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Southern Utah, Tuacahn, and Mountain Meadows

I’ve been on a road trip for work these last few days, which messes up the blogging rhythm. I’ve been travelling through the state and have come to the conclusion that Utah is essentially unpopulated. Drive from Cedar City to Delta and try and tell me otherwise.

My journey began in St. George, and I decided to spend the evening running in the warm weather. I decided to combine my exercise guilt with a bit of nostalgia, and I ended up running up the Tuacahn road right as the sun was going down, and it was absolutely gorgeous. I then wandered around the Tuacahn campus unnoticed, and it seemed as if every door was unlocked. I suppose security isn’t a primary concern for a place that’s that far out of the way, but golly.

St. George has exploded in size since I moved away six years ago, but the Tuacahn Center for the Arts is almost exactly the same. The school has a few cosmetic differences – the library now looks like a computer lab, for instance, and there’s a new grassy area out front that’s probably used for P.E. classes – but the place is essentially treading water. As the economy sours, that will become increasingly difficult to do, but plenty of people have bet against Tuacahn before – including me – and it’s still there, and I’m not. So make of that what you will.

My jaunt to Southern Utah coincided with my completion of the book Massacre at Mountain Meadows, which chronicles the darkest chapter in LDS history where a group of Southern Utah settlers murdered 120 people in cold blood. I had hoped to swing through Mountain Meadows on my way back up north, but I didn’t have time. I’ve been to the area before, though, and it’s a haunting experience.

I first learned about Mountain Meadows as a missionary, when anti-Mormon literature pinned the whole thing on Brigham Young as part of a secret, bloodthirsty Mormon conspiracy that lingers in our hidden doctrines even to this day. That’s poppycock. The truth is far less cloak and dagger, and therefore far more tragic. If this happened with some kind of grand design, it might have made a bit more sense. Instead, it was the result of a perfect storm of bad communication, paranoia, and small-town isolation.

At several places in the timeline, a single shift of events could have prevented the massacre entirely. If only the leaders in Cedar City had waited, as they had promised, for instructions from Salt Lake before taking action. (Brigham Young’s letter telling the Southerners to leave the emigrants alone arrived several days too late.) If only John D. Lee hadn’t jumped the gun and launched the Paiute attack prematurely. If only someone, somewhere, had stood up, spoke up, and stopped the ball from rolling to its hideous conclusion. Reading the book is a gripping experience, because you know what’s coming, and you’re dreading it the whole time.

The details of the grisly scene linger with you – the parents who were killed along with their infants by a single bullet because they wouldn’t relinquish their children. 17 survivors under the age of 8 were spared because they were “too young to tell tales” spent the night after the massacre sobbing their eyes out in Rachel Hamblin’s house. Two of them were nursing infants. They were all handed over to the families of the people who had murdered their parents. It boggles the mind.

The book itself is a welcome step forward in Mormon history. It was written, unflinchingly, with the full cooperation of the LDS Church, which has previously been squeamish about confronting the atrocity head on. The Church now seems to recognize, especially in the age of the Internet, that all the information is out there, and it’s better to confront it head on than to try and run away from it.

That’s at least one good thing that’s come out of all of this. And it isn’t nearly enough.

What were we thinking?
The End of Bush

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  1. I also recently finished Massacre at Mountain Meadows, which I thought was a well done book. It gets full marks for nailing down all of the grisly details of chronology and action about as well as anyone is likely to be able to do. I am less convinced that it is wholly successful at explaining why the Massacre took place. They appeal to some social scientific literature on mass killings, but I am not sure how well this ends up working.Also, there is a second volume in the works that will tell the story of the aftermath, the post-massacre coverup, and various federal efforts to punish the guilty parties. Stay tuned…