Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Of Massacres and Misinformation

Of Massacres and Misinformation

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 23, 2008

In the first concurrent session of this year’s meeting of the Mormon History Association, three men who have been intimately involved with researching and evaluating material related to the forthcoming Massacre and Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard spoke about three facets of their work. I was invited to respond, partly because I use or search for the kinds of documents described by two speakers, and especially because the first speaker was offering a reinterpretation of events narrated in my article “‘Pursue, Retake & Punish’: The 1857 Santa Clara Ambush” (here, at page 64). This is an article I’m proud to say won the Dale L. Morgan Award, a ginormous cash prize for the best scholarly article of 2005.

I am not at liberty to post the three papers, of course, but my response is below, and is fairly understandable on its own, or read with the article linked above. This deals with the types of questions historians wrestle with every day.

Session 1D. Massacres and Misinformation: The Attack on John Tobin and the Mountain Meadows Massacre
MHA 2008 – Sacramento, California
23 May 2008

Ardis E. Parshall

Chair: J. Michael Hunter

1. Chad O. Foulger: “Wrong Place, Wrong time: A Look at the Tobin ‘Massacre’”
2. Chad M. Orton: “W.W. Bishop Unveiled: An Analysis of John D. Lee’s Confessions:
3. Brian D. Reeves: “Lost, Suppressed, or Destroyed: Provenance of Selected Mountain Meadows Massacre Documents”

This is the kind of session that fascinates me, and that should be of interest to anybody who writes or reads history. Using specific illustrations from the events of 1857, or their aftermath, the speakers have addressed three questions that should be part of the evaluation of any historical writing:

1. How complete is the record used to tell the story?
2. How accurate is the record used to tell the story? and
3. How well has that record been interpreted by previous tellers of the story?

These are especially important questions for many of the stories of the Mormon past because of the controversies and the partisanship that always seem to be involved. From where I personally stand on the partisan spectrum, I am frustrated by how often 19th century Mormon history seems to have become history by default: Brigham Young had a definite policy of not replying publicly to certain kinds of false reports – a policy he called “letting them severely alone” – which by consequence means that sometimes the opponents of my people were the only ones telling a tale, which has been repeated and repeated until even writers who are sympathetic to the Mormons have adopted a contrary point of view because it is the only one that has been told. I’m sure that those who stand elsewhere on the partisan spectrum have related frustrations from the other direction.

I will address these three papers in the opposite order to which they were given:

1. Brian Reeves has looked at the completeness of the record used to evaluate the events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and has addressed nearly a dozen documents known to have existed at one time, but which, with a few exceptions, are no longer available. He refers to these as “selected” documents, leading me to wonder how many more he could have included, were there time. Such missing documents are occasionally cited, regardless of their unavailability, as if they had in fact been consulted and would of course support the speaker’s position – I am aware of one such document that has been wrongly cited in an article in our own Journal of Mormon History. Brian’s list of these documents will be of interest to anyone evaluating the forthcoming Walker/Turley/Leonard book – what have they considered, what have they been unable to consider, and how thorough was their search? are the kinds of questions Brian’s report helps to answer.

2. Chad Orton has addressed the question of what are we to make of certain documents that unquestionably do exist? Do we accept every part of a lengthy document as equally reliable? Does an error in one part of a lengthy document discount the validity of the entire document? This is something that has colored the telling of Mormon history not only with regard to Lee’s Mormonism Unveiled, but with numerous other works: What use can legitimately be made of Doctor Hurlburt’s collected reports? How about Bill Hickman’s memoirs? What about those of T.B.H. Stenhouse, or Fanny Stenhouse? Too often such sources are accepted uncritically, or rejected unreasonably, almost always depending on where a historian stands are that partisanship spectrum. Chad has examined certain inconsistencies within Lee’s book and has noted patterns of self-contradiction and errors of voice and vocabulary. It is the identification of those patterns that is so valuable, because if you accept that Chad has made his case with any given pattern – and I do – you have a guide for accepting or rejecting given statements apart from your religious or philosophical preferences. As far as I am concerned, Chad has made it possible for Mormon-friendly historians to use Mormonism Unveiled as a source, and put reasonable brakes on its use by less sympathetic historians.

3. Chad Foulger’s paper on the Tobin ambush – a description I prefer to that of the “Tobin Massacre” – is somewhat more difficult for me to address. It’s one thing to welcome a re-examination of, say, Jacob Hamblin’s diary or William Bishop’s editing, because neither Hamblin nor Bishop is here to face the music. It is another thing to cheerfully accept a re-examination of the Tobin ambush, because that is my story, and I’m the historian whose interpretation Chad is challenging – or at least it is my interpretation, as adapted by Bill MacKinnon in an even more recent article. As peculiar as that has felt to me, I have at least had a couple of weeks to think about Chad’s remarks – now he has to sit here and listen to me evaluate him, live, with no idea of what I might say. Fun, isn’t it, Chad?

First of all, Chad and Bill and I generally agree on the documented outlines of the story. Where we differ is in the likely – but by all of us unproven – evaluation of who carried out the attack, and why. Chad would shift responsibility from where I placed it, on a group of Mormons, specific persons unknown, but almost certainly under the direction of William Dame, to the two petty thieves, Ambrose and Betts, and another half-dozen unknown men traveling with them. Before he can successfully shift that blame, I believe he must overcome these objections:

a. Chad has said that William Dame’s acknowledgment of Brigham Young’s letter is plain: “Dame acknowledged to Young there was no ‘need to pursue’” because there was no evidence of stock theft, and, therefore, Dame did not pursue. This overlooks the fact that after acknowledging there was no stock theft, Dame went on to say that, regardless, “I … have prepared a few.” Prepared them for what? If Dame believed Young’s instructions were moot because the traveling party had moved on, what was he preparing? This event does not exist in an historical vacuum – unless we believe that Brigham Young explicitly ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre (and neither Chad nor I do believe that), we know that Dame was quite capable of looking beyond the mark and ordering what he thought Young wanted him to do, regardless of the plain meaning of the February letter.

b. Chad would also relieve Mormons of the responsibility for the attack because no one in the Tobin party was killed, as instructed in Young’s letter if read as ordering the ambush. This is irrelevant – the number of bullets fired and the number of injuries (3 of the 4 men hit) demonstrates that the ambushers were shooting at the Tobin party, not – for some unexplained reason – over their heads, and did intend to kill them. That they were unsuccessful as killers does not by any means prove that the attackers were not attempting to carry out what they thought were Young’s orders.

c. Nor is there evidence that the attackers stole the horses of the party. They appear to have been grazing, not tied, and ran off during the noise of the gunfire. The horses ended up in the hands of Mormons – not the Indians, not the Ambrose and Betts party. There is no evidence to support theft as a motive for the attack, and no alternative motive is suggested.

d. Before I could accept Chad’s theory that Ambrose and Betts and their traveling companions, rather than local Mormons, were behind the attack, I would need Chad to address these matters: The only record we have of Ambrose and Betts shows them to be con-men, men who stole from peaceful merchants by deception, not by direct attack, and who were fleeing from Salt Lake when their jig was up, not confronting their accusers. What support is there for the claim that they were capable of a cold-blooded, murderous ambush, such different behavior from their known traits?

Neither Chad nor I knows who were the other 5 or 6 travelers with Ambrose and Betts. We do know that Ambrose and Betts, and possibly one other, were a team. What evidence is there to suppose the group of 7 or 8 travelers was not an accidental assemblage of companions by convenience, but had somehow coalesced into a kind of outlaw gang? What evidence is there of their animosity toward the Tobin and Peltro party? (I readily acknowledge that the party did divide into two groups, but murderous animosity is not the only possible interpretation – Tobin, at least, had a strong motivation to push on faster than the mail party seemed to be traveling, because he had a military commission waiting for him in California if he could reach it in time.) How did Ambrose and Betts, whom we have no reason to believe had ever before been in southern Utah, or their unnamed companions whom we cannot claim were any more familiar than Ambrose and Betts with the southern road – how did this party somehow know the canyon terrain so well that they could bypass the main road, in the dark, and approach and surround the Tobin party? Why, after such a murderous attack, did they accompany the mail party, with Tobin and Peltro, on to California, with no suggestion by all those who recorded their travel that there was any sign of conflict? (And we must assume that they did go on to California with that party, because those, like the Las Vegas mission diarist, who noted the passing of every party along the southern road make no mention of a second group of travelers; if they were not with the mail party, then Ambrose and Betts and company had to have melted back into the Utah population, an assertion I don’t think Chad intends to make.) And if the attackers were not Ambrose and Betts, how can we accept an alternate theory that the attackers were Indians, which is based almost entirely on a letter of Isaac Haight, a letter that contains a number of demonstrable falsehoods?

