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Massacre

November 2023
1min read

Sally Denton replies: Like my forthcoming book on the subject, the article was based on literally thousands of pages of primary as well as secondary sources, many of them newly discovered, and was hardly the narrow recapitulation of contemporaneous anti-Mormon diatribes Mr. Briggs would like to believe.

As for President Buchanan’s decision to send a punitive expedition to Utah in 1857, this was scarcely the impulsive act of an impetuous administration. The sheer weight of evidence and public consensus moving this otherwise notoriously reluctant and indecisive President is beyond question. That Buchanan’s action was also a typical and expedient diversion from the onrushing crisis of civil war takes nothing away from the voluminous record of the de facto Mormon insurrection and sedition, which were more concerted and egregious than anything then going on in the refractory South. At the time, federal appointees to the Utah Territory found it all but impossible to function in the theocracy; prosecutors and federal marshals were unable to challenge the vigilante tactics of the Danites. The historical wonder here is that Washington did not act earlier and more forcefully than it eventually did.

As for Danite participation in the massacre, the evidence for that, too, is incontrovertible in everything from trial transcripts to private diaries and correspondence and oral histories. That the Danites, Avenging Angels, or Nauvoo Legion, whatever the name or venue of the Mormon paramilitary contingent, were an enforcement arm of the church is also beyond any dispute in the records of both the enforcers and their victims.

As for the role of the Salt Lake Tribune as a nearly lone voice of public opposition to the Mormon theocracy in nineteenth-century Utah, equivalent in many ways to the dissidents and reformers of the late Soviet Union, my article clearly acknowledges that. But the fact that the Tribune was (as I refer to it) “rambunctious” takes nothing away from the accuracy and integrity of the newspaper’s accounts of Lee’s trial, reports that conform faithfully to the voluminous trial transcripts.

Finally, Mr. Briggs’s allusion to the massacre as somehow a mutual act is a shocking echo of the Mormon evasions and denials over the last century and a half. There was nothing “mutual” about the slaughter of as many as 140 defenseless men, women, and children who believed they were under an honorable flag of truce. The hoary claims that a peaceful California-bound wagon train full of children and newlyweds was somehow an advance guard of a federal invasion, somehow culpable in previous persecutions of the Mormons, or even engaged in provocation of its own in Territorial Utah have long since been proved crude fabrications. It is sad to see obviously serious students of history like Mr. Briggs still parroting the old justifications of an unjustifiable act—proof once again, as I suggest in my article, that the Mountain Meadows Massacre is a scandal still very much alive.

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