“No other circumstance in the history of the Latter-day Saints in Utah has undermined their Christian self-esteem with such force as the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” wrote prominent Mormon writer Levi Peterson in 1988. And so it is. Even today, informed Church members wonder how a generation claiming to be a restoration of New Testament Christianity could participate in an event so utterly ghastly as the killing of over one hundred Arkansas emigrants in fall 1857, emigrants who were passing through Utah territory on their way to California to establish new homes.
Just over half a century ago, famed Utah historian Juanita Brooks attempted to unravel the mystery of how a good people could commit such a crime. Her book The Mountain Meadows Massacre has long been regarded by knowledgeable historians as the definitive treatment of and perhaps even the final word on this terrible event. But according to historian and columnist Will Bagley, the availability of a plethora of documents unavailable to Brooks justifies a fresh interpretation of the event. An indefatigable researcher who has immersed himself in nineteenth century western and Mormon history and a talented and colorful writer, Bagley has spent years combing archives to produce what in many respects is the most comprehensive and complete examination of the massacre. Certainly, at the very least, Bagley has significantly increased our knowledge of the three principal groups involved: the Mormons, the emigrants, and the Native Americans. He has also provided a good deal of information about what might be called a fourth group: Mormon dissenters who by both spoken word and written text were openly critical of Church involvement in the massacre. And finally, Bagley has summarized recent events surrounding Mountain Meadows—the attempts to bring about some degree of reconciliation and the efforts to place a fitting monument on the site. All of this new information is couched in an attractive volume with maps and photographs some of which are original.