OREM, Utah — Discussing one of the darkest events in Utah's history in a civil manner was one of the goals of a panel discussion at Utah Valley University on Thursday evening. Will Bagley, an independent historian; Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs; and Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant LDS Church historian participated in "Perspectives on a massacre: A panel discussion on Mountain Meadows."

Moderator Alex Caldiero, poet and scholar in residence at UVU, illustrated the problems inherent in such a discussion when he began the evening by reading three different versions of "just the facts."

Then it was the panelists' turn. Each gave a 15-minute presentation on their perspective of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The massacre occurred in 1857 west of Cedar City, Utah, when Mormon settlers attacked a California-bound wagon train, killing 120 people.

Turley focused on the events leading up to the massacre. Like the book "Massacre at Mountain Meadows" that he co-authored with Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard, he placed the massacre in the context of studies of group violence and the process that leads to such atrocities. "Demonizing (the victims), authority, obedience, peer pressure, ambiguity, fear and deprivation — all were present in southern Utah in 1857," Turley said.

Turley rejected the search for scapegoats, but also emphasized that none of the conditions and nothing the victims did justified the massacre. "Unless human beings choose to resist powerful forces, otherwise good people under certain circumstances can commit the unthinkable," he said.Bagley rejected the idea that the massacre can be compared to other atrocities. "This is a singular event," he said. "To dismiss the bloodshed at Mountain Meadows as a typical act of Western violence is trying to hide an orange in a bushel of apples."

For Bagley, as the name of his book on the subject, "The Blood of the Prophets," implies, blame rests with church President Brigham Young. He quoted one of Juanita Brooks' conclusions in her landmark book "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" where she said church leadership's rhetoric helped set up the social conditions that made the massacre possible. "Everything else is just inside baseball," Bagley said.

Both Bagley and Turley agreed that it was a terrible act to blame the massacre on the Paiute Indians. Cuch, who wrote the book, "A History of Utah's American Indians," lamented the pain such accusations caused — including his own pain he experienced when in about seventh grade. A teacher told his class that the full blame for the massacre belonged to the Native Americans. "Most of us Indian kids looked at each other and then we looked at the white kids who were staring at us, and luckily we had enough numbers to hold ourselves off. But it was a very uncomfortable situation — even today," Cuch said.

Cuch disputed that any Native Americans participated — relying on statements from the Paiutes and oral traditions concerning the massacre. "The most that they could identify were two Paiutes who may have participated. More than likely if there were any more than that, they were probably renegade from other tribes — possibly even some Utes, my people."

Cuch said the victims of the massacre and the Paiutes still await an apology from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After the preliminaries, the panel discussion began. At first it was almost entirely between Turley and Bagley — sparing over a passage in Bagley's book that was the lynchpin for placing blame on Brigham Young. Part of the passage included a mistranscription by Bagley where he substituted "raise alliances" for "raise grain."

The passage described a meeting between Mormon leader Brigham Young and other leaders with various Indian leaders asking for their help against the advancing U.S. Army. The Indians thought it was better to wait to see who won the conflict before taking sides. Bagley contended that the leaders were being encouraged by Young to attack the wagon train in southern Utah. Bagley conceded after much back and forth that there is no solid evidence that any leader had returned to Mountain Meadows — but that it was still possible some had. Turley was more sure, "(T)hese Indian leaders did not go down and participate in the massacre, and we think the evidence shows they did not," Turley said.

Bagley disagreed with Turley saying that this meeting was the main reason that Bagley believes Brigham Young ordered the massacre. Bagley said it was the cover up afterwards that proves the point.

Turley, who has signed a contract for a book that explores the aftermath of the massacre, said the short answer was that a cover up did take place. Why? "In part because of guilt. The participants covered up because of guilt. Church leaders during the Utah War covered it up because they were at war with the United States," he said.

Cuch spoke about how often Native American perspectives are left out of history — and that he thought that books on the massacre ignore their perspectives. He also addressed the issue in a broader way in how this problem extends throughout society and history. Turley said Cuch is correct in that often history has a "white hero" focus.

The clearest conflict was between how Bagley and Turley viewed Brigham Young. Bagley said, "My opinion of Brigham Young has gone no place but downhill since I wrote 'Blood of the Prophets.'"

Turley however, said that it is important to look at the totality of the evidence — such as Brigham Young's private correspondence.

38 comments on this story

"There is a historical fallacy called 'presentism' which essentially means we project back on people of the past our current values. The values of the mid-19th century were much different from the values we adhere to today," Turley said. "Brigham Young was immersed in a set of values and he operated accordingly. I think when we judge him we need to do so in the context of the environment in which he lived."

There was, however, one point upon which Bagley and Turley agreed.

"Despite the fact that we are very combative about these issues, it's a revelation that historians can look at the same evidence and come to very different conclusions. Everyone has a right to their own history. In point of fact, Rick and I quite like each other," Bagley said as Turley nodded his head and the crowd laughed and applauded.

E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com