The following text is an excerpt from the book "Writings of John D. Lee, Confession, Mountain Meadows, Letters, Poems and Last Words for his Families." It is published by "Hats Off Books" and may be purchased by following this link.
By any standard, John Doyle Lee's life is of historical interest. He was a man of uncommon energy, courage and dedication who welcomed adventure and change. He was witness to both inspiring and degrading events. He was a laborer in movements that changed the face of the American continent. Lee and his Mormon associates helped shape cultures in western United States, even to this day. He founded ranches and farms and villages, opened new lands, befriended the Indians. Always a leader and teacher, he was appointed "Farmer to the Indians" which meant that he was engaged in teaching them how to live and prosper in an agrarian society. To the last day of his life, he was a true believer in Christianity and Mormonism, a zealot some will say and blame his downfall on that zeal. Before the Mormons were driven out of the East and Midwest, he was a missionary, an associate of the Mormon Apostles and a trusted protector of their Prophet, Joseph Smith. Brigham Young, the charismatic builder and leader of the Mormons' new Zion, "adopted" Lee. Through a sealing ordinance, a church custom of that time, Lee became Brigham Young's second adopted son. Over many years, he loaded his adopted son with heavy responsibilities, as the Mormons crossed the continent and settled the Great Basin and Intermountain West. Brigham Young is reported to have commented that John D. Lee was the most competent frontiersman and settler that he had ever seen. On a human scale, John D. Lee was considered by most of those who knew him to be an intelligent, kind and even tender-hearted man who shared his food, shelter, knowledge and respect with everyone who needed it. Under the most trying circumstances, while he waited for his second trial in the Utah Territorial Prison, at age sixty-four and suffering deteriorating health, he showed his kind nature by sharing clothing and food. He made friends with the warden and interceded on behalf of other prisoners as he could. He organized a school for his fellow inmates in order to teach those who were illiterate to read and write. Another of the many extant stories about Lee portrays this tender side of his nature. While he was in the Beaver jail, awaiting his first trial, he was visited by George A. Smith, an important official of the Mormon Church who had responsibilities for Southern Utah. In the course of the conversation, Apostle Smith looked away and reminisced about Lee's past services to the Church. Giving Lee a compliment, he said, "John, in your whole lifetime you never turned a hungry person away from your door, did you?" When he looked back, he saw that Lee had his head bowed and that tears "the size of peas" were rolling down his cheeks. These may have been the first kind words Lee had heard in weeks. As a member of inner circles in Mormon society, John D. Lee was one of the first to enter into the very controversial practice of plural marriage, and he was certainly a family man! His letters are full of concern and love for his wives and children. He counseled them mercilessly on every aspect of their behavior and beliefs, but always with the most sincere affection. The last two statements that he dictated shortly before his execution reveal that his final thoughts were for his families, and, I believe, for his posterity. He proudly enumerated his nineteen wives and noted that he would be survived by fifty-four living children. Then he wrote a final statement for his families and charged his wife Rachel to take a copy to each member of his family. "Remember the last words of your most true and devoted friend on earth and let them sink deep into your tender aching hearts." Like the patriarchs of Genesis, he left his blessing with them and expressed his undimmed faith. "I ask my God in Heaven, in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, to receive my spirit, and allow me to meet my loved ones who have gone behind the veil" where he would "meet them with joy." He was referring to a wife and several children who predeceased him. In Lee's worldview, the end of history was at hand, and Jesus, the glorified Lord, would within a generation or two come in the clouds to rule the world, and Lee's children would be there to greet him. Lee's greatest accomplishment and joy was in his heritage of children, spirits from heaven that he had provided with lives in this earthly sphere, and was now leaving behind. Even in the most ecstatic moments, John D. Lee probably did not dream of the multitudes of his descendants that would be born in the next seven generations. At this writing (AD 2002) there are on recored more than ten thousand descendants of Lee and his wives. The roster includes many people of notable accomplishments, but mostly it is composed of just good people who strengthen the fabric of society. To balance this brief assessment of Lee's character, we must recognize that he could also be stubborn and opinionated on occasion and his blunt speech and unyielding ways garnered enemies. Many have wondered why, of all the prominent men indicted for the Mountain Meadows massacre, Lee was the only one to be tried and executed. The record seems to suggest it was his pride (or some say, stubbornness) that prevented him from accepting the "deals" that were offered by the Court and the law enforcement officials to save his life. The other defendants did flee the territory or compromise and manipulate their positions and the law until they received pardons or outlasted their pursuers, but Lee would not run and Lee would not bend. He refused to break his silence or to escape, even when urged to do so by those in authority in the Courts and the Church. He apparently was prepared to accept only one outcome, a verdict of "not guilty," and that verdict was not available to him. At the end he expressed his greatest fear, far stronger than any dread of death, that his children would have to bear the shame and mark of his crime. Perhaps this is the key to understanding his insistence to the very last moment that his guilt must be expunged, and his good name restored. Thus we are