[Transcriber’s note: This presentation has been lightly edited for clarity.]
In September 1857 in a highland valley in southern Utah known as the Mountain Meadows, 50 to 60 territorial militiamen aided by American Indian allies, massacred some 120 California-bound emigrants. The militiamen were all Mormons, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The victims, many of whom were women and children, had been promised safe passage from their makeshift wagon fort to the nearby settlements of Pinto in Cedar City.
Next month marks the 150th anniversary of this tragic event. Today, I would like to reflect upon the setting and causes of this tragedy. I have often called “The Mountain Meadows Massacre” the worst episode in Utah and Latter-day Saint history, though arguments could be made to the contrary. In January of 1863, for example, US Army Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, then based near Salt Lake City, together with some 200 of his California volunteers massacred about 250 Shoshoni at a site that is now just North of the Utah-Idaho border, but was then presumed to be part of Utah territory. Once again, many of those killed were women and children.
Sadly, these massacres are just two examples of many that occurred in the history of the American West. Even more tragic is the fact that mass killings are not a thing of the past. The most destructive century in world history may well be the one through which we have just passed. If you run a Google search of the term “mass killing” you can quickly find on a Stanford University website a list titled “A Record of Misery: mass killing in the past five decades.” It provides some two dozen examples of events involving 100,000 or more human deaths.
Elsewhere, Dr. Ervin Staub, a leading expert on mass killing, has written “Genocides, mass killings and other cruelties inflicted on groups of people have not ceased since the Second World War. Consider the millions killed by their own people in Cambodia and Indonesia. The killing of the Hutu in Burundi, the Ibo in Nigeria, the Ache Indians in Paraguay, the Buddhist in Tibet, and the mass killings in Uganda.” Staub also mentions killings in Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Since Staub wrote these words in 1989, mass killings have continued. Kosovo, Rwanda, and the current situation in Darfur come to mind, for example.
Perhaps one reason why the Mountain Meadows Massacre has not received more attention is that history offers vastly more destructive examples that overshadow it. In saying this, I do not wish to downplay or diminish the horrific nature of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, nor make us less conscious of the pain and suffering it caused the victims and has continued to cause their families and others for a century and a half. To the victim of any crime, pain and suffering do not diminish just because others in greater number have been victimized at another time or in another place.
As Scott mentioned in the introduction, along with my colleagues Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard, I’ve spent many years studying the massacre and its causes while writing a book titled “Massacre at Mountain Meadows”, that will be published next year by Oxford University Press. In our research we have examined the massacre from multiple perspectives in an effort to understand just how it happened and why. One aspect we have studied is the psychology of group violence in general.
What we have discovered is that the Mountain Meadows Massacre is a classic case of mass killing as described by experts who have studied group violence in modern world history. To illustrate this conclusion I will quote from two of Dr. Staub’s books, “The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence,” and “The Psychology of Good and Evil.” Both books were published by Cambridge University Press. Then, I will give corresponding examples from the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Staub’s work comes from a growing body of scholarly literature on violence including mass killings. A child survivor of the Holocaust, Staub is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Founding Director of the Ph.D. concentration in the Psychology of Peace and Prevention of Violence and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association.
Much of the recent violence literature discusses both genocide and mass killing. Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national political or cultural group. The Mountain Meadows Massacre of course was not genocide, but it was a mass killing, which is defined as “the act of murdering a large number of people, typically at the same time, or, over a relatively short period of time.”
Though experts described many conditions and cultural characteristics that have contributed to mass killings throughout modern history, time constraints allow me to discuss only a few of them today. Of course, none of these factors of themselves result in mass killings, but when many of them exist simultaneously, the result can be deadly. Staub explains that all cultures possess some of these characteristics. The likelihood of group violence is greatest if a group possesses a constellation of the most essential ones. Staub also explains, “Certain characteristics of a culture and the structure of a society combined with great difficulties or hardships of life and social disorganization are the starting point for mass killing.” How do these factors relate to the Mountain Meadows Massacre?
