The year is 1918, and a young Mormon woman named Juanita Leavitt is living in southern Nevada and teaching school. The town is Bunkerville, a small place where everybody belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and one day Leavitt is visited at school by an old man who insists he must speak to her.
"My eyes have beheld things," the old man says, "that my tongue has never uttered."
Leavitt greets him, listens, tells him she will talk to him. But she cannot talk to him now; she is working, and will come when she has time. Then she is busy, and puts it off. Some days later the old man suffers a stroke. Leavitt hurries to see him, but he is delirious, and does not know she has come. He lies in his bed and she listens to him shout, and of what she can understand, in the time before he dies, there is mostly a single word. "Blood," the old man cries. "Blood."
In 1918 Mormon children know that something happened, two generations back, and that this was a thing so terrible that the older people will not answer their questions when they ask. They know that murder is involved, many murders, and the deepest shame; some of them know, if they have pressed the grown men and women around them, that the murders took place at a southern Utah meadow where the wagon trains stopped to water their stock. The numbers of the dead are not common knowledge, in the town where Juanita Leavitt lives, but it is said that among them were women and children and family men, more than a hundred of them, emigrants, heading west.
So Juanita Leavitt leaves the old man's bedside, remembering the whispers of her childhood, but she does not know what he saw.
That is the prelude to this story.
ST. GEORGE, Utah "He died without ever regaining consciousness, and she just wondered," says Karl Brooks, the mayor of this city, and Juanita Leavitt Brooks's first son.
Karl Brooks is inside a college auditorium, his face damp with the late-summer-night heat, his eye on the men and women who have crowded up onto the stage around him. Some of the men look shy, and some of the women are weeping, and on many lapels are small adhesive badges of red or blue. Karl Brooks is considering what his mother might have said -- the mother who worked all his childhood on a project she never explained to him, the mother who waited until she was 52 to complete the book that historians still read for their information on the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 -- if she had lived to watch what is about to take place on a September weekend in 1990, in the town of St. George.
"LEE," read the badges of red, as in: Family member of John D. Lee, the only man ever tried for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He was executed, on the meadow itself, by a firing squad that hit him square in the chest and toppled him straight into his own coffin. ("Center my heart, boys," he is reported to have called out. "Don't mangle my body.")
"FANCHER," read the badges of blue, or "DUNLAP," or "BAKER," as in: family member of Alexander Fancher, a 45-year-old Arkansas emigrant who was traveling with his wife and nine children; or family member of Lorenzo Dunlap, 42, who was traveling with his wife and eight children; or family member of George Baker, 27, who was traveling with his wife and six children, three of whom apparently survived the massacre of 120 people because they were thought to be too young to describe what had happened.
There are other names too, from the families of the dead: Cameron, Aden, Tackitt, Jones.
In a dining hall, across the courtyard, they sat at tables together and ate barbecued beef.
They lined up row by row in the auditorium and listened to music together: flutists, a trumpet player, a strong-voiced woman singing the Lord's Prayer.
They listened while a Dunlap spoke from the stage, and a Lee spoke from the stage, and then a Fancher got up to quote a passage from the Mormons' own book of scripture: "I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive. But of you it is required to forgive all men."
And now they are standing together, as the auditorium begins to clear, and on one corner of the stage a Lee and a Baker are face to face. The Lee is Gladys Lee Bronson, of Salt Lake City. She is 61 years old, a great-granddaughter of John D. Lee, and when she was young and met the man who would become her husband, his relatives said, with deep distaste, Do you know whose family you are marrying into?
The Baker is Nancy Phillips, of Uniontown, Ohio. She is 34 years old and the great-granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth Baker, who was 5 years old and led away by Mormon men when her family was murdered at Mountain Meadows. Phillips is a friendly young woman, her blond hair curled and cut short at the sides in a particularly modern way, and Gladys Bronson reaches out tentatively and touches her on the arm. "Thank you for being here," Bronson says.
Phillips smiles and lays her hand over Bronson's, and then Bronson begins to cry. "I just want you to know," Bronson says, in the moment before they embrace, "I'm sorry."
