Will Bagley, Utah historian who chronicled Mountain Meadows Massacre, dies at 71

Brother of Tribune cartoonist earned praise and scorn for his volume “Blood of the Prophets.” He also wrote about the U.S. expansion and other aspects of Western history.

(Steve Griffin | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Historian Will Bagley, who specialized in Utah and the American West, photographed in his Salt Lake City office in 2010. Bagley died Sept. 28, 2021, at age 71.

Will Bagley — a historian who wrote clear-eyed and detailed accounts of Utah’s past, particularly in a comprehensive and controversial book about the Mountain Meadows Massacre — has died.

Bagley died Tuesday in Salt Lake City at age 71 after suffering a stroke, according to his brother, Pat Bagley, The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial cartoonist.

Will Bagley’s best-known book was “Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” published in August 2002. The book updated Juanita Brooks’ legendary 1950 volume, “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” about the murders of 120 California-bound Arkansas settlers crossing southern Utah, killed by Mormon militia men Sept. 11, 1857.

Among the most incendiary points in the book is Bagley’s argument that Young, then president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, likely orchestrated the slaughter from Salt Lake City.

Bagley didn’t explicitly say Young ordered the attack. But he insisted that “claiming that Brigham Young had nothing to do with Mountain Meadows is akin to arguing that Abraham Lincoln had nothing to do with the Civil War.”

In her review in The New York Review of Books, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Caroline Fraser called the book “an exhaustive, meticulously documented, highly readable history that captures the events and atmosphere that gave rise to the massacre, as well as its long tortuous aftermath. Bagley has taken great care in negotiating the minefield presented by what remains of the historical record.”

Fellow historian Brigham D. Madsen praised “Blood of the Prophets” in his review in the Western Historical Quarterly: “This new account of the massacre is a remarkable re-creation of the event and the cover-up that followed. The hallmark of the book is deep and thorough research with documentation never before examined, including many items from the Latter-day Saints archives.”

News that Bagley was working on “Blood of the Prophets” was enough to prompt church leaders to commission their own book, deploying historians Ronald Waker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard to the task. Their acclaimed book, “Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” was published in August 2008.

‘Passion and dedication’

In an email Wednesday to The Tribune, Turley called Bagley “a good friend” with whom he had spoken just last week, at a meeting of Utah Westerners, an area historians group.

“I admired his passion and dedication. We spent many hours together over the years discussing history,” Turley said. “When we chatted in public settings, sometimes people gathered with cameras to take photos of us, knowing we differed in our interpretations of some things. Of those occasions, Will would say in his wry way, ‘Yeah, but who else am I going to talk with about such things?’”

In 2007, on the 150th anniversary of the massacre, Latter-day Saint apostle Henry B. Eyring, now a member of the governing First Presidency, expressed the church’s “profound regret for the massacre. … What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.”

Bagley appreciated that Eyring’s statement expressed contrition to the Paiutes, who had been set up as fall guys for the massacre, but otherwise found the church’s words lacking. “I don’t think shoving it off on local [church] leadership is an apology,” he said at the time, according to a Tribune account. “Did you hear an ‘I’m sorry?’”

Also in 2007, PBS aired “The Mormons,” a four-hour documentary that detailed both the Latter-day Saint faith’s history and its financial and political clout. Bagley had advised the series’ producer, Helen Whitney, on the project.

“Will was my first and most cherished guide into Mormon country,” Whitney said Wednesday. “It mattered urgently to him that I understood its complexity and contradictions — and its beauty. And that I present the richness of Mormonism, with its darkness and light, in my filmed portrait.”

Whitney added that “our working relationship developed into a friendship, which only deepened over the years. I will always remember his infectious laugh, his impish smile, his delight in cornering a historian to share his newest discovery — and his sheer joy when his wife, Laura, walked into the room.”

Bagley had published two of the four books in his “Overland West” series, chronicling the overland trails that led to the United States’ expansion into the West. The first book, “So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812–1848,” was published in 2010; the second, “With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849–1852,” came out in 2012.

His last book may have been his most personal. “River Fever: Adventures on the Mississippi, 1969-1972″ was Bagley’s account of his youthful, post-Woodstock experiences trying to follow the paths of the fictional Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

‘A heritage Mormon’

William Graham Bagley was born May 27, 1950, in Salt Lake City. From age 9, he was reared in Oceanside, Calif., where his father, Lawrence Bagley, was the mayor.

Bagley attended Brigham Young University from 1967 to 1968 and then transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz. There, he studied writing with Page Stegner, son of legendary Western writer Wallace Stegner, and history with John Dizikes.

Before becoming a professional historian in 1995, Bagley worked a number of jobs — including, for a brief stint, a country musician. He founded his own record company, Groundhog Records, to release his own album, “The Legend of Jesse James,” in 1979. He gave up on a music career to become a writer at the computer graphics firm Evans & Sutherland and worked for more than a decade in the tech sector before moving to history.

Bagley was raised in the Latter-day Saint faith but told the 2002 Ex-Mormon Conference that he “never believed the theology since I was old enough to think about it.” He declared himself “a heritage Mormon.”

Besides penning several books, he wrote for and edited several historical journals and newsletters. He also wrote a column, “History Matters,” for The Tribune from 2000 to 2004.

Bagley was a frequent guest on KUER’s “RadioWest,” regaling public radio listeners with stories from Utah’s history and folklore. Pat Bagley recalled that when he once went into KUER’s studios for a “RadioWest” taping, the producer told him not to “Bagley the table” — an expression the station’s engineers coined, inspired by Will, for pounding the table to emphasize a point.

In a 2011 “RadioWest” appearance, Bagley talked about the myth of the Three Nephites, ancient figures from the Latter-day Saints’ signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, who reportedly would stop to help stranded travelers. Bagley said he had his own Three Nephites experience.

“I was driving on the back roads to Panguitch once, and my car broke down,” Bagley said. “These three guys pull over in a pickup truck. They come over, open the hood, and close it, and the car’s all fixed. Then they say to me, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Panguitch.” They said, ‘What you going to do?’ I said, “I’m going there to tell them the truth about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.’ And they beat the hell out of me.”

Bagley is survived by his wife, Laura Bayer, who is also a historian; two children, Cassandra and Jesse; and three siblings: Pat, Kevin and Lisa Payne.

Plans for memorial services are pending.

— Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this article.