On the Road to Mountain Meadows

October 9, 2006 | 31 comments
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Two years ago I wrote an article entitled “‘Pursue, Retake & Punish’: The 1857 Santa Clara Ambush.� You can read it here if this essay triggers your interest; the short version is this:

In 1857 four horsemen were ambushed in the Santa Clara canyon of southern Utah. Because one of them, John Tobin, was a son-in-law of Apostle Charles C. Rich, and because Tobin later gave well publicized anti-Mormon speeches, historians have claimed that an apostate Tobin was the target of apostolic rage. It turns out, though, that Tobin was the victim of mistaken identity and poor communications: Brigham Young had warned Mormon leaders along the southern route to watch the passage of two released convicts, and to execute the duo if they stole from the settlements. The convicts, however, behaved themselves, and because they had separated from the Tobin party they were not even present at the ambush.

My purpose was to correct an historical error and to raise some questions that I still cannot fully answer: To what extent was Brigham Young responsible for actions that he set in motion but which were not what he ordered? Was this incident an anomaly, or does it fit into a pattern of violence? Could the Mountain Meadows Massacre have been prevented by an appropriate response to the Santa Clara ambush?

I had long been aware of the ambush. As I prowled through unpublished documents in the Church Archives, I tucked away every scrap about John Tobin – not because I was interested in violence, but because I knew others were. As a researcher-for-hire, I collected Tobin material “on spec,� along with vast quantities of other materials for which I might eventually find a use.

Before Tobin married Rich’s daughter, he had courted Alice Young. A friend interested in the Brigham Young families wanted to know more about that romance, so I searched my computer for Tobin’s name. One hit was a letter from a southern Utah leader mentioning that “Tobin, Peltro, and those from prison� had passed through town.

“Those from prison …â€?

These words, which I had not noticed years earlier when I had transcribed that letter, took my breath away that day. I remembered another letter in which Brigham Young referred to newly released prisoners. A few more keystrokes brought up that document, the date of which suggested that both letters referred to the same prisoners. In no more than 15 seconds, probably less, I knew what had happened that night in 1857. Of course there was tremendous work ahead to identify the convicts, to follow the trails of everyone involved, and to consider the implications, but I had the key.

Reaction to the article has been generally favorable. Some have been troubled, however, and a few angered. I ask anyone who is upset to consider this:

The documents were out there. I had them; anyone else could have found them at any time. Imagine the grotesque sensationalism that some would have employed: “Dress Rehearsal for Mountain Meadows!� “Brigham Ordered Murder!!� But I looked for a context for the story, and I limited my claims to the narrow scope of the documents.

Many write as though Mormonism were to blame for every 19th century crime between the Missouri and the Pacific. They don’t hesitate to scream “Culture of Violence!� and to claim that a lack of evidence only proves how successful the Danites were at covering their tracks. Baloney. If I could find this much evidence on a single instance of violence (check my footnotes – more has turned up since publication), then why listen to anyone who cannot back his claims with the same level of documentation?

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31 Responses to On the Road to Mountain Meadows

  1. J. Stapley on October 9, 2006 at 6:56 pm

    Well said, Ardis and a magnificent piece of research. You have exemplified the need for contextualization and full disclosure. You have also outlined the improtance of having people like you around. Sure, I guess there would be some great finds if every scrap of the archives were digitally and text searchable; however, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom and knowlege that comes from years of working in certain collections and pouring over source documents.

    …and please tell me that you are going to leave searchable DVD’s in your papers collection when you retire (in the far distant future). :)

  2. Kevin Barney on October 9, 2006 at 9:03 pm

    Very nice, Ardis.

    (As an aside, what exactly does a researcher for hire with a specialty in the LDS archives do? Who are the kinds of people who retain you for your services? This might even make for a stand alone post; it sounds fascinating.)

  3. mw* on October 9, 2006 at 11:39 pm

    Ardis:
    I read your article and I have a few questions. I hope these aren’t taken as hostile, but merely as inquisitive.

    1. By said “If needs be…pursue, retake and punish” What do you believe would have been the people’s understanding of the term “If needs be” in this scenario. And in both statements, BY mentions imprissonmnet, would not the correct understanding have been a call to arrest the criminals?

    2. This is a question I’ve had for a long time. MMM is said to have occurred on Sep 11, 1857, but I have seen reports that the event took place from Sep 10-13th. What is correct in this dating. Do we just use Sep. 11 for dramatic effect, or do we have some compelling evidence to say that the deaths occurred on that day specifically.

  4. Ardis Parshall on October 10, 2006 at 12:01 am

    J. — I’ve told everybody I know that if they should happen to find me lying in the street freshly hit by a truck, they should take care of my laptop first and call 911 as an afterthought. I know where the value is!