Ron Loving's Discovery
Five years ago, when a California engineer named Ron Loving first began examining the details of the 1857 killings that had come to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Loving found himself reading accounts that had never been passed down in his own family history. He knew he was descended on his mother's side from a family called Fancher, but it was not until his mother obtained some new family history of her own that Loving learned some of the Fanchers had been murdered in southern Utah.
"I had never seen or heard of anything like this before," Loving says. "And I was also a little peeved that my family, about 14 of them, were wiped out up there."
Loving sought out distant Fanchers and read everything he could find about Mountain Meadows, which included both scandalized 19th-century accounts and one extremely well-regarded book -- "The Mountain Meadows Massacre," by Juanita Brooks. Brooks had taken until 1950 to complete her research on Mountain Meadows; she was never trained as a historian, but Karl Brooks says that when he was a child his mother haunted libraries and research archives for the catalogued information that might explain what had happened at Mountain Meadows in September of 1857. It was delicate work, Karl Brooks says now, because Mormon leaders had always declared that the trial and execution of John D. Lee had provided all the explanation anyone needed unless their real purpose was to damage the church.
"That was not what my mother had in mind," Karl Brooks says. "In the preface to her book, she said, 'I grew up knowing that nothing but the truth was good enough.' "
In the early accounts of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a wagon train of Arkansas emigrants was attacked by Indians. The Indians of southern Utah were supposed to have been angry because they believed the emigrants had stolen cattle and poisoned their water; with the participation of John D. Lee, a polygamous Mormon settler who had worked as a liaison between the church and the native people, they were said to have surrounded the emigrants' encampment at Mountain Meadows and killed at least 120 people, sparing only the youngest of the children.
A traveler in southern Utah could find John D. Lee's name, in fact, inscribed on a plaque that had been laid up against a stone cairn near the meadow, in 1932. "JOHN D. LEE, WHO CONFESSED PARTICIPATION AS LEADER, WAS LEGALLY EXECUTED HERE MARCH 23d, 1877," the plaque read. "MOST OF THE EMIGRANTS WERE BURIED IN THEIR OWN DEFENSE PIT."
For as long as it had stood there, that plaque had been the despair of the descendants of John D. Lee, a man who had had 19 wives and thus a formidable number of descendants. They met at regular gatherings at Lee's Ferry, the lonely place on the Colorado River where John D. Lee had lived out his last years in angry isolation as he waited for his trial, and at their meetings they told Lee family stories: the children shamed in class, the women spurned in romance, the futile efforts to make the community and historical record see that Lee could not have joined the killing of an innocent emigrant party unless someone in the Mormon hierarchy had ordered him to do it.
And when Juanita Brooks came calling, at the homes of Mormon elders and the younger people who had kept the voluminous journals of their ancestors, Lees gratefully took her in. Karl Brooks remembers being sent as a child to the playground in towns of the Southwest while his mother disappeared into Mormon homes for the records that would make up her book; sometimes she found the journals, he says, and discovered that the pages for September of 1857 had been ripped from the binding.
A Year of Tension
Her own grandfather, Juanita Brooks discovered, had been at the meadows the day of the murders. "If he did not help with the massacre, he still did nothing to prevent it," she wrote. Plainly many other Mormon men were there too. And although Brooks wrote that Indians joined the violence -- most of the women and children, in Brooks's account, were slain by Indians while the Mormons stood by -- the massacre as a whole, she wrote, was the work of industrious, sober and deeply religious white men.
"Perhaps when all is finally known," Brooks wrote, "the Mountain Meadows Massacre will be a classic study in mob psychology or the effects of war hysteria. It seems to be a clear case of how a group, stirred and angered by reports only half true, frenzied by mistaken zeal to protect their homes and families and to defend their church, were led to do what none singly would have done under normal conditions, and for which none singly can be held responsible."
1857 was a year of extraordinary tension for the Mormon settlers who had colonized Utah; University of Utah history professor Dean May, in his history of Utah published in 1987, labels the period "Troubled Zion." These were men and women, May writes, who for nearly 20 years had been driven from every eastern and midwestern state they tried to settle. They were called heretic, immoral, anti-democratic. Their leader had been killed by a mob in an Illinois jail. Seventeen of their members, some of them children, had been shot to death while huddled for protection in a Missouri mill. And their settlements in Utah, a decade old by the summer of 1857, were being watched with increasing hostility by the federal authorities; President James Buchanan had received such alarming and in some cases distorted reports about the isolated independence of Utah that he decided he must send a new governor out to replace the Mormon leader Brigham Young.
