Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadowsby Will Bagley
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The massacre at Mountain Meadows on September 11, 1857, was the single most violent attack on a wagon train in the thirty-year history of the Oregon and California trails. Yet it has been all but forgotten. Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets is an award-winning, riveting account of the attack on the Baker-Fancher wagon train by Mormons in the local militia and a few Paiute Indians. Based on extensive investigation of the events surrounding the murder of over 120 men, women, and children, and drawing from a wealth of primary sources, Bagley explains how the murders occurred, reveals the involvement of territorial governor Brigham Young, and explores the subsequent suppression and distortion of events related to the massacre by the Mormon Church and others.
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Blood of the Prophets
Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
By Will Bagley
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2002 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Their Innocent Blood Will Cry unto the Lord of Hosts
Eleanor Jane McComb was born in western Virginia in 1817. As a child, she followed her family down the great rivers of the American heartland to the Deep South. Her trials began when she wed Hector McLean at Greenville, Louisiana, in 1841. The well-spoken but taciturn McLean was born in about 1815. His wife later described his "large forehead, very white, fair skin, very large straight nose keen gray eyes (most persons think them black) thin lips of a positive expression, and sharp chin." Mrs. McLean, dark haired and well educated, was attractive and given to writing impassioned poetry. Both husband and wife came from "old and somewhat noted Presbyterian stock," but theirs was a troubled marriage. Hector's drinking resulted in a separation in 1844 that led Eleanor to contemplate ending her life in "the smoothe current of the Mississippi." Hector confessed he had failed "to live soberly and righteously before God and men" and proposed they "seek an asylum among the people of God" to help save and reform him. By the early 1850s the troubled couple and their three children had moved to California to start a new life. McLean worked as a customshouse official and was a respectable citizen of San Francisco, but the gold rush metropolis was not a good refuge from the vices of the world.
In the early 1850s San Francisco was notorious for its saloons, bordellos, and "gambling hells," yet it was also a center for a dynamic young American religion. Eleanor McLean had already encountered an unnamed missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while living in a port town on the Mississippi River. Even then perhaps she was "fascinated by the romance which the Mormon may have skillfully woven into his discourse." In November 1851 the McLeans took shelter from the rain at a Latter-day Saints service. She recalled, "From the time I heard the first sermon I never spoke except in defence of the 'Mormons' and their faith."
The religion's devoted missionaries taught Mrs. McLean the story of their prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Very much a product of his time, Smith came of age in upstate New York among people devoted to unusual superstitions and religious beliefs. The fiery revivals that swept the region earned it the name "Burned-over District." The young visionary claimed an angel had told him of an ancient record written on golden plates and hidden in a nearby hillside. Smith had been deeply involved in folk magic and arcane arts such as "glass-looking" using seer stones to divine secrets and "money-digging" for lost treasures, but by 1830 he had forsaken magic for religion. That year Smith published The Book of Mormon, which he said he had translated by divine inspiration from the gold plates. The book described the origin and history of the American Indians, a people it called Lamanites. On April 6, 1830, the twenty-four-year-old Smith founded a religion based on "a new and everlasting covenant."
The compelling force of the young man's personality accounted for much of his remarkable success. On meeting him, Brigham Young knew Joseph Smith was a prophet and "felt his spirit to mingle with Joseph's as two drops of water," and he later said the experience burned "like a fire in [his] bones." John Taylor recalled how an electric current ran up his arm when the prophet grasped his hand. Smith had definitive answers to life's most troubling questions and gave his followers a new identity, branding them a "peculiar people." The Saints believed they were literally the Children of Israel, the chosen people of God's new covenant, making early Mormonism very much an Old Testament religion. Mormonism's God was not an abstraction but a physical being who spoke directly to his people through the Prophet Joseph. Smith issued dozens of revelations beginning "Verily, thus saith the Lord" that addressed everything from church finances to the date of Christ's Second Coming. A living prophet capable of receiving divine instructions became one of the new religion's great attractions.
