Reviews – Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Western Historian

Associated Press, Bob Mims
For most of his 82 years, Brigham D. Madsen has mined historical truth, chipping away layers of legend to unearth the real, often raw, always compelling stories of the frontier’s Indians, soldiers, explorers, and settlers.

But that truth, Madsen will tell you, has proven a harsh muse. Fourteen books, numerous articles, and scholarly awards are the milestones of an intellectual and spiritual journey through the region’s past that have brought him both pleasure and pain.

Along the way, Madsen unearthed one of the worst butcheries of Indians in the Old West; exposed as fable a long-accepted account of an emigrant massacre; and concluded that the Mormon faith he held dear was founded on fictional, if inspirational, scripture.

“That’s the historian’s burden,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘What are going to be the results of this?’ . . . But you have to give the truth as you see it.

“If the evidence says such and such happened, then I’m going to tell it the way it is,” he said. “History can be dangerous.”

If so, Madsen has proven well-suited for the job. Even in his ninth decade, he remains a rough-hewn bear of a man, as comfortable with his past as a construction worker as he is as a renowned University of Utah emeritus professor of history.

Every bit of 6-foot-4, Madsen folds himself upon the edge of a patent-leather chair, looming over a small home office crowded with mismatched book shelves, mementos and scattered notes.

His obsession with the past began on a small farm outside Pocatello, Idaho, where as a gangly youth he plowed through the local paper’s accounts of the Great Depression to share a local columnist’s love of western lore. By 1938, Madsen had earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Utah, adding a master’s at the University of California (Berkeley)—and a wife, Betty—over the next two years.

His California doctorate work, interrupted by a three-year World War II stint, was completed in 1948. He taught history at Brigham Young University for the next six years.

His interest in history was incurable. He quit BYU in 1954, upset with what he saw as deficient academic freedom at the Mormon church-owned school. For seven years he ran a home-building business, but resumed teaching in 1961 at Utah State University.

Madsen was training director for the Peace Corps in Washington in 1964-65 before returning, this time for good, to academia via Utah, where he was honored as a distinguished teacher in 1977.

His inaugural book, The Bannock of Idaho, came in 1958, telling the story of what had been an obscure tribe. It was the first of many works that made him the leading author on Indian-white relations and conflicts in the region.

In 1993, his article, “The Almo Massacre Revisited,” declared that tales of an 1861 slaughter of some 300 emigrants near the southeastern Idaho village of Almo—memorialized with a stone marker that had stood since 1938—never occurred.

It was in 1985, a year after he retired from teaching, that Madsen lit historical powder kegs with The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre, and B. H. Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon.

His monograph on the Shoshoni exposed the 1863 Battle of Bear River for what it was—a massacre of 250-400 mostly old men, women, and children by an army under the command of a glory-hungry Col. Patrick Connor.

For Diane Yupe, co-ordinator of the heritage tribal office at Fort Hall, Idaho, the book was the catalyst for long-delayed justice.

“His literature . . . led the tribe to begin questioning the federal agencies, to say ‘Something happened here, and we’ve been saying this for years and years,'” she said.

Pro-military enthusiasts,and some Mormons upset by implications that their ancestors bore some responsibility for inciting Connor’s campaign attacked Madsen’s expose.

Still, the volume won Westerner International’s best book award—an unmatched second such honor for Madsen—and the praise of National Park Service historian Edwin C. Bearrs.

“He’s a scholar, a public historian, and a gentleman who is surprisingly active, modest, and unassuming,” said Bearrs, who liberally quoted Madsen’s book in creating a national historic landmark at the southeastern Idaho massacre site.

“In his study of white-Shoshoni relations, he’s a pioneer. His [research] is a benchmark from which future works in this area will always be measured,” Bearrs said.

Gene A. Sessions, a western historian at Weber State University, said that even twelve years after retirement, Madsen “can write to any audience. He’s scholarly and well-researched, but your grandmother could sit down and read it and get a kick out of it.”

“Brig’s without question the dean of Utah historians, and the most revered of our colleagues in the field,” Sessions said.

“He is indeed,” agreed Harold Schindler, recently retired after five decades as a reporter, columnist, and popular historian for The Salt Lake Tribune. “He’s a gentle man, a marvel, and an excellent teacher—and you can’t say that about every academic historian.”

It was Madsen’s decision to edit the Roberts book that brought what he terms “thunder and lightning” in a state where 70 percent of the population belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Culled from secret documents penned by Roberts prior to his death in 1933, the book showed that the revered Mormon scholar and high church official had abandoned his life-long defense of the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired, historical account of earthly American civilizations visited by Jesus Christ.

“B. H. Roberts was a great defender of the church, but in his old age he made a study of the archaeology of middle America and South America and came to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon was not history, but written by [church founder] Joseph Smith—a work of fiction,” Madsen said.