    Kevin — Because the Archives allows few materials to be photocopied, my work is built around two skills: a nose for a story with the knack for following a trail through documents, and plain old secretarial experience (I type 150 wpm). My main clients tend to be scholars who either do not live in Salt Lake or cannot spend the weeks it can sometimes take to find that nugget they need. Most of them are non-Mormons or former Mormons; I will not work for anti-Mormons. Although there are generous exceptions, many Mormons act as though it’s priestcraft to charge for church-related history, so I work for few Mormons. Sometimes I’m asked to find “everything on Topic X”; other times I’m asked to watch for particular people or references to a specific incident. It’s kind of a small specialty with few people who need my services, but it’s oh so satisfying.

  5. Bruce on October 10, 2006 at 12:08 am

    The server seems to be down.

  6. Ardis on October 10, 2006 at 1:00 am

    mw* — I’m glad for questions, thanks.

    1. It’s ambiguous, isn’t it? That’s the difficulty. The instructions were so ambiguous that Aaron Johnson in Springville did not even know to whom they applied and interpreted them in a way that led to the Parrish-Potter murders. Louis Brunson at Fillmore interpreted them as meaning only “check the brands on strangers’ horses.” William Dame in Parowan interpreted them as a secret signal as real as BY’s pointing finger. It is telling that *none* of these men interpreted their instructions as a straightforward legal action. None of them approached the party as law officers in the open enforcement of law, the way the matter had been handled when Ambrose and Betts were arrested earlier in Salt Lake. These small town leaders all met secretly, and watched secretly, and made up pretences for stopping the party. BY had, after all, told them to be secretive..

    These men’s interpretations are justified, in my opinion, by the ambiguity of the instructions. When BY says he doesn’t want accusations of false imprisonment, is he saying “do everything by the book so that they have nothing to complain of”? Or is he saying “don’t imprison them at all — kill them”? Even if you prefer the first possibility, how can there be any other interpretation of BY’s desire for no “witnesses for tale-bearers” but “leave no witnesses — kill them too”?

    2. The bulk of the slaughter occurred on Sept. 11, with a smaller attack earlier (the victims were willing to be escorted out of danger, as they thought, because of their losses from that earlier attack). Some old accounts misdated events (it’s easy to understand how errors in dating were made when matters were not documented or discussed openly), but careful modern study, cross-referencing the victims’ passage through various Utah towns on known dates, confirms that Sept. 11 was the correct date.

  7. David Keller on October 10, 2006 at 2:54 am

    I agree it was a very nice article with much more contextualization than I find in accounts written by antagonists of the church. I hadn’t heard of this incident before now. I do have a few thoughts. First I don’t think that reformation rhetoric had much to do with Brigham Young’s thought process in drafting the letters. I agree that the reformation had an emphasis on forgiveness and hard language against relapse. But receiving punishments for sin was generally understood as voluntary for a member and reserved for conditions only possible under a millennial government. So while Ambrose and Betts may fit a confess/forgive – relapse/deadly threat pattern, I think their status as non-members and the general lack of practice of deadly punishment even among members makes that particular model for recovering Brigham’s thought process unlikely.

    Rather I see it, in part, as Brigham’s general policy (inheriting, for example, from Nauvoo’s Whistling and Whittling Brigade) to encourage criminal elements to leave the area through close observation and threatened retaliation for wrong doing. While extra-legal, the implied punishment for horse and cattle stealing, especially if it was being intercepted in progress, was part of the code of the West. If I was to attempt to get inside Brigham’s head I would think that he was worried about what further lies or complaints Ambrose and Betts would spread about Mormon judicial processes if they were apprehended again for further crime.

    The actual shooting seems to have robbery as a motive rather than “leave no witnesses”, because the shooters didn’t bother ensuring the latter through any verification process (no close inspection of the results of the large volume of shots.) Without more information, I think any reading a connection between Young’s letter and the shooting engages in post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. A reader would have had to have not only misidentified the right party but misread Brigham’s “retake” instructions that imply a theft.

    But this isn’t to say that Mormons never would consider acting on the margins of legality if someone was leaving the territory with stolen goods:

    The idea put forth by some here, that men cannot think or act or speak freely in, or pass through, or leave this Territory without their lives being in danger is too absurd to be entertained. The fact that hundreds annually have peaceably left the Territory, from its first settlement to the present time is ample refutation of any such assertion. True some who attempt to leave with other people’s teams, or without liquidating their just debts, are sometimes intercepted in their flight. But if I am not mistaken, such interception is not altogether illegal, and I fancy it could be easily supported by eastern precedents.
    –John Jacques in Millenial Star July 1859

    Here is an interesting quote from Aaron Johnson, one of the recipients of Brigham’s letter:

    “How about Brigham Young, and his Danites, his Destroying Angels? Didn’t Brigham and his angels kill a lot of men in Salt Lake City during the early days there?” I was asked. I replied “Brigham Young was not a murderer. He was a man a vision, one who did much to establish peace, and good order in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.” “Judgement to the line and righteousness to the plummet was his slogan.” Brigham Young had men around him who aided in ridding Salt Lake City of gamblers and desperados. “Your Mayor and police are doing the same here Nelson [, BC] You are trying to do as Brigham did, to have a clean town.”
    –Aaron Johnson Autobiography p. 95-96

    Finally it should be noted that stopping travelers and inspecting the brands of their rides was in accordance to Utah territory law as of 1852 so no pretext was needed for law enforcers to stop the party twice.

    Pound keepers and county officers were required to examine all herds of animals passing through their counties. If they found animals bearing neither the brand of a present owner nor the reversed brand of a former owner, they were to seize the animals as stolen property. If a seller had failed to reverse the brand on animals legitimately sold, he was liable for damages and expenses arising from the seizure.

    See Levi S. Peterson “The Development of Utah Livestock Law, 1848-1896,” Utah Historical Quarterly 32 (1964)

    That is just some of the context that color my interpretation of these events. Nevertheless the connections to the Mountain Meadows Massacre are intriquing. Rebutting claims that Tobin was an apostate before the shooting was the strength of the article. Again a nice job even if I have nitpicked about some of the interpretations.

  8. David Keller on October 10, 2006 at 2:59 am

    I should note that my first two citations are found in The Mormon Reformation by Paul H. Peterson.

  9. Bored in Vernal on October 10, 2006 at 10:06 am

    In interpreting these events and also the MMM, do you think it would be important to include the
    thought that endowed members at the time were under covenant to avenge the death of Joseph the Prophet?

  10. MW* on October 10, 2006 at 10:11 am

    Ardis:

    I would agree there is great ambiguity in Brigham Young’s Letters. Perhaps the great lesson here is a need for clarity in instruction.

    I have a few more questions:
    1. Ambrose and Betts seperated from Tobin’s group before this shooting, if I understand and recall you’re article correctly.(I’ve slept since then) Do we know how long before the shooting they seperated? Is it possible Ambrose and Betts could have perpetrated the violence? They have no alibi. (We don’t have a clear motive and we have no reason to believe they had access to weapons, but I am curious)

    2. What’s your bill rate?

  11. J. Stapley on October 10, 2006 at 10:27 am

    do you think it would be important to include the thought that endowed members at the time were under covenant to avenge the death of Joseph the Prophet?

    This isn’t particularly accurate. It wasn’t an “oath.”

  12. Ardis on October 10, 2006 at 10:59 am

    I’m new to blogging after years of Mormon-themed email lists. May I say how much more civilized and thoughtful commenters are here? What a treat!

    Some responses to David Keller’s careful comments:

    Punishment for sin was never reserved for members, and was not voluntary, and was not reserved for millennial government, when the sin was also a crime in the generally understood sense of crime. Your reasoning is a good defense against misunderstandings of blood atonement, but not against, say, horse theft.

    The ambushers’ intention to kill is dismissed as unlikely because they didn’t take care to see that their victims were dead. Yet the same reasoning is an even stronger dismissal of robbery as a motive, because the ambushers took nothing. Some of the horses were later rounded up wandering in the hills (BY directed that they be forwarded to California to their owners), and abandoned property belonging to the party was brought in by Indians after the mail wagon picked up the stranded travelers, but the attackers did not enter the Tobin-Peltro camp to take a single thing.

    Had BY intended his instructions to be understood merely as “enforce the laws openly through formal legal process, (signed) the Governor,” then why was there a caution to “keep this letter safe. We write for your eye alone, & to men that can be trusted”? A call for candid enforcement of laws against theft requires no secrecy — in fact, it demands openness.

    Ditto for the idea of threatened legal enforcement being an encouragement for undesireables to leave. It’s not much of a threat, implied or otherwise, if intentions are kept secret.

    No matter what we would like to believe about our heritage, we are still left with a small handful of incidents, like this one, that need explanation. Tobin and his companions were shot. If not by Mormons, then by whom? If not because men were acting on what they thought — rightly or wrongly — BY had instructed them to do, then why? Any alternate explanation has to account for all the facts known about this party.

  13. Ardis on October 10, 2006 at 11:19 am

    9: BiV, I have no hesitation in saying there is no connection, not just because Ambrose and Betts (or Tobin and Peltro) had no remote connection to Carthage, but because I do not believe that the saints’ understanding of that particular oath embraced actions like this.

