In his dissertation on the popular historical consciousness of Mormons in the American West, Eric Eliason suggested that the “commemoration of the cooperative and purposeful Mormon pioneer migration has achieved a particularly well-developed form” among modern Mormons — “the July 24th Days of ’47 celebration in Salt Lake City . . . [and] similar Pioneer Day events [that] claim the public space of Main Street in over 80 Western communities.” Last week, I headed down to small-town Southern Utah to experience what Eliason labeled “the flagship pioneer-reverencing event in Mormondom.”
Thursday morning, I gathered with my wife, siblings, parents, nieces, and about 40 other relatives in front of the old Bishop’s Storehouse along Main Street in Panguitch, Utah to enjoy the Pioneer Day parade.
Afterwards, we headed a couple of miles down Highway 89 to the Panguitch Cemetery, resting place of many of my ancestors. Among the gravesites we visited was that of Hayden Wells Church, who converted to Mormonism in Tennessee in the 1840s with his family, but only he ever made it west to Utah (thanks to a stint as a soldier in the Mormon Batallion). Church died, incidentally, while on a mission to Tennessee in the 1870s, and is (perhaps fittingly) buried there today, near his parents and siblings. However, last year his headstone was brought from Tennessee to southern Utah, so that it could rest among the graves of his wife, children, and descendants. Fittingly, it has been decorated with a Mormon Batallion plaque.
As I sat there listening to my relatives rehearse the heroic deeds of my ancestors, I wondered about the significance of historical landmarks and sites in the collective Latter-day Saint conscious. I witnessed in that cemetery some of my pre-pubescent and teenage cousins acting as enthralled and interested in their pioneer ancestors as my genealogically-devoted aunt. What was it about visiting these material markers that aroused the historical imagination and interest in all present?
Eric Eliason argued that “Collectively, civic Pioneer Day celebrations help sustain the pioneers’ place in Mormons’ regional imagination.” But what about for individuals? Why does my otherwise antisocial 17-year old cousin actually care and converse when pioneer ancestors are brought up? Steven Olsen has suggested that “Church historic sites . . . in a very real sense . . . are the public places where the ‘work and . . . glory’ of God (Moses 1:39) have been most explicitly made manifest in this dispensation. Historic sites document the most significant events and key personalities of the gospel’s restoration.” It appears that visiting the grave of one of our own ancestors in turn allows us to see our pioneer forebearers as being included among those “key personalities” that participated in those “most significant events.” I’m personally conflicted as to the benefits of this mindset. While I’m thrilled that it encourages otherwise apathetic individuals to take an interest in their history, it also holds the potential to further marginalize those who don’t come from “pioneer stock.”
Debating those issues and proposed solutions will have to wait for another post another day. While visiting the graves of deceased ancestors in Panguitch, I also made sure the grave of the infamous John D. Lee (located a hundred feet or so from those of my ancestors).
Expectedly, the conversation among those of us who gathered around Lee’s grave turned to the Mountain Meadows massacre. Having never visited, I decided that when I returned to Provo two days later, I would first head southwest to visit the site. While my wife had no interest in joining me, my dad agreed to come along. When we arrived on Saturday morning, the contrast between this historical site and those we had visited two days prior was striking (though not surprising). In addition to the geographical isolation of Mountain Meadows, the complete absence of any other visitors contrasted strongly with the multitudes gathered for the Pioneer Day parade on the 24th.
Shannon Novak, author of the recently-released House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (reviewed here by Jared T.), and Lars Rodseth commented in a 2006 article on the problem Mountain Meadows presents to the celebration of pioneers in Mormon thought.
Devout Mormons have a powerful identification with their ancestors (whether biological or spiritual) in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. . . . Always the victims and never the victimizers, Mormons of the nineteenth-century are routinely portrayed as morally heroic and tragically misunderstood. No other event challenges the credibility of this image as does the Mountain Meadows massacre.
As Novak and Rodseth documented, the massacre at Mountain Meadows is an event rife with contested meanings among involved groups and individuals. Over the last 151 years, descendants of the victims, the institutional Church, historians, and individuals in Southern Utah all have contributed to the ever-changing meanings associated with what happened on Septmeber 11, 1857. In doing so, Novak and Rodseth argue, they have “redrawn social boundaries.” Cooperation and conflict among the groups have at times marginalized some groups and at other times created wider (and sometimes unexpected) social alliances. “Commemoration itself,” the authors suggest, “becomes a path to wider social alliances.” Henry B. Eyring’s statement last year at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the tragedy touched on this theme.
It is important and appropriate that we meet together on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. We gather as relatives of the massacre victims and perpetrators and as unrelated but interested and sympathetic parties. We gather to remember and to honor those whose lives were taken prematurely and wrongly in this once lush and pastoral valley.
But again, what about individual remembrance? Why did my dad and I choose to go visit the site of the most unfortunate and inexcusable event in Mormon history? I went because I’m a historian. I’m not sure why my dad went. When we arrived, he was full of questions about what exactly had happened and why it happened. I don’t think my answers satisfied him. They contextualized the tragedy, but they were ambiguous in specifically addressing why this group of otherwise faithful and good Mormons would do such a thing.
Later that day, my dad described the experience to my mom as “interesting.” It was a somber experience, and I don’t know whether he was glad he accompanied me or not. So now I’m left with lingering questions and unresolved ponderings. Is there value in making the pilgrimage to sites like Mountain Meadows for Latter-day Saints today? It’s clear that this issue “will not die,” but what place does Mountain Meadows deserve in our historical consciousness? I’m not advocating letting it ruin our celebration of pioneer courage and determination, but can and should it be incorporated into our individual narratives of Latter-day Saint history?
 Eric A. Eliason, Celebrating Zion: Pioneers in Mormon Popular Historical Expression (Provo, UT: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History and BYU Studies, 2004), 1.
 Eliason, Celebrating Zion, 59.
 Steven L. Olsen, “Historic Sites as Institutional Memory,” in Telling the Story of Mormon History: Proceedings of the 2002 Symposium of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University, ed. William G. Hartley (Provo, UT: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, 2004): 122.
 Shannon A. Novak and Lars Rodseth, “Remembering Mountain Meadows: Collective Violence and the Manipulation of Social Boundaries,” Journal of Anthropological Research 62:1 (Spring 2006): 4.)
 Novak and Rodseth, “Remembering Mountain Meadows,” 19.