The pioneers of southern Utah faced a hard scrabble existence in the 1850s. In Cedar City, the nerve center of the massacre, workers in the community’s principal economic venture, the ironworks, had failed to come up with a viable process for producing usable iron from the region’s plentiful ore, despite tremendous efforts to do so. These frustrating and repeated failures occurred among a people who were so poor that many went without shoes at the time. For years, local leader Isaac Haight discouraged trade with passing emigrants, in part because he hoped those who had excess would share with those who were struggling to put food on the table.
The region had also experienced social upheaval in the short few years of its settlement. During the 1853-1854 Walker War with Ute Indians, settlers tore down outlying settlements that they had worked hard to build and moved into what then became cramped quarters of a few central forts. At this and other times, feuds in Cedar City and John D. Lee’s Fort Harmony led many settlers to break off and form separate communities, or, to abandon Utah altogether. Turnover in leadership was also significant during this time. News of the approaching US Army in 1857 only exacerbated tensions and concerns for survival.
When life-conditions prove difficult, people are more susceptible to group violence on a large scale. Staub writes: “Difficult life conditions give rise to powerful needs and goals demanding satisfaction. Hard times make people feel threatened and frustrated.” Threats to the physical self are important, but so are threats to the psychological self. All human beings strive for a coherent and positive self-concept: a self-definition that provides continuity and guides one’s life. Difficult conditions threaten the self-concept, as people cannot care for themselves and their families or control the circumstances of life. Powerful self-protective motives then arise: the motive to defend the self, one’s life and safety; and the motive to defend the psychological self, one’s self-concept, values and way of life. There is a need to protect self-esteem and to protect values and traditions.
“Another important cultural characteristic that contributes to a sense of vulnerability”, writes Staub, “is a past history of victimization. Just like victimized individuals, groups of people”, he writes, “who have been victimized in the past are intensely affected. Their sense of self is diminished. They come to see the world and people in it, especially outsiders, individuals as well as whole groups as dangerous. They feel vulnerable, needing to defend themselves, which can lead them to strike out violently. Healing by victimized groups is essential to reduce this likelihood that they become perpetrators.”
Many of Utah’s settlers had experienced the trials and deprivations of Missouri and Illinois in the 20 years prior to 1857. These Latter-day Saints had a deep sense of persecution and victimization and they had not healed. Rather, in the isolation of the Great Basin they nursed their anger and their suspicion of outsiders. When they learned in 1857 that a US Army was approaching the territory, they perceived the army as dangerous and felt an intense need to defend themselves.
Southern Utah was no exception. When news of the approaching army reached Cedar City, Isaac Haight reportedly said in a public gathering, if we are to believe a much later statement on the subject, “I am prepared to feed the enemy the bread he fed to me and mine.” “Another important cultural characteristic”, says Staub, “is the rigidity or the adaptability of a society. Rigidity and flexibility partly depend on societal self-concept, the way a group and its members define themselves. Greater rigidity”, he writes, “makes the difficulties of life more stressful.”
Utah society, particularly southern Utah society, was quite rigid in the 1850s, much more rigid than the Utah of our day. During the Walker War, for example, several people in Cedar City objected to instructions from leaders in Salt Lake to send their cattle north for safe keeping. Instead of patiently working with these people, some leaders chose to treat the rebellion as a kind of treason, potentially punishable by death. Although no one was executed, some people who received or witnessed harsh treatment ultimately left the territory.
The short-run result of this exit was less diversity among the citizenry and a strengthened sense of rigidity in applying and following rules. In this regard it is interesting to note how often Mountain Meadows Massacre participants later try to excuse their participation in the mass killing by saying they had no choice but to conform.
Episodes like this one from the Walker War, in which those unwilling to conform simply left the region, led to even less diversity or pluralism in a society that was already monolithic. Staub writes that monolithic societies with their limited set of acceptable values and ways of life may be more disturbed by change. In a pluralistic society with a balance of diversity and consensus, greater tolerance for differences among groups of people can be expected. “Real pluralism”, he writes, “prevents the development of broad support for harming the victims.”