    10: mw*, absolutely. And frankly, I think Mountain Meadows would not have occurred had there been any clear reaction to this ambush (“brethren, this is not how we do things”). As for your questions, the separation occurred very near the ambush site, earlier that day or no more than one day before that. I see no reason to suspect Ambrose and Betts — although knowledge of their character is admittedly sparse, they seem to have been conmen rather than violent criminals. The ambush party was larger than two (we could speculate that the rest of the travelers could have joined them, but that’s compounding the speculation). The most practical argument against their involvement is that Ambrose and Betts could have had no knowledge of the terrain. The ambushers knew how to approach the camp site and then leave by some route other than the trail, and they did it at night, and so quietly that they didn’t wake the sleepers until gunfire started. That suggests the attackers were intimately familiar with the land.

  14. MW* on October 10, 2006 at 11:24 am

    Don’t worry, we get more uncivilized as we get used to you!

  15. MW* on October 10, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Ardis: (regarding #13), given the communications methods of the church at the time (I’m not super familiar with it), do you feel that Brigham Young had the capacity to give a clear reaction to the ambush within the timeframe? Is there any evidence from 1st Presidency\Quorum of 12 Meetings(Or other such leadership meetings) that the Ambush was discussed and that process was taking place to give clear reaction? From your article, BY’s immediate reaction(as Prophet or Governor) to the event is unclear. What do you feel his reaction was? Also, thanks for your reasoning on Ambrose and Betts. I would tend to agree with your perusal there.

  16. Frank McIntyre on October 10, 2006 at 11:47 am

    Ardis,

    I have no substantive comment although I found the post very interesting. I just have one quibble.

    “Any alternate explanation has to account for all the facts known about this party.”

    Nah. Real and correct explanations almost never account for all the known facts. Some facts are just coincidence and noise.

  17. Ardis on October 10, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    MW* — There is no doubt that BY, like every other person in Salt Lake who was tuned into public affairs, learned the rudiments of the ambush within a few days as the northbound mail carrier reached the capital. (That doesn’t, of course, prove that he knew who had done it or why.) He continued receiving reports, whether official or not I cannot determine because I haven’t located them despite my best efforts: the President’s Office Journal for 10 March records that a clerk spent the evening copying a letter sent to BY (sender not named) “giving an account of the flight of Peltro. Tobin Betts and Coy. John Tobin shot above the eye Williams lost 2 fingers.” Before 4 April, when he wrote to Isaac Haight, BY knew that horses belonging to the party had been recovered, and he directed that they be sent on to California.

    Some historians have the notion that not a sparrow fell in Utah but that it was reported to BY, and that nothing significant ever happened without his guiding hand, or at least his tacit approval. That, of course, is nonsense. You only have to read a few sermons and a few letters where BY is railing about the people’s failure to follow his teachings to know that he had no more direct control over people’s behavior than anyone else. But he was incredibly well informed about the people’s affairs — his office files contain thousands of letters written by every imaginable type of person, discussing their own business and that of their neighbors. He was constantly in the company of clerks and associates where current events, even gossip and the contents of last night’s dreams, were discussed. General information from one end of the territory to the other doesn’t seem to have been a problem, although that isn’t to say that full, undistorted details were always available. BY was not usually shy about writing to local leaders and instructing them to find out about such-and-such an affair that had been reported to him.

  18. mami on October 10, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    This was fabulous Ardis,
    Thanks!

  19. MW* on October 10, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    Ardis:
    Ok, so that answers my query in part. Let me rephrase my other questions in regards to the new light you’ve given.
    1. Is there any evidence that BY connected his actions(cause) with the shooting (effect)? for him to have a motivation to give a clear reaction?
    2. Could he have given a clear reaction? (I am guessing yes via the news paper at least.)

  20. Ardis Parshall on October 10, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    Frank — You’re right, of course, that sometimes things that seem significant on the surface are in fact just noise. I do think, though, that good history has to satisfactorily explain why seemingly significant details can be safely ignored.

    Thanks, mami. It’s a blessing to be able to discuss these things with people whose religious commitments are similar to my own — mostly, my personal historical community involves people who want to believe the worst. Being challenged by people who want to believe the best, and who are thoughtful rather than accusatory, requires a whole ‘nother way of thinking and writing.

    MW* (19) — No, I cannot produce documentary evidence that BY knew that Brothers X, Y, and Z were behind the ambush, or that they had acted through a misapplication of BY’s letters. By the same token, I have found no indication that BY or anyone else (beyond the unconvincing attempt to blame “Mapaches”) suspected non-Mormons to be behind the ambush. That BY was familiar after the fact with a violent event for which Mormons are far more likely candidates that anyone else, is, in my opinion, motivation enough to give a clear reaction. I do not presume to dictate how or why or when or to what extent or to whom such a reaction should have been given; I say only that had there been such a reaction, to this or to other intervening violent acts, Mountain Meadows would have been avoided.

