Turley, Johnson, Carruth, eds., “Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers, 2 Volumes” (reviewed by Dallas Robbins)


Title: Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers, 2 Volumes
Editors: Richard E. Turley Jr. Janiece L. Johnson, LaJean Purcell Carruth
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Genre: Documentary History
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 1056
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5573-9 (Vol 1), 978-0-8061-5722-1 (Vol 2), 978-0-8061-5723-8 (Set)
Price: Vol 1: $65.00, Vol 2: $65.00.

Reviewed by Dallas Robbins for the Association for Mormon Letters.

As recently as this past June, I was reminded that the Mountain Meadows Massacre perennially haunts and affects people on a very personal level to this very day. A child’s skull which was collected from the massacre site by the federal military in 1857 was sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine for study. It has remained in storage there ever since but will soon be interred at the site of Mountain Meadows in a box made from an oak tree from the Ozarks and including soil from the child’s home in northwest Arkansas. But whether the child should be buried there, along with the other victims, is currently being debated among descendants of the families, along with what appropriate measures should be taken. I cannot even begin to imagine the far-reaching impact of that most horrific event, and how it will continue to affect those most close to the tragedy 150 years later.

As one who has only encountered that spectre in books and have only visited the memorial once, I would concur with Mormon historian Richard Turley’s comment, “…we are responsible for how we deal with the subject today. It is important that we are honest and straightforward and learn from the past.” [1]

A good step towards that direction is Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers (hereafter MMM:CLP), two new volumes of documentary history brought together by a team of editors and historians led by Richard E. Turley Jr., Janiece Johnson, and LaJean Purcell Carruth. They collaborated extensively with their editorial team: as Production Editors: Jay A. Parry (Lead Editor), Alison Kitchen Gainer, Julia K. Ventura; as Research and Review Editors: Chad O. Foulger, Brian D. Reeves; and as Supporting Editorial Staff: Leo A. Jardine, Andrea H. Maxfield, Renee Powell, Michael L. Shamo, Patricia Lemmon Spilsbury and Hartt Wixom. Some of these names may be familiar to Mormon history buffs, whereas many are colleagues at the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and from what can be reasonably deduced, the MMM:CLP was supported by the LDS Church.

For the last year or so Richard Turley has actually worked as the managing director of the public affairs dept for the LDS Church, which might make a reader outside the LDS Church skeptical of theMMM:CLP. But Turley previously was the Assistant Church Historian and contributed significant work in many projects, even being recognized and awarded the 2013 Herbert Feis Award by the American Historical Association “for his contributions to public history while overseeing the church’s archives, records, museums, and historic sites.” [2]

Turley’s most well known contribution to Mormon history may be the narrative history Massacre at Mountain Meadows, written in collaboration with Glen Leonard and Ronald Walker (hereafter referred to as MatMM). Commissioned and fully supported by the LDS Church, MatMM was part of the new openness the LDS Church was and is attempting to foster in the age of the internet along with the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the Gospel Topic Essays. [3] It was during the research for MatMM where the seeds were planted for MMM:CLP.

While MatMM was originally envisioned as a complete historical narrative of the story, Turely, in the Preface to these current volumes, reflects that they “…came to recognize that distilling this information into a comprehensive narrative could occupy decades of our lives” (xi). Unfortunately, MatMM covered the history only up to the event of the massacre itself, with only a brief summary of the history after, which was intended for a second volume that would cover the aftermath, cover-up, trials, etc…. At a recent book signing at Benchmark Books, Turley did confirm that the second narrative volume is still being worked on in collaboration with historian Barbara Jones Brown and will be published by Oxford University Press. But until that is published, MMM:CLP will certainly become an important source for the period after the massacre.

After Turley, the next primary editor of this project is Janiece L. Johnson who originally was a researcher on MatMM. She was instrumental in collecting and editing the documents, along with creating the “trial matrix” which I’ll go into more detail later.

