Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy

In May 2002, Richard E. Turley, Assistant Church Historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, publicly announced a forthcoming book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Turley traced his idea for the book to the early 1990s. In the intervening years, a statement made by Roger V. Logan, a descendant of massacre survivors, impelled him to proceed. “Until the church shows more candor about what its historians actually know about the event, true reconciliation will be elusive,” Logan observed. In 2000, Turley persuaded Glen M. Leonard, former director of the LDS Museum of Church History and Art, to coauthor the book, and in 2001 he recruited Brigham Young University history professor Ronald W. Walker. The timing of the announcement, within months of the release of Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, implied an intended challenge to that book’s conclusions. While the Church had not commissioned the book, Turley said, the authors would have full access to the Church’s relevant archival materials and the assistance of a large team of researchers. Church leaders would not “direct the output” of the book. The arrangement represented a mature willingness on the Church’s part to disclose the sordid details of a most heinous episode in Mormon history.

Turley’s expectations of autonomy were maintained: the authors “retained full editorial control over [their] manuscript.” However, Turley’s initial timetable for writing the book stretched from one to six years. Sifting through the rich array of sources, many of which contradicted each other, and working through the scrutiny and reviews of the manuscript by many colleagues, took years. The end product, Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy, is to date the most thorough account of the massacre and the events leading up to it. The book is meticulously documented, with 127 pages of endnotes. Much of the evidence used in the book was available to other historians—the Church Archives had not previously withheld as much evidence as some had supposed—but some pieces are new. A new transcript of the John D. Lee trials by a specialist in nineteenth-century shorthand offers new information. So do over a dozen reminiscent accounts of the massacre collected by Assistant Church Historian Andrew Jenson in 1892. Aside from Donald Moorman, who made limited use of them in the 1960s, historians studying the massacre over the past century have not been permitted to examine most of Jenson’s collection.

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