Read No Evil 

Students aren’t learning the darker side of Utah’s history. Should They?

Pin It

Upon learning, decades after the fact, from tenderfoot-turned-U.S.-Senator Ransom Stoddard that he was not “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” the editor of the Shinbone Star tore his notes to shreds and told Stoddard, “This is the West, sir! When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

Director John Ford’s 1962 silver-screen rendition of Liberty Valance—a fictional American frontier bully who finally gets his comeuppance—confronts the fallacies of lore in the Old West. At the same time he’s debunking those myths, however, Ford reveals that when enough is at stake, whether the reputation of a politician nearing the end of a ride paid for under false pretenses or the sensibilities of a readership clinging to that bygone era, truth rides shotgun to keeping up appearances.

By local standards, Utah: A Journey of Discovery is a relatively radical state-history textbook. In it, author and historian Richard Holzapfel profiles the “subversive” labor organizer Joe Hill, takes business interests to task on the environment and speaks sympathetically to the plight of Utah’s underclass. His text takes pains to interweave voices from every conceivable ethnic, racial, religious and social group he could muster, no matter how obscure their contributions may have been to the overall story of Utah. But the fallout from that over-inclusiveness could be why Holzapfel stumbled through the Mountain Meadows Massacre, glossed over the segregated colony of Iosepa and erased the last recorded lynching of a black man in the West.

As any textbook author will attest, they don’t work in a vacuum, especially when history is involved. Outside pressures come to bear whenever one person is tapped to tell so many stories from at least as many points of view. Salt Lake Community College Professor John McCormick knows that all too well. A small but vocal contingent led by a southern Utah rancher, a natural resources political consultant and the conservative think-tank The Sutherland Institute lobbied for a rewrite of McCormick’s fourth-grade Utah history-textbook in 1997. The Utah State Textbook Commission acquiesced to those demands and ordered McCormick to eliminate parts of his book dealing with American Indian religion, Anglo-settler conquest and environmentalism. Since 12,000 of the books were already in use by teachers, the commission enacted rules barring widespread trial circulations of textbooks before official state approval.

Writing in the wake of the flap over McCormick’s book, Holzapfel said he was forced to toe a certain line. “In this state,” he said, “there are so many groups that are willing to talk that they can block a good work.”

So it is that, with nearly a century-and-a-half of historical hindsight at his fingertips, Holzapfel’s account of the 1857 massacre at Mountain Meadows squares snugly with the LDS Church’s version of events. Yet, the only time American civilians slaughtered other American civilians with more ghastly results was in April 1995. That’s when Timothy McVeigh wiped out 168 people with an explosives-packed Ryder truck in Oklahoma City.

Holzapfel’s telling of the United States’ second-deadliest homegrown mass murder--of some 120 settlers, most of them children--has been emblazoned unchallenged in 12-year-old minds throughout Utah.

Unchallenged, until now.

Before it was approved, Utah Division of Indian Affairs Director Forrest S. Cuch briefly reviewed an already printed and bound copy of Holzapfel’s textbook and made no objections. But in light of Will Bagley’s award-winning 2002 treatment of the massacre, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, and another book by Sally Denton, Cuch is calling for revision of the passage dealing with the massacre, as well as other portions of the book he said unfairly portray American Indians. “I’ve taken the position that the Paiutes were not involved in the actual massacre,” Cuch said. “I agree with Bagley, and Denton and the Paiutes’ assessments.”

Irritated at seeing his name listed as an adviser to the textbook, Cuch immediately sent off a letter to Layton Publisher Gibbs Smith.

“I consider it shameful and a dishonor to continue to depict the Paiutes as co-conspirators of this massacre and murderers of innocent men, women, and children, when in fact, they did not participate. We must stop villainizing the Indian people,” Cuch wrote. “To continue to promote this negative image of the Paiutes is scholastically irresponsible and promotes racial stereotypes of Indians as savages. It also implicates all Indians resulting in extreme damage to the self-esteem of all Utah Indian people, especially Indian youth.”

