Blogs > Cliopatria > He Was a Founding Father of Our Town, After All

Apr 9, 2004 11:40 am

He Was a Founding Father of Our Town, After All

From the Salt Lake Tribune (April 9, 2004):

"John D. Lee lamented the fact that he must bequeath to his children a legacy of shame, but even he could not guess how this burden would grow with the years." -- JUANITA BROOKS

With those words, the late Juanita Brooks opened the final chapter of her authoritative biography, John D. Lee: Zealot -- Pioneer Builder -- Scapegoat. She would not be surprised that Lee's legacy to southern Utah still is a matter of controversy, though she could not have foreseen how the latest chapter would unfold.

Washington City, just north of St. George, has decided to honor its founders with statues, among them the likeness of John D. Lee. This has inflamed some of the descendants of victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, who cannot believe that the city would honor the only man convicted and executed for his role in that mass murder, perhaps the darkest episode in Utah history.

The title of Brooks' biography hints at the many-sided nature of both Lee and the historical disputes that continue to swirl around him. For he was not only one of the perpetrators of a mass murder, he was a scapegoat for others who were involved, according to several scholarly books, including the seminal The Mountain Meadows Massacre by Brooks herself.

That aside -- and it is a huge aside -- Lee also was one of the leading frontiersmen and pioneers of southern Utah. The city officials of Washington City say it is for that role that they are honoring him.

While Brooks' biography does not place him in the founding wagon company that settled Washington in May 1857, she does report that he purchased land and a house there only a few months later. He added to his holdings in Washington in November 1858, and built his"mansion," a two-story house of cut stone. Clearly, Lee became one of the leading citizens of the town in its earliest days.

   His contributions to the building of settlements in southern Utah extend far beyond his work at Washington, however. He was prominent in the party that colonized Parowan in 1851 in the hope of creating an iron industry, and he later founded the community of Harmony between Cedar City and St. George.

  The dark side of his story is that a few months after he bought land at Washington, he lured the Arkansas immigrants to their deaths under a flag of truce at Mountain Meadows in September 1857. In 1877, justice finally caught up with Lee, but none of the other eight men named in the original indictment, including the Mormon militia commanders, was ever tried.

If the people of Washington City wish to honor John D. Lee, the pioneer, that is their right. But given the deep scars that remain from Mountain Meadows, it is an odd choice.

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Michael Green - 5/7/2004

The Salt Lake Tribune's reporter would be well-advised to read my friend Sally Denton's magnificent book, American Massacre. John D. Lee wasn't quite the sole mastermind of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.