    As for your second question, yes, there were many possibilities: newspapers, including sermons that were printed in the papers and delivered regularly throughout the territory; personal correspondence, for which BY overworked an army of clerks; personal contact with southern Utah leaders who traveled to Salt Lake very often for legislative meetings, church conferences, shopping expeditions, and other business reasons. I think we often overlook the mobility and communications of the 19th century — things took longer and were more physically challenging, but they were in as much touch with each other as we are today, allowing for technologically-imposed delays.

  21. Ardis Parshall on October 10, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    Frank — You’re right, of course, that sometimes things that seem significant on the surface are in fact just noise. I do think, though, that good history has to satisfactorily explain why seemingly significant details can be safely ignored.

    Thanks, mami. It’s a blessing to be able to discuss these things with people whose religious commitments are similar to my own — mostly, my personal historical community involves people who want to believe the worst. Being challenged by people who want to believe the best, and who are thoughtful rather than accusatory, requires a whole ‘nother way of thinking and writing.

    MW* (19) — No, I cannot produce documentary evidence that BY knew that Brothers X, Y, and Z were behind the ambush, or that they had acted through a misapplication of BY’s letters. By the same token, I have found no indication that BY or anyone else (beyond the unconvincing attempt to blame “Mapaches”) suspected non-Mormons to be behind the ambush. That BY was familiar after the fact with a violent event for which Mormons are far more likely candidates that anyone else, is, in my opinion, motivation enough to give a clear reaction. I do not presume to dictate how or why or when or to what extent or to whom such a reaction should have been given; I say only that had their been such a reaction, to this or to other intervening violent acts, Mountain Meadows would have been avoided.

    As for your second question, yes, there were many possibilities: newspapers, including sermons that were printed in the papers and delivered regularly throughout the territory; personal correspondence, for which BY overworked an army of clerks; personal contact with southern Utah leaders who traveled to Salt Lake very often for legislative meetings, church conferences, shopping expeditions, and other business reasons. I think we often overlook the mobility and communications of the 19th century — things took longer and were more physically challenging, but they were in as much touch with each other as we are today, allowing for technologically-imposed delays.

    (I’m getting error messages — I apologize if this appears more than once.)

  22. MW* on October 10, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    Ok, final question:

    What reason do you personally believe BY had to fail to react to this?

    Options as I see them:
    1. He was covering it up, knew everything that happened, but was embarrassed by the situation. (not my favorite theory, but possible)
    2. He did not reason out that his letters were directly connected to the shooting, as in his mind those letters were in regards to Ambrose and Betts. Thus he did not see this as anything more than another violent attack.
    3. He did not comprehend the correlation, becasue he was too busy with other matters, “Utah War, etc.” to deal with it.
    4. He understood what was going on, wanted to deal with it, but while planning the correct action, MMM and other mentioned events occurred, which tabled his former plans.
    5. He understood what was going on, but due to Tobin, quitly dealt with it behind the scenes, but was ineffective.

    I’m sure there are other plausible answers, but I’d love to see what you reason to be BYs reasoning, see you are closest to the material.

  23. Ardis on October 10, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    MW* — I’ve wrestled with this question without resolving it in the time since this article was published. You’ve done an admirable job of outlining a range of possibilities.

    A few weeks ago I sat in on a Utah history class at the University of Utah where the professor (one of my favorite people) used this article as a springboard for talking about the Reformation and as a lead-in to the Utah War. Someone asked exactly this question. I admitted that I did not know. One student proposed a variation of your no. 1, that BY recognized some element of responsibility and didn’t feel he could condemn others when he shared blame. Another suggested what might be a variation of no. 3, that the attackers were bad guys, “but by golly they are OUR bad guys, and we all have to stick together in these perilous times.” I’ve thought about both, but neither seems entirely satisfactory. Neither would have precluded a simple pastoral letter of kindly correction, which could have been more effective than a full blown board of inquiry.

    Will Bagley tells me that it’s obvious that BY didn’t scold because the ambushers did exactly what BY wanted them to do. I don’t buy it. Mixed with all the finer qualities in his complex character, BY could be harsh and thoughtless and dictatorial, but he wasn’t wantonly vicious. He would do what was necessary to protect “this people,” but he didn’t make a habit of abandoning eternal goals for temporal ones. Regardless of the ambiguity of his letters, especially the second one, I’m certain that his intention was that these men would be punished only if there was something to punish them for, not because they were bad men in general.

    I had breakfast at MHA-Casper with one of the three LDS historians working on the Mountain Meadows book and asked him this question. He had no answer, but said it was one that he was also struggling with. His preference was not to speculate as long as there was no clear documentary explanation one way or another.