Cuch said he is worried that speaking out could cost him his job but added it is time to set the record straight for Utah’s first pioneers. “You want to know why you see drunken Indians walking up and down these streets?” he asked, nodding toward State Street from the lobby of his office building. “It’s because they’ve lost their dignity; they’ve lost their dignity because of books like this.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ remarkable knack for preserving its own history took a conspicuous departure in the case of Mountain Meadows, prompting curious historians—church members and nonmembers alike—to go digging for answers. As early as 1871, Mark Twain reported in his true-ish travel log, Roughing It, that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was divinely inspired and premeditated. The church has tried to live down, and play down, such reports ever since.

Bagley doesn’t go so far as to exonerate the Paiutes in his book but does lay most, if not all, the blame for the massacre squarely at the feet of the southern Utah Mormon militia. The self-described “Jack-Mormon” also concludes in Blood of the Prophets that the militia was likely carrying out orders from on high within the church.

With the flurry of new scholarship on Mountain Meadows in the past few years, Gibbs Smith has given Holzapfel carte blanche to make any necessary changes, as long as they are responsible. The changes will get under way shortly, said Holzapfel, who already has sent out a call to colleagues for input on revisions.

Despite those good intentions, the text remains required reading for virtually all of the state’s roughly 36,000 seventh-graders. More than 35,000 copies have been sold since its first edition was released in 1999, according to figures obtained from Gibbs Smith, publisher.

A precocious student may take it upon herself to thumb through Juanita Brooks’ seminal 1950 account, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, or Bagley’s update, but for most youngsters Holzapfel’s three-paragraph chronicle will be the last word on that blood-soaked meadow between Cedar City and St. George:

It was one of the American West’s most tragic examples of the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. A company of about 120 Arkansas and Missouri immigrants heading for California traveled through some southern Utah towns at the same time as the people of Utah prepared for battle with [Colonel Albert Johnston’s] soldiers. To add to the tension, there was news of the murder of a Mormon leader in Arkansas. It was reported that the Arkansas immigrants were bragging of the murder and were also treating local Paiutes and Mormon settlers with contempt. There was a rumor that the immigrants poisoned some well water, and some Paiutes and their animals died. The angry Indians attacked the wagon train, several men on each side were killed, but the Paiutes were driven off.

Mormon leader Isaac Haight, head of the local militia, sent a horseman galloping to Salt Lake City to ask Brigham Young for advice. The rider made remarkable time, but before he returned with an answer, Haight, John D. Lee, and other members of the militia had joined the Paiute men at Mountain Meadows. According to plan, Lee approached the Arkansas immigrants under a flag of truce, telling them he would escort them to safety from the Paiutes. He sent the women and children on ahead, and a soldier stood by each immigrant man. At the command of “Halt, each man do your duty,” the militia either murdered the immigrants or let the Paiutes do it. They also followed and killed all of the women and children who were old enough to report what had happened. Only eighteen small children were saved.

The first reports back to Salt Lake City indicated that only Paiutes were involved in the massacre. Later, Brigham Young learned the horrible truth that the members of the Iron County Militia had conspired with the Indians. Years later, Lee was arrested and executed for the crime. None of the other men were tried (Holzapfel, pp.171-172).

If Bagley’s exhaustive review of the historical record—up to, including and since the massacre—is to be accepted, then several of Holzapfel’s key assertions deserve another look. Chief among the disputed facts are: that Brigham Young and other highly placed church officials knew nothing of Mormon participation in the massacre, beforehand or even for years after; that members of the Arkansas wagon train treated the Paiutes and Mormons with contempt and treachery; that “angry” Indians initiated the attack alone; and that those same angry Indians may be solely responsible for the brunt of the crime, which unfolded on the last day of a five-day siege.

