Utahn tries to put event in new light for survivors' kin
Last updated 07/23/1998, 01:41 p.m. MT

By Linda Thomson
Deseret News staff writer

Ray Briscoe knew he'd be playing to a tough house when he gave a talk on the Mountain Meadows Massacre last week.

But as an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Briscoe hoped he could do some good by putting one of Mormonism's darkest chapters into perspective.

Briscoe had been invited to address a family reunion of Bakers in Oklahoma City Bakers who are descendants of the few children who survived the massacre in 1857.

The speech went well, there were only a couple of hostile questioners in the crowd afterward and most questions seemed to come from people genuinely seeking more information, Briscoe said.

"It went very well," he said. "I've never given a talk where so many people wanted to talk to me afterward and shake my hand. I was there 30 minutes shaking hands."

He also thinks he may have changed some minds.

Briscoe currently works as director of Utah's 3 R's Project. He is a former Westminster College professor who later worked for 15 years for the LDS Church in its Research Division.

He has degrees from the University of Utah and Utah State University; a master's degree in history; a doctorate in social studies education; enough credits for a doctorate in history; and has studied at a virtual laundry list of prestigious universities including Stanford and Berkeley.

Friendship led to speech

But his interest in Mormon history and a friendship formed through work with a Baker descendent led him to give this speech.

By any standard, the Mountain Meadows Massacre can only be described as tragic.

The 120 massacre victims were part of a wagon train of visibly prosperous non-Mormon Arkansas immigrants passing through the Utah Territory. They had fine horses, a lot of cattle and there was cash on board along with many valuable possessions.

According to historical accounts, Mormons and Paiute Indians in southern Utah shot, beat and knifed everyone in the wagon train to death except for 17 or 18 children under age 6.

John Doyle Lee, one of the local Mormon leaders involved, was executed in 1877.

Some descendants of those who survived have forgiven the violence. A monument to the dead was erected in 1990 about 55 miles east of Cedar City and families from both sides took part in a reconciliation.

Opening a dialogue

However, Briscoe knows that other descendants of the victims still are bitter and he hopes his talk will open a dialogue with them.

"I understand why people hate the Mormon Church," he said. "I understand why people love it also."

"I do believe that some good is going to come out of it (his talk) in terms of human relationships. I would hope it would open some eyes of understanding," he said.

Briscoe, who spent two months researching his speech, said the massacre was a terrible thing, but it is easier to understand why it happened when one puts it in historical context.

In his view, there are four primary reasons why it occurred:

Food. A grasshopper infestation in 1855 and a drought the next year deeply frightened the LDS settlers, who were counseled first not to sell grain for animal feed, then not to sell grain at all in case it needed to be hidden in the mountains if war broke out with federal soldiers.

Reformation. In the mid-1850s, LDS Church-appointed missionaries questioned members about their loyalty to the church and its leaders in an effort to increase religious devotion. However, some missionaries displayed a zealousness that spilled into fanaticism.

Murder of Parley Pratt. Pratt, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and a much-loved leader, was shot dead in Arkansas following his acquittal in a legal dispute. Many LDS Church members saw little difference between this and the murder of LDS Church prophet Joseph Smith.

Threats of war with the federal army. Federal troops were assembling in the area to force Mormon settlers to comply with federal law, although some historians think President James Buchanan was using Utah Territory issues to turn away pressures of the pending Civil War.

In light of all this, the wagon train from Arkansas (where Pratt had been killed) arrived and purchased 30 bushels of corn from Indians (at a time when grain was scarce).

A trigger event?

Briscoe speculates that the wagon train went into Cedar City to get the grain ground and somehow, something happened to set off the bloody event.

After the speech, one point of contention from listeners was the level of involvement, or non-involvement, of Brigham Young. A couple of questioners also were convinced that the Mormons attacked the wagon train out of greed since it was so obviously prosperous with its valuable horses, cattle and goods.

One man kept asking why previous and subsequent wagon trains weren't attacked, Briscoe said.

"In my opinion, there was a triggering incident," Briscoe said. When the train went into Cedar City, tempers must have flared, perhaps there were verbal taunts, fist fights or shots fired, and then bedlam.

"The people who I talk with in the Baker family believe that the reason we went out and murdered them was to gain their property," said Briscoe. "I hoped to move them from that point of view to the point of view that a frightened, angry, prejudiced group of people who thought they were at war and did what they did in a war mentality."

Educating members

Briscoe also would like to see Mormons better educated about the event and at an earlier age. Among other things, it would equip missionaries and other Mormons with correct information to counter extremist critics of the church.

"The thing I'd want my people to know is put the light of day on it and talk about it immediately and get it behind you. Don't hide things that are bad. It's time the light of day shines on the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

"How much good we could do for young people if we could teach them that we've made mistakes and we don't need to dwell on them, but we need to understand them. It makes us more mature people and it makes us more capable of being helpful to the world," Briscoe said.