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Red Water’: story of Mormon slaughter

In September of 1857 approximately 120 settlers traveling west to California were slaughtered as they crossed southern Utah. Only a few children under the age of eight were spared. The incident is referred to in history as the Mormon Meadows Massacre. Whether the instigators were the Native Americans of the region or Mormon inhabitants was debated for years. Two years ago the remains of more victims, primarily of women and children, all with gunshot wounds, were unearthed. Since then it has been assumed that Mormon settlers were, in fact, the killers.

John D. Lee, a respected elder of the Mormon Church, was eventually tried, convicted and executed by firing squad for his part in the massacre. His life and death are chronicled through the eyes of three of his 19 wives in Judith Freeman’s new work of historical fiction, “Red Water.”

Freeman was raised in a large Mormon family in Utah and gleans much of her insight of the religion from her own life. After reading a nonfiction account of the massacre, Freeman was interested in the subject and found herself asking “what is the nature of evil … it is a dirty little secret buried in the past … how could religion’s fervor result in such evil?”

Freeman states that the story of the Mormon Meadows Massacre was “compelling” to her because “I kept coming across names of my own relatives in the story … so the story had immediacy for me, it became irresistible to me.”

The book is told through the eyes of three of Lee’s wives. The first, an English woman named Emma, became his 17th wife at age 21. A recent immigrant to America, Emma was drawn to the new religion because it offered her an escape from her dreary life as a chambermaid. The author creates a vision of a woman who feels that she has met the man of her dreams in Lee. He looks to her to be her savior with his religious devotion and ability to “reduce people to tears” in his sermons.

Ann, his final wife and the most rebellious in nature, comes to terms with her desertion of the family while she tries to understand the hold of her husband on her life even after his death. She battles the notion that she will be reunited with him in heaven, telling herself that the beliefs she has known as fact are the result of brainwashing tactics.

Lee’s most fanatical wife Rachel is the true believer throughout. Her religious belief is the thing that holds her to her husband and even drives her to live out one of his jail sentences with him. The most bizarre aspect of the polygamist lifestyle rests in the fact that Lee’s first wife Aggatha is the older sister to Rachel. In time, he not only married them but also their aging mother. The belief surrounding this multiple union is that without the marriage, these women will not reach heaven after their deaths.

The many wives of John D. Lee gather around him in his time of need and show an intense devotion. The religion that they believe in so deeply is the very thing that eventually destroys their lives. To put an end to the curiosity of the massacre, Brigham Young orders that this wholly faithful family and their patriarch be banished from the religion and Lee tried for the crime. Therefore Lee becomes the scapegoat for an entire state and religion.

Native Americans play an important role in maintaining the livelihood of these settlers and Freeman paints a picture of Mormons as in turn both kind and condescending to the native people. Brigham Young arrogantly preaches that over time the natives will become “white and delightsome” with the help of religion. The Mormons think that their treatment of the Native Americans is somehow better than most white people’s, but in the end it is plain to see that these settlers build their lives on the backs of the natives just like everyone else.

Freeman’s writing is engaging throughout, with loving descriptions of the land. She doesn’t pander to the philosophy that polygamy is sordid. Instead she provides a vision of a people who went looking for a way of life and found it in the new religion. The questions she raises about the nature of belief are well worth pondering.