    I can’t help it, though. I need to understand BY, and I don’t know how to do that without trying on various possibilities and seeing how they fit. If I ever reach a satisfactory answer, you can bet I’ll tell the world.

  24. David Keller on October 11, 2006 at 12:31 am

    Ardis,

    Thanks for addressing my points in #13. You are obviously more on top of the chronology and facts for this incident than I am.

    Perhaps I need to research more, but I am unconvinced that ecclesiastical rhetoric against sin translated into legal (or extra-legal) practice against crime, especially against non-members. Yes I realize that some sins doubled as crimes and when they did so, they were punished as crimes. While the church had its own ecclesiastical court system to resolve disputes, it was voluntary, and had a different scope than the territorial legal system. The legal court system seems to have been much more lenient than its national counterparts. For example Utah was the easiest state to obtain a divorce. There were much less lynchings (11 or so) in Utah’s total history than the rest of the nation during a smaller time period (~4700 between 1882-1964 Justice Denied: The Lynching of Robert Marshall By Larry R. Gerlach in UHQ 66:4). The Utah number would be much higher if violent Reformation rhetoric was something to be done in actual practice. My remarks about voluntary elements and a wait-until-the-millennium practice doesn’t just apply to blood atonement but all forms of Old Testament styled retributive violence for sin. I categorize all anomalies to this as members being confused or covering up their sins with feigned piety, but they were definitely acting against their religion.

    To me, the run-the-undesirable-criminal-elements-out-of-town (state) does a better job explaining short prison terms and the counsel to be vigilant in case of stealing. The territorial courts have difficulty providing justice when thieves (or extra-legal pursuers) leave the jurisdictional boundaries (as seen in the Howard Egan case). “Leaving no tale bearers” and “no prosecution” can reasonably add up to settling things out of court so that Ambrose and Betts would have no more tales to spread about the Mormon court system or government. This doesn’t require A&B’s death at all! Brigham’s desire to be discreet is easily explained by not wanting his letter to fall into more people’s hands as that would increase the likelihood of it being interpreted incorrectly or too broadly. If there is any connection between this letter and Mormon perpetrated extra-legal violence (like Parrish incident in Springville) than that worry would be more than justified. Rhetorical question: If he really wanted it to be top secret why have the letter copied into his official books?

    I didn’t know that no property, besides that recovered by indians, had been taken. But that only further shows the perpetrators were not following the letter’s instructions as they don’t even make a pretense of “retak[ing]” anything. So even if a robbery motive is greatly weakened, any connection to Brigham’s instructions is as well, further decreasing our ability to explain why it happened. This means we should rightly exercise constraint and not jump to conclusions. One lesson we can learn about jumping to conclusions is how wrong antagonists were about an apostasy motive. We have the benefit of historical hindsight and can weigh probabilities and figure that it was probably Mormon perpetrated. But without substantial evidence, especially in matters of innocence before being proven guilty, I think Brigham Young did the proper thing not to over-react to the incident after the fact. There really isn’t a way to denounce such an event without critics inferring church guilt or subversive members claiming Brigham was saying one thing in public and another thing in secret. I am much more concerned that the community’s failure to react and investigate than I am about Brigham Young.

    I recognize I am playing the apologist here, but I am happy to drop unpersuasive accounting of the data for more plausible scenarios. So I appreciate your expert opinion about my attempt to make such an accounting. I certainly agree with your assessment of Brigham Young:

    Mixed with all the finer qualities in his complex character, BY could be harsh and thoughtless and dictatorial, but he wasn’t wantonly vicious. He would do what was necessary to protect “this people,� but he didn’t make a habit of abandoning eternal goals for temporal ones. Regardless of the ambiguity of his letters, especially the second one, I’m certain that his intention was that these men would be punished only if there was something to punish them for, not because they were bad men in general.

  25. DKL on October 11, 2006 at 12:51 am

    Great Post, Ardis.

    I think that the reason Mormonism is said to have a culture of violence relates primarily to the novelty of it. Remember in the mid-1980s before they had safety-seals on medicine bottles, and somebody poisoned Tylenol? George Will wrote of that event later by saying something to the effect of, “In 1985, a nation lived in fear of a lunatic who killed 8 people by poisoning Tylenol. 40,000 people died in drunk driving accidents as usual.” This is a grim reminder of the statement attributed to Stalin, that one death is a tragedy, while a million deaths is a statistic.

    The very exceptional nature and the limited scope of the Mountain Meadows Massacre contributes to its sensationalistic nature. Compare this to the Pilgrims and the Puritans. How many massacres did they carry out on Indians? Why aren’t they considered to have cultures of violence?

