I am certainly not alone in remembering where I was sixteen years ago today. Roommates gone, I was working at home in the avenues of Salt Lake City reading nineteenth-century newspapers on the velvety green couch. The Today show on in the background suddenly became an inescapable foreground as I saw a plane collide with second tower of the World Trade Center.
I had just started to work as a research assistant for Ron Walker on a project that I described to people as working on Brigham Young and the Indians. Not public yet, I could not tell people what I was really doing—researching the Mountain Meadows Massacre. For various reasons, including the possibility that the project could be shut down, it would not be public for several more excruciating months. As I began to work for Ron, I read the Salt Lake Tribune from the 1870s for weeks. Tales of bloody horror produced consistent nausea. But the horror of that morning felt categorically different—it was present. In that moment I entirely missed a significant parallel.
It didn’t even occur to me that exactly one hundred and forty-four years earlier on that very day a Mormon militia was gathering and recruiting Native Americans to enact horrific violence on Arkansan emigrants encamped at a mountain meadow valley in Southern Utah. I couldn’t continue to relive other shadowy horrors of the past that day; I closed my laptop and watched my tv. There was too much horror clearly in front of me.
Since that day, I’ve written on the anniversary of 9/11 more than once. Though the splintering and cracking of the world on that day in 2001 seemed to slash a permanent mark, I remember it differently every time. Different parts of my memory are illuminated like a powerful pensieve. Pieces seem to come together in the moment only to fall apart later under scrutiny. As it think about it in this moment I almost feel like I can still sense the comfort of the green microfiber couch that directly contradicted the sharp realities of glass and smoke tearing a hole in the future. Yet, was that couch really green and as cozy as I remember or was that my sister’s couch?
Mormons believe that we pass through a veil of forgetfulness as we pass into this world and we can never fully escape the forgetting here—it is endemic to our mortal condition. And remembering is a tricky business. Though a persistent admonition of the Book of Mormon text, it is never easy. Memories come in fits and starts, morphing as we craft and re-experience the past in our own present. Historical markers and monuments remember a certain past, not always a competent or complete one.
Mormons collectively worked to forget the events of that now notorious day in 1857 for many years until the heroic work of a southern Utah schoolteacher forced us to begin to remember. Juanita Brooks felt compelled to commence the difficult work of illuminating the shadows. As the work for what became Massacre at Mountain Meadows began in 2001, the authors, the researchers, and by proxy the LDS church was entering a new phase of remembering. We built on the foundation built by the determined grit of Brooks. If we could face the darkest corner of our history and shine a light, then perhaps we could begin to see a more vivid but also more complex view of our shared past.
For me, Massacre at Mountain Meadows is a monument to that work. It helps me remember. It reminds me that it matters that we remember the past as a complete whole—the light and the dark. It reminds me that we are strong enough to ask hard questions. We are strong enough to exist within a world of contradictions—both around us and in each of us. We can thrive in this world of opposition. We are strong enough to do the work to remember today and each day.
Janiece Johnson is a Willes Center Research Associate at BYU’s Maxwell Institute. She specializes in American religious history—specifically Mormon history, gender, and the prosecution for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. She is general editor of the recently published Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).