A 1980 biography by a BYU professor disputes Madsen’s claim that Roberts wavered in his belief in the historicity of the church’s most revered scripture.

Madsen, a one-time church missionary to Tennessee and North Carolina, still considers himself a cultural Mormon and he remains on church membership rolls. But he no longer is a believer.

“Everyone in my ward knows I haven’t been to church in 25 years. They all know that I’m an agnostic, and I’ve told them that straight out—but they’ve never done anything about it,” Madsen said.

Madsen is convinced it is “inevitable” that the nine million-member church eventually will drop its insistence that its scripture is historically accurate and use it allegorically.

“There are some wonderful lessons in the Book of Mormon,” he said. “I think they ought to emphasize those things and let the history go.”

Madsen himself, though in his twilight years, has no intention of letting go of history.

He now has turned to writing his own history titled Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Western Historian. The exercise gave him much time to ruminate on the role of historian as truth-teller.

“What is truth? What really happened?” Madsen asked. “That’s why historians are not liked sometimes, because we destroy myths.”

Deseret News, Dennis Lythgoe (feature story)
Still lean and distinguished at 6 feet 4 inches, Brigham Madsen looks a bit older at 84, but the gleam is still in his eye, and he still talks about western history with an infectious enthusiasm, punctuated by his own patented chuckle. Slowed a bit due to a heart condition, he believes Against the Grain is his last book.

“I can no longer travel to do the research,” he says, “so I’m keeping myself busy writing introductions to books and book reviews.”

Maybe fifteen books of narrative history will be a sufficient capstone to a wonderfully diversified professional career. The rest of the historical community will think so, anyway.

Madsen has enjoyed a lifetime of “adventure doing different things.” People just kept offering him jobs, he says, and he just kept taking them, wondering if he could meet each challenge.

The result was a rich experience teaching at three universities, working as a carpenter and serving as president of his own building firm, working for the Peace Corps, serving as historian for the Shoshoni-Bannock Indian tribes, and serving in a variety of academic administrative positions.

Inadvertently, his building experience helped him direct the construction of a dozen buildings on the University of Utah campus while he served as administrative vice president. Every one came in under budget because Madsen insisted the architects meet the estimates of the engineers.

But teaching has always been Madsen’s first love, and his experience as an LDS missionary in Tennessee and North Carolina helped him to realize it.

Besides a determination to cover history in class “right up to the present day,” something few history professors do, and his emphasis on anecdotes to make history come alive, he brought an expansive, humane, caring personality to his students.

Asked why he was able to do that when some academics lean toward arrogance, Madsen says, “Maybe it was because I was a carpenter all my life. I slogged around in the mud and built in the heat and the cold. So I can get upset at some of the professors who kind of look down their noses at people who work with their hands. The carpenters and construction people I worked with were all highly intelligent people.”

Although those who know Madsen appreciate his even temper and his generous manner, he has not been incapable of anger. “When I was a builder, I could be pretty hot tempered. Building houses, you know, not knowing whether you’re going to make a living or go bankrupt, and everyone is after you—sometimes you blow up. So I could do that, but I decided I couldn’t do that in a university.”

Not only that, but 33 years ago, he suffered a heart attack that severely damaged a quarter of his heart. “The blood vessels that feed the right ventricle to my heart were destroyed, and as my doctor said, ‘If your heart were an eight-cylinder engine, you’d have to learn to get along on six. You can’t afford to lose your temper.’ ”

Madsen has followed that admonition closely. He also had a mother with “a wonderful sense of humor. She could see something funny in everything. I inherited a little of that from her, and it has helped me in my teaching.”

Six years of teaching at BYU and heavy reading in LDS Church history caused him to feel less ardent about his religious beliefs, but his “Mormonness,” as he prefers to call it, “is imbedded in my bones. I couldn’t escape it. I am a Mormon. How can I escape my first name—Brigham? When I worked in Washington, for example, and I introduced myself as ‘Brigham from Utah,’ well, they knew I was a Mormon.”

Even though he taught full time for a relatively short time—18 years at three universities—he was determined to retire when he reached the age of 70.

“I’ve seen too many faculty members hang on and keep teaching when they didn’t know what was going on in their disciplines any more,” he says. “I determined I wasn’t going to do that.”

During a highly productive retirement, Madsen researched and wrote western history with lasting significance. A natural story-teller, he considers the writing of narrative history to be comparatively easy.

“Getting the first paragraph is terrible,” he says, “but once I get it, then I enjoy the writing and can’t stay away from it.”

Madsen considers good organization crucial. “If you have good organization, the book will almost write itself. If it’s well-organized, the narrative just flows. I get upset with historians who look down their noses at narrative history. If it’s well-done, you don’t have to write two chapters explaining what you just said. The narrative gives you the interpretation.”