Southern Utah in 1857 did have some pluralistic characteristics. Settlers had varied backgrounds, hailed from different parts of the United States and Europe, and lived in communities that differed somewhat in character one from another. That pluralism manifested itself when council members in both Parawan and Cedar City that voted against leaders’ plans to take hostile action against the Arkansas emigrants.
Sadly, in the end, however, it was the monolithic nature of the community that prevailed and the will of these councils was disregarded. A monolithic society had been encouraged and fostered for years. In 1852 one of the leaders in southern Utah described the process with a metaphor. “We found a Scotch party, a Welsh party, an English party and an American party”, he wrote, “and we turned iron masters and undertook to put all these parties through the furnace and run out a party of Saints.” Unifying people in doing good, of course, is a laudable goal. But, if some of those same people instead unify in doing wrong, the result can be disastrous.
According to Staub, “A monolithic, in contrast to a pluralistic society, with a small range of predominant values and/or limitations on the free flow of ideas, adds to the predisposition for group violence. The negative representation of a victim group, and the definition of reality by authorities that justifies or even necessitates the victim’s mistreatment, will be more broadly accepted.”
When local leaders and others decided that Arkansas emigrants were a threat, community members accepted that judgment and acted accordingly. For example, on the day before the massacre, when many of the militiamen had assembled at the Mountain Meadows, the President of Cedar City’s Benevolent Society advised the women in her group to “attend strictly to secret prayer on behalf of the brethren that were out acting in our defense.”
Monolithic societies sometimes share another potentially dangerous condition that Staub describes: leaders who hold too much power and wield it improperly. He writes, “Even in a democratic system, leaders are often isolated. Surrounded by a small group of decision makers, they lack direct contact with citizens. Moreover, their power can be enormous, even in a system of government purportedly based on checks and balances. Inherent in the leadership role, unfortunately,” he writes, “is a tendency to view people as instruments and devalue opposition. This is more likely when the leader’s power is great and his accountability low, and when the leader is guided by a coherent ideology which offers certainty of goals.”
I would venture to say that virtually everyone in our audience today is aware of teachings in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, two books of Latter-day Saints scripture that warn of the dangers of misused power. “We have learned by sad experience”, wrote Joseph Smith of abuses of power among Latter-day Saints in Missouri, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”
Isaac Haight, the principal leader in Cedar City, had a tremendous amount of power concentrated in him. As Stake President, Mayor, President of the Deseret Iron Company and militia Major, he was the spiritual, political, economic and military leader of Cedar City. Except for William Dame, his direct military commander in Parawan, he was not accountable to anyone in the region, nor did anyone hold higher authority than he at the time in southern Utah.
His distance and isolation from decision makers in Salt Lake City made his own decisions temporarily beyond appeal. Without telegraph lines running to Salt Lake and at least six days required for roundtrip messenger service, no one could step in quickly to overrule or circumvent his decisions, except Dame. When Haight sought out Dame regarding the deceased emigrants at the meadows, Dame called a council, which decided to assist the emigrants in continuing on their journey in peace.
Just as he had done with the Cedar City council members who had opposed him, Haight devalued this opposition. Immediately after the council ended, he got Dame on his own, away from the tempering consensus of his council. Haight shared with Dame additional details he had not shared with the council. In isolation, the two leaders talked and Haight left feeling he had permission to use the militia to carry out a mass killing. Cedar City leaders also viewed local Paiute Indians, many of whom were at least nominally members of their own faith, as mere tools to be doubly used: first to assist with the killing and second to suffer the entire blame for what the leaders themselves had initiated.
As the Book of Mormon emphasizes, there is a great danger in the interplay between misused authority and overly compliant followers. Using King Noah as an illustration, King Mosiah exclaims: “For behold how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed and yea; what great destruction!” Not surprisingly, authority and obedience are two more characteristics that often play a role in mass killings.
Staub explains, “Strong respects for authority and strong inclination to obedience are other predisposing characteristics for mass killing and genocide. They make it more likely that responsibility will be relinquished and leaders will be followed unquestionably.” People who have always been led by strong authorities are often unable to stand on their own in difficult times. “Their intense need for support”, he writes, “will incline them to give themselves over to a group and its leaders.”
