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During early Mormon history, there was a band of clandestine assassins known as the "Danites" or the "Sons of Dan". They committed a form ritualized murder known as Blood Atonement.

The group and their murder/revenge tactics are surrounded in some historical mystery. Much of the literature about the Danites is sensationalist fiction, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet."

My question is: How common were the Danites? Were there Danite divisions in every ward and stake in Zion? Were Danite murders rare events committed by vigilantes or was Brigham Young's Utah basically a Fascist state, with the Danites playing the role of the institutionalized secret police?

Please include sources for any answers that you submit.

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    Not an answer but just wanted to add here in case it is of interest for anyone looking into this. There's an old book titled "Brigham's Destroying Angel", by William Hickman that discussed his role as a Danite chief in Utah. A copy of this book is online at utlm.org – SherlockEinstein Jul 1 '17 at 2:14
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    Please cite your sources for the existence and activities of the Danites. – sempaiscuba Jul 1 '17 at 15:57
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    A more recent book that may shed some light on the subject is "Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows" by Will Bagley. Or for a book that discusses this and other source material, you could check out "One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Chuch" by Richard Abanes. – user100487 Jul 16 '17 at 14:47
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I notice that you do not cite any sources for the existence and activities of Mormon Danites, however after some research I think I can provide a reasonable answer to your questions.

It seems that the question of whether Mormon Danites actually committed any murders at all depends largely on whether you believe the evidence given by Mormon dissident, Dr Sampson Avard, at the trial of Joseph Smith following the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri.

There certainly seems to be very little evidence for activity by a Danite sect within the Mormon community after 1838. The Mormon Encyclopedia essentially states that claims of Danite activity after 1838 were based on Avard's account and simply

provided a ready explanation for anyone who wanted to believe the worst

In the 1870s, two former Mormons, Ann Eliza Young and Fanny Stenhouse wrote "exposés" of Mormonism. Both are available on Archive.org:

Ann Eliza Young - Wife No. 19, or The Story of a Life in Bondage ; Being a Complete Exposé of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy

Fanny Stenhouse - Tell it All: The Story of a Life Experience in Mormonism

Both claimed that Danites were still active and discreetly murdering Mormon dissenters and outsiders who were seen to be a threat to Brigham Young. The problem with these accounts is that both rely entirely on hearsay and rumour, and that neither offered any evidence to support their claims. As an example, on page 170 of her book, Fanny Stenhouse reported a conversation she had had with a lady named Mary Burton. She records Mary Bruton's side of the conversation thus:

"... for I have heard from people who ought to know, that since the Saints have been in Salt Lake Valley the same things have been done; only now that speak of these men as "Danites" and "Avenging Angels." People say that those who are dissatisfied and want to leave Zion, almost always are killed after they set out, by the indians, and they dare not say boldly who they believe those "Indians" are. The too one lady told me that she had heard from her sister that not only were apostates killed in a mysterious way by Indians or some one else, but that many people were "missing," or else found murdered, who were only suspected of being very weak in the faith"

Despite the claims of Danite activities in her book, Ann Eliza Young did observe that:

Joseph Smith always denied that he had in any way authorised the formation of the Danite bands; and, in fact, in public he repeatedly repudiated both them and their deeds of violence.

(p48)

Although hardly authoritative, the Wikipedia page notes that:

Not a single "murder" was reported during that time to support these allegations, not to mention evidences which would support allegations of multiple homicides.

and that

To date, both LDS and non-LDS researchers have failed to produce any evidence providing (even remotely) the support of such claims, leading to the position among scholars of Mormon history that the claims of Ms. Young and Ms. Stenhouse were wrong.


One of the more notorious incidents claimed to be the work of "Danite bands" was the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. John D Lee was arrested and tried for leading the massacre. Although he never denied his own complicity in the massacre, Lee claimed he had not personally killed anyone. In court he claimed that he had been a reluctant participant and was later used as a scapegoat to draw attention away from other Mormon leaders who had been involved.