Bagley maintains that Young met with Paiute chiefs nearly a week before the wagon train was attacked. He cites in his book the journal entry of Dimick B. Huntington, Young’s confidant and the territory’s official federal Indian interpreter. The journal states that Young gave the Indians free run at wagon trains on the southern trail, which included the Arkansans and their sizable herd of livestock. Longstanding claims that the Indians strong-armed the Mormon militia into mass murder crumble under Bagley’s findings that the Paiutes were at the beck and call of the church, not the other way around.

Furthermore, Bagley reasons in the book that “the traditional explanation poses an untenable paradox—that Brigham Young was aware of ‘every sparrow’ that fell in Utah Territory but for more than a dozen years knew nothing of the worst crime to take place during his service as territorial governor, Indian superintendent, and commander in chief of the militia.” Add to it the question, unanswered by Holzapfel, of why it would be necessary to send a rider to Brigham Young for advice on whether to murder 120 emigrants. If the southern Utah militia was acting independently of the church, and if the wholesale slaughter and plunder of “gentiles” was not endorsed behavior, then, the argument goes, what was there to question?

As to rumors that the Arkansans were hostile and vulgar toward any and every Latter-day Saint within earshot of the overland trail, Bagley argues they were just that, rumors. Bagley’s book meticulously discredits tales of emigrant ruffians running rough-shod, finally concluding that, “Just as today a defense attorney might defame the victim in a rape case, such stories were designed to prove the murdered dead got what they deserved.” In short, Bagley poses this question, “Would you take your extended family on vacation to Saudi Arabia and denounce Mohammed as a camel jockey?”

After spending the better part of an hour alone with Holzapfel’s mini-treatise on the massacre, Bagley was livid. “It is horrific to think that they are teaching Utah children this kind of crap,” he said. “This is an incompetent piece of propaganda.”

The Mormons spared 17 children; they didn’t “save” them. And what about the 50 children murdered? Bagley asked in an e-mail critique of the passage. As firsthand witness and Mormon militia Lt. Nephi Johnson said, “White men did most of the killing.” Moreover, every one of the surviving children’s stories says that when the “Indians” washed off the paint off their faces, “they were white men.”

“The Paiutes were no more responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre than the Jews were for the Holocaust,” Bagley said.

Based on Holzapfel’s previous work, Bagley is convinced that he was the wrong author to tackle Mountain Meadows. “He’s quite prolific, and he has done some fairly credible work … but he is notoriously sloppy,” Bagley said. “In my view [the textbook] ought to be pulled off the shelves immediately.”

In a telephone interview, Holzapfel didn’t address the details of his Mountain Meadows passage directly, except to say, “I didn’t want to change the hats, Mormons wearing the black hats, and Indians wearing the white hats.” Later he added, “People have always been in conflict. There have always been, within groups, people who have had power, and people who haven’t; that’s human nature.”

Some critics might argue that Holzapfel let slide the perfect opportunity to flesh out this power struggle when he failed to address the West’s last recorded lynching of a black man.

On June 18, 1925, a mob of seemingly respectable Price citizens, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, overpowered police and kidnapped Robert Marshall, a black itinerant mine worker arrested on suspicion of murdering a white deputy sheriff. About two and a half miles outside of town, more than 800 watched as Marshall was hauled up a tree at the end of a rope. Ten minutes later he was lowered back to the ground, but when leaders of the lynch-mob saw Marshall still showing signs of life they hung him again, this time making sure to snap his neck. None of 125 subpoenaed witnesses would testify before a grand jury that they saw who killed Marshall, compelling the state to scrap indictments against several suspects.

“It would seem to me that a thorough historian would include it,” said the Rev. France A. Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. Davis attended a 1998 ceremony in Price, which aimed to salve open wounds that have endured since the lynching. But the reconciliation gesture was not well-received by many in Price where, as one elderly resident told The Salt Lake Tribune, “There wasn’t more prejudice than any other place back then, and there’s not now.” But including it in the textbook “would give [students] a sense of the fullness and completeness of their own history, both the good and the bad,” Davis said. “If we don’t know the past, then we are likely to repeat it.”

Holzapfel said he weighed those concerns against the sensibilities of impressionable seventh-graders in deciding not to deal with the lynching directly. When he started work on the textbook in 1993, he co-opted his own children as a focus group. “Today, maybe it wouldn’t be bad to focus in on it as an act of violence, but you know, you don’t want your kids to go home with nightmares,” he said, adding “I wanted the book to tell a fairly upbeat story.”

Dancing around the crux of history, Holzapfel alludes to the Marshall lynching with the account of Howard Browne Sr., a black man who settled with his family outside of Price in 1929. Without telling why, Browne stated, “Price, well, that was off-limits to blacks.”

Marshall’s lynching is remarkable only because it was the last of about a dozen in Utah and Utah Territory, said University of Utah history Professor Larry Gerlach. Utah’s official state history Website deals with the 1883 Salt Lake City lynching of Sam Joe Harvey. A black ex-soldier, Harvey was beaten to a bloody mess by police after being arrested for gunning down City Marshal Andrew Burt in broad daylight. No one would ever learn what set Harvey off that day, because before the marshal’s body was cold, lawmen turned the killer over to a seething mob gathered in front of City Hall. More than 1,000 furious vigilantes summarily stomped, whipped, hung and paraded Harvey through the streets of Salt Lake City.

Holzapfel was not so squeamish when vigilante justice prevailed in the deaths of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, 81 years before the Marshall lynching. Accompanied by an artist’s rendition of the scene, Holzapfel notes that mob violence and angry accusations led to the Smiths’ imprisonment in Carthage, Ill. There, they were martyred, unjustly killed for their religion, Holzapfel wrote on behalf of the aggrieved Saints.

Several questions arise from Holzapfel’s lead-up to the Smith brothers’ killings:

Some Mormons left the church. A group of men started a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. They printed stories about young girls being taken against their will to be polygamous wives of Joseph Smith. They printed what Joseph Smith said were other lies about him and the way women in Nauvoo were treated. Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, ordered the destruction of the press. In nearby towns, angry people accused Joseph Smith of going against America’s freedom of the press (Holzapfel p. 80).

In Blood of the Prophets, Bagley provides clarity where Holzapfel was somewhat ambiguous. The founders of the Nauvoo Expositor were Dr. Robert Foster and William Law, former-Saints who renounced Mormonism when Joseph Smith propositioned their wives to be his own, Bagley reported. And another possible cause for the destruction of the Expositor, Bagley wrote, was Joseph Smith’s concern that the paper would publish his prophecy to overthrow the U.S. government.

Holzapfel also makes little mention of the LDS Church’s landmark decision to extend the coveted priesthood to black men, except for this elusive timeline entry, “1978: LDS Church announces revelation on priesthood.”

With only 300 pages to work with, though, Holzapfel said it was tough to pick and choose what got in and what was left out. In the case of the priesthood revelation, he was hoping that “as the teacher taught it and the kids read it, they would say ‘What is this?’” and a dialogue would proceed accordingly. Another concern, brought by advisers to Holzapfel, was that the second half of the book should focus more on secular Utah and less on Mormons.

In yet another touchy chapter of Utah history, Holzapfel’s take on the settlement of Iosepa by Hawaiian converts near Tooele in 1889 evokes more questions than answers. The settlement was arranged by Mormon officials to improve the economic position of the newly arrived Saints, Holzapfel wrote, but “All in all, Iosepa was a bitter disappointment. The desert climate and culture were just too different from the people’s island homes.”

Two years before the church encouraged their exodus back to the islands, Iosepa residents received the state inspector’s highest honor for the colony’s cleanliness and immaculately kept homes. By most accounts, Iosepa was a thriving community. And when they left the settlement—where racial prejudice had banished them decades earlier—many were defiant and in tears, according to reports in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Bagley remarks, half jokingly, “What kind of a pervert would take people from the Hawaiian Islands and give them a homestead in Skull Valley? If you don’t think brown skin had anything to do with it, you’re fooling yourself. It wasn’t that they couldn’t make it, it was that they were never accepted in Utah society.”