Authority and obedience are key characteristics of Mormon culture generally, and often produce great good. The way Latter-day Saints come together and respond to natural disasters today is legendary. But the kind of obedience I am addressing here is the very opposite of unity and well doing. It is instead the tendency to cave in when someone pressures a person to do evil. This tendency is extremely widespread among human beings.
Work begun decades ago by Stanley Milgram at Yale University and repeated and refined many times since then, has shown that humans will often relinquish their freedom to resist evil by shifting the blame for their choices to someone in a real or apparent position of authority over them. This tendency definitely played a role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Please don’t misunderstand me on this point. Some people might apply the term “blind obedience” in referring to this propensity of humans made famous by Milgram’s research. But as Staub makes clear, and I will cite him on this point in a moment, there is, in reality, no such thing as blind obedience; every person has both choice and accountability.
Having described some of the common conditions and characteristics that frequently contribute to mass killings and demonstrated that they existed in southern Utah in 1857, I would now like to discuss some of the events that often lead to mass killing and show how they apply in the case of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. For many who ponder the subject, the most difficult aspect of the massacre to comprehend is how otherwise basically good people could commit such a horrible crime. The answer, in part, is that no one started out to commit a massacre. Instead people made one bad judgment after another, then, attempted to cover up one crime with the greater one, until they had committed mass murder. Eighteen years before the massacre, Joseph Smith taught that power can be properly wielded only upon the principles of righteousness. He warned against attempts to use power to cover wrongdoing, to gratify pride or ambition, or to exercise control or dominion upon the souls of the children of men in any degree of unrighteousness.
Staub explained that misuse of power occurs along a slippery slope, or what he calls a continuum of destruction. “Perpetrators make many small and great decisions as they progress along the continuum of destruction”, he writes. He explains that “extreme destructiveness is usually the last of many steps along the continuum.” Staub describes how this happens. “There is usually a progression of actions. Earlier, less harmful acts cause changes in individual perpetrators by standards in the whole group that make more harmful acts possible. The victims are further devalued. The self-concept of the perpetrators changes and allows them to inflict greater harm for ‘justifiable’ reasons. Ultimately, there is a commitment to genocide or mass killing or to ideological goals that require mass killing or genocide. The motivation and the psychological possibility”, he writes, “evolve gradually.” I believe that’s exactly what happened in September of 1857.
Staub points out that one factor leading to mass killing is an exaggerated fear of the victims. He writes, “Fear of the victims who are the designated enemy is important. It may have a realistic component, but the victim’s power or evil intentions are usually exaggerated. Although the fear is in part culturally and ideologically induced, it is also a defensive process whereby anxieties about life’s problems are projected onto a convenient target. Fear of an identifiable object is more bearable than unspecified anxieties. Anger, hostility, and hate that arise from frustration, threat, and attack of many kinds are focused on a culturally or ideologically selected scapegoat.”
Exaggerated fear played a significant part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. When the emigrants passed through Cedar City in early September, brief and minor conflicts broke out between some of the emigrant men and local settlers. In a near-contemporaneous journal account of the event, one citizen further north wrote “The emigrants were acting mean, threatening the Bishop’s life.” Later accounts also said that some of the emigrants had threatened to join with the incoming troops then rumored to be entering the territory at any time, perhaps even through the mountains near Cedar City.
Whatever intemperate words were uttered by a minority of the emigrants were probably just idle threats made at the heat of the moment. Alexander Fancher, leader of the emigrants, promptly rebuked the men who made them. But some people who heard the statements or heard about them chose to take them very seriously. With my 21st century hindsight, I personally believe that the emigrants posed no serious threat at all. But in the charged environment of 1857, as I have written elsewhere, Cedar City’s leaders took the men at their word.
Closely related to exaggerated fear of the victims is the displacement of hostility. According to Staub, “Threats and frustration give rise to hostility and the desire to harm others. The appropriate targets of this hostility are, of course, the people who cause the problems.” He adds, “But usually they cannot be identified. The hostility is therefore displaced and directed towards substitute targets.”