Throughout two trials (first in 1874 (which ended inconclusively with a hung jury) and then in 1877 where Lee was convicted), Lee maintained that Brigham Young had no knowledge of the event until after it happened.

Now, in the book The Life and Confessions of the late Mormon bishop, John D. Lee, published after his execution by firing squad at Mountain Meadows on March 23, 1877, Lee (or an editor) wrote:

"I have always believed, since that day, that General George A. Smith was then visiting southern Utah to prepare the people for the work of exterminating Captain Fancher's train of emigrants, and I now believe that he was sent for that purpose by the direct command of Brigham Young."

(p225)

The problem here is that this statement was published posthumously, and is clearly at odds with his earlier claim that Young had no knowledge of the event until after it happened, which obviously raises the possibility that it was added later by an editor or publisher.

Despite this, Lee's book has been used extensively by modern authors to demonstrate the activities of Mormon Danite bands. An example of this is American Massacre by Sally Denton. On her website, Denton describes herself as

"Investigative Reporter and Author"

I can't claim to be familiar with any of Sally Denton's work personally, but I did find a number of critical reviews of this particular book (for example, this piece by Robert H. Briggs). The main criticisms of American Massacre seem to centre around her reliance upon some controversial psychoanalytical methods by Fawn M. Brodie and Robert D. Anderson (perhaps others may be better able to expand on the strengths and weaknesses of these methods), and upon the unreliable posthumous testimony of John D. Lee, discussed above.

Given the paucity of contemporary evidence for the activities of the "Danites" in the 1850s, and the unreliable nature of such evidence as does survive, it is perhaps unsurprising that these stories appear to have been a popular topic for pseudo-histories over the years. However, I think that Leonard J. Arrington summarises the current position best in his biography of Brigham Young:

As a part of the law enforcement system of the State of Deseret, Brigham Young had created a small force of Minute Men who were prepared to leave at a moment's notice to pursue Indian or white raiders in order to recoup stolen cattle or horses. So efficient and dedicate were these young men that they began to take on a sinister aspect to those who observed the workings of the Mormon system from afar. Taking some licence from the short-lived nonofficial Mormon vigilante group in Missouri, they were sometimes referred to as Danites or Destroying Angels. They played, and continued to play, a major role in western fiction, and many readers have imagined Brigham as a military dictator with a personal army of avengers who carried out his orders to capture, torture, and kill people who crossed him. But that Minute Men were anything more than a group willing to undertake arduous labors for their governor and church president has never been demonstrated.

Leonard J. Arrington, 2012, Brigham Young, Doubleday, p250


So, to answer your question:

Did Mormon Danites actually exist?

Very possibly, although whether Joseph Smith or Brigham Young actually knew of their activities is a matter of dispute. There is certainly compelling evidence that many people believed that they existed, and that they were afraid of them.

How common were the Danites? Were there Danite divisions in every ward and stake in Zion?

We have no way of knowing. Again, there is good evidence that people believed that Danites existed and that they were widespread in Utah, but we lack the evidence to determine whether those beliefs were based on fact.

Were Danite murders rare events committed by vigilantes or was Brigham Young's Utah basically a Fascist state, with the Danites playing the role of the institutionalized secret police?

Although we do have evidence of murders by vigilantes (the trial of John D. Lee, for example), I have not been able to find any credible evidence that any were carried out by "Danite groups" associated with Brigham Young.

There certainly doesn't seem to be any evidence that Brigham Young's Utah was a Fascist state, or that Danites played the role of his institutionalized secret police.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Jul 3 '17 at 17:32
  • @sempaiscuba, thank you for your well thought-out answer. Although the conclusions between our answers differ, I think both of them are fair and fact-based. I was not at all satisfied with your first answer, as it failed to adress the question within the scope of what I believe this site is designed to do. For guidance, click on this link – J.W. Powell Jul 13 '17 at 19:16
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    Being selective with "evidence" is of course the way to get the evidence you want. – user100487 Jul 16 '17 at 14:48
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After having researched this question thoroughly over the past two weeks. I seem to have the answer:

Danite murders were common in Territorial Utah. It is impossible to determine if "platoons" were in every ward in stake, but their influence was widespread and nearly every Mormon had heard of the Sons of Dan and feared them.