And last, but far from least, is LaJean Purcell Carruth, a well known authority (and one of the few experts) in Pitman shorthand [4]. Her contribution to MMM: CLP was to create completely new transcriptions of the original shorthand records for the trials of John D. Lee.

MMM:CLP is divided into four main topics across two volumes. They are “Initial Investigations and Activities,” “Indictments and Related Legal Proceedings,” “Trial Court Proceedings,” and “Trial Aftermath.” In addition, there is an Appendix that contains an interview of James Haslam from 1884. There is also a tremendously useful Biographical Register that is 85 pages in length and a Glossary of Legal Terms that is 11 pages in length. As the editors summarize, “This collection thus chronicles the almost forty-year history of the investigation and prosecution of the crime – from the first massacre reports to the dismissal of Higbee’s indictment in 1896” (7).

When approaching a work of this size one wonders what criteria are set on what is included and what is not. The authors state that MMM:CLP’s “scope is … limited generally to official reports and actions relating to the investigation and prosecution,” otherwise it would become too “unwieldy” (8). They later clarify that “official reports and actions” would exclude newspaper reports, magazine articles, or private communications, though “letters and petitions that have a specific link to those official reports and actions are also included” (8).

Of course this means these volumes are quite narrow in focus, which has its pros and cons, but one would hope that a future work in similar scope that I would call Mountains Meadows Massacre: Collected Private Papers could be produced (though I strongly doubt such a thing will come to pass).

Each chapter usually contains a grouping of documents centered around an event or topic. Some examples include, Chapter 2 “Early Military Correspondence Relating to the Massacre,” Chapter 9 “Brigham Young’s May 1859 Arrest,” Chapter 12 “U.S. Senate Investigations,” Chapter 31 “Documents Excluded from Evidence in John D. Lee’s First Trial,” Chapter 41 “Petitions for Pardon of John D. Lee,” and so so much more. Each chapter provides a well written historical introduction giving each group of documents context while keeping historical interpretation or argument to a minimum. (I surmise that will be taking place in the future narrative volume by Turley and Brown.)

But it should be noted that the amount of actual history writing in these volumes makes it difficult to categorize these volumes as simply “documentary history” – they are much more, with insightful and careful recounting of events that will provide a good basis for further research and interpretation. The authors do acknowledge that “no volume is immune from biases” (12) but aimed to provide complete and accurate documentation so that “each reader can then make her or his own decisions as to a given item’s significance” (12). Their striving seemed to pay off, for I rarely sensed any spin or over-interpretation. Essentially, it’s mostly a “just the facts” approach.

Though a good number of documents have been available for public research before, a majority of the documents are being published here for the first time, including trial records which have only been discovered in the last few years, thought to be lost. An example of this is when one of the editorial team members, Chad Orton, was doing research at the Huntington Library, he “read a reference to a ‘bundle 44’ containing Lee’s files in the county clerk’s vault in Beaver [UT]. Even though the letter had been written in 1938 – more than sixty years earlier – Orton … decided to make a trip to Beaver. They found Bundle 44 in a bank of upright wooden files high in the County Recorder’s Office Vault, and it included all the extant official trial documents for John D. Lee and the others indicted. They also found original subpoenas and returns, motions, original indictments (for those never arrested), court instructions, depositions, affidavits, and a scrap of paper recording the verdict in Lee’s second trial” (11-12).

Later in that same back room Janiece Johnson found minute books that included additional critical documents to be included in this project. In addition to being published in these volumes, all these newly found documents have been deposited in the Utah State Archives or the Sherrat Library of Southern Utah University for public research.
Let me briefly summarize each of the four parts that constitute these volumes:

“Initial Investigations and Activities”
Part One includes a good number of sources that have received attention in most of the major histories on the topic which readers might be familiar with. Documents include the earliest reports of the massacre, such as the William H. Rogers letter original published in the Painsville Telegraph in 1859. Also included are documents involved with the investigation of Jacob Forney, the superintendent of Indian Affairs, covering not only his investigation of the massacre site, but the recovery of the surviving children. The James H. Carelton Report is here, along with Thomas L. Kane’s correspondence with Brigham Young that touches upon the massacre. Without providing a laundry list, this section also includes documents related to the US Senate Investigation, Grand Jury activities in Judge Cradlebaugh’s court, the affidavits of Henry Higgins, James Lynch, and Philip Klingensmith, along with so much more.