Shortly before the emigrants arrived in Cedar City, southern Utah militia leaders had been warned of a possible invasion through the mountains east of southern Utah’s settlements. Though scouts were sent out, no troops could be found. Anxieties about the approaching army were projected onto the convenient identifiable target of the emigrants.
Another step along the continuum of destruction is the devaluation of the victims. Staub writes “Harming and killing members of a group become possible when a feeling of responsibility for their welfare has been lost as a result of a profound devaluation by a society or by an ideology adopted by the society.”
As I mentioned earlier, many of the settlers of early southern Utah were suspicious of outsiders. This view was exacerbated by the approach of the army in 1857. The oncoming troops were commonly referred to as “The Enemy”. After tensions developed between some members of the emigrant company and settlers in southern Utah they too were construed as enemies. I have repeatedly said that nothing any of the emigrants purportedly did or said came close to justifying their deaths. How then did comparatively small problems develop into mass killing? Staub explains, “Human beings have a tendency to divide the world into us and them. They use seemingly trivial information to create in-groups and out-groups and then discriminate against members of the out-group.” The devaluation of victims can move rapidly from discrimination to escalating violence.
Yet another factor in mass killings is the existence of some kind of military organization to carry out the destruction. Staub writes that “motivation for mistreating the group is not enough. The capacity to fulfill it must be present. A monolithic central party, a powerful military and other organized groups loyal to the government, are often necessary conditions; a machine of destruction has to be created.”
The Utah territorial militia was reorganized in April 1857 and then revitalized in southern Utah in August 1857. As with militia units throughout the United States, every male between the ages of 18 and 45 who was not otherwise exempted was required to be part of the military force. This militia system authorized by Congress originally had a good purpose and ultimately developed into the system that today we call the National Guard. But during the 1830s and 1840s in Missouri and Illinois the system was misused against Latter-day Saints. In Utah in 1857, Isaac Haight was able to call out militiamen and send them to the meadows to carry out the massacre. After the massacre, as I’ve already mentioned, many perpetrators said they had no choice but to participate. Though we can argue, as others have done, that the leaders deserve more blame than the followers, each man who took part in the massacre made several choices along the way about whether and how to participate or resist.
Staub writes, “People who start with varying degrees of predisposition act increasingly destructively, changing along the way and contributing to the condition of an increasingly destructive system. This”, he continues, “does not exclude responsibility. Along the way there are many opportunities for choice. Unfortunately, choosing often takes place without awareness or conscious deliberation. Many choices are made without awareness either pre-consciously or unconsciously. Facing a conflict between a non-moral motive and a moral value, a person may reduce the conflict by moral equilibration, a shift to a different mode of value or principal. For example,” he writes, “the moral principles that prohibit killing or harming other human beings are replaced by a principle of social good. Or loyalty and obedience to authority may become the relevant principle. As people progress along a continuum of destruction, moral equilibration becomes more automatic.” Staub adds, “At the extreme, a complete reversal of morality may occur so that murder becomes a service to humanity.”
When the orders to kill all of the seized emigrants including women and children reached the Mountain Meadows early on the morning of September 11th, 1857 there was some resistance at first. The resistance was quelled when leaders reduced the conflict by this shift to a different moral value as Staub describes. The treachery was rationalized as a defense of faith and hearth, and covering up what had already taken place. “Have not these people threatened to murder our leader and prophet and have they not boasted of murdering our patriarchs and prophets: Joseph and Hyrum?” a leader purportedly argued. “If we let them go”, went another argument “they will raise hell in California and the result will be that our wives and children will have to be butchered and ourselves too. They are no better to die than ours.” Again, after the massacre those responsible as well as some of their friends, relatives, and neighbors sought to justify the deed as something that had to be done in order to protect the citizenry.
Another occurrence along the continuum to mass killing is the use of euphemistic language, language that disguises or downplays a horrible reality. Euphemistic language plays a role in both planning out and carrying out of mass killings, as well later attempts to justify them. Staub explains that “bureaucratic compartmentalization and euphemistic language serve to deny reality and distance the self from violent actions and their victims.”
