The Strangeness of Winner’s History

March 29, 2004 | 3 comments
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I spent a fair amount of time Sunday evening reading David Bigler’s book Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896nk that Bigler’s book is written in the best tradition of local antiquarianism rather than professional history per se. There is very little attempt (even by history writing standards) of synthesis or analysis. Rather he puts a high premium on lively narrative and close attention to local detail ? e.g. he tells you the current street addresses of the locations of skirmishes or events from the days of Deseret and in the footnotes bemoans the vandalism of historic markers. To the extent that the book has a thesis or any analysis it is very simple: The Good Guys Won.

In Bigler’s book it is quite clear who are wearing the white hats ? the federal officials who over a period of two generations stomped on Mormon theocracy ? and who are wearing the black hats ? the dangerous Mormon theocrats who challenged the nobility of the American republic. For example when Mormons killed Indians in retaliation for attacks it is always an “execution” or a “massacre” yet when the United States Army killed hundreds of Indians at the Bear River Massacre (the largest single blood letting in the history of Utah) it is a battle prosecuted by the brave and virtuous forces of the United States. (Bigler has a problem in that Colonel Connor, who carried out the massacre, is cast in the role of anti-theocratic hero in his narrative.) In many ways Bigler’s book is like a mirror image of B.H. Robert’s Comprehensive History of the Church, which covers much of the same period. Both works make nods toward “objectivity” but it is pretty clear who the author is rooting for.

The fact that Bigler’s book is one of the few treatments of this period that takes the “Gentile” side (another example would be Dwyer’s The Gentile Comes to Utah) points up an interesting irony in Mormon history. Napoleon supposedly claimed that “History was a set of lies told by the winners.” On a less cynical level, I think it is fair to say that most history gets written by the winners. At the very least, history is inevitably written from within the world that the winners have created and that fact tends to lend a sense of inevitability to the progress of the winners. By contrast, the bulk of Mormon history (especially as it relates to the Deseret Period) is loser’s history. In fact, the field is so dominated by loser’s history than when “winner’s historian” like Bigler shows up there is something almost jarring about his whole tone. What I find “jarring” is not necessarily any wild revelations that Bigler makes. I think I am over the history-is-different-than-what-you-were-told-Sunday-school brand of discussions that seem to so obsess the iconoclasts of Mormon history. Rather, it is the fact that Bigler’s admiration for federal officials shows rather transparently throughout his book. He clearly relishes chronicling the decline of Mormon independence and there is nothing of the tragic subtext that you find in so much of Mormon history.

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3 Responses to The Strangeness of Winner’s History

  1. clark on March 29, 2004 at 1:19 pm

    I had a similar view to you when I read it. I must admit that I enjoyed it as it is well written. But there is a bit of a bias to it all. (Although to be fair I didn’t quite see it as being as stark as you did) To me it was definitely in that particular style of writing we find in Bagley and others. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But as you said, there wasn’t much analysis. Nor was there really much by way of cites to check up on things.

    Like you though I must admit that I found the telling of some of the Indian battles problematic. I’m still confused at the huge massacre up in Idaho in which Porter Rockwell led the Federal forces. This in the midst of Rockwell being subversive to Federal forces as a kind of agent provacature for Brigham Young. I’ read several accounts of that and no one has really commented on this much less explained it. I think that the Indian relations of Brigham Young definitely need fleshed out more. There are still many unanswered questions.

  2. Nate Oman on March 29, 2004 at 1:30 pm

    Clark: I agree with you that it is a fun book to read.

  3. Adam Greenwood on March 29, 2004 at 3:14 pm

    Sort of like the Southerners, who were also put down by the federal authorities and who also took over the history for quite some time.

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