“Indictments and Related Legal Proceedings”
Part two includes all of the indictments, dismissals, and associated documents for the nine men who were indicted for the MMM in 1874: John M. Higbee, Samuel Jewkes, William H. Dame, Williams C. Stewart, Ellot Wilden, Isaac C. Haight, George W. Adair Jr., Philip Klingensmith, and John D. Lee. Each indictee is given their own chapter providing an excellent overview of their lives and activities after that massacre, how they were indicted, and how they never made it to trial and the factors that led to the dismissal of the indictments (with the exception of John D. Lee, of course).

“Trial Court Proceedings” and “Trial Aftermath”
Parts three and four, all contained in the second volume, not only cover the trial transcripts of John D. Lee, but also includes documents excluded from the first trial, documents submitted for evidence during the second trial, preparations for defense, along with many other legal proceedings, petitions, appeals, and the reports of Lee’s execution. The editors provide a excellent written overview of the events leading up to, during, and after the trials.

The Trial Matrix
Of all the documents the editors have brought together, there is a group in particular that will have a significant impact on how the massacre and its aftermath will be written by historians in the future – that is, the transcripts of the trial of John D. Lee. Though the trial transcripts have been available to researchers for decades — the Boreman transcript in the Huntington Library and the Rogerson transcript in the LDS Church Archives — the editors decided in approaching these documents to investigate the original shorthand notes by Adam Patterson and Josiah Rogerson upon which the transcripts are based. They discovered many omissions, insertions, and mistakes when comparing the original shorthand notes with the transcriptions done years ago. The editors decided to provide completely new transcriptions of the shorthand notes of Patterson and Rogerson, done by the exceptional LaJean Purcell Carruth, and compare them to the previously known transcripts.

The editors have created a line-by-line comparison matrix between all trial transcript sources – the Boreman transcript, the Rogerson transcript, and the two new transcripts by Dr. Carruth totaling over 4000 pages in length, which they have titled the “Trial matrix.” Since the actual trial transcripts are too lengthy for inclusion within the two hardcover volumes, the editors have published electronically the trial matrix and is available to everyone free of charge at http://www.mountainmeadowsmassacre.org.

Chapter 37, “Introduction to the John D. Lee Trial Transcripts,” written by Dr. Carruth, provides the most thorough analysis of the Patterson and Rogerson shorthand records, along with the resulting transcripts that were created years ago. This chapter alone is worth the price of both volumes. Carruth is meticulous in her careful description of how the two original transcripts were created, the complex nature of insertions and notes made by others during the transcription process and how they relate to the transcripts at the time, including the one published in Mormonism Unvailed by John. D. Lee. The complexity of the original transcript history is daunting and far outside my ability to summarize in a few words, but as Carruth so eloquently states, “careful analysis of the original shorthand and the resulting transcripts reveals a far more complex story” (718).

Carruth further explains at length how the original transcriptions compare with the new transcriptions of the shorthand records done by herself. As she states in regards to the differences found in the Rogerson transcript for the first trial in particular, “Many of these differences altered the factual or emotional content of the transcript in ways that either protected a person or group from incriminating evidence or incriminated them beyond what the shorthand notes warranted” (729). One of the examples she provides is the following:

The Rogerson Transcription: “…it was Sunday meeting, and it was the subject spoke of…”

New Transcription: “…it was Sunday meeting, and Haight was speaking of those who passed here…” (Trial Matrix, 1165)

The the name of Haight within the brackets, referring to Issac Haight, indicates it was written in longhand by Rogerson, but when it came time to make a transcription of his notes, the name was left out by him. Carruth points out that such protection of certain people by omitting them in the original transcripts is not always consistent. During another time the name of Haight is inserted in the transcription when it didn’t exist in the original shorthand record. Of course I could list a hundred if not a thousand other examples which “reveal(s) accuracies and inaccuracies in the transcripts – both of which, at times, are significant” (738).

