Legislator claims mass murderer ‘Did not kill all of those people’

The Men and Boys Memorial marks the spot where migrants were massacred by Mormon militiamen in Utah during the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857. (Photo by: Wikimedia Commons)

PHOENIX — The Arizona State Senate is poised to permit the construction of a monument to a footnote in Arizona history named for the man who orchestrated one of the worst mass killings in the American Southwest — to be built next to a memorial for the Armenian Genocide.

The bill is called HB 2509 and was introduced by Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) to the House of Representatives. The Lee’s Ferry Bell Memorial will commemorate a remote ferry crossing on the Grand Canyon that operated for 50 years, moving mostly Mormon settlers across the river on their way south into Arizona. John D. Lee, the polygamist who established the ferry, was convicted and executed four years after founding the ferry service for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

A monument to the Arizona survivors of the Armenian Genocide may soon share a space with a memorial named after a man who led the killings of 120 people due to differences in religion. (Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

Lee was a Mormon leader in the Iron County, Utah, militia and led a four-day siege of a wagon train of settlers from Arkansas and Missouri that was moving west toward California. The 1857 attack ended with the deaths of every man, woman and child over the age of seven who were a part of the caravan — a massacre of over 120 people that Lee fled to Arizona to avoid paying for, according to the National Parks Service.

Last week, it was reported that the Senate Government Committee had given Barton’s bill a “Do Pass” recommendation. The bill had already passed through the entire House. The House Government Committee was the first group to take a look at the bill, and the chairman, Rep. Doug Coleman (R-Apache Junction) defended the memorial and the man it’s named after.

“He did not kill all of those people,” Coleman said. “He wasn’t alone.”

Coleman has that right — Lee was accompanied by 50-60 militia members and an unspecified number of Paiute Native Americans. However, he was the only one tried for the massacre. Eventually, the adopted son of Mormon president Brigham Young was excommunicated and later picked up by the federal government. Lee was convicted and sentenced to execution by firing squad on the site of the massacre in 1877.

Donna Kafer is the Legislature’s chaplain, serving a prayer meeting and lunch every Wednesday in the basement of the Executive Tower. For her, whether or not the state should separate Lee from Lee’s Ferry is a tricky question from both political and religious standpoints. Kafer has served in her role for nearly 20 years, and has shied away from weighing in on bills and politics — according to her, she’s there for all the legislators.

I just think how do you separate a person’s crime from honoring your ancestor?” Kafer said. “It’s really difficult, isn’t it?”

Barton should know — she is a fifth-generation descendant of Lee, from his sixth wife. For Barton, the question of Lee’s legacy is less important than the role that his ferry played in the settlement of Arizona.

“We shouldn’t disparage Arizona’s part in history, let Utah live with it,” Barton said. “It doesn’t have to be a part of [the memorial].”

Indeed, the bell itself came long after Lee was executed — installed by a later operator in the church tower of the tiny community that was clustered around the ferry operation. That community was built by Lee and named Lonely Dells by one of his wives, due to the remote nature of the location.

The bell is owned by Fred DuVal, the Democrat who ran against Doug Ducey for the governor’s race in 2014. According to DuVal, the plan is to have a nonprofit foundation design and build this memorial at no cost to the state. He would then donate the bell to Arizona, and the fixture would be installed at the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza.

“I want this to be about the bell and the migration, not John Lee,” DuVal said in a phone interview.

This memorial to Arizona’s pioneer women commemorates those who settled Arizona, from Utah. A similar memorial may go up next to it — recognizing a place they crossed, named for a sectarian murderer. (Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

Bolin Plaza is significant for its prominence on the Governmental Mall of the Capitol as well as the other memorials that are installed there — such as the Armenian Holocaust Memorial, Arizona Pioneer Women Memorial, and a host of war-related memorials to fallen soldiers and peace officers.

The installation of a memorial named for someone who led the killing of dozens of religiously different innocents, next to one that commemorates the Armenian innocents  killed for their religion, doesn’t seem incongruous to Barton.

“Armenian genocide, what does that have to do with John Doyle Lee? Barton said. “I don’t think I have a comment on that.”

But for Kafer, that mashup of religious strife stands out as a bad combination. She likened those who died at Mountain Meadows as matyrs, and said the inter-denominational conflicts were similar to the Quakers and Puritans.

“That is horrible, it makes me want to cry,” Kafer said. “Don’t you just love religion? All in the name of how someone believes. What a tangled mess.”

DuVal will be in charge of this tangled mess, and will be developing the text of the memorial once the legislation is passed. DuVal claims that he will take into consideration Lee’s history when it comes time to building the message of the memorial. According to Kafer, that consideration should not be taken lightly.

“Much thought, consideration and much prayer should be given,” Kafer said.

Erik Kolsrud is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at ekolsrud@email.arizona.edu.

One comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *