Mormon Mentality.

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About Keller

I was a BYU baby while my parents finished up their advanced degrees in psychology. I have lived in some interesting places growing up: near the Lagoon at Layton; in an old polygamist house in Manti with an upper-story door that opened to the middle of a roof; in Rigby,Idaho, the self-proclaimed birthplace of television; then over to Sweet, a small town north of Boise near some fun river rapids; then for my high school years in Lund (named after a counselor in the First Presidency), Nevada; and full circle back to Utah County for college. Currently I work as an electrical engineering in the defense and space industry in Salt Lake City. I have served in a single's ward elder's quorum presidency and as a hymn book coordinator. I also served a mission in the Bible Belt (Oklahoma City) and to prepare I became an avid reader of FARMS publications. This has lead me to become a volunteer for FAIR as way of furthering my apologetic interests and helping those struggling with tough issues to find useful information. I have also started an interfaith blog to dialog with Catholics and practice "holy envy." I like blogging on historical topics and doing genealogical research.

17 thoughts on “Guest Post: Turley on the Mountain Meadow Massacre

  1. Thanks for the informative report.

    The sickness thought to have come from a poisoned well near Salt Creek (?) is better accounted for by records of spreading disease that can be traced as far away as Bountiful (I have sketchy memory of the specifics here.)

    Corn Creek. The disease may have been anthrax or Texas fever.

  2. I’d be interested in seeing the MMM analyzed side by side with other similar atrocities committed in frontier America throughout the 19th century. Might be nice to get some perspective on this instead of isolating the incident and comparing it to 21st century sensibilities and expectations.

  3. I have to admit its a stunning leap of progress that ayone LDS would openly talk about this thing – definately not the way it was when I joined the many decades ago. It is progress. Holding it up next to other atrocities so we can say “Look, its not so bad by comparison” does not do anything to change the facts – cold blooded murder is still cold blooded murder. Seeing this discussed openly by LDS makes me feel that within decades many other things that are currently “glossed over”will be discussed in a spirit of openness and truth eventually – maybe not but it does give me hope.

  4. DTL,

    That’s a nice sentiment. But the reality is that just about everyone in America knows jack squat about this period of US history. So you throw out an isolated incident like this without any historical context and suddenly everyone takes it as evidence of how unusually violent and weird those Mormons are, when, in reality, they weren’t really any different than anyone else in America at the time, and possibly a site better.

  5. Glen Leonard, one of Turley’s co-authors on the project, gave a very similiar presentation at the Miller-Eccles group in Dallas last week. To fill in a couple of things:
    1. The first book, now under review, will cover only up to the massacre. The second book will cover the trials and cover-ups. The research on the second book is essentially done, they are currently doing rewrites. Leonard is about to begin a mission, so he will not be involved much in the rewrites from this point on.
    2. Oxford is publishing the books in its trade imprint, not its academic imprint.
    3. The poisoned cattle probably died of naturally occuring anthrax, which is not uncommon in the area.
    4. The Turner/Duke party did have more Mormon haters/fighters, but the Baker/Francher party did have some independent stragglers who joined them around SLC, who also appear to have stirred up trouble.
    5. I seem to remember Leonard’s description of the escalation from cattle raid to massacre as closer to what Keller said was his previous conception of the events, rather than what he records Turley as saying. Haight is the one who plots the massacre, but only after Lee’s initial botched raid attempt, as well as another murder of a non-Mormon traveler by a Mormon nearby.
    6. Leonard downplayed the role of the Paiutes, saying they were not a warlike tribe, and although they were happy to be parrt of a cattle-russling operation, they were not at all instigators of the murders.
    7. I asked him about the cover-up afterwards, and he said Brigham Young loved and trusted John Lee, and believed him for a long time.

  6. “Weren’t any different than anyone else in America?” – qoute from Seth R. Anyone who makes a sweeping generalization like that immediately raises a red flag as to their credibility – as its doubtful there has ever been a time when one group was exactly like “everyone else”.

    No doubt the wild west got its name (wild) from the true experiences of the likes of Kit Carson at Canyon De Chelly, John Charles Fremont, the Oregon trail, Bosque Redondo, General Kearney, aquiring the New Mexico territory and California during the period of manifest destiny (Pres.Polk and Sen. Thomas Hart Benton), in which people were sometimes killed for a “greater inspired cause” – but even during those times the sporadic episodes of cavelier disregard for the lives of other human beings, reports of point blank shooting children in the face (such as occured in MMM) were pretty much non-existent. I think many historians who are familiar with the US history 1800-1900, are all pretty much in agreement that MMM is rather singular in its nature. Many Americans, even in those wild and wooley times, were still outraged at the ruthless slaughter – and many of these same Americans were upset over the blood thirsty attitude that was extended towards Mormons at times.

    Even at that time, there were Americans (in fact probably most) who did not delight in murder – in fact murder was against the law in all states. Even back then cold blooded murder was a crime that was morally offensive to mainstream America (as was polygamy with young teenage girls).

