American West Latter-day Saint History

Mountain Meadows Massacre: Was There a Cover Up?

Local leaders told congregants to forget what really happened, threatening death to those who refused to comply.

There was a coverup in the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. However, it didn’t involve Brigham Young and the institutional church. The tragic story of the massacre’s aftermath is now available in a new book published by Rick Turley and Barbara Jones Brown. In this interview, they explain the complicated responses in the decades following the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

This post includes an Amazon Affiliate link for the book about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Table of Contents

How was Massacre at Mountain Meadows received?

It was very well-received, quickly selling through five hardcover printings, followed by paperback and audio. It won best book awards from the Mormon History Association and Westerners International. It was Oxford’s top religion title of 2008. It was named an American Library Association choice book for history and a Book of the Month Club, History Book of the Month Club, and Military Book of the Month Club selection.

Perhaps its most profound effect was the increased understanding of the massacre for modern people, leading to apologies and efforts at reconciliation.

Why a second volume?

In the preface to Massacre at Mountain Meadows, we wrote:

The collection of material for our book became an embarrassment of riches. We concluded, reluctantly, that too much information existed for a single book. Besides, two narrative themes emerged. One dealt with the story of the massacre and the other with its aftermath–one with crime and the other with punishment. This first volume tells only the first half of the story, leaving the second half to another day.

With the publication of Vengeance is Mine, that day has come.

Latter-day Saint historian Rick Turley discusses the lessons we can draw from the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

What was the Mountain Meadows Massacre?

On September 11, 1857, a group of Latter-day Saint settlers in southwestern Utah used false promises of protection to coax a party of California-bound emigrants from their encircled wagons and massacre them. The slaughter left the corpses of many dozens of men, women, and children strewn across a highland valley called the Mountain Meadows.

Where were the surviving children taken after the massacre?

Seventeen surviving children were taken to Rachel Hamblin, who lived at the far north end of the Mountain Meadows, a few miles from the massacre site. She cared for them overnight.

The next day, some of the massacre participants transported fourteen of the survivors to southern Utah settlements, where they were distributed among families and encouraged to forget what they had experienced.

Rachel Hamblin kept three Dunlap sisters together, allowing them to reinforce their memories of their names.. Though she may not have understood all of the details of the massacre, she understood enough to see through some of the deception and inform her husband, Jacob Hamblin, of what she knew when he returned home from Salt Lake City.

What did John D. Lee first tell Brigham Young about what happened?

John D. Lee reported to Brigham Young on September 29, 1857, blaming the massacre exclusively on Native people in the area and even the victims themselves, claiming they deserved their fate. This lie carried out a plan the perpetrators had from the beginning to place blame on neighboring Paiutes in order to cover up local white leaders’ planning and participation in the massacre.

Why did Lee mislead Young—and how did it cause more confusion?

Southern Utah leaders carried out the massacre before waiting to receive Young’s instructions to let the emigrants go in peace. The man who masterminded the massacre, Isaac Haight, sent Lee to Brigham Young to lie about the atrocity in order to protect the massacre leaders from blame—not only from outsiders, but also from top church leaders and their fellow Latter-day Saints.

Young was devastated.

By appearing as though he were an express messenger, Lee perpetuated the idea that the final slaughter took place in the latter half of September instead of on September 11, the actual day.

Telling the truth about the timing would have made Young wonder why it took eighteen days for local leaders to report such a horrific event. Lee’s blaming of local Paiutes as prime movers in the crime led to generations of persecuting Paiutes and shielding those primarily responsible. The repercussions continue to be felt to this day.

How did local church leaders prevent people from saying what happened?

Local leaders told congregants to ignore and forget what really happened and to encourage the surviving children to forget, threatening death to those who refused to comply.

Why did local church leaders cover up the crime?

To fully understand the answer to this question, people should read our 2008 volume, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, as well as our new volume, Vengeance Is Mine.

He came to gradually understand that his people were involved.

