St. George • In the ideological minefield that is Mormon history, Juanita Leone Brooks ventured where few others dared tread, armed by the desire to tell the truth about one of the ugliest chapters in the history of the American West.
Before the 1950 release of her seminal work, “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” historians say accounts of the Sept. 11, 1857, slaughter of approximately 120 members of the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train by Mormon militia members were divided between those hungering to pillory The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those seeking to shield the faith.
Brooks, who died at age 91 in 1989, chose neither approach.
“I feel sure,” she wrote in the preface of her book, “that nothing but the truth can be good enough for the church to which I belong.”
Her commitment to the truth was noteworthy because Brooks often walked an academic tightrope. A single misstep could cause significant collateral damage — namely to her church standing and her relationships with community members, some of whose ancestors took part in the bloodbath 30 miles north of St. George.
Despite disapproval of the book from some church authorities, Brooks outlasted and won over most of her critics. And today, 73 years after its release, historians and most Latter-day Saints are proud to embrace her as one of their own.
In fact, St. George’s Utah Tech University is hosting a Juanita Brooks Utah History Conference on Thursday through Saturday to remember the late historian, honor her legacy and build upon her scholarship.
Blazing trails, pursuing truth
Richard E. Turley Jr., former assistant church historian, characterizes Brooks as a trailblazer.
“She was really the person who laid the foundation for the modern academic study of the massacre,” said Turley, who co-wrote the acclaimed “Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy.” “Many scholars will argue over whether there’s such a thing as objectivity, but you can say there’s detachment, and she certainly sought that.”
Historian Barbara Jones Brown, co-author with Turley on the soon-to-be-released “Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath,” calls Brooks her “hero” and says everyone who has written about the atrocity since Brooks “stands on her shoulders.”
Turley, Brown and Steven E. Snow, an emeritus general authority and former church historian, are a few of the featured speakers at this week’s symposium.
Cristina Rosetti, an assistant humanities professor at Utah Tech and co-organizer of the event, said the conference will allow laypersons and learned professionals to rub shoulders and brush up on the massacre and other historical events in southern Utah. Since Brooks was a southern Utah historian and an alumnus of the school, Rosetti said it made sense to name the conference after her.
For Brooks, such recognition seemed unlikely, given her inauspicious start. Born in Bunkerville, Nev., in 1898, she was the second of Henry and Mary Hafen Leavitt’s 11 children. Although frail and somewhat small, by all accounts, Brooks thrived in the hardscrabble Silver State, going barefoot, climbing trees and playing in rivers or on sand dunes.
At age 8, she was tasked with taking care of the 10 horses her father needed for his mail route between Bunkerville and Moapa. She also showed a disposition for not accepting everything in the Bible as gospel.
“My father early [on] recognized my tendency to question, to disagree, to refuse to take many of the Old Testament stories at face value,” Brooks wrote in a letter to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “...One day, Dad said to me, ‘My girl, if you follow this tendency to criticize, I’m afraid you will talk yourself out of the church.’”
No stranger to hard work, Brooks was well acquainted with hardship. In 1919, she married Ernest Pulsipher, who died of cancer a little over a year later, leaving her to care for their infant son, Ernest.
Despite the challenges, Brooks earned a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and a master’s from Columbia University. She later settled in St. George, where she taught English and was the dean of women at then-Dixie College in 1933, when she resigned to marry Will Brooks, a widower who was 17 years her senior and had four sons. She and her husband later added three sons and a daughter to the family.
In interviews in 1996, Karl and Kay Brooks — sons from their parents’ second marriage — talked about their mother and shared some favorite memories.
“I didn’t realize it at the time but she was an excellent mother,” Karl said. “She would always tell us that she was not a neat housekeeper, but I always felt she was a great homemaker.”
Karl, who served as St. George mayor from 1982 to 1994, died in 2015.
Kay, who was the younger of the two and died in 2017, said their mother had a secret life after putting the children to bed. Arising at 2 a.m., she would spend four hours working on her Mountain Meadows book. She then put hot cereal on the stove and awakened the kids for school. He said none of the children knew Mom was writing a book until much later in life.
Most of her friends and neighbors didn’t know, either. Aware that many people in the tightknit community were direct descendants of those who took part in the massacre, Brooks kept a low profile. She would keep an ironing board handy while working on the book. When somebody stopped by, she would hurriedly cover the typewriter and start ironing.
“One woman, after three or four visits, told her, ‘You iron more than any woman I’ve ever seen,’” Karl recalled. “She didn’t realize that she had seen every bit of ironing mom had done for the whole week.”
No access to church archives
Snow, the emeritus church authority who grew up in St. George and will address the conference Thursday night at 7 in the St. George Tabernacle, finds it remarkable that Brooks was able to write such a landmark book, given her heavy domestic duties.
“This is a mother who raised a bunch of boys and one girl, and how she found the time in her busy life to write and do what she did is remarkable,” said Snow, adding that before Brooks’ book was published, the massacre was off-limits among locals.
“When she went through all these pioneer diaries and journals to get to the truth and publish an unvarnished version of what took place,” he said, “it was pretty shocking to the community.”
Perhaps even more impressive, Snow and others say, is that Brooks wrote the book without being able to examine church files on the massacre. Stung by “No Man Knows My History,” Fawn Brodie’s controversial biography of church founder Joseph Smith, officials denied Brooks access to depositions of militia members and other important records.
Snow said that was fairly common years ago. When he became church historian, he was “quite taken aback” by how restricted access was to some of the office’s collections and said he and Marlin K. Jensen, a fellow emeritus general authority who preceded him as church historian, changed that.
Despite the disadvantages Brooks labored under, Turley, who has enjoyed unfettered access to all the records when writing or co-writing his books, gives her high marks for her humility, courage and for getting the story mostly right about the massacre.
“She grew up in a culture in which the topic was considered taboo,” Turley said. “But she believed it was an important topic that needed to have the light of day shined on it. So she was willing to do that and took a lot of grief for it.”
Catching heat, standing firm
Once knowledge of Brooks’ upcoming book became public, Karl recalls church officials objecting. One leader, he said, asked his mother if her membership in the faith meant anything to her.
She responded, according to Karl: “It doesn’t if it means not telling the truth.”
After her book’s release and rave reviews nationwide, some church leaders became even more pointed in their criticism.
Kay recalled the story his mother related to him about apostle LeGrand Richards, who accused her of writing an anti-Mormon book. Asked if he had read it, the apostle acknowledged he hadn’t.
“Well, Brother Richards,” Kay said his mother replied, “this is something I know more about than you do. And until you read the book, it’s not worthwhile to discuss it.”
Richards later read the book but didn’t change his position, Kay said, exhorting Brooks to apply her writing talent to promote rather than destroy faith.
In the end, the Brookses remained active Latter-day Saints and never faced church discipline, although some family members said they did weather ostracism from neighbors and fellow Latter-day Saints.
Note from history
This week marks the 146th anniversary of the execution of John D. Lee, the only person ever convicted and put to death for his part in the Sept. 11, 1857, slaughter of 120 men, women and children at Mountain Meadows, about 30 miles north of St. George.
Lee was shot March 23, 1877, by a firing squad at the site of the southern Utah massacre.
Latter-day Saint apostle Henry B. Eyring stated during a 2007 visit to the location that “what was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.”
— David Noyce
Snow, who was good friends with Karl Brooks, said the book might have received some blowback, but he doesn’t remember the family being mistreated.
“She was always well-thought-of,” Snow said, “and everyone liked Will.”
Kay recalled receiving a phone call in 1991 from Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, asking him to serve as a mission president.
“When he discovered who I was,” Kay recalled, “he spoke very laudatory of my mother and her works.”
Honors and legacy
Brooks has received lots of accolades. In 2022, for example, the Washington County Historical Society honored her with a bronze statue in downtown St. George. Earlier, in 1985, Brooks was inducted into the Beehive Hall of Fame.
During her life, Brooks wrote more than a dozen books and scores of articles. Still, she is most remembered for her breakthrough account of Mountain Meadows.
In September 1999, before descendants of the massacred and the perpetrators of Mountain Meadows, Hinckley dedicated a monument to the fallen at the massacre site. And while Brooks didn’t live to see that event, scholars agree that there is little doubt her devotion to spreading the truth helped make that reconciliation possible.
Admission to the Utah History Conference is free. Questions about it can be directed to Cristina Rosetti at firstname.lastname@example.org.