Early on, Smith introduced doctrines that inevitably generated conflict. His revelations on politics, Indians, blood atonement, consecration, and obedience became fundamental to nineteenth-century Mormon doctrine, but they provoked fear and hostility among those who rejected the prophet's claims. Mormonism adopted Old Testament models to reform such basic institutions as marriage and the economy and set out to restore primitive Christianity. The Book of Mormon described an orthodox trinity and explicitly denounced polygamy, but Smith's evolving theology soon abandoned two thousand years of monotheistic religious tradition. The Mormon scripture of the prophet's collected revelations, the Doctrine and Covenants, revealed a polytheism founded on immortal families. The practice of celestial marriage and the doctrine of eternal progression allowed the most ordinary backwoodsman to become a god and rule over worlds of his own creation with as many wives as his righteousness could sustain. As early as 1831 Smith secretly began to instruct his followers in "the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also [the] plurality of wives," which unbelievers labeled simply polygamy.
Smith's economic policies were as provocative as his views on marriage. His vision of a communal society was tied to the millennial belief that the Second Coming of Christ would take place not within a lifetime but soon. The imminence of the end of time encouraged Smith's followers to dedicate their worldly possessions to God. In return the Lord gave them "the land of Missouri," which he "appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints," confirming their neighbors' fears. Everywhere the chosen people answered their prophet's call to gather Israel, Smith's revolutionary beliefs brought his followers into conflicts with their neighbors, conflicts that would ultimately cost them their homes and their charismatic prophet his life.
The Beloved Parley
Like thousands of other troubled souls in nineteenth-century America, Eleanor McLean found spiritual consolation in Joseph Smith's doctrines. Hector McLean bitterly rejected her new beliefs, and his wife's intense faith accelerated the collapse of their marriage. He threatened to kill her and any man who baptized her if she became a Mormon, but she attended LDS services in San Francisco whenever she could. While she was at home one Sunday night singing from a Mormon hymnal, Hector ripped it from her hands, beat her, and threw her into the street, locking the door behind her. She eventually dropped charges of assault and battery and returned to her husband, but her heart "had died within her." She declared that she "would no more be his wife," though she kept up appearances for the sake of her children. She never slept with McLean again.
Shortly after William McBride baptized her in May 1854, Eleanor McLean met the charismatic Parley Parker Pratt, a remarkable man in a young religion awash in remarkable men. The Archer of Paradise, as he was known, was famous as a writer, publisher, theologian, overland captain, explorer, evangelist, and legislator. As one of the original twelve apostles of Mormonism, Pratt had preached from England to Chile and along the way had been indicted for murder, treason, and counterfeiting. He had converted hundreds of Saints and was personally known and loved by thousands more. His account of the Missouri troubles captured the bitterness the Latter-day Saints felt about their unrighteous persecution by a nation that had betrayed them. He was arguably the most popular man in Utah Territory, for Mormons respected Brigham Young but loved Parley Pratt.
Devoted to the teachings of Joseph Smith, Pratt had married eleven women in polygamy. The wife who came with him to San Francisco was a semi-invalid, and Eleanor McLean frequently brought food and clothing to their home. Pratt tried to reconcile Hector McLean to his wife, but this only increased the aggrieved husband's bitterness, which exploded when Pratt secretly baptized the couple's oldest boys. McLean tried to have his wife declared insane, and Pratt assigned Brigham Young's nephew John R. Young to help her. Young took a job in the McLean household, and his testimony helped to establish Eleanor's sanity. On learning his identity, McLean paid him a month's wages, fired him, and declared, "If you were not a child, I would kill you." Fearful his wife would abscond to Utah with his children, in January 1855 McLean smuggled his sons and daughter aboard the Sierra Nevada, sending them to their grandparents in Louisiana. He told Eleanor he had sent them "where [she] and the cursed 'Mormons' can never see them again!"