  26. David Keller on October 11, 2006 at 4:13 am

    I would like to help contextualize the so-called oath of vengeance in the pre-1927 temple ceremony. In my opinion, if the Mormons had been following their covenants then it should have prevented violence rather than have caused it. The oath was an out growth of Joseph Smith’s inner circle which continued to meet as after his death. (For a history of prayer circles see Quinn’s 1978 BYU Studies article (19:1) and Ehat’s Master’s Thesis). Joseph Smith’s circle met to test revelation (try all things), pray for the healing of sick members, pray for the success of church projects, and pray for deliverance from enemies. After Joseph’s death, Heber C. Kimball recalled how the prayer circle met and prayed for God’ s vengeance (see his Dec. 21, 1845 diary entry in The Nauvoo Endowment Companies).

    Summarizing Willard Richards’s activities immediately after the martyrdom, historian Claire Noall (UHQ 25:1 p. 47-51) writes “True, in this [1850] speech Richards finally denounced the actual murderers; but when notifying the Church of Joseph Smith’s death at Carthage jail, he wrote to Nauvoo that the people of Carthage expected the Mormons to rise, but he had “promised them no.” The next day from the steps of the Prophet’s home, he reminded his people that he had pledged his word and his honor for their peaceful conduct. And when writing the news of Smith’s death to Brigham Young then near Boston, Willard Richards said the blood of martyrs does not cry from the ground for vengeance; vengeance is the Lord’s. ”

    Now it is easy for us who don’t experience mobocracy, threats on our life, and kidnapping attempts to wish that leaders would have prayed for their enemies instead of harm or justice to befall on them. The modern Mormon typically shun schadenfreude, but we live in kinder, gentler times. But in my reading of folklore from the 19th century, Mormons saw the hand of God whenever their malefactors suffered misfortune. How else should we account for such works as The Fate of the Persecutors of Joseph Smith? But this isn’t a phenomenom unique to Mormonism as there are similar works found in early Christianity and the attitude is something to be expected from a powerless, persecuted minority group.

    Temple work in general and more specifically prayers that God, rather than Mormon members, would avenge Joseph Smith is what was the salvation of the church in Nauvoo. Instead of giving vent to passionate desires for revenge using the impressively sized Nauvoo legion, the brethren were able to get members to channel their rage into petitions to the Almighty for justice. Their actual energy was concentrated on the things of heaven through temple building and service. My perception is that temple prayer became a way of ritually memorializing Joseph Smith’s martyrdom.

    The brethren did not concern themselves with investigating and prosecuting the Joseph’s murderers, leaving justice up to God. I recommend The Carthage Conspiracy to get a pulse on this period. The conspirators like Thomas Sharp got off scott free in front of a non-Mormon jury and a prosecutor that threw out all the Mormon testimony that was heard, but there was enough circumstantial evidence and self-incrimination for a guilty verdict. Dallin Oaks attributes the acquittal to the principle of jury nullification. Other trigger-pullers at Carthage simply fled the area to escape prosecution. All this has implications for understanding why Mormon juries would have difficulty obtaining a conviction of one of their own.

    This is the background the oath to pray for God’s vengeance (a much more adequate phrase than oath of vengeance) arose. Most accounts of the temple oath stressed that God rather than man would do the actual punishing. For example an apostate Mormon testified at the Smoot hearings:

    You and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation.
    cited from Bagley BotP p. 21
    note that Bagley’s footnote 66 (in part) seeks to corroborate this late source with a dubious, sensationalistic, quote from William Smith about the Nauvoo temple. However William had been excommunicated before temple work began in late 1845 and William gets the number of endowed members off by over a factor of 3.

    I am a little uncomfortable for taking the apostate (at the Smoot hearings) version of things and the wording was probably not fixed over time. Here is David H. Cannon’s late reminiscence about Endowment House practices:

    pray the Father to avenge the blood of the prophets and righteous men that has been shed, etc. In the endowment house this was given but as persons went there only once, it was not so strongly impressed upon their minds, but in the setting in order [of] the endowments for the dead it was given as it is written in 9 Chapter of Revelations and in that language we importune our Father, not that we may, but that He, our Father, will avenge the blood of martyrs shed for the testimony of Jesus.

    – cited in Buerger, Dialogue 34:1 p. 103

    Although the religous stress was on letting God perform the actual vengeance, individuals sometimes imagined they might be called upon to take a more active role. This surfaced in the apocolyptic language of some patriarchal blessings. Others would make comments about not resting until God carried out vengeance. From the pulpit , the brethren held the entire nation responsible for letting mobocracy get out of control (Paul H. Peterson is a good reference for this.) These us-and-them sentiments existed apart from Joseph’s death, as the Saints had been repeatedly driven and persecuted. However, in my estimation, the oaths of members should have taught them to channel their righteous indignation into petitioning God and for them to work at constructively building up their Zion.