If they have time for only one, the most recent book provides a brief summary of the events covered in the first volume. In short, the leaders tried to cover up the crime to protect themselves from punishment for wrong-doing, both from outsiders and from their own top church leaders.

This is a classic case of what Latter-day Saint scripture calls “unrighteous dominion,” exemplified “when we undertake to cover our sins” and “to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men in any degree of unrighteousness” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:37, 39).

Were general church leaders like Brigham Young participants in the coverup?

For a full and detailed answer, we direct readers to Vengeance Is Mine. Stated simply, Brigham Young and other general church leaders became aware of the massacre at the height of the Utah War, a military conflict between the U.S. Army and Utah territorial militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion.

Young was devastated to know innocent blood had been shed on Utah soil and at first believed John D. Lee’s report that Indigenous people had committed the crime. Having encouraged local Utahns to ally with Native groups, Young probably also felt some measure of guilt that his Indian strategy may have had a horrible, unintended consequence.

By 1859, however, Young had heard enough about what really happened to desire a federal investigation. From that point forward, he offered repeatedly to help bring the perpetrators to trial, so long as he could be assured the proceedings would be fair and carried out at a location where witnesses would not have to spend days traveling.

Why did Brigham Young say the Lord had “taken a little” vengeance?

Brigham Young’s view of the massacre victims was tainted by John D. Lee’s initial report—and many other false ones that followed—in which he was told that the emigrants were evil people who “belonged to the mob in Missouri & Illinois” and poisoned settlers and Indigenous people in Utah.

When U.S. Army troops interred the victims’ remains under a wooden cross in 1859, they inscribed on the crossbar the New Testament verse:

Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord

Romans 12:19

Young’s words conveyed his impression that the Lord had “taken a little” vengeance on evildoers, an impression that changed later when Young came to know the truth of what happened and that the victims had been vilified.

By then it was too late.

Readers of Vengeance Is Mine will also find contemporary evidence showing that, contrary to a late family tradition Juanita Brooks recorded in a footnote of her book, Young did not order the monument destroyed.

A depiction of the original Mountain Meadows Massacre monument from an 1860 magazine in California.
A depiction of the original Mountain Meadows Massacre monument from an 1860 magazine in California.

When did Brigham Young first learn what actually happened?

Brigham Young came to gradually understand and accept that his people were involved in the horrific atrocity. His understanding culminated in an interview with massacre participant Nephi Johnson in 1870. That interview led Young to convene a meeting between October general conference sessions in which senior church leaders excommunicated John D. Lee and Isaac Haight for their roles in the massacre.

How did Brigham Young’s policies change after he learned Latter-day Saints led the massacre?

Vengeance Is Mine documents multiple cattle raids on emigrant trains in the days surrounding the massacre that were much like the raids he encouraged Lot Smith and other Nauvoo Legion men to make on army supply trains.

These were intended to be nonviolent raids that ran off cattle and did not hurt people. After John D. Lee’s report to Brigham Young on September 29, 1857, Young backed away from this approach, probably feeling, based on Lee’s false report, that this wartime strategy gone awry may have led to the atrocity at Mountain Meadows.

How did Jacob Hamblin potentially prevent a second massacre?

The Turner-Dukes combined cattle company followed on the trail behind the one massacred at Mountain Meadows. Jacob Hamblin sent one of his counselors in the Southern Indian Mission, Dudley Leavitt, to follow the train along the desert trail leading to California. No one was hurt physically in this Indian missionary-led raid on the Turner-Dukes company’s cattle.

How did massacre participants deal with its aftermath?

Some of the Mountain Meadows Massacre participants rationalized their participation by blaming others for the crime and minimizing their own responsibility. Others lived under a burden of guilt that ruined their lives—and ultimately consumed them.

What makes the execution of John D. Lee unique?