Denial of obvious reality, though it consumes much psychological energy, allows perpetrators to avoid feeling responsibility and guilt, and allows victims to avoid feeling dread. In the case of the massacre, some of militiamen roped into participating, reportedly received initial instructions telling them that they were being sent to Mountain Meadows to bury people who had already been killed. As Nephi Johnson explained, Isaac Haight told him that he had sent out a company of men with shovels to bury the dead, but when they got there they would find something besides burying the dead awaited them.
At the Meadows, shortly before the massacre, militia leaders euphemistically called their deceit and plan to lure the emigrants from their stronghold and then murder them, a decoy. The women and children would simply be “dispatched.” After the massacre some people referred to the atrocity by euphemisms such as The Siege of Sebastipal. Finally, the victims themselves were deceived with smooth words into believing that they were being escorted to safety. In fact they were being escorted to their deaths.
Despite the wielding of enormous power, those who order mass killings cannot succeed without the cooperation of followers who actually carry out the destruction. Although, as I quoted Staub earlier, respect for authority and strong inclination to obedience are other predisposing characteristics for mass killing, the perpetrators who carry out mass killings play a role beyond that of blind obedience or even classic obedience to authority.
Staub says, “The relationship between leaders and followers in genocide or mass killing is not primarily a case of obedience to authority in the classic sense elucidated by the experiments of Stanley Milgram. Followers are not simply agents and their psychology agentic. Usually,” he writes, “followers join the leaders, and the direct perpetrators often unite with them in a highly authoritarian subsystem of society.” In other words, despite protests later on about being forced into participating, many people who carry out mass killings exceed on the basis of some shared rationalization.
Nephi Johnson, who played a key role in the massacre, left a statement that confirms Staub’s point. Though he attempted to excuse some of the participants based on their relative youth and inexperience, Johnson still admitted that “most of the man who took part in the killing also considered them, the emigrants, as their common enemies, and under the excitement caused by the advent of the approaching army, they felt partly justified in destroying them.”
One factor that makes it comparatively easy to move down the continuum of destruction is the powerful influence of the group. Staub writes “Moral constraints are less powerful in groups than in individuals. There is a diffusion of responsibility in groups. Members often relinquish authority and guidance to the group and its leaders.” He adds, “Belonging to a group makes it easier for people to act in ways that are out of the ordinary. At the same time they can shed the inhibitions and limitations of individual identity. Anger and hate towards outsiders can come to the fore especially when the group’s beliefs promote these feelings and they no longer need to take individual responsibility for their actions. No one is responsible, or the group is responsible, or the group’s leaders. Powerful emotions”, he writes, “spread through contagion.”
In the case of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, such group thinking made it very difficult for the four or five dozen participants to resist. After the fact, some of the perpetrators said they had questions in their minds about what they were doing, but they were swept along with the group and its thinking, feeling almost powerless to resist. “Even in a society that fosters individual moral responsibility”, Staub explains, “there is no guarantee that individuals will oppose the group. Resisting is extremely difficult.”
This last point brings me to one final reflection. I am acutely aware of how easy it is for students of the massacre like me to render judgment on those responsible for it. We did not live during the time in question, did not feel the emotions of that day, did not have the limited understanding or misunderstanding on which some of the leaders may have based their decisions. We enjoy the luxury of 20-20 hindsight and the quasi-omniscience of viewing events from an ivory tower much later.
I recognize too that some people in the audience today and certainly many who will read our forthcoming book on the massacre will be related to and perhaps even descended from those whom I have named today as key decision makers or participants in the massacre. They may feel particular chagrin at such judgments.
Let me therefore just urge, in conclusion, that when any of us make judgments on those who lived in the past, as we historians do at times, that we not do so with some overweening sense of superiority and condescension, but instead, with a genuine desire to learn and to grow, to apply the lessons of the past to our lives in the present, with a hope of helping mankind eschew the human tendencies that lead to violence, tendencies that, unfortunately, remain tragically evident in our world today.
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