This is where the trial matrix will become an essential research tool for the “most complete source available to help researchers begin to understand the two trials of John D. Lee for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre” (738). But not only for Lee’s role in the massacre, but for research into the massacre and aftermath itself. It is a gold mine of information never been available before. Whenever historians worth their salt decides to write anything about the trials of John D. Lee or Mountain Meadows, the trial matrix will become a source of primary importance that could change studies in the massacre forever.

Concluding Reflections
I could literally keep highlighting all the other documents in these volumes that caught my interest, such as the cipher letter Brigham Young sent to Daniel Wells just days after the arrest of John D. Lee (see pps. 298, 303) or the the Forney documents about the profoundly heartbreaking recovery of the children survivors. (see 63-99). But in doing so this review itself would become too unwieldy. So let me offer some concluding thoughts about these tremendous volumes.

While reading through MMM:CLP, ideas for several ideas for possible books came to my mind. Why has no one written a book focused solely on the trials of John D. Lee, or a history dedicated specifically to the history of the children survivors? Just when I believe that study into the Mountain Meadows Massacre was at a point of saturation, these volumes have made me realize how much more there is in stories that deserve more study and attention that will certainly be better for it due to the publication of these new volumes.

In reflecting on where we stand regarding the historical analysis of the massacre, aftermath, and cover up, the only sources worth studying in my opinion are Juanita Brooks and Will Bagely. Though Turley and Brown will offer their thesis soon enough, I think we are still far from fully understanding this event as some mysteries will never be solved (and which make the story more attractive to those who use history for agenda driven propaganda).

Lastly, I’d like to make one final reflection that is unrelated to these volumes specifically, but was provoked by reading through this material. Having spent much time in books about the massacre over my life, I wasn’t sure where future research could go that didn’t retread old ground. But in reading these volumes a thought keep coming back to me. That thought is: why is the story always told from the perspective of the Mormons and Utah? It always seems to be a story about John D. Lee, or Brigham Young, or the Mormon Reformation, or the Utah War, or Southern Utah. Other than articles and speeches here and there, why are there no history books written solely from the viewpoint of those who suffered the tragedy? I do understand the attraction of history written about perpetrators of a crime; we want to know why or how this could happen. But by the end of reading through MMM:CLP I simply wanted to know more about those who were part of the Fancher and Baker train and their travels to a new land. I know they have been part of the story, but it seems the attention has been unbalanced. Who were they really? Who did they leave behind? I want to know about the Ozarks and northwest Arkansas. What did they believe? What was their past? I’ve come to realize that the Mountain Meadows Massacre is not Mormon history, it is American history. The story of those who died is well overdue and we need to tell it solely from their experience and vision that was interrupted and destroyed on their way to a new life in the West.

MMM:CLP is a tremendous resource that needs to be at the forefront of future research, just as the Joseph Smith Papers have done for that area of study. MMM:CLP is an essential resource of the pioneer Utah period. If you have any interest in the subject, beg, borrow, or steal to get them in your personal library.


[1] “Child victim’s skull set for return to Utah’s Mountain Meadows, but not everyone agrees that’s the proper resting place” by Brian Maffly, June 24 2017, Salt Lake Tribune.http://www.sltrib.com/home/5373121-155/child-victims-skull-set-for-return?
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_E._Turley_Jr.
[3] See http://www.josephsmithpapers.organd https://www.lds.org/topics/peace-and-violence-among-19th-century-latter-day-saints?lang=eng
[4] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsTmIdfPKLM

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