Ken Burns on the Context of MMM

By: Mormon Heretic
January 28, 2013

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ 1996 documentary series on The West.  It’s a 9 part series, so it takes a bit of effort to get through.  Of course Burns spends some time discussing the Mormons, and I found his treatment of Mormons within the context of the western United States very interesting. In Part 4: Death Runs Riot (available on on Netflix), the narrator claims that events in the West were precursors to the Civil War.  The Mountain Meadows Massacre (MMM) was just one of several atrocities leading up to the most deadly war in American history.  Burns has a narrator describe the events leading up to the Civil War.

Americans were now moving west in ever larger numbers, ahead of their government searching for new treasure, clearing land, building towns and cities, starting over.

But the new settlers brought with them their nation’s oldest and most divisive issue: slavery.  Once seen as the land of hope and new beginnings, the West became a breeding ground for the bloodshed that would eventually engulf the whole country.  And when war finally came, the result in the West was chaos.  Hatred consumed entire communities.  Criminals led armies, and no one was safe.  The federal government engaged in the struggle simply to hold the country together, could do nothing to stop it.

John D. Lee

A pious New Hampshire woman who moved west hoping to keep the region free from slavery instead would watch as her Kansas neighbors wantonly killed one another.  A devout Mormon who had fled west with his people to avoid persecution would take part in the worst massacre of innocent pioneers in American history.  A fanatical Methodist parson would transform himself into a celebrated soldier, and then try to build a political career based on murder.  While a Cheyenne chief, who wanted nothing but peace would find no escape time and again as his unsuspecting village time and again became a battlefield.

The film first discusses the problems in Kansas.  I wasn’t very familiar with the history of Kansas.  Historian Patrician Nelson Limerick said,

To hand the issue to Kansas is to ask for the most explosive conditions possible; to take the most unsettled kind of society and throw into that the issue that made congressmen want to kill each other.  If you wanted to design the worst possible conditions to dramatize how bitter these fights were, you couldn’t do better than what they designed for Kansas.

5000 Missourians flooded into Kansas to influence the vote.  More than 4 times the number of citizens cast votes.  Another group established a rival government in Kansas, both claiming to be legitimate.  Riots between pro-slavery and anti-slavery men broke out in Kansas.  The press was destroyed by enemies to prevent publication about slavery in which the opposition opposed.  (Sound familiar to Joseph Smith’s actions with the Expositor?)

A South Carolina congressman savagely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor.  On May 24, 1856 a man hacked to death 5 settlers with broadswords because he believed they favored slavery.  John Brown led a rebellion, leading to a time known as “Bleeding Kansas”; more than 200 were killed over the slavery issue. Brown was later executed.  Burns then turns to the MMM.

“We are gathered here to build up the Kingdom of God, to make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and fill these mountains with cities.  My soul feels, Hallelujah.  It exults in God that he has planted this people in a place that is not desired by the wicked”  (Brigham Young)

It had been 10 years since Brigham Young led his latter-day Saints west.  And while the rest of the country wrestled with the question of slavery, he continued to build his Mormon Kingdom in the deserts of Utah. Salt Lake City with nearly 10,000 residents was now the second largest city west of Missouri, eclipsed only by San Francisco.

New colonies stretched for 300 miles along the Wasatch Mountains.  The Mormons printed their own currency, drove federal officials out of Utah, and publicly announced that polygamy, plural marriage, was part of church doctrine.  Polygamy was mostly meant for important Mormon leaders.  Brigham Young himself had 27 wives.  Young’s chief lieutenant Heber Kimball had 43.  Most polygamists had no more than 2 wives, and four out of five Mormon men had just one.  Still the practice turned many Americans against them.

“As to polygamy, I charge it to be a crying evil, sapping not only the physical constitution of the people practicing it, but at the same time perverting the social virtues and morals of its victims.  It is a scarlet whore.  It is a reproach to the Christian civilization and it deserves to be blotted out!”  Congressman John A. McClernan, Illinois.

In the election of 1856, the brand new Republican Party ran on a platform opposed to what they called “the twin relics of barbarism: slavery and polygamy.”  The Republicans lost, but the issues would not go away.

“Mr. President.  I believe that we can supersede the negro mania with the almost universal excitement of an anti-Mormon crusade, and the pipings of abolitionism will hardly be heard amidst the thunders of the storm that we shall raise.”  (Robert Tyler)

Historian, “When Democrat James Buchanan won the election, to sort of take the heat off of this building tension over slavery, he did a very remarkable thing that’s only happened a few times in our history.  He sent an army against citizens of the United States.

Narrator, “In the summer of 1857, 2500 troops headed toward Utah to reassert federal control.  At the same time, the army slowly made its way west, a lone wagon train entered the southern part of Mormon territory.  They were settlers mostly, families traveling with small children on their way to California and a better life.  But riding with them were a band of men who called themselves the Missouri Wildcats, and they were bent on causing trouble for the Latter-day Saints.