inevitably driven to the question of John D. Lee's guilt or innocence, and the justice of the verdict of first-degree murder and of his execution. John D. Lee pleaded "not guilty" to the crime of premeditated murder at his trials, as we can suppose, he was advised by his lawyers. He was indicted for murder, not for conspiracy (or combination as they called it) to murder. This allowed the government to try him separately, and avoided the obvious problem in the prosecution's case: Lee had not been present in the councils when the decisions were made to dupe, disarm and murder the emigrants, but it appears he may have been involved in the first "all-Indian" attack on the emigrant train. Through skillful cross-examination, Lee's defense attorney, Wm. W. Bishop, was able to demonstrate in both of his trials that there was no unambiguous or consistent evidence that John D. Lee actually killed any identifiable person. Obviously, this would be so, since most of the potential witnesses for prosecution were either indicted themselves, in hiding, or dead. Those who did testify, like Phillip Klingensmith, claimed they were too far away to see clearly what Lee was doing. Lee consistently asserted until his death, "I did nothing designedly wrong," and also that in his excitement he was not able to fire his gun. It is still unclear whether Lee did wound or take the life of one or more of the emigrants, but can that uncertainty clear his name? The quaint phrase, "designedly wrong," goes to the legal and moral question of intent. Lee may have been the one who was most conscious of the cowardly injustice of the acts he and his associates were about to carry out. In his confession, he most convincingly describes his intense feelings of conflict and sorrow as he contemplated the orders he had been given. But Lee was the one who entered the emigrant camp and looked into the faces of the intended victims, then betrayed their desperate trust in his humanity and the near-sacred promise of the white flag. There can be no honor in decoying and murdering unarmed people, even under the guise of an act of war. By 1876, he fully realized that he should have disobeyed those unjust orders and walked away, whatever the personal consequences, and this he made clear in his confession:
I here pause in the recital of this horrid story of man's inhumanity and ask myself the question, Is it honest in me, and can I clear my conscience before my God, if I screen myself while I accuse others? No, never! Heaven forbid that I should put a burden upon others' shoulders, that I am unwilling to bear my just portion of. I am not a traitor to my people, nor to my former friends and comrades who were with me on that dark day when the work of death was carried on in God's name, by a lot of deluded and religious fanatics. It is my duty to tell the facts as they exist, and I will do so.
Where does this leave us, as citizens of a democracy, as believers in justice? Can time ever erase this atrocity that stains our history? Can the Mormons forget this horrible crime perpetrated by men who were leaders, who acted in an aberrant manner so contrary to their beliefs and their history? Can the descendants of John D. Lee resolve the conflict between veneration for their patriarch and the disgust and shame of his crime? Can the descendants of the relatives of the emigrants who were slaughtered resolve their absolute loss? Life is imperfect and we must find ways to accept and incorporate the worst of reality, yet remain free of cynicism and nihilism. Let us try to consider John D. Lee's life and the massacre in a broader frame. Without attempting in any way to excuse the atrocity that is the Mountain Meadows massacre, we can understand it as one among many that took place in America in those tumultuous decades between about 1840 through 1890. It should be viewed against the backdrop of the killings of Mormons in Missouri and Illinois, the massacres and rebellions leading up to the Civil War, and that terrible war itself, in which hundreds of thousands of young men were slaughtered. After that came the "Indian Wars" in which major acts of genocide were perpetuated by the U. S. Army, and then, range wars between factions of our own citizens. One is led to comment that life was cheap in America in those days, until one considers the twentieth century. The horrors of the century ending a few years past, dwarf those of the nineteenth, particularly, that which has occurred on our own soil, in the loss of thousands of lives in a single massacre of September 11th. Until we find a way to resolve differences, human beings will kill each other individually and en masse, it seems. I now ask the readers' indulgence as I tell something of my personal relationship with John D. Lee. When I was a young boy (in the 1940's), growing up in the Mormon society of Utah and Arizona, John D. Lee's legend had evolved so much that he was often portrayed as a sort of minor frontier Dracula. Mothers, half-humorously, half seriously, threatened naughty children by chanting, "better watch out, or Ole' John D. Lee'll get ya'." The Mormon Church and the people of Southern Utah passively perpetuated the official cover story that John D. Lee, on his own initiative, had conscripted the Indians and carried out the slaughter. No other Mormons had been prosecuted, ergo, no other Mormons had been involved. This bizarre tragedy was a matter of overwhelming shame, to be hidden away and not spoken of. In the face of this stonewalling, a few among John D. Lee's descendants doggedly struggled to restore their fabled ancestor's reputation and "Church blessings." I remember attending a Lee family reunion and afterwards asking many questions. My father then told me the story: how John D. Lee, his maternal great grandfather, my great, great grandfather, had been betrayed and made a scapegoat to expiate the guilt of many men. My father emphasized the part about how John D. Had actually opposed the massacre. He dressed up the account with melodramatic "proofs" of John D.'s innocence. For instance, he told me how John D. had cried like a baby for the victims, and thereafter was known by the appellation "crybaby" among the Indians. In 1953, my father sent me a jubilant letter with some newspaper clippings that reviewed a new book