Westward Bound

Reviewed by H. W. Brands
Sunday, September 21, 2008


Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy

By David Roberts | Simon & Schuster. 402 pp. $26


An American Tragedy

By Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard | Oxford Univ. 430 pp. $29.95

People do remarkable things and appalling things in the name of religion. Distinguishing between the two categories isn't always easy. In the mid-1850s, Brigham Young directed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gather in Zion -- Utah Territory -- to enable the struggling Mormon colony to hold its ground against the encroachments of westering American gentiles. To save money and thereby maximize the number of Mormons able to make the trek, Young decided to forgo horse- and oxen-drawn wagons in favor of human-powered push carts. The handcarts cost a 10th of what wagons and draft animals did, and they promised to fill Utah with Mormons before too many gentiles arrived.

The journey of the handcart travelers from Iowa to Utah became a defining myth of Mormon history, the equivalent, as David Roberts observes, of the voyage of the Mayflower in American colonial history. Subsequent generations of Mormons took pride in their descent from handcart pioneers; as with the Mayflower, more than a few of the claims of lineage were spurious.

In the judgment of Roberts, who has written extensively about the American West and its peoples, the mythmaking has a sinister aspect, crossing the line into historical cover-up. The handcart companies -- as these traveling groups were called -- suffered from hunger, disease, exposure and death; their mortality rate dramatically exceeded the average for overland companies, despite the fact that the Mormons traveled but half the distance covered by the much more numerous immigrants to California and Oregon. Most of the 3,000 handcart travelers treated the journey as a heavenly ordained test of their faith; Roberts, making compelling use of their diaries and other records, considers it a criminal fiasco imposed on the innocent migrants by the arrogant, unbending leaders of their church.

Throughout Devil's Gate, Roberts shows great sympathy for the travelers but none for those who set them in motion. He demonstrates that Young's handcart scheme was based on a gross underestimate of the labor involved in pushing carts 1,300 miles across plains and over mountains. The plan was also poorly executed, with most of the carts hastily constructed of green wood that warped and shattered on the road. Young's hurry to populate Utah with Mormons prevented the laggards from stopping for the winter and thereby condemned some 220 persons to death, mainly by exposure.

Roberts is by no means the first person to tell the handcart story, which was broken by the survivors themselves. But it remains a gripping tale, and one that bears retelling. Whether Roberts's account will seriously challenge the mythical version, however, is open to doubt. The handcart migration revealed inflexibility and short-sightedness, but it also brought out enormous courage and perseverance. Those who remember and honor the latter traits may be willing to forgive or forget the former.

No such positive interpretation is possible regarding another, almost contemporary episode in early Mormon history. During the summer of 1857, an emigrant wagon train from Arkansas crossed Utah heading for California. The train had nearly cleared Mormon territory, reaching Mountain Meadows in the southeastern part of the settled region of Utah, when it was attacked by a band of Paiute Indians. Several members of the train were killed, and the survivors circled their wagons to defend themselves. After a few days of siege, a party of Mormons appeared and offered to escort the Arkansans past the Paiutes to safety. The Arkansans accepted the offer and filed out. A short distance from the wagons, the Mormons fell on the emigrants and massacred 120 adults and teenagers of both sexes, sparing only the young children.

For decades the leaders of the Mormon community concealed what happened at Mountain Meadows. They blamed the Paiutes, and when that story fell apart, they scapegoated John Lee, head of the group directly responsible for the killing. Only recently has anything approaching a comprehensive account of the massacre become possible. But no one has done a more thorough, even-handed job of reconstructing the killing and the complex events that surrounded it than Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard in their riveting new book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Walker is an independent author who has written on Mormon history; Turley is assistant church historian for the Latter-day Saints; Leonard previously directed the LDS museum of history. The three bring to their subject unusual expertise as well as a sympathy for the Mormon cause that renders their unflinching telling of this awful story all the more persuasive.

Yet even these authors cannot provide a definitive answer to the most pressing question: Why? They recount the rising tension in Utah that season, resulting from the thoroughly plausible fear that the government of the United States was about to declare war on the Mormon community. The Mormons had been driven out of every previous home they had tried to establish for themselves; Young determined that they would make a stand in Utah. "If the United States send their army here and war commences," he told his followers, then wagon trains "must not cross this continent." The authors note the wealth of the Arkansas train, compared with the poverty of the Mormons living in southern Utah; the temptation of the Mormons to relieve the invading infidels of their money, cattle and equipment was powerful. The Arkansans were hardly the most considerate of guests, not least because they didn't consider themselves guests. Like most non-Mormons of that era, they deemed the polygamous Mormons an abominable and threatening cult that didn't deserve, and didn't legitimately own, the resources it had taken from the American public domain.

But much the same can be said of other wagon trains traveling through Utah that season. Why this train? The authors probe the minds of those responsible for the massacre, but they wisely stop short of offering a single, overriding reason, beyond the capacity of some people, under some circumstances, to do wicked things. It's an old story, and a discouragingly perennial one. ยท

H. W. Brands is the author of "The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream." His biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Traitor to His Class," will be published next month.

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