“They swore and boasted openly that Buchanan’s whole army was coming right behind them and would kill every goddamn Mormon in Utah.  They had 2 bulls which they called one Heber and the other Brigham and whipped them through every town, yelling and singing and blaspheming oaths that would make your hair stand on end.” (John D. Lee)

On September 7, 1857, the wagons reached a grassy area called Mountain Meadows.  There some 200 Paiute warriors encouraged by the Mormons attacked.  The emigrants drove them back.  The Indians settled in for a siege, then asked the Mormons to join them in destroying common enemy.

Elders sent a message to Salt Lake City asking Brigham Young what they should do.  Young sent a courier back with orders to let the wagons go.  But before the message arrived, the Mormons at Mountain Meadows resolved to wipe out the wagon train and blame it on the Paiutes.

One of the men ordered to lead the fighting was John D. Lee, a Mormon so loyal that Brigham Young himself had adopted him as a spiritual son.  Lee was used to following church orders. He was, as he said, as clay in the hands of the potter when it came to carrying out the wishes of his elders, but even he was stunned at what he was now being asked what to do.

“The orders said to decoy the emigrants from their position and kill all of them that could talk.  This order was in writing.  I read it, and then dropped it on the ground saying ‘I cannot do this.’  I bowed myself in prayer before God and my tortured soul was wrung nearly from my body by the great suffering.  If I had then 1000 worlds to command, I would have given them freely to save that company from death.”

But in the end, John D. Lee decided to follow orders.  On the morning of September 11, he rode out to the besieged wagon train under a flag of truce.

[Historian], “John D Lee and some others came to some others came to them and said throw down your arms.  We’ve got the Indians under control.  You come out with us and you’ll be safe.  And they were reluctant to do it but they finally did and as they marched out, the order was given ‘do your duty’.

The Mormons opened fire, each man assigned to shoot the immigrant walking next to him.  Lee’s task was to kill the sick and wounded riding in a wagon in front of the others.  Then the Paiutes swept in and finished off the rest.  In less than half an hour, 120 people had been butchered at Mountain Meadows.  Only 17 children were spared, thought too young ever to tell the horrible story.  The dead were stripped of their clothing and belongings, which the Mormons sold at auction.  They were hastily buried in shallow graves and soon dug up again by wild animals.

Stuart L. Udall, Former Secretary of the Interior, “Well I’m a great grandson of John D. Lee.  My middle name is Lee.  I’ve studied his life and his tragedies.  I will always believe that it could only have  happened at that particular moment, that if this wagon train come through as they had before two weeks earlier or two weeks later, they might have gone on unscathed.  It’s almost a Greek tragedy.”

Narrator, “Two days after the massacre, Brigham Young’s messenger finally arrived at Mountain Meadows with the orders to let the wagon train pass.  John D. Lee was chosen to ride to Salt Lake City and tell Brigham Young what had happened.  Precisely how much the Mormon leader was told of his people’s role in the slaughter is unclear.  Publicly Young blamed it all on the Paiutes.

Meanwhile winter had stopped Buchanan’s army’s advance and the Mormon War ended before it really began.  In a negotiated settlement, the president pardoned Young and his followers for inciting a rebellion, and Young in turn resigned as governor, but he remained in effective control of his people.  The attempt to divert the nation’s attention from slavery had failed.

Four years later, Brigham Young stopped at Mountain Meadows.  Federal troops, outraged at the massacre had erected a makeshift monument to those who had been murdered.  On it were the words ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord, and I will repay’.  Young gazed at it for a time, then ordered the monument torn down.  “Vengeance is mine” he muttered, “and I have taken a little.”

Burns turns to tell a story about the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848.  The U. S. government did not keep the promises of the treaty.  In  California, New Mexico, and Texas, many Mexicans in the area were denied the opportunity to vote, lost their lands in court, and were often persecuted.  On July 13, 1859, Juan Cortina saw a sheriff pistol whipping a Mexican.  Cortina shot the sheriff and rescued the man.  Three weeks later, he freed 12 more prisoners and shot 3 men.  The Texas Rangers then went against him, but he continued his defending Mexicans for 15 years.  Burns turns back to the problems in Kansas.

Our New England friends may wonder that the warlike spirit has taken such hold upon those who, until they came to Kansas, were as complete pacifists, as the most orthodox Quakers.  But sir, such individuals need the Kansas experience to understand the matter.  (Julia Louisa Lovejoy)

On Oct 16, 1859, John Brown brought his Kansas brand of abolitionism east to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia where he tried to start a slave rebellion.  Ten people were killed.  Brown was captured, tried, and sentenced to hang.  As he was led to the gallows, he handed a guard a slip of paper.  ‘I am now quite certain’, it read, ‘that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but by blood.’  The whole country was now beginning to experience the fear that had gripped Kansas for so long.

In 1860 the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president, pledged to halt slavery’s further spread in the west.  One by one southern slave states left the union, and on April 12, 1861, rebel guns fired on Fort Sumpter.  The Civil War that had already begun in the west now exploded in the east.