As Buchanan's army came west, only word-of-mouth preceded it, and the settlements dug in for war. Mormon colonists were instructed to trade no supplies, no food; visitors might be enemy, and the Mormons needed all they had. And into these locked-down towns came the Arkansas emigrants -- preceded, according to some accounts, by a rougher group of travelers who needed food and were getting none from the settlers they passed. It was said that these rougher men swore loudly in the streets, and named their animals after Mormon leaders as they whipped them, and drove their stock through Mormon yards; when they saw that the Mormons really would give them nothing by way of supplies, May says, they threatened to continue on to California and raise an army to come back and assault them from the west.
There was trouble between the emigrants and the Indian people too, and the historical accounts agree that at Mountain Meadows the emigrant party was besieged by Indians. What was not made public at John D. Lee's trial, and what Brooks's reading of diaries and documents seemed to establish, was that a group of Mormons, Lee in their midst, then promised the Arkansas settlers safe passage through the Indians back to the Utah town of Cedar City. "They marched the women, and the children that could walk," Loving says. "The wounded and the small children and the sick were put into a wagon, and all of their weapons were put into another wagon. ... And when they got to a particular point, about a mile north, one of the Mormon elders gave a signal."
At the signal, the killing began, and from all the accounts it did not take very long. There is still some debate over who held the weapons, and how they did it -- some of the emigrants were shot to death, and some were stabbed, and the Paiute tribal leaders say now that their grandparents always told them the Indian killings were actually done by white men disguised to look like Indians. Mormon elders gathered the youngest of the children afterward -- 17 were finally returned to Arkansas, although for a century there have been rumors that an 18th child survived and was raised among the Mormons. And when Ron Loving read about it, both the history of the period and the awful detail of sight and sound on the field when it was over, he says, he wondered what had happened through the years to the other side, the families of the men who did it.
Loving was in Vietnam, he says, and there are things he understands about violence and panic and fear. He says he wanted to know the families, to see if a peace could be made. Two summers ago, through the arrangements of a Utah man who was researching the massacre, Loving drove to Mountain Meadows and waited for his first encounter with a Lee. "I wasn't all that sure what I was going to find," he says. "And comes this old green Cadillac down, with two women in it. I had been told that she was a little old gray-haired schoolteacher, retired. Sure enough, here this little old gray-haired schoolteacher stops the car, looking very intently, because she knew we were Fanchers."
They were formal, Loving says, but courteous to each other, and when Loving helped her over a slippery place in the rocks, the schoolteacher laughed -- "a Fancher," she said, "helping a Lee." She invited him to the next family meeting, at Lee's Ferry. He thanked her and told her he would come. And when he arrived at the reunion, accompanied by a distant cousin, Loving says, they stood for a while at the front gate while they tried to think what to say.
"And this big cluster of Lees, about 10 to 12 of them, come up to the gate, park their cars a few feet away," Loving says. "First question from a woman was, 'What branch of the Lee family are you from?' And we said, 'Well, we're not.' And she said, 'Well, are you friends of the Lees?' And we said, 'We certainly hope so.' And she said, 'Well, just who are you?' And we said, 'Well, we're Fanchers.' "
Loving stops, just for a moment, savoring the drama. "And if you can imagine cold stone silence in the mountains," he says, "that was it."
Balm in Gilead
On Saturday morning, Sept. 15, Karl Brooks puts on a suit, a good gray funereal sort of suit, and drives 45 miles north to the state college campus in Cedar City. When he arrives the choir is already singing, and there are hundreds of them: lovely young women and combed young men, their white shirts and pastel dresses filling a wall of risers in the college arena, and spread before them the yellow and white chrysanthemum sprays that look, as they are meant to, like the flowers of mourning.
There is a balm in Gilead, the choir sings, the voices swelling up through the arena, to make the wounded whole. By the podium, in the folding chairs for the dignitaries, Ron Loving sits with Verne Lee. Loving wears a sober suit too, as does Lee, but sometimes they smile at each other, in a tough-guy way -- Lee says they are both ornery cusses, which is part of what has made them friends.
