Criticism of Mormonism/Books/One Nation Under Gods/Use of sources/Poisoning myth

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Latter-day Saint historians and the poisoning myth

A FairMormon Analysis of: One Nation Under Gods, a work by author: Richard Abanes

Author's Claims


One Nation under Gods, page 443 (paperback)

  • "Blood of the Prophets [by Will Bagley] once and for all dispelled the long-standing Mormon myth that members of the doomed company poisoned an important cattle stream, thereby almost deserving their fate."

Answer


Mormon authors have not accepted the poisoning uncritically, and Bagley is not the first to challenge it, or claim that if true it would not justify the slaughter at Mountain Meadows.

Detailed Analysis

  • Even if the immigrants had poisoned a stream, they would not deserve their fate, as the Ensign noted: "nothing that any of the emigrants purportedly did or said, even if all of it were true, came close to justifying their deaths....Some traditional Utah histories of what occurred at Mountain Meadows have accepted the claim that poisoning also contributed to conflict—that the Arkansas emigrants deliberately poisoned a spring and an ox carcass near the central Utah town of Fillmore, causing illness and death among local Indians. According to this story, the Indians became enraged and followed the emigrants to the Mountain Meadows, where they either committed the atrocities on their own or forced fearful Latter-day Saint settlers to join them in the attack. Historical research shows that these stories are not accurate."[1]

Previous LDS accounts

  • All LDS accounts have not accepted this "myth" as readily or completely as the author would have us believe.

B.H. Roberts (1930)

After telling about the alleged poisoning, B.H. Roberts wrote in his 1930 work:

"On the other hand it is alleged that the poisoning of dead cattle resulted from their having eaten a poisonous weed that grows in southern Utah. Jacob Forney, who succeeded Brigham Young as Indian agent for the territory, makes this as an explanation in his report to the government and cites the case of the ox of Mr. Ray...as being so killed while the Arkansas emigrants were in the neighborhood of Corn Creek....It is further asked what motive the Arkansas party could have for thus inviting the hostility of the Indians. The only answer, if any, would be the general contempt in which western emigrants held the Indians, the lightness in which they regarded the act of taking their lives, culminating in that most wretched of all aphorisms of the mountains and the plains—'The only good Indian is a dead one.'"[2]

Roberts points out, therefore, the problematic aspects of the poisoning story. As Walker et al. point out, the Utahns may have sincerely believed the poisoning charge, though it is false. Immigrants also accused the Mormons of poisoning their cattle—the deaths in both cases were likely due to anthrax.[3]

Juanita Brooks (1950, 1962)

Another LDS historian was Juanita Brooks, who also expressed skepticism about this claim:

“After the deed was done, the Mormons tried to find all the justification possible, one of their favorite stories being that of a poisoned spring at which at least one Mormon died. This evidently stemmed from an incident told by Thomas Waters Cropper and written by him in his later life. At the time, he was just fifteen years old and was living at Fillmore. The part of his story pertinent here follows:
‘In company with several other boys I was up on the benches when we saw the unusual sight of an emigrant train. We ran down to where they were…. They dared us to ride one of their wild steers and I got on it, and it dashed into Cattelin’s Mill pond, which caused them a lot of merriment….
There appeared to be two companies of them joined together for safety form the Indians.. One company which was mostly men called themselves the Missouri Wild Cats. I heard one of them make the brag that he helped to mob and kill Joe Smith, and he further said, ‘I would like to go back and take a pop at Old Brig before I leave the territory.’ They moved on over to what was known as the Big Spring on the Corn Creek Sloughs. A lot of the Kanosh Indians came to their camp to beg and trade. One man insisted on examining an Indian’s bow and arrows but the Indian refused and jabbed an arrow into the man’s breast. The man whipped out a revolver and shot the Indian dead.
They poisoned the spring and a number of cattle died around the spring. The Indians ate some of the meat and several Indians died from the effects.
I went over and saw the cattle dead around the spring. Proctor Robinson son of Joseph Robinson had been skinning some of the cattle. He went back with me as far as Meadow and insisted on my going on to Fillmore with him (I was staying at Barrows). He was on a poor rhone mare and I was afraid she would not carry us both, but we started for Fillmore about eight miles distant. When about 2 miles out it began to rain. He complained of his eye and kept rubbing it. It swelled shut and the rain came down in torrents. I slipped off form behind him and told him to {48} whip the old mare through and get home, for his face was getting very swollen.
I trudged on until I finally reached Fillmore. I was almost perishing with the cold and rain. I stopped in to warm and got something to eat at Theodore Rogers. Bro Rogers went part way home with me and I succeeded in getting home all right.
Next morning early I went down to see Proctor. He was so swollen and bloated I would not have recognized him. He died that night. Next day I went on the range and saw a lot more dead cattle.
This same company moved on South and met a sad fate at the Mountain Meadows’ [Typescript at Utah State Historical Society]” (47-48).
“Here is evidence of cattle dead from evident poisoning, which might have been the result of loco weed or other poison plant as well as polluted water. Proctor Robinson died of some infection from rubbing his eyes with hands that had been skinning animals too long dead. But this all provided a fact upon which it was easy to hang a growing line of accusations. Because of the Mormon tendency to exaggerate the offenses of the emigrants, reports from non-Mormons, and especially from men not friendly to the Mormons, take on added significance” (48).
“William B. Ashworth, in his ‘Autobiography,’ tells of their difficulties at Beaver, and of the intervention of the bishop there to prevent bloodshed:
‘I remember when the unfortunate company came through Beaver. They came in about noon and passed on about a mile to a nice patch of meadow grass. In {51} the afternoon some boys and myself were up on the east edge of town and saw a man from the camp coming through the sage brush. He had a gun and was apparently hunting rabbits. There were some strange Indians in town, and one of them fired a shot at this man, but did not seem to hurt him, as he turned and ran back towards the camp.
This incident caused quite a commotion in the town. The bishop and a number of the other men were gathered to learn the cause of the trouble. They met the Indians who were from Corn Creek; this seemed to be the headquarters for the Indians in that part of the country. The Indians said, ‘The men of the Mericats (this term was generally used to designate what the Mormons called Gentiles), while encamped at Corn Creek, poisoned a mule that had died, and also a spring, and the Indians had been made sick by eating the mule and drinking the water, and they were heap made!’
Bishop, who was pretty well versed in Indian lore, sympathized with them, but told them they must not harm the emigrants, as there were lots of innocent women and children in the company, but with all the reasoning and persuading the Indians were determined to revenge themselves. They were offered an animal for beef, this being the policy of Mormons all through the early days, being the advice of President Young, ‘It is better to feed them than to fight them.’ But this offer had no effect.
About this time a delegation from the camp came up to learn more about the trouble. They were told what had been done to dissuade the Indians from making further trouble, but that all their efforts had been to no avail. The bishop then advised the emigrants to protect themselves as best they could, as the town would not help them on account of all the women and children whose safety depended on the friendliness of the Indians. He urged the men not to come up into the town, as that would jeopardize, not only themselves but the people of Beaver. I was by my father’s side and listened to every word with interest’
Fortunately, just about sundown, Chief Walker and some others of his tribe came into town, and he was persuaded to let the emigrants proceed on their way. They, however, not realizing the danger they were in, manifest a very bitter spirit against the Mormons, and some of them were reported to have said they would like to go back to Salt Lake and help hang ‘Old Brigham and the church leaders.’
The Indians all disappeared the day after the emigrants left and it was surmised that they had followed the emigrants. This was at the time when there was a great bitterness against the Mormons. Buchanan’s UY.S. army was even then on its way to Utah for no good purpose’ [typescript in BYU]” (50, and note 17, 50-51; the underlined portion was in text; all of it in note).

“While the above excerpt does show the conditions at the time, it has the weakness of all reminiscences. In this case, the writer did not remember his Indians well, for Chief Walker had died in January, 1855, nearly three years earlier” (51, note 17).

“Years later, Laban Morrill wrote in his journal:
‘My opponents claimed that there were among the emigrants men who had assisted in the crimes of murdering and driving from {54} their homes our people in Missouri and that one of them had openly boasted that he had helped to kill our prophet. Other claims brought against them by my opponents (among them were many redmen) were that they had poisoned the springs of water, etc., as they passed through the territory, and had proclaimed that they would help to kill every damn Mormon off the earth’ [Typescript, BYU]” (53-4).
“Then, too, there was the problem of the Indians, newly impressed with the fact that the Mormons and Mericats were at war, and that they must help the Mormons. The stories of the poisoned seeps and the poisoned meat were told and retold, and grew with the telling. The herds of cattle and the fine outfits of this company would be a fair reward for doing away with people who so definitely deserved to be killed. The Indians, being ‘the battle-ax of the Lord,’ could logically do the work, for they had no qualms about shedding blood, even innocent blood. Since the Big Mormon Chief wanted them to help with this war, here was a good place to begin. So the native shad followed and annoyed the company, happy in the sense of Mormon approval; they sent {57} out runners to other bands for reinforcements in this exciting and thrilling game” (56-57).
“There is some evidence that rumors of this party had reached Harmony earlier, for Benjamin Platte, a convert from England who was working for Lee at the time, said
‘In September the famous Mountain Meadows Massacre was committed I saw John D. Lee leave Harmony Fort on Sunday morning to go to meet the Emagrants at Mountain Meadows as they were campt there and the rumer was that they were very mean on the road to the people and had poisened an Ox at corn creek and given it to the Indians with intent to poison them and this enraged the Indians so that they {76} were on there trail to massacre them at the first opertunity and they wanted the Mormons to help them and a few days before Lee started I heard some Indians talking to Lee and asking him to go and help fight them but he refused to do so, saying that the Indians had killed a good man meaning Captain Gunison of the United States surveying party he was killed at Gunison Sanpete County [sic] but on Saturday night he went to Cedar City to get his horses shod and came back with orders to gather up Indians and go to the Imagrants camp and commence an asalt on them as I was told by Don Carlos Shirts his son in law and the next Sunday morning he came back with a company of Indians loaded with plunder such as beds and tinwair and in about three days after there were a large heard of cattle brought to Harmony and he branded them with JDL I think perhaps 3 or 4; When he came back he road around half way of the fort inside about aposet the well and made this exclamation Thanks to the Lord God of Isriel that had delivered our enemies into our hands, the Indians following in single file after him with their plunder He afterwards made a statement of the affair in meeting in the afternoon;
In the afternoon he told a great deal of what was done in a meeting called for that purpose’ [copy of diary in Henry Huntington Library]” (note 2, page 75-76).[4]

Notes

  1. Richard E. Turley, Jr., "The Mountain Meadows Massacre," Ensign (September 2007), 14–21.
  2. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 4:147-148 n. 18. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  3. Turley, Walker and Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, 122-124.
  4. Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press 1983; 1st 1950 at Stanford University; 2nd edition 1962).