Latter-day Saints familiar with early church leader Parley P. Pratt may find it ironic that a conference exploring his life will take place in Arkansas the same day that descendants of those killed in the Mountain Meadows Massacre gather in a different part of that state.
Both events come in the days preceding release of a feature film about the massacre, "September Dawn," which is set to open in theaters May 4.
A scholarly conference on "Religion and Reaction: The Life, Times and Legacy of Parley Parker Pratt," is scheduled Saturday, April 21, at the Convention Center in Fort Smith, Ark., featuring a variety of historians and scholars exploring the details of Pratt's life and ministry.
An early apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pratt was killed near Van Buren, Ark., in May 1857, by a small Arkansas band antagonistic toward his teachings. A wagon train left Harrison, Ark., in April 1857, bound for California, but was ambushed in southern Utah, where 120 men, women and children were killed by LDS militiamen and Paiute Indians on Sept. 11, 1857.
Historians have debated about the role that Pratt's murder played in fanning the hysteria that resulted in what is known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Descendants of massacre victims have formed an association in Arkansas that memorializes the victims annually. They have scheduled a two-day encampment April 21 and 22 near Harrison, Ark., at the site where the wagon train gathered for their trip. Organizers say participants will learn about their ancestors' preparation for the journey, what they took with them and how they planned their route.
Because 2007 is the 150th anniversary of both Pratt's murder and the massacre in southern Utah, the events are designed to help illuminate the history of what occurred.
Greg Armstrong, a foreign language faculty member at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, said he began thinking about organizing a scholarly conference in 2004, and when history and tourism sponsors were found, the idea began to take shape. He said few residents of western Arkansas know anything about Pratt, but most know something about the massacre.
Yet the timing of the event on the same weekend that descendants of massacre victims are gathering is simply coincidental, he said, noting the conference was scheduled around the availability of Jan Shipps as the keynote speaker. Shipps is considered to be the premier non-LDS scholar of Mormon history.
Armstrong said the scholarly conference will feature an invited presentation by historian Richard Turley focusing on Pratt and the massacre. Turley, director of the LDS Family and Church History Department, has worked for several years with two co-authors to produce a book about the massacre to be published by Oxford University Press. No definitive date has been set for its release, but it is believed to be in the final stages of production.
Organizers of the scholarly conference expect some 200 participants. Several presenters are from Brigham Young University, and Armstrong said his only regret is that he wasn't able to find more Arkansas historians to participate.
Patty Norris, president of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, said the encampment was planned April 21-22 to accommodate the schedules of some participants and to avoid Easter weekend. Historical accounts to people who witnessed he wagon train leave put the first dates of departure around April 5, with others departing a few days later, she said.
This will be the group's first April gathering, though descendants gather annually at Mountain Meadows, north of St. George, to remember their ancestors. This year, that commemoration will run Sept. 8-11 and will include a public memorial service on the 11th to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the massacre.
Norris' great-great-great grandfather was Alexander Fancher, captain of the wagon train. His wife, Eliza, and their nine children traveled together, and all were killed in the massacre except the two youngest children, a son and a daughter, she said.
The surviving daughter was her great-great grandmother.