McLean eventually relented and helped to pay for his wife's passage home. Their children reached New Orleans on February 13, 1855 and were taken to their mother's parents. Eleanor McLean arrived on March 2 and spent three months at her parents' home, "closely guarded at all times lest she should try to take the children." She successfully escaped with them for four days but could not get out of the city Her parents concluded Eleanor was insane but ultimately gave her funds to travel to Utah, provided she leave her children behind. A Mormon emigration party hired her as a cook and "after incredible hardships and toils, [she] made her way to Great Salt Lake City," where she arrived on September 11, 1855. She found work in Parley Pratt's home as a schoolteacher. Without the benefit of a divorce, Brigham Young sealed Eleanor McLean to Pratt for time and all eternity on November 14, 1855, in Salt Lake's Endowment House as the apostle's twelfth wife.
Eleanor McLean's profound faith in Mormonism may have destroyed her family and would cause her untold heartache, but like tens of thousands of her fellow believers, persecution only increased her devotion to her religion. Like many new faiths, Mormonism generated a fierce commitment among its adherents. The intensity of Mormon beliefs in ideals such as communalism and their total submission to a leader they considered ordained by God contradicted the young American republic's celebration of individuality and independence. Believers viewed the resulting conflicts as religious persecution, which in turn fueled a zealotry that generated deeper fear and opposition from their neighbors, creating a cycle of escalating violence. Within ten years of its founding, Mormonism had a celebrated tradition of strife and suffering.
A War of Extermination
The odyssey of the Mormon people began with a move from New York to Kirtland, Ohio, not long after the founding of the church. Smith's charisma converted entire fundamentalist congregations and their influential preachers such as Sidney Rigdon and Parley Pratt, who brought formidable debating skills to the new religion. The move to Ohio was completed by May 1831, but almost immediately Smith directed his people to relocate in Missouri, the site of the Garden of Eden, which the Lord promised to "consecrate unto [his] people." Smith journeyed west that summer to Missouri, which he said the Lord had revealed as the land of promise. He designated "a spot for the temple which is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the court-house" in Independence.
The land of promise, unfortunately, already was occupied by a people whose natural sympathies could hardly have been more different from those of the Mormons. Both parties made the same complaints. The Missouri settlers, mostly immigrants from the South, charged that their new Yankee neighbors came from the dregs of society and were "idle, lazy, and vicious" as well as poor. A century later the official history of the LDS church characterized the residents of Jackson County as alcoholic, violent, illiterate, lazy, narrow-minded, ferocious, and jealous of those "who aspired to something better in life."
If the Yankee origins and abolitionist sentiments of many Mormons did nothing to endear them to their southern neighbors, then Joseph Smith's claim that the Indians would be the harbingers of the apocalypse was even more provocative. The Book of Mormon condemned the Lamanites as "a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations," but it also predicted that the American Indians would unite with the Saints in the last days to destroy sinners and unbelievers. Soon after the organization of his church, Smith sent envoys to the "Lamanites in the west." Pratt joined them, and in fall 1830 the missionaries preached to the Delawares in the land of the Lamanites—the unorganized Indian country west of the Missouri frontier. The Mormons' activities aroused the suspicions of U.S. Indian agents, who ordered them to leave, and alarmed the settlers in the fifteen or twenty log cabins that made up Independence.
Equally provocative was Mormon political and economic power. Although the Saints never constituted a majority in any of the states where they sojourned, their monolithic voting could determine the outcome of elections. Smith's ability to deliver his follower's votes in a bloc outraged non-Mormons of all political persuasions and provoked more hostility.
The prophet hoped to create utopian communities that took from members according to their ability and gave according to need. He directed several attempts to establish the Law of Consecration under which believers conveyed all their property to the Lord's agent. Missourians disturbed by the Mormons' communal economic power were made even more uneasy by LDS scriptures in which God consecrated the property of his enemies and said he would "take when he please, and pay as seemeth him good." Smith's 1831 revelation that "the land of Zion shall not be obtained but by purchase or by blood" fed these concerns. In July 1832 the Mormon newspaper confirmed their fears when it published the Lord's statement that "I will consecrate the riches of the Gentiles [non-Mormons], unto my people which are the house of Israel."
