October 7, 2008
I’m not sure I have ever run into anyone who has chosen to live "Out West" who hasn’t become a history buff, at least to some degree. The richness of the historical plate in these parts is just too inviting to ignore.
There has been a wide variety of "attractors" tied into the dry-fly floating by my quite inquisitive nose for as long as I can remember. Some of it, embedded in the rock-art and oral traditions of ancient and modern tribal cultures, harkens to mystical rhythms that play to the wannabe shaman within us.
Then came the explorers and fur trappers from America, which loomed far to the east, and the French Canadians, some from the Hudson Bay Company up north, and others who had looped down south to Taos, where they had actually received permission to trap the Wasatch. This was Mexico, by the way.
Their names live on upon our maps hereabouts with Provo (Provost), Weber, Ashley, and Bridger, being just a few. Mountain men found ways to hang on for a spell after the fur trade went belly up, but the days of the Rendezvous waned quickly.
It would be the coming of the wagon trains through South Pass heading to Oregon and California and "Zion" that would make a player of this particular landscape, however. The pioneer emigrant trails, often across seemingly impassable terrain, would come to stick to my ribs.
Anyone who has spent any time attempting to retrace the "Hole-in-the-Rock" road from its genesis in the Parowan Cedar City area to where these unflappable Mormons stopped their wagons a bit short of their original goal and founded the town of "Bluff" obviously shares this sense of awe.
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For many on this 1879-1880 trek, however, there may well have been a thick layer of atonement lying over their mission from God. Events that transpired within the scope of their collective southern Utah colony some 22 years earlier carried a heavy Karmic load.
From spring through fall of 1857, another wagon train, the Fancher Party, had traveled west along the Arkansas River and Cherokee Trail on its way to South Pass, Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City, and on south through Utah Territory. Their plan was to join up with the "Old Spanish Trail" as it headed west.
Somehow, their interaction with the settlers of Parowan-Cedar City led to the "Mountain Meadows Massacre," a quite singular, tragic, and horrific event. It became yet another of those intriguing and baffling scenarios that I found it impossible to ignore. Curiosity becomes obsession.
It began back when, on a more recent version of the Old Spanish Trail, while they were still hacking a route through the Virgin River Gorge for I-15, one would travel up and over the Beaver Dam Mountains to get from St. George to Mesquite, Las Vegas, and L.A.
Pulling an overnighter at a friend’s house in Santa Clara along the way, I couldn’t help but notice a book on the subject by Mormon historian Juanita Brooks. Lending it to me, he poured a couple of drinks and proceeded to give me an overview.
He took me to the site, just up the road, the next morning. There were no memorials other than a rough-hewn fence surrounding a purported mass grave and a rock-cairn in a state of disrepair. We had to open a gate and drive down a farm road to get there.
A shimmering seemed to distort the wavelengths of the air itself. It was disturbing. Trail guides of the time referred to the meadows as an "oasis of lush grass and fine spring water." It was a last resting place before emigrants headed out across the Mojave Desert. Last resting place, indeed!
To any who may still not be in the loop, what transpired that September 11 morning of 1857 was that more than 120 men, women and children of the Fancher party were murdered by Mormon militia, disguised as Indians, and their Indian allies. John D. Lee, of Lee’s Ferry fame, became a scapegoat of sorts and was later executed at the Meadows.
Over the years, many historians have taken a crack at trying to understand the carnage and the "justice" that followed. A few years back, Will Bagley’s "Blood of the Prophets" attempted to connect the dots between Brigham Young and the atrocity committed by members of his flock. His second on the topic, "Innocent Blood," is due in a couple of weeks.
More than a few return pilgrimages have occurred over the years to view memorial upgrades and become awash in the "shimmer." What rekindled these memories, other than a mention in a recent Larry Warren column, was a "Booktalk" show the other day on CSPAN Channel that had been recorded at "Ken Sanders Rare Books" in Salt Lake a few weeks back.
Sanders’ bookshop is one of my very favorite haunts, so viewing it on TV was rather surreal not unlike it would have been to catch a night at the old "Alamo Saloon" back in the day on the tube the morning after.
The program featured a reading and Q&A by a trio of Mormon historians discussing "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," their recent entry into the "MMM" canon. It had the aura of TV-at-its-best.
I will read the book, of course. I am haunted by those meadows.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.