The Spring 2007 issue of Dialogue includes a 40-page article entitled "Loose in the Stacks: A Half-Century with the Utah War and Its Legacy," by William P. MacKinnon, a historian who has published several prior articles on the Utah War. The link is to an online version of the article posted at the Dialogue site, for those of you who aren't yet subscribers. This seems like an appropriate topic for a Memorial Day post (seeing I couldn't spin the three episodes of Band of Brothers I watched this morning into a DMI post). I'll start with one paragraph giving my own view of the new importance of the Utah War and Mountain Meadows, then summarize MacKinnon's nine summary conclusions about his lifelong research on the topic.
Why the Utah War and Mountain Meadows Are Important
Two words: September Dawn (if you're drawing a blank on this, see here for several informative posts). Two more: Sam Harris (likewise, see here for some good links). Sure, September Dawn might be a flop, but it might catch on and be the movie that defines Mormonism for a generation. Polygamy was a ball and chain issue in the 19th century, and the priesthood ban for a couple of tension-filled decades in the sixties and seventies. But we've been spoiled for the last forty years by having generally good press for Mormonism. Feminism and homosexuality are issues that only resonate for a small slice of mainstream America and haven't really hurt the Church's public image. But being depicted as terrorists and religious fanatics, as Mormons are in the movie and as all believers are in the fantasy world of author Sam Harris, will hurt. [And I'm not even considering Warren Jeffs and anti-Romney backlash.]
If you're Mormon, you could very well spend the next twenty years having to explain why in 1857 a motley band of Southern Utah Mormons murdered a hundred or so unarmed, captive Americans — a tricky proposition if you've never heard of it before or limit your historical reading to Mormon fiction. So you really do need to get your story down before you get put on the spot in one of these encounters. Facts matter in this conversation. Even something simple like "No, Brigham Young actually sent orders days before the massacre to leave the people alone, they just didn't have email back then and it took too long to get there" would help.
MacKinnon's Nine Conclusions
Okay, now for MacKinnon's nine conclusions or lessons about the Utah War (which is of course part of the historical context for Mountain Meadows). I'm not endorsing it as a complete summary — check out my new MMM and the Utah War category for a few other posts to get some other perspectives. So here's what MacKinnon learned:
- The Unknown Utah War - It remains essentially unknown to the American public, and even largely overlooked by Latter-day Saints and Utahns.
- The War's Origins - Just about everything that happened in Utah prior to 1857 seems to have contributed in some way to the conflict.
- The Myth of a Bloodless Conflict - If you include the 120 deaths at Mountain Meadows, there were about 150 deaths associated with operations of the federal troops, the Mormons, and their respective auxiliaries.
- Unexplored Resources - MacKinnon claims there are still letters, diaries, photos, poems, sketches, maps, etc., to be read and explored (remember, the troops were all from back East and that's where they sent their letters and took their personal papers when they returned).
- Unpublished Research - Many prior historians put a lot of research and writing into the topic that never got published, Dale L. Morgan and Richard D. Poll being the two names I recognized out of the eleven that he listed.
There were four more items: the role of serendipity in finding sources, the value of networking, the danger of bogus documents or accounts, and the surprises sometimes delivered by historical sources. MacKinnon sums up his long campaign of historical discovery, which started with an undergraduate senior paper, as "a wonderfully exciting journey."