Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Massacre at Mountain Meadows

Title: Massacre at Mountain Meadows
Authors: Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Glen M. Leonard
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 430
Published: 2008
Date Finished: 22 March 2009
My Rating: 4 Stars

Challenges: 100+, Library, New Author

In September, 1857 Mormon settlers in an isolated area of southern Utah deceived a group of approximately 120 emigrants with a promise of protection from local Indians. After convincing the emigrants to turn over their weapons the settlers killed all of the emigrant party with the exception of a small handful of children.
In the preface to this book the authors stated that "thoroughness and candor have been our ideals in writing this book, but with so many minds already made up about the role and quilt of participants, we are sure to disappoint some readers."
Luckily for me I did not have my mind made up one way or the other and in fact knew very little about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and so was able to read and appreciate the depth of research that went into this book. The authors decided not to write their book as a response to what others have written but to return to the primary sources and basically start from ground zero. As a former student of history, I can thoroughly appreciate this approach. They turned to local and genealogical sources as well as regional and national newspapers to gain information on the immigrants, the settlers, and conditions in Utah at the time of the massacre. They were also able to use the collection of church and militia records from the Family and Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Essentially, they were able to tap into previously untapped resources and also shed new light on resources that have not been looked at or used in years.
As I stated, I knew very little about this incident before reading this book. I read an article here and there over the years but had never made much effort to learn more. As such, this book and the details surrounding the massacre and events in Utah at the time was pretty interesting and enlightening for me.
Even after reading this account it is incomprehensible to me how these settlers could take a few annoyances, minor skirmishes and essentially empty threats and believe that it justified a mass killing. While the authors do a great job of placing the massacre within the big picture of life during the time period and local events going on at the time, they never excuse or try to justify the settlers actions.
"There were conflicts on the southern road. But the emigrants did not deserve what eventually happened to them at Mountain Meadows. The massacre was not inevitable. No easy absolution for the perpetrators is possible. Their later posturing and rationalization could never overcome one irrefutable fact: All the purported wrongs of the emigrants-even if true-did not justify the killing of a single person."

I also appreciated and learned much from the author's research and descriptions of religious and ethnic violence and the process that leads to mass violence and killing.
"As emotions build, the perpetrators become convinced that their opponents are a threat to their people and values. They claim to act defensively, even while are are aggressors. Rumors are everywhere, and perception becomes reality. The final cataclysm is sudden and almost inexplicable."

"For the most part, the men who committed the atrocity at Mountain Meadows were neither fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people. The modern age, confronted with mass violence and killings, has rediscovered a fundamental aspect of theology. 'If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,' wrote Russian Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn. 'But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who wants to destroy a piece of his own heart.' "

I will admit that there were so many people involved between the emigrants, the militia and the Indians that at times the reading and keeping all the players separated did get a little tedious but it was worth the effort. The book did end a little abruptly without giving much of the story after the massacre. I would like to learn more about the aftermath.
An eye opening and mostly intriguing look at a tragic event that never should have happened.

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