John D. Lee was the only massacre perpetrator convicted and executed for the crime, though there were dozens of participants. His execution was also unusual in that it took place at the scene of the crime, at the Mountain Meadows.

Rarely in United States history has the site of a crime been used as the place of execution. Not long after the execution, Utah’s legislature passed a law requiring that executions occur at prisons.

Was John D. Lee scapegoated to avoid the prosecution of other Latter-day Saints?

John D. Lee was guilty of murder and deserved punishment. Contrary to myth, he was not fingered by Brigham Young for prosecution.

After his death, it was easy for other perpetrators and writers to blame the crime primarily on him when it was actually a case of group violence in which dozens of his fellow settlers participated.

Our book demonstrates that prosecutors continued to seek arrests and trials of other perpetrators after Lee’s execution.

What’s the closest Lee ever came to telling the truth?

During the torrential rains and subsequent floods of 1862, a wall collapsed at Fort Harmony, killing two of his children. John D. Lee’s life went downhill from that point onward, and on the grave markers for the children were inscribed the following words:

Was it for sins that we have done

Death snatched from us those little ones

Later, Lee confessed more details, but he blamed others and said he did not do anything “designedly wrong.”

Did massacre participant Nephi Johnson ever fully commit his story to writing?

Nephi Johnson made multiple attempts to commit his massacre story to writing, gradually becoming more honest and explicit. Near the end of his life, he approached a young school teacher, Juanita Leavitt (later Brooks), hoping to have her record more of the story.

But she did not know he was a massacre participant and delayed meeting with the old man until he was on his deathbed. By then, it was too late, and he died before she could record it.

When she learned he was a massacre participant, she resolved to research and write what became her landmark book on the subject.

What’s the simplest way to explain why and how the incident was covered up?

The participants made bad decisions that led to some people being killed. To cover up their killing, they resolved to kill the entire company, except children too small to “tell the tale,” and blame the crime entirely on local Paiutes. They then threatened violence against anyone who told the truth.

How do you hope this book affects the narratives surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre?

The book brings to light previously unused sources, debunks myths, and uncovers the details about the massacre and its aftermath as no previous work has.

We hope that after reading the book, people will stop looking for excuses to justify the massacre or claim that “we will never understand what happened” and instead will acknowledge the wrongness of the atrocity, feel sorry that it occurred, learn from what happened, and endeavor to prevent future violence from occurring in our society today.

Was this interview informative?

Sign up to receive an email each time we publish new content!

About the interview participants

Richard E. Turley was a long-time historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a co-author of Massacre at Mountain Meadows. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Historical Association’s Herbert Feis Award and the Historic Preservation Medal from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Turley also represented relatives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre victims in their successful petition of the federal government to grant National Historic Landmark status for the atrocity site. He most recently published a biography of Dallin H. Oaks.

Barbara Jones Brown is the director of Signature Books Publishing and former executive director of the Mormon History Association. She also provided content editing for Massacre at Mountain Meadows. She holds an M.A. in American history from the University of Utah and a B.A. in journalism and English from Brigham Young University. While researching her genealogy after beginning work on Vengeance Is Mine, Brown discovered that, like the earlier Mountain Meadows Massacre historian, Juanita Brooks, she is a direct descendant of one of its perpetrators.

Further reading

Mountain Meadows Massacre resources

The Mountain Meadows book is an Amazon Affiliate link. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.

  • Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath (Oxford University Press)
  • After the Mountain Meadows Massacre (Latter-day Saint Perspectives: Episode 66)
  • Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints (Gospel Topics Essays)
  • BYU Studies Quarterly: Mountain Meadows Massacre Special Edition (BYU Studies)
  • What Led Latter-Day Saints to Participate in Violent Acts Like the Mountain Meadows Massacre? (D&C Central)
  • The Aftermath of Mountain Meadows (Smithsonian)
  • Placing Juanita Brooks among the Heroes (or Villains) of Mormon and Utah History (Utah Historical Quarterly)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from From the Desk

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading