Review: Turley, Walker, "Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Andrew Jenson and David H. Morris Collections"
Editors: Richard E. Turley, Jr., Ronald W. Walker
Publisher: Brigham Young University Press/University of Utah Press
Pages: 342+ index
Andrew Jenson’s 1892 mission call was unique. It was startling. As a full-time employee of the Church Historian’s Office he was called—not to preach the good news—but to listen to the worst. Jenson’s “letter of instructions” from the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlined his purpose:
There have been many facts already published concerning [the Mountain Meadows Massacre]; but there is an opinion prevailing that all the light that can be obtained has not been thrown upon it. Many of those who had personal knowledge concerning what occurred at that time have passed away. Others are passing away; and ere long there will be no person alive who will know anything about it, only as they learn it from that which is written. We are desirous to obtain all the information that is possible upon this subject; not necessarily for publication, but that the Church may have it in its possession for the vindication of innocent parties, and that the world may know, when the time comes, the true facts connected with it (3).The letter was a kind of recommend Jenson would use to seek information during his wintry 620-mile round trip through southern Utah. It had been over 30 years since more than a hundred California-bound emigrants were slaughtered by Mormon settlers and some Paiute Indians in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, “arguably the worst incident in Latter-day Saint and antebellum Ozark history” (preface).
Jenson returned from his trip exhausted, reporting to the First Presidency: “I . . . have been successful in getting the desired information…But it has been an unpleasant business. The information that I received made me suffer mentally and deprived me of my sleep at nights” (6). The fruit of Jenson’s mission, scribbled field notes as well as polished reports, served as sources for Orson F. Whitney’s History of Utah. But the informants had been promised anonymity, further blunting their credibility. A portion of Jenson's 30-plus documents remained closed in the First Presidency’s collection, another portion largely forgotten in the Church Historian’s Office (6-7). This is known as the Andrew Jenson collection.
Another collection of documents wasn’t so easily forgotten, due in part to historian Juanita Brooks. While researching for her path-breaking book The Mountain Meadows Massacre (Stanford University Press, 1950), Brooks became aware of a group of affidavits collected by David H. Morris, an attorney and judge from St. George. Morris said little about his purpose in collecting statements from people connected to the massacre. Several of the documents in his collection pertained to other matters altogether (292). Brooks knew of, and became particularly interested in, a telegram in the collection from a man named “Lund,” whom she incorrectly suspected was Anthon H. Lund, a member of the First Presidency (295).
To Brooks’s chagrin the little collection was given to the First Presidency by Helen Forsha Hafen (Morris’s foster daughter) after Morris died in 1937. "My hell, we're not supposed to read these," her "cowpuncher husband" Paul exclaimed (293). Despite Brooks's persistence (and a letter of recommend from one of her local church leaders) she was never allowed access (293-295). There they remained, like the Jensen collection, inaccessible to researchers for decades.
Most of the statements in the respective collections had been given under a vow of confidentiality. Church leaders were worried about stirring up old wounds among Mormons or providing fuel for critics of Mormonism (295). Now, the Jenson and Morris collections are available in their entirety for the first time; from the First Presidency’s vault to the bookshelf.
The collections came to light again in 2002 during research for the book Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Richard E. Turley, Jr., Ronald W. Walker, and Glen M. Leonard (Oxford University Press, 2008). Turley and Walker have put together a beautiful though haunting book, containing color scans and full transcriptions of each of the often-barely-legible documents. It also includes photographs of most of the individuals who provided the information. Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Andrew Jenson and David H. Morris Collections is intended as a “supplement” to Massacre:
All the materials we used [for Massacre at Mountain Meadows] that are owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are now available at the Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City. Among these materials are two sets of documents in which historians have had an interest for many years. To make these materials more widely available to the public—particularly those individuals who do not have access to the library—we are presenting these two collections in their entirety in this book (preface).The thin rectangular book (11 x 8.4 x 1.1 inches) contains little analysis of the content of the documents. Instead, the editors have provided short but helpful biographical summaries and detailed footnotes to flesh out the background of each piece in the collections. Some of the documents barely pertain to the massacre, and one—an affidavit from a plural wife of Joseph Smith—is included only to ensure publication of the entire collections (fully blank pages are also not included).
In a few instances the editors give a glimpse into their source criticism: "No testimony of a human witness can ever be completely accurate,” they write in regards to massacre participant Nephi Johnson’s affidavit, “nor was Johnson's, especially because so many years had passed between the massacre and his affidavits. Like other white settlers who played a part in the massacre, Johnson gave varying accounts of the role of the Indians, failing in his version of events to give convincing answers about why they were willing to take part in the killing and making too much of their role. Still, much from Johnson's statements has the ring of truth. Some of his details were confirmed by other witnesses. Other details in his accounts are convincing because they fit into a general pattern of personalities and events. They agree with what was going on, and their sequence is right. And the affidavits had the weight of Johnson's overall reputation for honesty--despite the awful stain of having spent two days at the Meadows in 1857" (326, see also 296).
Examining these sources brings readers a harrowing step closer to the tragic murders. It also brings into sharp focus the difficulty of researching or writing about the massacre, considering the partial or conflicting reports, the scattered recollections, and the high potential for prevarication and justification. Seeing actual handwriting and imagining the circumstances of these collections can put flesh on these ghosts, some of whom made great efforts to keep things hidden. Consider the chilling statement of Mary S. Campbell, a resident of Cedar City, who recalled:
After the massacre the teachers were sent around enjoining upon the people to keep their mouths closed Example: If you see a dead men laying on your wood pileThis meticulously edited and excellently produced book is a welcome addition to the ongoing BYU Studies series, “Documents in Latter-day Saint History.” Its editors, publishers, and other contributors deserve much praise for their efforts to increase historical understanding by making these sources available. The intent behind this particular volume runs deeper, however, as noted by the editors:
dead, you must not tell but go about your business. The people of Cedar was aware of the white’s being guilty and hence causioned to be carefsilent from the first (45).
While the massacre continues to shock and distress, we hope that the publication of these documents will be a further step in facilitating understanding, sharing sorrows, and promoting reconciliation (preface).