They met at Lee's Ferry, at the family meeting Loving visited with some trepidation, and for the next two years Lee and Loving worked together to raise money and mount an organizing committee for a memorial they thought might honor the massacre victims and slip the sole burden of blame from the memory of John D. Lee. They wrote newsletters and interested a state senator with the good Mormon name of Dixie Leavitt, and then Mormon Church officials said they would join in too, so that now they have everyone -- Lees, Fanchers, Dunlaps, Bakers, Mormon elders, ordinary people whose surnames were not recorded in the massacre histories, all gathered for a memorial to people who died 133 years ago.
No marker ever listed the names of the people who died at Mountain Meadows, but now Lee and Loving have helped to make one: It is granite, and plain, and carved into a low arch at the top of a hillside overlooking the meadow where the wagons camped.
On the program for the memorial service the names have been reproduced, every one, so that Loving and Lee and the strangers who have come to fill the arena risers can look down at their programs and know at least a little about the dead: Thomas J. Dunlap, 17. Isom Cameron, 8. John T. Baker, 52. In the service an Arkansas judge named Roger Logan reads the names, slowly, pausing briefly after every one; he would like it, Logan says, if the descendants of the person would stand as his ancestor's name is read.
"Most historical accounts just refer to them as nameless emigrants," says Logan, who is a Dunlap and for 30 years has been collecting information on the Mountain Meadows victims. "But to me they were real people."
In small groups they stand, holding hands, a few in the risers, a few among the dignitaries, waiting until all the names are read. They sit. They listen to Ecclesiastes, to a Paiute Indian elder blessing the dead in Paiute.
Gordon Hinkley, the First Counselor of the Mormon Church, calls the day a miracle, a benediction, a bridge across a chasm of bitterness. Brigham Young University President Rex Lee asks them to stand again, and this time he also asks the John D. Lee descendants to stand, and anyone else who thinks his own relative might have played some part in the violence at Mountain Meadows.
Then he asks them to look around the arena, the people in red lapel labels and the people in blue ones, and go to find each other. "If I can get through this," Rex Lee says -- he is a John D. Lee descendant too, and holding the hands of a Fancher and a Dunlap, and his voice is breaking so that he cannot finish his own sentence.
It is customary at the close of funerals to go to the grave site, and so on Saturday afternoon that is what they do, in shuttle buses, since there are too many cars for the small parking lot. The old marker, the one that named John D. Lee, is gone; on Friday, with the approval of the state of Utah and the Mormon Church leadership, the Lees took it down and replaced it with one that uses the word "massacre" but says nothing about complicity.
Everyone on the memorial committee, Loving says, thought that the best thing to do. "The descendants of the Mormons who did it are not responsible for what their ancestors did, so let's stop beating them on the head," he says. "Do we want to pass on to the next generation the animosity and hate that's been passed on for the last 133 years, or do we want to stop it now?"
"We want a feeling of forgiveness, a feeling of love for one another," says Verne Lee.
Karl Brooks says he thinks the monument wording is appropriate too, that his mother would have approved, that granite markers have no room for complicated explanations of the things men do when they believe their world is threatened. "The psychology of mob action, the emotion of a moment like that ... it was a military battle, in the minds of those people," Brooks says. "They were following orders, given by somebody without the proper authority to give them."
Brooks says he likes the setting too, the way the monument stands now on a low rise of hill, so that from the bench a person can either gaze at the names of the dead or turn around and see the long wide sweep of sage and scrub that used to be the meadow for the pioneers going west. His mother wrote in her book about the stories people used to tell, after passing by Mountain Meadows; the grass would not grow any more, people heard things at night, a woman's spirit rose and moaned and was seen moving out among the brush, as though searching for something it had lost.
For a long time Brooks thought of it that way, he says, and when people asked to be taken to the meadow he would stand beside them and imagine what it must have looked like, the moment of it, and then afterward the bodies left out in the heat. "But now it feels like a cemetery," he says. "More like Arlington, or Punchbowl. And to me that is a subtle shift. Until now it's been a massacre site, but beginning today, it's a memorial site, for people who are dead."