    We (LDS) can believe we are “a site better” than everyone else… in fact I think a great many LDS do feel this way, and it is evident in the attitude many LDS display(and it annoys “gentiles” when the LDS carry themselves as though better than everyone else) – but it may be that we LDS are in actuality only “human” after all. Hard to believe, but I would like you to consider the possibility.

    I honestly think we are something like 40 years off from being able to enter sort of a new promised land of honesty, and being able to tackle some hard issues non-defensively, with an open mind as a group. At that time our religious views might come to be seen as even desireable by most Americans, because at this time the average American according to polls views our religion with the same worries as they view the Muslim faith – and indicate that it would influence their political votes. I myself think it would be nice if the average American (whom we are probably a site better than) at least believed we were honest enough in our hearts and thoughts to consider culpability in situations where we stand accused, instead of defensively putting up smoke screens of denial (Hey, look at what Brigadier General Henry Hawkins Sibley did at Fort Craig….. thats worse than what we did…right?)

    Seth, if we LDS weren’t “any different than other Americans” as you state, than how could be also be “a site better”? To be better wouldn’t we have to be different?

  7. Prior to converting to the LDS church against my families wishes, I grew up regularly attending the Disciples of Christ church. Several sermons that our minister Don Lanier gave still stick in my mind. One was a sermon he gave in which he made the point : God will not judge us compared to the guy next to us, but according to a standard.

    SO I guess, we as LDS have to tackle – MMM, was it right or wrong. Not better than this or that other old blooded massacre, but was it right or wrong.

    Me, I consider it to be wrong. Sorry no defense of the actions on my part.

  8. DTL, I’m sorry you think that trying to place MMM in context means people are trying to defend it. No one here is trying to say that it was okay; we just want people to understand the climate it came from. The people who perpetrated it were absolutely and completely wrong but they did not just wake up one morning with a big smile on their face and go kill people. There were fears and tensions that do not excuse but must be considered.

    You said: “but even during those times the sporadic episodes of cavelier disregard for the lives of other human beings, reports of point blank shooting children in the face (such as occured in MMM) were pretty much non-existent.”

    All of the occurances I can think of (the child shot while the shooter sneered that “nits make lice,” the infant torn out of its mother’s arms and smashed against a tree, the young men shot along with the adults at Haun’s Mill) were committed against Mormons. Retaliation in kind is no answer but vengeance is at least an understandable (if fallen) human motive. The context is necessary to understand the MMM for what it was; it was a tragedy, a very real tragedy for all involved, sprung from human fears and a few who succumbed to either their own darkness or Satan’s. It was not and never was normal or desired behavior for Latter-Day Saints.

  9. DTL, I agree with some of the sentiments of your comments, but I don’t feel a bit culpable about the actions of some of my co-religionists more than 100 years ago. The MMM was a horrible tragedy, but it was never repeated and was not part of the pattern of behavior of the early Church. Context is important — otherwise there would never be a way to get your mind around the horrible “extermination order” and other events that preceded the MMM.

  10. “Party members complained, used fowl language,”

    What? They talked “turkey”? 🙂

  11. What’s the proper usage: is it “a site better” or “a sight better” or a “cite better”? I favor “a sight better” but I’m not sure.

  12. Adam,

    I meant to use “sight.”


    You’re being nitpicky. And you’re assuming a certain level of ignorance and defensiveness in me. I’m not sure what I wrote that causes these assumptions.

    For the record, I do happen to think that the Mormons were a “sight better” than just about any other group in frontier America. But when you take isolated historical incidents out of context, it’s easy to lose sight of this.

    By the way, the idea that Mormons are “only human” was kind of the point of my post. Read more carefully next time.

  13. I would like to thank Justin, Andrew Hall, and the grammar police for noting corrections to my report.

    In response to Andrew’s point #5, I admit that I could have misunderstood Turley on when the meditated escalation from cattle theft with a vengeance to massacre occurred. I could have missed verbal cues that he was talking about the entire chain of events and not just the initial Haight-Lee planning session. I am relieved by Leonard’s clarification.

    I think Leonard makes a good point about Brigham Young being very trustful of people he was loyal to and highly skeptical of accepting sources of information that would cause him to adjust his opinion. Some anecdotal evidence that supports that is about Warren Snow, a bishop and militia leader in the Manti area. Even though a lot of complaints surfaced about Snow’s leadership, Young believed in the smooth-talking Snow’s version of things. Eventually Orson Hyde was sent to clean up the mess and he sided with the common consent principle and saw that Snow was brought to trial and released

    I don’t think it will 40 years to be honest about tough conundrums in Mormonism, I think we are living in Camelot II as we speak. When the new MMM volumes come out they will pass rigorous peer review. There is always a need for defensiveness as long as critics go beyond the evidence in their assertions (like accusing Brigham of directly ordering the massacre.)

    I am in agreement with Seth R. and I think further studies can be done that compare frontier and extra-legal violence done by Mormons and contemporary Americans. The more context we have, the better we will be able to gain an understanding and prevent future atrocities.

  14. I was asked about whether a consensus exists between mormons and non-mormons about the events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre on my own blog. I thought I would share my attempt to engage in intellectual history here as well.

