Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks did more to influence the study of history in Utah than perhaps anyone not named Brigham Young.  Her eponymous history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and her biography, John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat, changed the way that both the country at large, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself, viewed Mormon history.  With restraint and careful research, she undermined the official narrative of the massacre as an ambush by local indigenous tribes and showed the Church’s hand in organizing and carrying out the attack.  According to her account, the only man executed for participating in the massacre, John D. Lee (for whom Lee’s Ferry is named), filled the role of scapegoat, taking on blame that ought to have fallen more broadly among church elders.  Her account of the events leading up to the massacre in 1857 was eventually, if grudgingly, adopted by the Church itself, a testament both to her skill as a writer and researcher, as well as to her bravery in questioning the teachings of the religion she held dear.  She created a tradition of independent historical research carried out by both secular historians as well as scholars working within Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints institutions that persists to this day.

Brooks was born in Bunkerville, NV in 1898 to devout Mormon parents.  Her faith remained important to her throughout her life, even at times when the Church itself became hostile to her inquiries and writings.  She earned a bachelor’s degree from BYU and went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University, going on afterward to teach as a professor of English at Dixie College in St. George.  She quit her job when she married William Brooks though she did not stop producing scholarly work.  Brooks wrote extensively about Southern Utah, her home for most of her life, in both her historical works and her memoir, Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier

Brooks’s writing is calm and direct.  She disappears into the background more than most writers and she lets her subjects dictate the tone of her writing.  Her work celebrates the quiet wit of the Mormon settlers whose lives she dedicated her life to chronicling.  Often, even her less scholarly productions have the tone of historical writing.  Quicksand and Cactus in particular recounts the stories of elders, pulling from the rolls of her sprawling extended family.  The best lines in the book generally go to her subjects.  Her grandfather, in response to a friend who tells him, regarding his land, “You have had the help of the Lord.  Yours is like a partnership,” answers, “Yes, Brother […] but you should have seen that piece of land when the Lord was trying to run it alone.” In a more disturbing vein, he comments in a moment of relaxation, seemingly unbidden, “his hands stretched out to the firs,” “I thank God that these old hands have never been stained by human blood.“

Though she was most interested in the daily lives of pioneers, Brooks won lasting fame for her writing on the hidden bloody history of the colonization of the Colorado Plateau by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly the participation of the Church in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  In her biography of John D. Lee, she recounts the almost gothic birth of her interest in the massacre at the deathbed of a local man, who told her “My eyes have witnessed things that my tongue has never uttered, and before I die, I want them written down." She then recounts the following:

I went at once to his bedside. He recognized me, but was too weak to talk clearly, too tired to follow a coherent thought. I remained at the home his last two days.  In his delirium he preached in the Indian language, sang, prayed, and exhorted, tossing about and jumbling things together.  At one time he opened his eyes wide to the ceiling saying, “Blood!  Blood!  Blood!!” in a way that made my scalp fairly crawl.

               “What troubles him?” I asked one of those present.  “He acts as though he is haunted.”

               “Maybe he is.  He was at the Mountain Meadows massacre, you know,” was the answer.

               No, I certainly had not known. (Brooks, 15)

Before Brooks, the Church had maintained that the massacre was the work of Lee, a frontiersman in southern Utah who often acted as an emissary to local indigenous tribes.  He was eventually tried, convicted, and executed, with the Church maintaining that justice had been served.  Brooks, having read Lee’s diaries, as well as diaries from other settlers from southern Utah, became convinced that Lee had been set up as a scapegoat.  Brooks wrote several books on the subject, determined to set Lee in his proper historical place.  She argued that members of the Church had led the massacre and not followed the lead of the Paiutes, as the Church had previously maintained.  The guilty party of settlers was much larger than just Lee, and many more members had participated in the massacre. 

Brooks did not see her work on the massacre as a challenge to the Church; instead, she thought that the truth would eventually benefit the church.  Brooks lived and died a loyal Latter-day Saint.  In her introduction, she argues that the massacre would offer lessons to future Saints and the public at large as a warning about the costs of zealotry.  Where some saw the massacre as a shameful secret to be kept, Brooks argues that the atrocity is a key piece of the church’s “eventful” past.  Brooks fully expected throughout her life that the church to excommunicate her for her work.  But, while she was passed over for church assignments, she remained a member in good standing for the rest of her life.

Brooks’s writing continues to inspire generations of Utahn historians.  Writers and historians of the Mountain Meadows massacre like Will Bagley and Jon Krakauer regularly defer to her primary sources and analysis.  Other historians, like Jared Farmer, refer to her broad body of scholarship on life early in the colonization of southern Utah, such as More broadly, she prefigured the scholarly independence of the church’s historical division.  The church itself has largely adopted Brooks’s version of events, though the placard at the site of the massacre itself still argues that the causes of the tragedy “defy clear or simple explanation.”

 Selected Bibliography*

  • The Mountain Meadows Massacre, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1950.
  • Uncle Will Tells His Story, Taggart & Co. (Salt Lake City, UT), 1970.
  • Jacob Hamblin: Mormon Apostle to the Indians, Westwater Press, 1980.
  • Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier, Howe Bros., 1982.
  • John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat, Utah State UP (Louisville, CO), 1992.


The University of Utah's Digital Collections houses the Juanita Brooks Papers collection, which features manuscripts and letters.