A proponent of writing interesting history, Madsen doesn’t understand historians who think including interesting anecdotes is not scholarly. “It has to be germane to the subject, you know, but if it IS, good heavens, why leave it out? Furthermore, a simple story can better explain the point than complex details.”

Although he denies his memory is superior, he wrote his memoir almost entirely from his own memory.

When he took his oral exam to finish his Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Berkeley, his major professor, Carl Sauer, asked him marvelously detailed questions that Madsen still remembers word-for-word.

“He asked me to draw the line from Vera Cruz across Mexico and delineate the wild Indian tribes to the north of that line and the civilized tribes below that line. I had memorized it, so I drew the line. He was astounded.

“Then he asked me some common-sense questions, one in particular I had never thought of. He asked me why there was a desert quality to the Baja peninsula? I said, ‘Well, could it be that the prevailing winds to the south carry moisture across the cape and the prevailing westerlies to the north, and there is a period of calm between the westerlies? Maybe that’s the reason.’ He said, ‘Not only MAYBE, that IS the reason.’ ”

Madsen was pleased, but even more so when he left the room while his professors decided on his fate and he overheard Sauer say, “He not only has a good memory, but he uses his head.” That, says Madsen, remains “the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.”

Deseret News, Dennis Lythgoe (book review)
A true renaissance man who worked as a carpenter, building contractor, history professor and administrator at three universities and the Peace Corps, and prolific historian, Brigham D. Madsen is also a devoted family man and delight to know. Although a man of exceptional accomplishment, he has never been self-impressed. But he is thoroughly devoted to the principle of truth in history around which he has structured this lively, gracefully written memoir, told with unusual candor.

Well-known to colleagues for his exceptional memory, he has taxed it to the limit to produce this detailed narrative of his life, complete with conversations remembered from 50 years ago. While many well-published academics are prone to arrogance, Madsen has remained, right up until his 85th year, approachable and down-to-earth.

Loved and honored by students and colleagues at three universities, he is still most interesting for his graciousness, his friendliness, and his undiminished interest in people. All of this comes through clearly and profoundly in the book.

Using the personable narrative style for which he is justly famous, Madsen traces his family beginnings, his early “slogging in the mud” to build houses, his LDS mission to Tennessee and North Carolina, his student days in Utah, Idaho, and California, his unique role as Third Army historian in Germany during World War II, his six years as a BYU professor, followed by seven years of building houses, his three-year teaching stint at USU, an administrator in the Peace Corps for three years, a string of administrative appointments at the University of Utah, followed by nine years of devoted teaching, and finally, an astoundingly productive writing career.

Madsen was 66 years old before he began producing a string of 15 highly acclaimed books in western history. In 1980 alone, he produced four notable books in western history, North to Montana, The Lemhi, The Northern Shoshoni, and Corinne: The Gentile Capital of Utah.

Appropriately enough, the publication of his memoir coincides with the re-publication in paperback of North to Montana, one of his best books written with his wife, Betty (now deceased), by Utah State University Press. Many of his subsequent books have won prestigious awards.

Madsen still considers his LDS mission to be a defining experience, “a wonderful emergence into adulthood.” He gained invaluable opportunities to lead and work with people which would serve him well the rest of his life. “Of all the experiences of my life, I consider the mission adventure to be among the most valuable.”

Unfortunately, his experience as a faculty member at BYU was not as happy. He was bothered by a low salary, consistent expressions of “church politics” and the directives to teach church history with a textbook he didn’t trust.

The more LDS history he read, the more he questioned Mormon doctrine. For reasons of conscience, he resigned from BYU to go back to carpentry. Today, he calls himself “an amiable agnostic” who still retains strong Mormon ties.

After spending seven years as a builder, Madsen returned to teaching with enthusiasm at USU where he was considered a superior teacher. Madsen still considers the Distinguished Teaching Award he received from the University of Utah in 1977 to be his most important professional recognition.

Madsen always devoted himself to making history interesting to students, lecturing to large classes of 200-800 and involving smaller classes in discussion to analyze the “why’s of history.” He never stressed the need to remember dates, telling students “there are two kinds of people in the world–the majority who cannot remember dates no matter how hard they try and and a very small minority who remember dates in spite of themselves and usually become historians.”

Those who read Madsen’s memoir will find it a delightfully honest and interesting book, emanating from his inate talent to lecture with flair and to find the most important as well as the most interesting issues to talk about. I have only regret—that all readers cannot hear Madsen’s patented, ingratiating chuckle interjected after key phrases or climactic statements.

I would not be surprised to see this book become an award winner, too. All Madsen cares, however, is that those who read it enjoy the process and do some thinking while they’re at it.