Asked if bigotry played into the decision to segregate and then repatriate the islanders, Holzapfel answered, “That’s a good question.”

Given his credentials, it would seem fitting that Holzapfel’s reflections would fall in line with those of the church. He has taught LDS history and doctrine as a professor at Brigham Young University for the past 10 years. The decade before that, he was a coordinator for the LDS Church Educational System in Irvine, Calif. Some of his recent scholarly works include Joseph F. Smith: Portrait of a Prophet, Brigham Young: Images of the Mormon Prophet, and Their Faces Toward Zion: Voices and Images of the Trek West.

But a closer look reveals an author torn by loyalties far removed from his church. Holzapfel belongs to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Democratic Party and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations. He even voted Ralph Nader for President in 2000. Holzapfel, then, isn’t exactly the myopic theocrat it would be tempting to blame for scrubbing Utah’s history. On the contrary, Holzapfel said, his is the most progressive textbook that could have wound its way through the state’s intricate approval system.

In the 1996 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, historian James Loewen describes the litany of obstacles standing in the way of getting a history textbook adopted intact. “A host of … reasons—pressure from the ‘ruling class,’ pressure from textbook adoption committees, the wish to avoid ambiguities, a desire to shield children from harm or conflict, the perceived need to control children and avoid classroom disharmony, pressure to provide answers—may help explain why textbooks omit troublesome facts.”

Add to that the responsibility of textbook authors to write profitable books for publishers and it becomes understandable why Holzapfel feels he did the best job he could. “It [writing a textbook] is a minefield, and the idea is to step on as few mines as you can,” he said. “Textbooks have that balance of ‘let’s produce something that’s quote, responsible, but also marketable,’ because if the school boards don’t accept it, then the book was written for nothing.”

Not good enough, said Loewen, who coauthored the first “revisionist” state history textbook in the country by 1974. The Harvard-educated Ph.D. in sociology was teaching at Mississippi’s predominantly black Tougaloo College at the time. The Mississippi State Textbook Board rejected his book, partly because it included a photograph showing a black man burning in a bonfire while a white lynch mob posed for the camera. Loewen and his supporters filed suit against the textbook board. At one point during the ensuing trial, a rating-committee member testified that the material would make it hard for a “white lady” teacher to control black students, Loewen said.

To which the judge asked, “Didn’t lynchings happen in Mississippi?”

“Yes, but it was all so long ago, why dwell on it now?” the rating-committee member responded.

“It is a history book, isn’t it?” shot back the judge, who eventually ruled in favor of Loewen’s group in 1980.

“American history is full of fantastic and important stories,” Loewen wrote in Lies My Teacher Told Me, “yet [students] sleep through the classes that present it.” Loewen’s mission, then, is to ensure the precise telling of history, with all of its unsavory warts and often horrific episodes, leaving students no choice but to engage the material.

“Textbooks … keep students in the dark about the nature of history. History is a furious debate informed by evidence and reason. Textbooks encourage students to believe that history is facts to be learned,” Loewen wrote in his book. “Because textbooks employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students to question them.”

As to the Marshall lynching, or any lynching for that matter, Loewen does not accept the argument that a 12-year-old’s fragile disposition is reason enough to sanitize the historical record. “I have taught kids as young as fourth grade about lynchings and showed them pictures of lynchings,” he said by telephone from his Washington, D.C., home. “If they could handle it, surely seventh-graders in Utah can handle it.

“If we leave out unpleasant truths like lynchings, we make students stupider about the past. They then are less able to understand that racism has been a force in Utah and in the United States. This in turn makes them prone to being stupid about the present.”

Take for instance the racial disparities in median family incomes throughout the United States. Loewen argues, “If we don’t understand that racism is an important factor, then we are likely to simply blame the nonwhites for not shaping up,” he said.

Along the vein of historical relativism, Loewen drives his point home asking, “Would we want other countries to lie about their past? Do we think that seventh-graders today in Germany should be insulated from learning about Kristallnacht [the first day of pogroms against the Jews] because it might depress them, because it’s not upbeat?”