Mormon convert John S. Higbee, who settled in Jackson County in April 1833, soon learned the cost of this clash of cultures. He wrote that he "put in a good crop and Built ... a good dwelling house," confident that his neighbors would not "drive [them] from [their] lands and homes Contrary to all law." When a mob destroyed a Mormon printing shop, Higbee described the act as "hellish designs" of "demons." Seeing the rage of the non-Mormons, he agreed to leave Jackson County with his aged parents and his wife, who had just given birth to a daughter, "she not Being able to set up." "But," he wrote, "go we must or suffer death immediately." Higbee's wife and child survived the ordeal, but the family spent the winter in a stable without doors or chimney. Higbee and his sons would later be driven from their homes in Missouri's Clay, Ray, and Caldwell Counties.
Joseph Smith organized a relief effort in Ohio and marched to Missouri with Zion's Camp, an impromptu private militia, but the Mormons were driven from Jackson County in 1833. The Missouri legislature created Caldwell County as a refuge for the displaced citizens, and a brief idyll graced local relations. When the Saints began to expand outside of Caldwell County in 1838, however, the peace quickly deteriorated. Smith's intemperate second in command, Sidney Rigdon, gave a Fourth of July oration to the Mormon settlement at Far West. He vowed that if the mob attacked the Saints again, "it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we shall follow them till the last drop of blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us."
Despite previous disasters, Smith seemed oblivious to the provocative nature of his doctrines and actions. At the same time, he was obsessed with stifling dissent among his followers. When zealots called for the murder of traitors so they could not injure the church, cooler heads prevailed, but by the end of June 1838 there were calls to organize a band that would obey the prophet "in all things." "Whatever he requires," they directed, "you shall perform being ready to give up life and property for the advancement of The Cause." These men first took the name Daughters of Zion but eventually settled on a more masculine title, Sons of Dan, recalling Daniel's prophecies of the Last Days. When word of a Mormon secret police organization leaked out, Missourians were outraged. Although the formal Danite organization lasted only a few weeks, it created an enduring belief that the Mormons sponsored a secret brotherhood of religious terrorists.
Smith also organized all adult Mormon males in Missouri into a private army known as the Host of Israel, further exacerbating the fears of "the gentiles," as the Mormons called their unbelieving neighbors. The bad blood came to a head at a Daviess County election on August 6, 1838, when three hundred Missourians confronted LDS voters at the small town of Gallatin. A Mormon gave the Danite sign of distress, and eight comrades grabbed oak-heart clubs and used them to beat the non-Mormons. "In the battle, which was spirited, but short in duration," John D. Lee wrote, "nine men had their skulls broken." Lee, a new LDS convert, said, "I felt the power of God nerve my arm for the fray. It helps a man a great deal in a fight to know that God is on his side." The triumphant Mormons voted and then dispersed.
Excerpted from Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley. Copyright © 2002 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Will Bagley is an independent historian who has written about overland emigration, frontier violence, railroads, mining, and the Mormons. Bagley has published extensively over the years and is the author and editor of many books, articles, and reviews in professional journals. Bagley is the series editor of Arthur H. Clark Company's documentary history series, KINGDOM IN THE WEST: The Mormons and the American Frontier. Bagley has been a Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellow at the University of Utah and the Archibald Hannah, Jr. Fellow in American History at Yale University's Beinecke Library. Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows has won numerous awards including a Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the Bancroft History Prize from the Denver Public Library, Westerners International Best Book, and the Western History Association Caughey Book Prize for the most distinguished book on the history of the American West. So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812-1848 is the first of four volumes of Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails Series.
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