Sept. 11 was a tragic date in American history long before the terrorist attacks of 2001.
On Sept. 11, 1857, a Mormon militia in southern Utah seized a wagon train from Arkansas and brutally murdered 120 people. Soon after, records of the event were destroyed and Mormon leaders attempted a cover-up. The "Mountain Meadows Massacre" still troubles the descendants of both the attackers and victims.
A new book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, tries to explain what happened that day and why. Produced in cooperation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), it is the latest of more than a dozen books and films that seek to make sense of an inexplicably brutal act.
An Infamous Day
"The Mountain Meadows massacre is the worst event in Latter-day Saint history," says Richard Turley, assistant historian of the LDS Church and co-author of Massacre at Mountain Meadows. "If Latter-day Saints could face head-on this worst event in their history, they could face any historical topic."
Turley and fellow Mormon authors Ronald Walker and Glen Leonard spent more than five years collecting diaries, journals, reports and other documents from that period. They had unprecedented access to the archives of the LDS Church, which include documents that other historians had not been permitted to review.
Their work adds little about the events that happened that day. But it raises difficult questions for Mormons and others who may cling to earlier LDS Church versions of the incident now dismissed as cover-ups.
"What happened at Mountain Meadows was horrific," Turley says. "It has been used as one of the biggest clubs to beat Mormonism over the years. It keeps coming up over and over and over again."
Turley and his co-authors confirm the story's basic framework: a Mormon militia from Cedar City, Utah, attacked a wagon train from Arkansas in a grassy valley known as Mountain Meadows. The two groups of settlers fired on each other for four days. Then, on Sept. 11, the Mormon group tricked the besieged, thirsty and terrorized Arkansans into leaving their circle of wagons.
The men marched out first, and each was joined by a member of the Mormon militia, walking side by side. The women and children followed, some riding in wagons. A militia leader suddenly shouted "halt," and his followers turned and shot the Arkansas men point-blank.
Others from the militia chased, clubbed, knifed and shot the women and children, some while pleading for their lives. Only those too young to bear witness were spared.
"These people who carried out the massacre were in many ways ordinary ... individuals who got caught up in emotion, caught up in the circumstances of their times and began to make decisions that led to committing an atrocity," Turley adds.
"And what was disturbing about that was the realization that the difference between ordinary people like us and these people who committed atrocity was really a short distance."
Paiute Indians Deny Involvement
The distance between ordinary and murderous seems greater in other details of the story that are still in dispute. In 1857, and for many years afterward, the attack was blamed on Paiute Indians. Massacre at Mountain Meadows portrays some Paiutes as manipulated participants in the attack, but many Paiutes dispute any role. They claim that some of the militia members dressed as Indians.
Earlier versions of the story also blamed the victims and characterized the Arkansas settlers as belligerent and profane. They were said to have bragged about participation in the murder of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in Illinois and to have taunted Mormon settlers about their expulsion from Missouri.
Turley's book touches on all of the above, but notes that it's not clear whether any of it actually happened. The book also recounts the violent, war-like atmosphere in Utah territory at the time.
U.S. Army troops were on their way to Utah, presumably to wrest control from the Mormon-dominated territorial government and to subdue Mormons practicing polygamy. Mormon leaders warned that passing wagon trains could be in league with the Army. They ordered Mormon settlements to save grain, grazing land, weapons, ammunition and supplies for themselves, and not to share with non-Mormons headed to California.
The Inexplicable "Why"
"They [Turley and his co-authors] raise the critical question: What makes otherwise decent men commit atrocities like this?" notes Will Bagley, historian and author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.
"As a historian, I think their biggest failing is their failure to look at the religious elements in all this."
Bagley, who was raised Mormon but is no longer practicing, cites the role of obedience in the Mormon faith and in the massacre. Attackers said they did what they were told by religious superiors, who demanded strict obedience in 1857 and who were believed to have divine authority.
Mormon leaders also delivered stern, sometimes violent, talks condemning the non-Mormons who were then considered threats. Some of those talks were given in and around Cedar City, Utah, just before the massacre.
"These people did it not because they were ignoring their religion," Bagley contends.
"They did it because they believed they were living their religion. I see this as a religiously motivated act of violence."
Bagley also firmly believes that Mormon prophet Brigham Young ordered the massacre, but he acknowledges there's no solid evidence of that. He believes the validity of the Mormon faith is at stake when explaining the Mountain Meadows massacre.
"[The massacre] raises so many tough questions about the religion and its divine authenticity," says Bagley. "It makes you wonder that if this thing could happen in the religion, doesn't it challenge the whole notion that we Mormons are God's chosen people?"
Turley says that what happened at Mountain Meadows that day isn't unique to that moment or place.
"This type of behavior occurs around the world and throughout time," he says. "It shows that any principle that people think is good, when pressed to the extreme, can become evil."
Turley acknowledges that his book won't resolve the lingering questions about Mountain Meadows. However, he and his co-authors collected so much material, they're planning another book on the aftermath of the massacre