Will Bagley, a historian who has written lucid and detailed accounts of Utah’s past – particularly in a comprehensive and controversial book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre – has died.
Bagley died Tuesday in Salt Lake City at the age of 71 from a stroke, according to his brother, Pat Bagley, editorial cartoonist for the Salt Lake Tribune.
Will Bagley’s best-known book was âBlood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows,â published in August 2002. The book updated Juanita Brooks’ legendary 1950 volume, âThe Mountain Meadows Massacre On the murders of 120 Settlers from Arkansas to California crossing southern Utah, killed by Mormon militiamen on September 11, 1857.
Among the book’s most incendiary points is Bagley’s argument that Young, then president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, likely orchestrated the Salt Lake City massacre.
Bagley did not explicitly say that Young ordered the attack. But he insisted that “to claim that Brigham Young had nothing to do with Mountain Meadows is to claim 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 “a comprehensive, meticulously documented, and highly readable story that captures the events and atmosphere that gave rise to the massacre,” as well as its long consequences. Bagley took great care to negotiate the minefield presented by what remains of the historical record. “
Fellow historian Brigham D. Madsen praised the âblood of the prophetsâ in his review of the Western Historical Quarterly: âThis new account of the massacre is a remarkable recreation of the event and the cover-up that followed. The hallmark of the book is extensive, in-depth research with never-before-seen documentation, including many items from the Latter-day Saint records. “
The 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 sent to The Tribune on Wednesday, Turley called Bagley a “good friend” with whom he spoke last week at a meeting of the Utah Westerners, a group of historians in the area.
âI admired his passion and dedication. We have spent many hours together over the years discussing the story, âsaid Turley. âWhen we were chatting in public places, people sometimes gathered with cameras to take pictures of us, knowing that we differed in our interpretations of certain things. On these occasions Will would say in his ironic way, “Yes, but who else am I going to talk about such things with?” “
In 2007, on the 150th anniversary of the massacre, Latter-day Saint Apostle Henry B. Eyring, now a member of the ruling First Presidency, expressed âthe Church’s deep regret for the slaughter. â¦ What was done here long ago by the members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.
Bagley appreciated that Eyring’s statement expressed his contrition for the Paiutes, who had been singled out as fall guys for the massacre, but otherwise found the church’s words to be lacking. “I don’t think pushing it on local [church] leadership is an excuse, âhe said at the time, according to a Tribune account. “Did you hear an ‘I’m sorry? “”
Bagley had published two of four books in his “Overland West” series, chronicling the land paths that led to the expansion of the United States to 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”, was released in 2012.
His latest book is perhaps his most personal. “River Fever: Adventures on the Mississippi, 1969-1972” was Bagley’s account of his early post-Woodstock experiences trying to follow the paths of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn fiction.
“A Heritage Mormon”
William Graham Bagley was born on May 27, 1950 in Salt Lake City. From the age of 9, he was raised in Oceanside, California, where his father, Lawrence Bagley, was the mayor.
Bagley attended Brigham Young University from 1967 to 1968, then transferred to the University of California, 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 held several jobs, including, for a brief stint, that of country musician. He founded his own record label, Groundhog Records, to release his own album, “The Legend of Jesse James”, in 1979. He gave up a music career to become a writer at the computer graphics company Evans & Sutherland and worked for over more than a decade in the tech industry before making history.
Bagley was raised in the Latter-day Saint faith, but told the 2002 Ex-Mormon Conference that he “had never believed in theology since I was old enough to think about it.” He declared himself to be a ânative Mormonâ.
In addition to having written several books, he has written and edited several historical journals and bulletins. 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 of Utah history and folklore. Pat Bagley recalled that when he once went to the KUER studios for a “RadioWest” recording, the producer told him not to “Bagley the table” – a phrase coined by the station’s engineers, inspired by Will, for hammering the table to make a point.
In an appearance on “RadioWest” in 2011, Bagley spoke about the myth of the Three Nephites, ancient figures of the iconic scripture of Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon, who would stop to help stranded travelers. Bagley said he had his own experience of the Three Nephites.
âI was driving on the back roads in Panguitch once and my car broke down,â Bagley said. âThese three guys pull up in a van. They come over, open the hood and close it, and the car is fixed. Then they say to me: âWhere are you going? I said, ‘I’m going to Panguitch.’ They said, âWhat are you going to do? I said, “I’m going over there to tell them the truth about the Mountain Meadows massacre.” And they gave me a beating.
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.