By Emiley Morgan
Certain events in history such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre are often considered to be a blot on the history of the LDS people, said Thomas Alexander, BYU professor emeritus of western history Monday, Feb. 12, 2007, at UVSC.
This massacre and specifically, the church”s investigation into the massacre, was the subject of Alexander”s presentation.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre took place Sept. 11, 1857, and consisted of a band of renegade Mormons joining with Native Americans to massacre 120-140 men, women and children of the Baker-Fancher emigrant party. Many uncertainties remain as to what happened that day as well as how church officials dealt with the event. These are the ambiguities Alexander sought to address.
Alexander began by explaining the political atmosphere in Utah at the time of the massacre. He said Utah was under attack by the U.S. army and church leaders at the time met to plan how to deal with the coming army.
“It”s impossible, I think, to understand the Mountain Meadows Massacre without understanding that Utah at that time was being attacked by an army from the United States,” Alexander said.
Alexander also explained that the people of Utah were not all followers of Brigham Young and that Young did not, as many assume, have absolute power.
“We should understand also, something about the LDS leadership in the 19th century. For some reason, some historians have concluded that Utah was a totalitarian dictatorship under Brigham Young,” Alexander said. “Utah was, in fact, a theodemocracy. Brigham Young could propose things to people in Utah, but they didn”t always do what he wanted.”
Alexander said the disaster began on Sept. 10, 1857, when a messenger brought a letter from Cedar City stake president Isaac Haight asking if the Iron County Militia should chastise the Baker-Fancher party.
“Brigham Young figuratively hit the ceiling. He sent a response to Isaac Haight and,we have the letter, that Brigham Young sent that said you must not meddle with these people, you must leave them alone,” Alexander said.
Alexander said Young was too late and the massacre had already taken place. Initially, Young was told it was solely a Native American attack but as time went by and the church sent apostles to investigate the massacre, it became apparent that church members had, in fact, been involved. There were early allegations that Young had ordered the massacre but the men who made these allegations were known anti-Mormons.
Alexander listed five phases of investigation that the church conducted to discern exactly what had happened that day, and why. The U.S. government officials refused to deputize Utah”s territorial marshal, which would have allowed for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Church members even volunteered to contribute money to fund the trial but were turned down by “ultra” federal officials.
“These ultra federal officials torpedoed these efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Alexander said.
Ultimately, Alexander said the LDS church investigated the massacre and tried to bring the perpetrators to justice. Federal officials torpedoed these efforts by the church but the church could have done more because although the supposed leaders of the massacre were excommunicated, some were reinstated.
Alexander concluded by saying the massacre was a terrible incident and he did not believe that Young knew about the massacre beforehand. Young did try to bring the perpetrators to justice and controversially continued to believe in the bad behavior of the Fancher party.
“I don”t think we”ll ever really understand why this massacre took place. It”s a real blot on Utah and on the LDS church,” Alexander said.
Shantel Phillips, 23, a UVSC history major from Roosevelt, said she found the presentation compelling.
“The topic was interesting to me and I wanted to learn a little bit more about it. I wasn”t very familiar with the fact that it had even happened. He really emphasized what the prophet did at that point in time and how they tried to deal with that,” Phillips said.
Oscar Jesperson, a professor of history at UVSC, discussed the hatred of federal officials that led to the lack of investigation.
Jesperson said he had learned things about the names of individuals, the sequence of events that occurred, the investigation that was conducted by church leadership independent of an investigation that, supposedly, was going to be conducted by the federal officials.
“To learn that these federal officials had thwarted an investigation which had anything to do with church leadership simply demonstrated in my mind what I had thought was happening all along,” Jesperson said. “There was so much hatred in a lot of federal officials for the Mormons.”