  27. David Keller on October 11, 2006 at 4:25 am

    I apologize about the length of my comment and messing up italics formatting. And I should have put up more of a warning about discussing historic temple practices. Perhaps this is one of those issues it would be better to give critics an “uncontested slam dunk” (Neil Maxwell’s language)?

  28. Ardis on October 11, 2006 at 9:24 am

    During much of the 19th century, Latter-day Saints made few efforts to respond to outlandish printed attacks against our doctrines and society. BY called this a policy of “leaving them severely alone.� An example of the implementation of this policy is the way the Deseret News so seldom referred to anything printed in the Valley Tan, Union Vedette, or Salt Lake Tribune, or even acknowledged the existence of those papers. Private correspondence and minutes reveal their disgust with the editors and writing style, but little hint of that leaked into the News. This policy was broken on a few very important occasions, such as when anti-Mormon legislation was pending in Congress, when statistics and explanations and refutations of specific charges were prepared.

    This policy had the benefit of preventing us from rolling around in the mud with our accusers. The drawback is that too often, the anti-Mormon claim is the only one on record. By default, that has become history, even among Mormons, because there is so little contradiction from trustworthy sources. (How many of us believe that the judges of probate courts were bishops, for instance?)

    An example of this phenomenon is the popular conception of “avenging the blood of the prophets,� which was represented by non-Mormon writers and government officials as Mormons being under covenant to kill every American we could get our hands on and to subvert American government at every turn. Modern Mormons recognize the ridiculous character of these charges as they relate to us, but often we have a sneaking suspicion, based on endless unrefuted charges, that our 19th century ancestors did believe and act that way.

    I don’t want to dwell on this issue here (thanks, David Keller, for your ourline). Its only relevance to the Santa Clara ambush is that it has no relevance. There is no suggestion in the record that the Tobin-Peltro party were shot because they were Americans, and plenty of evidence that Ambrose and Betts were targeted for other reasons. Thousands of non-Mormon Americans passed through Utah every year – there’s a reason for that nickname “Crossroads of the West� – and they passed safely, in many cases receiving charitable assistance from Mormons to help them on their way. The rare exceptions are noteworthy for their very exceptionality – as DKL notes in 26 – and demand some explanation beyond vengeance for the murder of Joseph Smith.

  29. MW* on October 11, 2006 at 10:51 am

    Ardis: thank you so much for correspondence, as promised, no more questions, but I do truly appreciate your responses. I look forward to your posts here.

  30. Mike on October 11, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    This thread is very interesting. Thank you all for your remarks and insight.

    I am reading a glossy little history of the Protestant Reformation published by the PCA (conservative Presbyterians). It is far from objective and seems designed to convince the general public what a great and glorious history they have. Yet it provides me with a broader perspective into the establishment of new religious movements and how they get hopelessly wrapped up in the politics of their time which I think gives insight into the current discussion.

    It is hard to get away from the enormous amount of killing this little history describes. Luther ignited a war that resulted in the immediate death of hundreds of thousands. Thousands more were hanged or burned at the stake almost every year, perpetually over the course of multiple centuries for what often seems to me to be trivial doctrinal differences.Take just one example, John Knox, who was terribly persecuted and nearly killed multiple times and later history finds him marching at the head of an army of thousands purifying the church in Scotland by killing off those who disagreed with them. Not just the Catholics either, but other Protestants of a different ink. How much blood do we find on the hands of Brigham Young, in a worst case scenario, in comparison to most of the Great Reformers who established nearly every major church today? Can you imagine a Brighamite Mormon army going back to Missouri in say, about 1870, to exterminate the Josephites, capturing Emma and slitting her throat and then burning half of the rest of the state for general purposes? After reading this little book, I wonder why they didn’t do it.

    And these are the Presbyterians spinning their own history. You won’t find a more benign, reasonable and generally peaceful group of people around today. Can you imagine a book called: Presbyterianism A Culture of Violence?Yet their history makes the MMM and a few of these other lesser but similar incidents seem like a nice stroll in the park. (I suppose I am directing this to the wrong audience and should post it on some anti site.) Even one unnecessary death is not to be dismissed as acceptable; but in comparison, we have so very little to apologize for in this, our bloodiest chapter of Mormon history. And much to learn.

  31. Kent on February 2, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    \”Can you imagine a book called: Presbyterianism A Culture of Violence?\”

    Actually, I can, without too much difficulty, imagine a book called \”Christianity: A Culture of Violence.\” There is a tidal wave building against religion, all religion (or at least all Judeo-Christian religion), in the Western world. This makes the efforts of religious anti-Mormons all the more ironic. Mormons are a juicy target both because they are misunderstood and because they are perceived as having few defenders. Other Christians would do well to reflect on the famous Niemoller quote, the one where each phrase begins with \”They came for the …\”

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