for PART I

Brigham Young’s Indian Policy

The Massacre at Mountain Meadows very clearly portrays the massacre as a locally planned and executed affair. While Brigham Young was not responsible for providing a proximal cause, I think it is fair to analyze how some of his actions and policies may have had unintended and indirect consequences for setting the stage. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing Brigham did was to threaten to shirk in his role as a peacemaker between obnoxious wagon trains and the Native Americans who suffered from such contact.

The emigrants would trespass through Indian lands, deplete resources such as grazing and game, shoot at Indians just for target practice, and enter into skirmishes over stolen property. Mormon mediators, under Brigham Young’s direction as Superintendant of Indian Affairs, would placate the Indians on the behalf of the emigrants by offering them Mormon goods (a manifestation of the feed ‘em, don’t fight ‘em mentality). Ungrateful wagon train members, though happy to make it through Utah alive, would not reimburse Young and the Mormons for their substantial services. Neither did the federal government [1].

A turning point came in mid-August when the mediation policy backfired and emigrants incited Indians along the northern route to nearly turn on the Mormons. Brigham then made public threats that the coming war would prevent the Mormons from mediating and it was likely that the Indians—left to themselves—would fatally plunder from wagon trains. The authors suggest that the news would have arrived by word of mouth to southern Utah just as the Baker/Fancher train was passing through.[2] The letter Haslam carried appears to confirm this new laissez faire stance in regards to letting the Indians do as they please [3]. However, I do not think that Brigham expected his threat to be carried out so soon.[4] Firstly, he did not distribute an official letter to all the various local territorial leaders, like he did with his war policies (such as cultivating an alliance with the Indians, stockpiling grain and ammunition, or refusing the sell of such to emigrants) [5]. Secondly the book gives an example where the Mormons continued to act as pacifying mediators involving the train immediately following the Baker/Fancher train along the southern route [6].

If this reconstruction is correct, Haight and Lee initially made the decision to go beyond the official tactic of allying with Indians against military attacks and even beyond a non-interventionist stance. They sought to instigate, assist, and lead the Indians to carry out an attack on innocent bystanders [7]. Haight put the wheels in motion for the massacre against the wishes of his superior officer, William Dame [8].

The authors’ tight chronology convincingly demonstrates that Brigham Young’s largely unsuccessful negotiations with Indian tribal leaders to form an alliance was irrelevant to the tragic events in southern Utah [9]. Even if one reads the Huntington diaries as promoting the theft of grain and cattle from non-military convoys as the authors do, it was Brigham’s style to give “fair warning” [10]. Young later denounced the massacre in the strongest possible terms [11].


[1] Most of the information in this paragraph can be found on p. 84-5 and 94-100. For federal governmental concern over a possible Mormon-Indian alliance leading up to Buchanan’s Blunder see Thomas G. Alexander, “Carpetbaggers, Reprobates, and Liars: Federal Judges and the Utah War (1857-58).” The Historian 70 (Summer 2008): 209-38 reviewed here.
[2] see especially p. 137 and 175
[3] Brigham Young’s response to the misinformation fed him by Isaac Haight is covered on p. 181-6
[4] It should be noted that the book does not make this argument.
[5] On Brigham Young’s written orders in early August see M@MM 47-50. George A. Smith was selected to carry the message through on a tour through southern Utah.
[6] See M@MM 175-7. The incident will be further covered in another installment of this review.
[7] Haight and Lee’s initial planning session is covered on 141-145. Earlier the authors non-commitally write “Haight’s interpretation of the [new Indian] policy may have influenced his next decision.” (p. 137 emphasis mine)
[8] M@MM 132-6 Haight wanted Dames’ permission to use the Nauvoo Legion to punish some members of Fancher/Baker train for making death threats. Dame declined reportedly writing “words are but wind.”
[9] M@MM 145-7. The authors take a rare detour to dispute a prior study implicating Brigham Young by linking these discussions to the massacre. Other contrary reactions to this theory can be found here, here, here, and here.
[10] M@MM 100
[11] The occasion I have in mind is found here.

There are transactions that are too horrible for me to contemplate.

The massacre at Haun’s mill, and that of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and the Mountain Meadow’s massacre and the murder of Dr. Robinson are of this character. I cannot think that there are beings upon the earth who have any claim to the sentiments and feelings which dwell in the breasts of civilized men who could be guilty of such atrocities; and it is hard to suppose that even savages would be capable of performing such inhuman acts.

See MMM 135 for evidence that Brigham would not have accepted a justification based on avenging the “Blood of the prophets.” However Brigham’s reaction to the massacre varied at times based on what information and misinformation he received as outlined in Alexander’s Arrington lecture which I highlighted here.

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