As the BYU story suggests, even positive Church projects backfire. Mormons often undertake good will ventures and find they are upsetting someone. Church members have found themselves in trouble, for example, for reclaiming the lands of their heritage. Leaders have been buying important LDS historic sites events since 1905 when they acquired Joseph Smith's birthplace in Sharon, Vermont, and erected a monument there. In the 1960s, the Church began restoring a series of historical sites: buildings in Palmyra, New York, where the Smiths moved from Vermont; the Smith's farmland in nearby Manchester; Liberty Jail in Missouri where Joseph was incarcerated; and large portions of Nauvoo, Illinois. The Church has reconstructed the village of Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith and his wife lived from 1831 to 1838, restoring existing buildings and recreating others from archeological evidence. The Smiths lived above the Whitney store in Kirtland. A visitors' center has been installed to accompany the surviving Greek Revival temple long owned by the Reorganized Church, now the Community of Christ. To improve traffic patterns, the Church contributed funds to reroute two state highways. In 2005 the Church announced plans to rebuild Joseph and Emma Smith's home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, where the bulk of the Book of Mormon was translated.
Restorations attract thousands of Mormons and other tourists to hear the Church's story, contributing to the local economies, but some arouse local opposition. The attempt to purchase Martin's Cove, Wyoming, caused a rumpus in Congress. Mormon pioneers in the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies, who began their trip late across the plains in 1856, struggled through snow for fifty miles to reach Martin's Cove, near present-day Casper. Before a Salt Lake rescue party arrived, 150 people perished, the result of poor planning and unseasonable weather. To commemorate these fabled pioneers, thousands visit the "sacred ground" annually. The incident has been worked into the Church's sacrificial mythology.
Although the state had ignored the land, the Church's attempt to buy 1,640 acres was opposed by state and national Wyoming legislators, perhaps fearing that other religious groups would want to purchase public lands too. The Church entered into a twenty-five-year lease with the Bureau of Land Management to care for and interpret the site, paying $16,000 annually to the BLM, and bought another ranch to serve as a gateway. Then the American Civil Liberties Union sued the BLM to revoke the lease, which allowed the LDS Church to create a "state sponsored sectarian religious enclave" on public land. Plaintiffs objected to the "pervasive, unavoidable and unremitting" Mormon presence. They objected to the controlling guides, who used the suffering of the pioneers "for proselytizing purposes." As in other places, the Church appeared to be a monopolizing institution, controlling public lands for propaganda purposes.
If Martin's Cove brought bad publicity, another story is far worse. The Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred on September 11, 1857, ten years after the Saints arrived in the Utah territory. That year, the Arkansas emigrants of the Baker-Fancher party set out for California in thirty to forty wagons with hundreds of cattle. Their attempts to trade with local Mormons were rebuffed because rumors implicated them in the murders of Church leaders Joseph Smith and Parley P. Pratt. Expecting the invasion of the U.S. Army to regain control of territorial government, Mormons refused to sell their grain and objected when the Fancher cattle munched down their pastures. The Indians believed the Fancher party had poisoned their wells. The Mormons remembered their previous persecutions, and with the army approaching, they feared they were being attacked again.
The Mormon settlers and Indians ambushed the wagon train moving near Cedar City, in Southern Utah. The emigrants circled their wagons, dug in, and fought. Five days later, the emigrants surrendered when the Mormons promised them safety if they disarmed. After the Fancher party gave up their guns, the LDS militiamen and the Paiute Indians set on them with guns and clubs and shot or beat to death some 120 men, women, and children, sparing only seventeen very young children. Two decades later, John D. Lee, considered a scapegoat by many, was executed for the massacre. That Mormons committed the brutal act is beyond question. They panicked as they awaited an invading army. What is still debated is the culpability of Brigham Young: Did he order the massacre? Was he responsible because of his inflated rhetoric against government and persecutors? Was this a premeditated act of vengeance? Young had certainly used strong language. He said, "We have borne enough of the oppression and hellish abuse, and we will not bear any more of it." But he and other leaders denied prior knowledge of the plans. The event is "the darkest chapter in Latter-day Saint history." An official army report written back in 1859 said that "for hellish atrocity, [this crime] has no parallel." One writer calls it "an act of religious fanaticism unparalleled by any other event in the country's history."
Church leaders have dedicated a monument at the site and have tried to effect a reconciliation with the descendants of the murdered. But they stopped short of a complete apology. The event lives on. Novelists and historians revisit the massacre, sifting the remains, trying to implicate Young. Richard Turley, managing director of the Family and Church History Department of the Church, says, "Circumstance may explain [the acts of the local Mormons]; nothing can justify them."
As the Church reclaims and retells its historical incidents, some members reenact them, replaying the western trek with covered wagons and oxen to experience the heroism of their pioneer past. In 1997, on the 150th anniversary of the great trek that took the first group of pioneers from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley, hundreds of descendants followed the 1,000-mile route with thirty horse-drawn wagons. They ate dried buffalo meat, apples, and beans, made lye soap, stuffed bed ticks with goose feathers, and prepared medicinal herbs. Some pulled two-wheeled handcarts, the pioneer economy vehicles. Many dressed as pioneers, cooked over fires, and walked the route, rising at 5 A.M. for three months to harness the horses. They recalled the Israelites' flight from Egypt. On arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, they felt they had reached the Promised Land. Replaying these historic treks has become very popular, so much so that the Bureau of Land Management now limits trail traffic to protect the land.