On September 7, 1857, a wagon train of pioneers on their way to California was ambushed at a place called Mountain Meadows in southwestern Utah. At first, the attackers appeared to be Indians, but in the five days of siege that followed, it became evident that they were not. As the settlers slowly resigned themselves to being overwhelmed, a large party of white men bearing a white flag approached the embattled camp and offered the survivors safe passage if they would lay down their arms. After they had done so, the "rescuers" separated the men, women and children into groups and marched them along the trail. Then, in response to a pre-arranged command, the supposed protectors turned on the settlers and shot them point-blank or slit their throats. Within three minutes, 140 people lay dead. Only about 15 or 20 children, whom the attackers deemed too young to bear witness against them, were spared. The killers were Mormons.
The Mountain Meadows massacre remains one of the most nettlesome events in the Mormon Church's bloody history. Was the slaughter ordered by the church's leader, Brigham Young, or was it the misguided action of his overzealous adherents? Award-winning journalist Sally Denton leaves little doubt that it was the former.
Instead of treating the incident as an aberration, in her compelling new book American Massacre, she places it in the context of a religious movement that owed much of its success to cultivating an us-against-them attitude among its members. The perception that any outsider might be an enemy of the faith made an atrocity like Mountain Meadows inevitable. Particularly effective in demonstrating how the national outcry against the massacre kept building until even the intractable Young had to give in to it, Denton has written a fascinating and thorough account of the tumultuous event and its aftermath. This is a superb piece of scholarship that reads like a novel.