Interestingly enough, Loewen has intimate knowledge of Utah’s particular inability to confront the past. In Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, Loewen addresses the historically vague markers at various monuments commemorating the Mountain Meadows Massacre. At the time of his book’s publication in 2000, most of the massacre monuments were either inaccurate or misleading inscriptions that deflected and inferred blame for the killings, but never came right out and said who did what.

At the dedication of a new Mountain Meadows gravesite memorial in 1999, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley asked those in attendance to “Let the book of the past be closed.”

Bagley certainly pried the book back open in 2002. And now three historians with strong LDS devotions and unfettered access to previously sealed church records will rifle through its pages once more, their sights set on submitting yet another definitive conclusion to the saga.

Glen Leonard, Richard Turley and Ronald Walker previewed their forthcoming work at the annual meeting of the Mountain Meadows Association on Sept. 12 in St. George. Most of what they presented condemns or questions the historians upon whose beaten paths the three now tread.

Director of the Museum of Church History and Art, Leonard gave a meticulous but tedious review of the maps that historians Josiah Gibbs, Juanita Brooks and Will Bagley relied on in describing the events at Mountain Meadows. His conclusion: the Paiutes were possibly well within range to commence the initial attack on the Arkansans, and John D. Lee and the men under his command were possibly stationed well away from the action.

For his presentation, Turley, managing director of the LDS Church’s Family and Church History Department, resurrected rumors that the most despicable brand of ruffian, “Missouri Wildcats,” could well have been riding with the Arkansas party and could be to blame for riling Mormons up and down the southern trail.

And in a sneak peak at the impending book’s introductory chapter, titled “Dying Well,” Walker discounted Lee’s repeated implications of Brigham Young in the massacre, saying that Lee was acting out of disgruntlement that the church had abandoned him. A professor of history at Brigham Young University, Walker also said he thinks Lee’s lawyer “jazzed up” the transcription of Lee’s damning confession to cash in on royalties when it was published.

On hand for the St. George symposium, Bagley was unimpressed. “If that was a real academic conference, they would have been laughed off the stage,” he said.

Meanwhile, Holzapfel challenges critics to recognize the improvements he has made over the predecessor to his own textbook, which he says was the bland story of 100 influential, white, Mormon men. “I see the glass half full in this book. I see more victories in this book than losses,” he said.

“Have we fallen short? Certainly. Do we need to improve? Certainly.” But remember, said Holzapfel, “I bent over backwards to give this to every possible reviewer,” and “when the book came out, people were saying ‘Thanks.’”

Pin It

About The Author

Shane Johnson

More by Shane Johnson

  • Insult to Injury

    A former intern alleges the Workers Compensation Fund pits counselors against injured workers.
    • Oct 23, 2007
  • Good Day, Sir

    Utah’s newspaper monopoly sparks an antitrust inquiry by refusing a “competitor’s” ad.
    • Sep 6, 2007
  • Blotter Fodder

    2/7/06, 1000 hours, Rolling Stolen, 1000 W. North Temple St.“An officer was leaving the 7-11 [sic] at this location and observed a car pull into the parking lot,” Salt Lake City police reported. “The car drew his attention and he ran...
    • Jun 11, 2007
  • More »

Latest in News

  • Heavy Pedal

    Road to regulate bike taxis bumpy, protracted.
    • Oct 19, 2016
  • Thanks for Nothing

    Tragic details of a young man's suicide in a Utah prison cell are brought back to life by his grandma's lawsuit.
    • Oct 12, 2016
  • Balk the Vote

    Nonprofit sets sights on re-energizing young voters.
    • Oct 5, 2016
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • Armed Resistance

    A new report links Utah legislator to patriot groups
    • Aug 26, 2015
  • Gone But Not Forgotten

    Utah's first nonprofit homeless hospice will provide a peaceful end to a hard life
    • Apr 22, 2015

© 2016 Salt Lake City Weekly

Website powered by Foundation