Statistics of Danite activity are impossible to come by, but details of their murderous work in Utah can be found in many contemporary accounts and exposes, as well as in the book "American Massacre," by award-winning historian Sally Denton, which details the involvement of Danites in the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Potter-Parish murders.

BYU professor and Mormon historian Paul H. Peterson concedes:

"locally organized 'trouble-shooting' groups policed various locales...Brigham...sanctioned at least some of their doings."

Some Mormon apologetics claim that although murders were committed, the Danites were never formally organized. Historian Michael Quinn calls this a moot point, writing:

"LDS leaders publicly and privately encouraged Mormons to consider it their religious right to kill antagonist outsiders, common criminals, LDS apostates, and even faithful Mormons who committed sins 'worthy of death.'"

One of the best concise papers on Danites seems to be "You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out," by Polly Aird.

Interestingly, every single disaffected Mormon examined by Aird mentions Blood Atonement and Danites among their reasons for leaving. The men and women examined by Aird were from different parts of the state, yet all of them claimed fear of Danite murders.

I'll quote a few examples of Danite activity in the 1850s. For greater detail, refer to any of the books previously mentioned. I'm not aware of any online copies, but they can be easily obtained by Googling the title.

Charles Derry, a Mormon, began to doubt the faith, yet he

"kept a still tongue and minded my own business so that I was not suspected of harboring what they termed a spirit of apostasy...I was not anxious to have the Danites lurking in my path."

John Hyde, another Mormon, asserted:

"Some of the leading spirits of that band [the Danites] are still in Salt Lake City...being generally merged into 'Brigham's Life Guards,' yet without the same name, they have performed the same deeds...they never threaten what they will not perform."

Frederick Loba, a Mormon from Switzerland who journeyed to Utah in 1854, wrote that Danites employed by Brigham Young in Utah numbered at least

"400 men," and were sometimes called "Wolf Hunters." The Wolf Hunters were "to assassinate every person who should attempt to leave the Valley without permission of the Prophet," and "If anybody was even accused of having indulged in any disparaging remarks concerning the head of the Church, that man was certain to disappear suddenly and mysteriously."

Danites existed in fact as well as rumor. Frederick Gardiner was attacked by three men after leaving the religion and tyring to leave the state; he barely escaped with his life. Others were allowed to depart unmolested, but fear of Danites caused some to sneak out of town in the middle of the night.

The body of historical accounts - from active and disaffected Mormons - of Danite activity in Utah, is enormous. In light of this, it can be reasonably established beyond serious doubt that Danites did exist and were fairly active in Territorial Utah.

PS - @sempaiscuba, please remove your previous answer, as I think it fair to say that it was factually incorrect. Also, feel free to edit go back to Wikipedia and edit the article you quoted so that it will be more accurate.

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    Your answer would be improved by following site conventions regarding formatting. Make source citations distinct (provide links where available), place quotes from works within quote blocks. – justCal Jul 13 '17 at 0:23
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    I don't see any evidence of Danite murders - I see lots of quotes that indicate people were afraid of Danites, but how many murders were actually committed? – Mark C. Wallace Jul 13 '17 at 1:14
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    Your selective edits of text from the Arrington Book seems to greatly contort the meaning of the paragraph of text on page 250 left out by your edits. – justCal Jul 13 '17 at 4:43
  • @user2448131, I don't have a copy of Arrington's original book. The distortions were a secondary quote, and weren't mine. I'll remove the quote entirely for the sake of accuracy. – J.W. Powell Jul 13 '17 at 18:53
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    How about the full text of the Peterson quote(emphasis mine)" Historian Paul H. Peterson concludes: "While it is probably true that the Danites never existed in Utah Territory, it seems apparent that locally organized 'trouble-shooting' groups policed various locales. It is also probable that Brigham, though not connected with any of them, sanctioned at least some of their doings. – justCal Jul 13 '17 at 20:10

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