In response to heightened public interest in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has posted a link on its Web site to a detailed account of one of the ugliest events in Utah history.

"Sept. 11 marks the anniversary of the 1857 massacre of some 120 California-bound emigrants in southern Utah," notes the site, LDS.org. "An article by Richard E. Turley Jr., the managing director for the Family and Church History Department, will be printed in the 2007 Ensign magazine, but you can read it online now."

That note carries a link to the church magazine's online site, which opens the lengthy article.

For about six years Turley and co-authors have been researching and writing a book about the massacre, in which Mormon settlers in southern Utah and some Indian allies murdered 120 members of a wagon train headed toward California. Only 17 children age 6 and under were spared, as they were believed to be "too young to tell tales."

The book is "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," to be published this year or next by Oxford University Press. Besides Turley, co-authors are Ronald W. Walker, professor of history at Brigham Young University, and Glen M. Leonard, retired director of the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.

Ever since the 1850s the massacre has been a subject of intense debate and conflicting stories.

Turley writes in the Ensign article: "How could this have happened? How could members of the church have participated in such a crime?

"Two facts make the case even more difficult to fathom. First, nothing that any of the emigrants purportedly did or said, even if all were true, came close to justifying their deaths. Second, the large majority of perpetrators led decent, nonviolent lives before and after the massacre."

Some were haunted for the rest of their lives by what they had done and seen, Turley wrote.

After confrontations with a wagon train of emigrants from Arkansas, church leaders in Cedar City planned to induce Indians to help attack the train; they would let the Indians take the blame. But the first attacks failed, and the emigrants formed their wagons into a strong defensive circle.

The most horrifying scene occurred on Sept. 11, 1857, starting when John D. Lee entered the wagon fort under cover of a white flag. Lee, a militia major from Fort Harmony and the federally funded Indian agent, convinced the emigrants that Mormon militiamen would protect them from the Indians if they abandoned all their belongings, including their weapons. Suspicious but almost out of ammunition, the settlers agreed to the terms.

A vicious slaughter followed when the unarmed settlers were marched from their circled wagon train, and all but the youngest children were murdered. "Despite plans to pin the massacre on the Paiutes — and persistent subsequent efforts to do so — militiaman Nephi Johnson later maintained that settlers did most of the killing," Turley wrote.

An express rider had been sent to Brigham Young in Salt Lake City asking what to do with the emigrants. The church president's reply was dated Sept. 10, the day before the killings. It arrived in Cedar City on Sept. 13, two days after the massacre. In it, Young told the local authorities that if the emigrants who were there will leave, "let them go in peace."

During a Deseret Morning News telephone interview, Turley said the article is coming out before the book because of renewed interest in the massacre.

"I think the recent PBS documentary (on the Mormons) created additional interest on this subject," he said. He wrote the Ensign piece before the documentary was issued, and "recent public interest made it seem like a good time to just post it on LDS.org

Oxford University has a juried press, and "they go through a lot of particulars to make sure that things they publish are up to their standards," he said.

The authors have sought to be "as thorough and as complete as possible with our research, so we can say with complete honesty we have dug as deep as possible."

That doesn't mean every detail is known.

"History as a craft has its limitations," Turley said. "History must be based on evidence, and evidence from 150 years ago is sometimes hard to bring together." Sometimes the picture that forms is only partial, he said.

"But we've made a valiant effort, a concerted effort, to bring together all the puzzle pieces we can to give the clearest picture of what happened 150 years ago."

Material came from far-flung sources, from New England to southern California, from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast.

Authors "spent literally months of labor in the National Archives, and received cooperation from public and private repositories around the country."

Asked if the LDS Church has been cooperative and helpful, he replied, "Yes, very much so."

The book covers "an extremely painful subject, so unquestionably there will be people who feel pain at the recitation of the events," Turley said. "But our feeling was that, in order for real healing to occur, there must be a straightforward confronting of the facts."


E-mail: bau@desnews.com