American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857, by Sally Denton. Knopf. 336 pages. $26.95.
Since the horrific events on that crisp autumn day in 2001, the date Sept. 11 has become a shorthand for untold tragedy.
But that date on the calendar was made infamous 144 years earlier, when a group of pioneers heading west in a wagon train from Alabama to California was slaughtered in a bucolic meadow in southern Utah.
The massacre of more than 120 people, men, women and children of the Fancher-Baker party between Sept 7 and 11, 1857, was, until the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the largest mass murder perpetrated on American soil.
Although steadfastly denied by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its occurrence to the present day, there has always been strong suspicion that the murders were carried out by Mormon militants hostile to intruders in their holy land, on orders from the highest levels of the church.
In her chronicle of the atrocity, American Massacre, investigative journalist Sally Denton presents a clear and convincing argument, written in vivid prose, of Mormon culpability. But less convincing is her attempt to implicate Brigham Young, the "American Moses" hailed by Mormons for leading them from Nauvoo, Ill., to their Promised Land in the desert of Utah.
Denton draws on contemporary newspaper accounts, government reports and the journals of witnesses and participants to build her well-footnoted narrative. It tells of how the Fancher-Baker party, a wagon train made up mostly of farmers, was met by hostility as they rolled through the Utah territory, and denied food as they attempted to purchase provisions from the unfriendly Mormon residents. Meanwhile, the church membership was being agitated by its leaders, who preached that the pioneers had participated in Mormon massacres in Missouri, including the assassination of their founder, Joseph Smith.
That animosity boiled over in a bucolic valley called Mountain Meadows in southern Utah, where the hapless travelers were ambushed by Mormon militia. The motive is never made quite clear, and remains a historical mystery that the book can't quite clear up. After the initial assault, the militia laid siege to the wagon train for five days until, starving and thirsty, the unfortunates agreed to surrender, believing their attackers were actually rescuers. As the Mormon warriors were appearing to lead the victims to safety, an officer gave a command, and over the next three minutes, a killing spree ensued.
Denton relies on multiple accounts to reconstruct the massacre, and her case is strong despite inconsistencies in her sources. Her best witness is John D. Lee, a leader in the massacre who is later offered as a sacrificial lamb by church officials and is the only one to pay for the crime, executed by firing squad. Lee, who at one time was considered an adopted son of Young, stands by the church leader until his betrayal is clear. But, as Denton notes, his account contains multiple inconsistencies that leave one wondering where his truth lies.
As for Brigham Young, Denton provides strong circumstantial evidence that the Mormon prophet may have ordered the attack, and certainly covered it up afterward. But she can never quite nail him. Although she believes that "it is inconceivable that a crime of this magnitude could have occurred without direct orders from him," she also concedes that although evidence of Young "as an 'accessory after the fact' " is plentiful, "documentation of his earlier role as orchestrator of the massacre is elusive."
John Rivera is the Howard Country bureau chief for The Sun. From 1997 to 2003, he was The Sun's religion reporter. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore in 1995 and on his trip to Cuba. He earned a master's degree in theology at Washington Theological Union.