by Juanita Brooks entitled The Mountain Meadows Massacre, which confirmed his stories about John D. Lee being a scapegoat for others. As soon as I could, I secured a copy and read it with growing interest in my famous and infamous ancestor. A decade later I was able to read Brooks' excellent biography of Lee, as well as the two volumes of his diaries she edited and published with Robert G. Cleland through the Huntington Library. About ten years ago, I obtained a copy of Mormonism Unveiled, and despite this inappropriate title I was fascinated to read Lee's own autobiography through 1847 and his Confession. I was grateful to have the record, but at the same time disturbed by the way it was packaged, by the gratuitous introductions and interpolations written by Lee's editor (his attorney Wm. W. Bishop) and the publisher. It was clear to me that Lee's last testament had been perverted into a sensationalized anti-Mormon tract. The editor and publisher were certainly not friends to the Mormon people and Church, and I suspect they also intended to make a good profit off this book which treated subjects that had scandalized the country, the massacre and also polygamy. Despite the bitterness at the end, John D. Lee still believed in the Mormon Gospel and he would not have approved the galleys of this book, in my opinion. I decided then to re-edit his work in a manner that I believe he would have approved. However, as is the case with so many projects, I put it on the shelf until my current semi-retirement allowed the time to give it the attention it deserves. As I researched and edited this collection of John D. Lee's writings, I believe I was able to enter a little into his mind. What I found there, among the clutter of daily affairs and his yearly round of heavy responsibilities managing his farms and enterprises, his many strong opinions and convictions, his fascination with the western frontier and the Indians, his love of God and his families, and behind the bitterness and disillusionment, what I found was a deep and irreconcilable sorrow that he could not go back and relive those six terrible days in 1857, when he made the worst mistake a person can make. Perhaps in the deepest recesses of his mind and heart Lee wanted to die after that and those feelings contributed to his refusal of the several offers that were made to him with the intention of saving his life. In his final statement, he acknowledged that not even the yielding up of his own life, the shedding of his own blood, could atone for the crime. The arrow of time points in only one direction, from the unalterable past, through the present and into the future. I would venture that there is hardly a person alive who can't empathize with that, who would not wish to reverse that arrow for a moment to change some unfortunate action done in the past.
Sadly, that is not how reality is structured, we can't go back, so there must be another way, and there is. Humans, as rational and spiritual beings, can forgive and be forgiven. For many, that is the core message of religions like Christianity and Buddhism. Love all beings as a mother loves her child (with complete good will and without reservation). Forgive your enemies; turn the other cheek and return good for evil. Be perfect (in your love and forgiveness) even as God is perfect, sending rain and sunshine to the unjust as well as the just. I believe that is the only solution for all who are concerned with the terrible event that dominates these writings. A process of mutual reconciliation and forgiveness has been under way for some time. I wold like to end this Introduction with a hopeful report to those who have been touched with grief for the victims and perhaps also for John D. Lee as they read his words. This process got underway about sixty years after the massacre when researchers and writers, some supported by Federal depression-era grants, started looking into the history of Southern Utah. The Mormon people have a well-developed tradition of preserving their personal and family histories. Many important documents about Mormon history emerged, including family records, diaries and journals, eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles, etc. Local and state Historical societies and university departments became active in piecing together the history of Southern Utah, including the massacre, as well as the biographies of Lee and other leaders. In 1938, Charles Kelly published the first volume of Lee's diaries from 1846-47, and 1859. Juanita Brooks also subsequently released her excellent book on the massacre, and Lee's Biography, as mentioned above. Descendants of John D. Lee built a family organization and held regular meetings and reunions. They worked to dispel the legend that had grown up and to disseminate the real story. Eventually they prevailed on the L.D.S. (Mormon) Church authorities to restore the membership of John D. Lee and seal him again to his wives and children vicariously in the Temple. The descendants of families whose relatives were lost with the massacre of the Fancher-Baker train were active in a parallel process. The Carroll County Historical and Genealogical Society in Arkansas became a depository for records and memorabilia of that event and those families. As groups from both sides of the tragedy converged in their research, they began to exchange information and to meet each other. Long standing resentment, shame and denial began to give way to mutual interests and then to friendships. In 1989, the Mountain Meadows Association was formed with members and directors from the Arkansas families and Utah families, particularly the Lee descendants and the descendants of those eighteen children of the Fancher-Baker Train who were saved. When people come together in a spirit of good will, they can overcome any challenge or barrier. In 1990 the Association undertook the erection of an appropriate memorial with the names of all those lost there. Another milestone in the road of reconciliation was reached on September 10th and 11th, 1999, when another reburial of newly discovered remains was accomplished. A memorial ceremony for those who were killed was held in Cedar City, Utah, followed by a dedication service at the Meadows of an impressive new monument honoring these victims.