In short, although I freely admit that I do not have a complete, indisputable documentary record for the attack and am subject to error in my interpretation, I believe Chad’s re-interpretation raises more serious questions than can be supported by the record that does exist. That I remain persuaded by my original interpretation, if not entirely by the somewhat heated reinterpretation by Bill MacKinnon, does not mean I do not welcome Chad’s challenging re-evaluation. The checks and balances built into such re-evaluations serve to identify fallacies and weaknesses, and keep us constantly seeking new evidence.

That is true of all three papers read in this session, and our written history is all the better for it.



  1. Thanks Ardis. Wish I could’ve been there for the smackdown 😉

    Comment by David G. — May 23, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  2. Ardis, I wish I could have been there for the session and to hear your comments. Unfortunately, I had to stay home this year. I hope you post some more in the next couple of days from the conference.

    Comment by Maurine — May 23, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  3. Excellent analysis, Ardis. I agree that the issues you raise appear to be difficult to address in a way that makes sense within the big picture view.

    Comment by Ray — May 23, 2008 @ 10:07 pm

  4. Bravo.

    Comment by Just me — May 24, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  5. Thank you for this, Ardis. I’m still a little dicey on full absolution for SLC, but only because the artifacts show enough evidence of tampering/suppression/etc. that I can’t internally rule complicity out. I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in my wariness.

    Oh, and I’m not one of those Chads.

    Comment by Chad Too — May 25, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  6. Thanks for the write-up. Wish I could have been there.

    Comment by Edje — May 25, 2008 @ 9:57 pm

  7. I wish you all could have been there, too. I enjoyed this MHA better than any other I have ever been to. It wasn’t the facilities, for sure (more than a little on the seedy side, especially in the hither-and-yon room I had, which might have had a non-smoking designation but which was obviously made non-smoking within the last week or two — and they never did get around to replacing the burned out bulbs I requested, and the furniture was so greasy and stained that I didn’t like to sit on the desk chair without first putting down a towel, but which all still cost me $111 per night). It may only have been partially because of the excellent quality of the papers and especially the plenary talks.

    Really, I think it was because this was one of the smaller MHA meetings I’ve been to, so you could talk to and dine with and enjoy the company of people you might not have been able to find in the crowds of the larger recent meetings (Salt Lake and Killington being the most notorious examples). Anyway, it was great fun, for the 400 or so who did get there. Next year in Springfield, y’all!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 25, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  8. Ardis,

    Thanks for sharing your response. I really enjoy reading your insights. It was wonderful to see you again.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — May 27, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  9. Thank you for an excellent introduction.

    Are the full texts of the three papers available anywhere?

    Mormon history deserves better treatment, both ‘for’ and ‘against,’ and between non-scholarly, populist ‘anti’ view, and the comfort of the LDS faith-based view the truth tumbles about seeking escape from the straight-jackets imposed by those without and also from those within.

    Not everything in LDS History is praiseworthy, but understanding the backgrounds, intentions, and sitz im leben goes a long way to make unpleasant events understandable, at the very least, whilst not brushing the responsibility or blame under any old carpet.

    More light from dedicated historians, and less heat from those opposed to all things ‘Mormon,’ would make the rise and progress of the Restored Gospel look a lot less like “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk,” and more like the autographs of the New Testament.

    God speed the right.

    Comment by Ronnie Bray — November 21, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  10. Ronnie, none of the papers have been published (yet), and I don’t know if the authors have plans to do so. The papers all grew out of the authors’ work on the project to research Massacre at Mountain Meadows so they might consider that “work product” and not individually publishable.

    I think it would be especially useful to have Chad Orton’s paper available as a sort of tutorial on evaluating mixed-value sources.

    Welcome to Keepa. I hope you’ll come back often.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 21, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  11. Thank you, Ardis. I certainly will.


    Comment by Ronnie Bray — November 21, 2009 @ 10:36 am

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