'Massacre at Mountain Meadows' shows dark episode

Published: Friday, Sept. 12 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Mountain Meadows Massacre was not inevitable.

"It could have been stopped at any point along the way," historian Richard E. Turley Jr. said.

But it wasn't.

"It could have been stopped right there at the very end," Turley said.

But it wasn't.

In a recent interview, Mormon authors Turley, Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard talked about their comprehensive and fresh look at a dark moment in Utah history.

On Sept. 11, 1857, about 120 men, women and children from a wagon train were killed by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Only children who were considered too young to tell the tale were spared.

The authors' book, "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," places this tragedy in the context of the times. They used scholarly works on ethnic and religious violence to demonstrate that the event was not unique to Mormons, Utah or even the United States.

"If you read the international sections of newspapers ... you'll see that mass killings go on every year throughout the world," Turley said.

"What makes this so compelling to a Mormon audience is the gap between ideals and acts," Walker said. "Here are people who professed, and, I think, generally embodied high ideals who messed up badly, awfully, tragically, atrociously. And I think that's why it is so compelling."

Turley said that all peoples and cultures are made up of flawed humans who make mistakes. Every group, organization, community and church has committed errors because they are made up of people.

"All those groups are going to have aspects in their past that they wished had not occurred," Turley said. "This is one for us — and the worst one.

"As the worst event in Mormon history, if we can face this topic, we can face anything."

But facing the topic of massacres is still difficult. Massacres of American Indians, for example, are often forgotten.

"I think that Indian massacres with greater number of causalities deserve greater attention (than they have received) and that they have been overlooked in American history because the victims didn't live to tell their side of the story," Turley said. "And because the victors have told the story often as tales of war and battles, when in fact what you had was massacres."

"A massacre is a massacre," Turley said. "An atrocity is an atrocity. And you can't make distinctions between them based on any kind of rational distinction."

"If you are a victim, your pain isn't lessened by the fact that there might have been greater numbers in another incident somewhere else," Turley said.

 The pain of the Mountain Meadows Massacre continues to echo across time. It still affects members of the LDS Church, descendants and relatives of the victims, and others. The authors hope their book can provide "catharsis" — a release of deep, emotional healing.

But for Walker, Leonard and Turley, there are still some echoes of the massacre that haunt them.

"I don't like violence. I abhor violence," Walker said. "I particularly abhor violence when it involves kids. A lot of older children and teenagers were on the killing fields. That might be the most wrenching thing for me."

For Leonard, it was the necessity of being an eyewitness, through historic research, of the killing of women and children. But it doesn't end there for him. It is the immediate aftermath of the killing and what happens to the surviving young children of the dead.

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