I found it really interesting that Burns credited the violence of the Civil War as originating in the West, of which the Mountain Meadows Massacre was just a part of the violence.  It was also interesting to hear Burns credit anti-Mormons with fomenting problems with Mormons as a means to turn the nations attention away from slavery toward an easy whipping boy: the Mormons.

What do you think of Burns depiction of the MMM as just one of the events leading up to the Civil War?

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9 Responses to Ken Burns on the Context of MMM

  1. Stephen Marsh on January 28, 2013 at 5:38 AM

    Pretty much what happened. The interesting thing is that Burns found this reading on it, but he had a broader tapestry to work with.

    A good post, MH, though it should be just as interesting to see the comments.

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  2. Hedgehog on January 28, 2013 at 6:09 AM

    I’m always happy to see the wider context.

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  3. Bonnie on January 28, 2013 at 8:01 AM

    This is fascinating. Thanks for publishing this in easily accessible form. Did Burns indicate where the written message to attack the wagon train originated?

    As far as the violence originating in the West, I find that highly circuitous. The framers of the Constitution avoided the issue of slavery by stipulating that the states handle it within 20 years, which they did not. Slavery combines two of the four tacks of Satan – power and wealth – and is very difficult to eradicate because people become economically dependent on asserting unrighteous power over others. This originated in the slave trade – this horrible, bloody evil – and we can never deny this. The US was merely so open in its frontiers that there were no checks on how depraved people became in pursuit of both wealth and power. To call a result a cause is a bit of poor history, but the tales of what did happen are useful. Thanks for this.

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  4. Roger on January 28, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    I recall the original broadcast of “The West” and remarking to others how even-handed Burns was in dealing with the MMM. His approach is in studied contrast to the writings of certain “historic-dramatists”‘whose accounts have achieved a certain level of notoriety. Any dispassionate view of Brigham Young would lead one to conclude that he was cool-headed or cold-eyed enough to realize that attacking the Fancher wagon train would likely be a debacle.

    I have perused the biography of General Albert Sidney Johnston by his son and, of course, he paints a markedly different tale of the expedition. He portrays his father as having completely prevailed in restoring federal authority over the territory.

    President Buchanan and his coterie of dough-faces absolutely believed that they could distract the nation from its internecine divisions over slavery by grinding down the Mormons. Polygamy riled people then as it does now.

    We like to imagine that the Great Basin Mormons were sitting in the the tabernacle singing hymns all day. They were out on the frontiers carving a life out of the wilderness and it was a place of hard living and desperate characters. O.P. Rockwell was very busy.

    I commend “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” by Walker/Turner/Leonard for some real insights into this tragic event. Like Secretary Udall, one starts to see one’s ancestors in an altogether different light.

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  5. hawkgrrrl on January 28, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    I have no dog in this fight as my parents are converts. I am grateful to say that I come from a long line of fair weather followers, my parents being the exceptions. If this is what comes from zealotry, no thanks.

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  6. Roger on January 28, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    I think zealotry is just one factor. I would throw in paranoia, insularity, vindictive retaliation as well and then some collective hysteria. It was like an Ox-Bow incident on steroids. And pretty much a failure of leadership.

    (Don’t judge me as a sicko, I say the following in jest: what they needed was better correlation from SLC.)

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  7. ji on January 28, 2013 at 7:17 PM

    We like to imagine that the Great Basin Mormons were sitting in the the tabernacle singing hymns all day. They were out on the frontiers carving a life out of the wilderness and it was a place of hard living and desperate characters.” Roger, no. 4.

    Thanks, Roger — this perspective is important.

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  8. MH on January 28, 2013 at 11:18 PM

    Bonnie, no Burns did not indicate where the message to attack came from. From my study (mostly Juanita Brooks book), there is a lot of contradictory testimony, with the main participants blaming others and making themselves look better. Lee definitely ended up being the fall guy.

    I have to say that it was really interesting to see MMM in the context of the violence of the West. It certainly was the “wild west”, and Burns makes the case that the people went west before the federal government was ready to govern the expansive territory. It was interesting to see that he cites the violence in the west as a precursor to the Civil War. I hadn’t heard that angle before, but it does make sense. It makes me want to understand Bleeding Kansas better. That was really new information to me.

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  9. MH on January 28, 2013 at 11:24 PM

    Roger, I agree with you. I thought Burns was pretty even handed in his approach with the Mormons. I did have someone mention to me that Burns information is old, and he felt that the Indians played a much more minor role in MMM than Burns portrays.

    I need to read the Turley book. I have a copy, and even got Turley to sign my book, but I’ve been too busy to actually read it. As for your correlation comment, there is some truth to it. Following the massacre, Brigham Young had a telegraph line installed to improve communications between northern and southern Utah. That was a direct result of MMM.

    In the rest of the documentary, and especially dealing with gentile/Indian relations, Burns was very sympathetic with the Indians, and felt the federal government had really mistreated the Indians. Portrayals were often backwards: Indians have often been portrayed as aggressors in dramas of the day (and even modern westerns), when it was the white men that were the aggressors in many Indian battles.

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