    I think there was one between 1950 and 2000 where nearly every person put in contact with her work went along with Juanita Brooks’s conclusions which were:

    1. The perpetration of the Massacre was brought about by local Mormon leaders and not Native Americans.
    2. Brigham Young was consulted too late to prevent the Massacre and it happened against his wishes.
    3. Complex influences combined to push the Mormon leaders over the brink: a persecution complex, war hysteria over the approaching US army, harsh Mormon rhetoric to retributionally punish sin, Mormon ethic to unquestionably follow leaders, millennial expectations, us-versus-them alienation, frontier violence, mob/vigilante dynamics, desires to ally with Natives, desires to steal property in anticipation of scarcity, and so forth.
    4. After the massacre the local Mormon leaders attempted to cover-up their crime from US authorities.
    5. John D. Lee, the site leader, was made into a scapegoat, while most participants went unpunished.
    6. Brigham Young knew about the Massacre shortly after it happened and obstructed justice from taking its course.

    When I say there was a consensus on these points I would have to qualify that by noting that not everybody was equally informed. Old Mormon myths still circulated that it was the Native Americans that did it or that the Fancher party to a large extent provoked the attack. Likewise less informed Mormon critics sincerely believed that Brigham Young master-minded the Massacre, a holdover from the governmental officials and popular newspapers in the 1860s that believed that as well.

    I am sure that some will object that my informed/uninformed dichotomy over-simplifies the intellectual history and that Mormon/non-Mormon is a more useful model for understanding differences. I am a little defensive about notions that Mormons aren’t as objective as non-Mormons. (My main influences on the objectivity question on writing Mormon history are Louis Midgely, Peter Novick, Richard Bushman, and Larry Morris.) I might be hard-pressed to find an informed non-Mormon between 1950-2000 that fits neatly into my categorization. When I was on a mission in 1999 in Oklahoma, I ran into a Church of Christ preacher who had read Brooks’s book which had been published at by the OU press. We had a detailed conversation and I don’t think I can distinguish his position about the Massacre from Brooks’s, except that Brooks had more Mormon sympathies.

    But I would say that a nice consensus doesn’t exist since three books came out a few years ago. Two of the books were and still are influential on a popular level but not at all on a scholarly one. Popularity-wise, an upcoming movie will only increase acceptance of some notions that run counter to the ones I am summarizing from Brooks above. A third book by Will Bagley is one that scholars have taken seriously and reviews of that work as well as new studies has staked out two positions.

    Bagley’s position rejects #2 above, insisting Brigham Young was in on causing the attack. He simplifies #3 so that only unique Mormon influences are to blame. In this view, Mormons were inherently violent and fanatically followed leaders and other sociological explanations can be ruled out. With this I think he would accept 1 and 4-6, but of course would want to state those ideas in his own words. There is also many things about the MMM to discuss that don’t fit well into my parsing above. (Like whether the Mormon church should apologize, how much of the historical archives be accessible, how much interaction should the LDS church have with historians that bear bad news, how much the incident reflects on LDS truth claims, etc)

    The new, informed, relatively more favorable Mormon position will differ from Brooks’s as well. It accepts and reinforces points 1-5, but will provide evidence that #6 is wrong. Point 5 will be reinforced with new analysis of Haight’s involvement. Some of this position at least has been preliminarily outlined in the various lectures I (and other blogs such as the Wasp and DMI) have summarized and in some FARMS Reviews and BYU Studies (which are obviously defensive in nature) and the Journal of Mormon History and Sunstone (venues that take pride in their independence from the LDS church).

    I predict the new Mormon position on the major points above—after it is properly set forth by the forthcoming volumes by Turley, Leonard, and Walker—will be highly influential in building a consensus on basic points like Brooks’s did. But the public dialog that will ensue after publication won’t be fully matured for another five years or so. I think that there will be some difficult things to accept as point #3 is more fully evaluated and on point #6 Mormons will still wish Brigham had taken a more active role in identifying the participants and seeing they were punished at least ecclesiastically. Rejection of #2 is always going to be popular among conspiracy theorists and those who don’t have the patience to sift through all evidence.

  15. “The new, informed, relatively more favorable Mormon position will differ from Brooks’s as well. It accepts and reinforces points 1-5, but will provide evidence that #6 is wrong. Point 5 will be reinforced with new analysis of Haight’s involvement. Some of this position at least has been preliminarily outlined in the various lectures I (and other blogs such as the Wasp and DMI) have summarized and in some FARMS Reviews and BYU Studies (which are obviously defensive in nature) and the Journal of Mormon History and Sunstone (venues that take pride in their independence from the LDS church).”

    Pretty much what I understood.

    The entire story is a good case study in how self-help remedies can go wrong.

    Bagley is a good study on how someone can murder the truth in pursuit of their own agenda, kind of the problem that Haight had. I don’t see much difference between the two in that regard and I think the two men share a great deal in common, except that Haight suffered a good deal more, and acted out of the terrible things he had been through, Bagley, well, one can only look at his sufferings and not feel as much sympathy. But, many writers are really borderline personality disorder types more suited to psychobabble analysis than discussion …

    (I can’t event take my own criticism of Bagley seriously, guess it is because I can’t take him as honest).

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