Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mountain Meadows

Mountain Meadows
Southwestern Utah
April 2008

After I left Colorado City, my next destination was Mountains Meadows north of St. George, Utah. I decided to stop in St. George to calm my nerves and take a tour of Brigham Young's winter home. The house was clean and quiet and soothing, and the tour guide seemed almost saintly in contrast to the bulky and intimidating men I'd encountered in Colorado City. I felt a little guilty that my motivation to photograph Brigham Young's home was less than celebratory since the guide was so gracious when I asked if I could take some pictures. He told us that Brigham Young fathered fifty-seven children with multiple wives, and I took some photos of his massive canopy bed, upon which lay a top hat and a cane. I sensed that the images might be useless given the overexposure from the sun pouring in from the window behind the bed, and I was right.

My daylight hours were fast fading so I got back on the highway north towards Mountains Meadows. Mountains Meadows is the site of what historian Geoffrey Ward described as "the most hideous example of the human cost exacted by religious fanaticism in American history until 9/11."

I first learned about Mountain Meadows through Jon Krakauer's book, Under The Banner of Heaven. On September 11, 1857, a militia of Mormons disguised as Indians, along with real Paiute Indians, attacked a wagon train of Arkansas families known as the Fancher party who were traveling to California. The Mormon militia persuaded the families to surrender under the false promise of a truce and a safe passage. And then in a brutal slaughter known as The Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Mormon militia took the lives of approximately 140 men, women and children.

After the massacre, The Mormon Church first tried to lay the blame for the killings on the local Paiute Indians. But when evidence revealed Mormon involvement, the church then tried to shift sole responsibility onto John D. Lee, a Mormon zealot and the adopted son of Brigham Young. Lee was executed for his crimes by a firing squad in 1877, and controversy exists to this day about the involvement of other church members in The Mountain Meadows Massacre.

According to an article by Sally Denton in The New York Times in 2003, the current church president, Gordon B. Hinckley, agreed to restore a landmark in 1999 where at least some of the bodies were buried, a concession which drew controversy when a contractor's backhoe unearthed the bones of 29 victims. Denton wrote, "After a debate between Utah state officials and church leaders - what has been called Utah's "unique church-state tango" - about state laws requiring unearthed bones to be forensically examined for cause of death, the church had the remains quickly reburied without any extensive examination that might have drawn new attention to the brutality of the murders."

She further wrote, "At a time when religions around the world are acknowledging and atoning for past sins, the massacre has left the Mormon Church in a quandary. Roman Catholics have apologized for their silence during the Holocaust, United Methodists for their massacre of American Indians during the Civil War, Southern Baptists for their support of slavery, and Lutherans for Martin Luther's anti-Jewish remarks. But unlike the leaders of other religions, who are believed to be guided by the hand of God, Mormon prophets are considered extensions of him ... To acknowledge complicity on the part of church leaders runs the risk of calling into question Brigham Young's divinity and the Mormon belief that they are God's chosen people."

Well, as I drove closer to Mountains Meadows, I wondered just how eerie it was going to be, and man, was it eerie right off the bat. Dusk was just beginning to approach an overcast afternoon, and the feeling of death and evil was nearly as pervasive and palpable as what I recall from a visit to the site of the World Trade Center two months after the attack on 9/11. I took deep breaths as I drove down the dirt road to the memorial site where an American flag was erected to acknowledge the loss of American lives.

I got out of the jeep with my camera and tri-pod, praying that I wouldn't be die alone here, subsumed by ghosts or startled by an attacker looming in the meadow. Shortly after I set up my first few shots, a truck came barreling down the dirt road and two men climbed out with a pit bull. I ran back to the jeep and stood at the door and asked them, "Are you guys spooky?" They assured me that they weren't spooky, but we agreed that this place sure was spooky. They left quickly, and I resumed taking pictures until a large bull walked out of the meadow gazing in my direction, and that was it for me at the memorial site. I drove up to the top of a hill to take in the full view of the meadow and hurriedly took three shots and got back on the road.

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