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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Historian Richard Turley discusses the Mountain Meadows Massacre during a tour of massacre site.

MOUNTAIN MEADOWS, Washington County — Nearly 150 years after scores of unarmed men, women and children were massacred here, the collective guilt still remains palpable enough among area residents that vandals regularly seek to alter the history laid out on memorial markers.

So it was in the spirit of truth-telling and frankness that LDS Church historians led dozens of people to the monument on Monday, laying out in minute detail how men who had devoted their lives to God laid a plan and carried out the Mountain Meadows Massacre on Sept. 11, 1857.

The premeditated slaughter of 120 people that day was so horrific that many in southern Utah — some of whose ancestors participated in the killing — refuse to talk about the events to this day.

Historian Richard Turley acknowledged the "collective burden they have carried for many, many years," detailing how Issac C. Haight — then the mayor of Cedar City and the stake president of the LDS Church there — spearheaded a drive to kill the Arkansas immigrants.

He and others schemed to involve Paiute Indians so the killing could later be blamed on them. A few Paiutes were involved at some point, Turley said, but it is clear from the evidence that "white men did most of the killing."

Turley, director of the Family and Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and two historian colleagues have spent the past several years researching and writing what will become the LDS faith's official account of what happened that fateful day. Their efforts have been enhanced by several other researchers who also helped seek out information from across the country.

The book is now with Oxford University Press, and the authors hope to have "Tragedy at Mountain Meadows" published by year's end.

"We hope by looking at these events squarely in the face that we can bring details" of the massacre to light so the descendants "don't have to labor under that sense of collective guilt any more," Turley said. The events have been clouded in controversy for decades, and several different writers have pieced together various versions of what happened and published books about the event.

Some — including local historian Will Bagley — have placed the blame squarely on then-church president Brigham Young, who Turley said did send letters to leaders in southern Utah in the months before the massacre — as federal troops were approaching the state — warning of interlopers who may cause harm and urging the LDS faithful to defend themselves.

He said some leaders — spurred by Haight — likely interpreted that message in a way that helped incite already-anxious LDS leaders to plan and carry out the massacre. But Turley said Young did not order the massacre, and when he received word in Salt Lake City that tensions were running high, he sent a message to let the Arkansas immigrants pass unharmed. It arrived too late.

Turley said some 50 to 60 LDS men — then part of a formal Mormon militia — did the bulk of the killing on orders from their superiors, though a few Paiute Indians had been persuaded by John D. Lee to attack the immigrant wagon train three different times in the days before the massacre, killing or wounding a few people but leaving the wagon train mostly intact.

After hatching a plan with Haight and others, Lee approached the wagon train under a white flag after the Indian attacks, offering to help provide the immigrants safe passage if they would give up their weapons and follow his orders on how to proceed, Turley said.

With little ammunition or water left and unsure of other options, the immigrants finally agreed. The women and children in the Fancher-Baker wagon train were separated from the men, and escorted north toward Pinto.

Lee had told the men they were each to be accompanied by an armed militia man "to protect them from Indian attack," saying the Indians would not harm the women or children. As the company of men followed their families to the north, and the women and children crossed what is now state Route 18, an oral signal was given.

At that point, "each (militia) man turned to the man at his left and shot him at close range," Turley said, and others began killing the women and children, who ran back toward the men for help. Those that were able to escape the first shot and ran for cover were "intercepted by men on horseback and herded like cattle" into a group, where they were murdered.

Two sisters named Dunlap were saved from the killing by Paiute Indians, Turley said, but when Lee was told what had happened, he demanded to know why the Indians had spared them. When they told Lee the girls "were too pretty to kill," Lee retorted, "they are too old to live," and the girls were then murdered, because the plot was to kill all the immigrants old enough to talk about the massacre.

"It was a horrendous, horrendous atrocity," Turley said, resulting in trauma 150 years later not only for the descendants of the killers but particularly for the descendants of those small children who survived the attack, as well as those whose ancestors were murdered at the site.

Turley said he has spent much time at the monument to the victims, and descendants of the wagon train are often found there trying to understand what happened.

John D. Lee was the only person ever tried and convicted for his role in the massacre, and he was eventually executed in the same meadow where he helped orchestrate the murders, Turley said.

Though their accounts of many details surrounding the massacre differ — often widely — Turley acknowledged the role that Will Bagley's book has played "to reopen and advance the conversation" about the massacre.

Bagley was part of the tour group and said he considers Turley "a friend and an honest historian. But he will soon go through the fire," he said.

Turley described the book's likely impact as "major surgery and not just a Band-Aid" for an event that has been a sore spot not only with local descendants but for Latter-day Saints as a whole.

The story repeatedly surfaces among historians and researchers seeking to explain the church's history, as an entire segment of the recent PBS documentary "The Mormons" illustrates.

"We hope to get to a place where people can acknowledge it and deal with it."

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