Pacific Northwest Quarterly, David J. Whittaker
This book is an autobiographical odyssey of a carpenter-administrator-historian written in his twilight years. It is an account of a life rich in experience, tempered by a skepticism born of the author’s family background and western pragmatism. As Brigham Madsen presents it, his life was an attempt to find a balance between idealism and hardheaded skepticism, evidenced by his interests in the construction business and in the world of the university.

Brigham Dwaine Madsen was born October 21, 1914, in Magna, Utah, but grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. He was drawn in two directions by his parents: to books, culture, and religion by his mother; and to carpentry, hard physical work, and personal agnosticism by his father. No doubt his life, and in turn the lives of his own children, were shaped by the tensions of these two worlds. While his father’s views clearly carried more weight, Brig found much of value in his heritage and Mormon religion.

The account of his full-time religious mission (1934-36) to North Carolina and Tennessee constitutes two chapters (pp.73-113) and is a valuable window onto Mormon missiology during the depression years. It suggests that while his faith broadened it also focused on the social gospel aspects of the Mormon message rather than on Latter-day Saints’ scripture and theology. Madsen’s graduate studies at the University of California at Berkely and military experience in Europe no doubt further encouraged his love of his country and of history but deepened his personal skepticism about religion in general, and Mormonism in particular.

What makes this memoir especially valuable are the author’s accounts of the people and institutions with which he was associated during his long life. His mission years, military service (as chief of the Historical Section of the Third Army, he attended the Nuremberg Trials for one day), graduate school (including association with Herbert Bolton), teaching at Brigham Young University (where he had conflicts with President Ernest L. Wilkenson) and Utah State University, involvement in the Peace Corps (1961-64, in part as assistant director of training), long administrative and teaching career at the University of Utah (which included a close relationship with President James Fletcher when Madsen was an administrative vice-president), and years away from academe in the construction business are all described with vividness and candor. He introduces us to a variety of interesting and colorful people, and we learn about the author from his perspective on them.

Because of his heavy administrative duties, Madsen produced little published scholarship until late in his life. He certainly made up for it after 1979, and his autobiography presents the basic story behind each major project. Most of his research focused on the intermountain West and on such topics as Native Americans; conflicts between Indians and whites, especially the military; and exploration. He seldom dealt directly with Mormon history; rather, he chose to address the larger context of western history through topics such as his study of Corinne, once the non-Mormon capital of Utah; the Bear Lake massacre of 1862; and Patrick Connor, founder of Fort Douglas and antagonist to Brigham Young. Much of Madsen’s work focused on the history of Native Americans in northern Utah and southern Idaho: the Bannocks, the Lemhi, and the Northern Shoshoni. His works on these tribes are still standard references. Some consider his best book to be North to Montana! Jehus, Bullwhackers, and Mule Skinners on the Montana Trail (co-authored with his wife, Betty M. Madsen, 1980, 1998).

His personal involvement with the civil rights movement (he was present when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963) and his criticism of the LDS church’s pre-1978 denial of priesthood to blacks are important themes in his narrative. His memoirs convey a strong sense of dedication to the principles of historical truth and honesty, ideals he describes. His western historical studies reflect this philosophy, as does his editing of the controversial Studies of the Book of Mormon (1985), by B.H. Roberts. Whether or not one agrees with Madsen that a major LDS Church leader and scholar came to doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon, one must acknowledge that Madsen dealt with the issue as honestly as his own biases would allow. He even suggests that such a view of the Book of Mormon matched his own. (p. 358).

What makes these memoirs such interesting reading are his bifurcated accounts of the various worlds he inhabited: his mission for the Mormon church but lack of a personal testimony for its basic messages; his skill as an artisan and his scholarly training as a historian; and his long career as an effective administrator-scholar in the world of university academics.

Utah Historical Quarterly, F. Ross Peterson
Brigham Madsen is a teacher. Although his life took many turns and he spent years as a carpenter, Peace Corps and VISTA administrator, and university librarian and administrator, he is a teacher. His career spans decades and his amazing administrative and leadership talents are recognized by three different Utah universities, yet he remains the ultimate teacher. A native of Utah, he moved with his family to Idaho, where he finished college during the Great Depression and taught in the public schools. He then went to the Cumberland Mountains as a Mormon missionary and served in World War II. He married, went to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley after the war, and began an intriguing career that saw his influence spread over decades of teaching.

This autobiography is definitely necessary reading for anyone interested in contemporary Utah. The author is matter-of-fact but totally honest as he discusses his activities as a Utah educator, author, and activist. There are many exciting reflections on relationships and incidents—for instance, his discussion of his years in graduate school, where Madsen and western historians S. George Ellsworth, Richard Poll, Everett Cooley, and Merle Wells all studied together and wrote dissertations that dramatically changed the teaching of Utah and western history.

Madsen’s brief stint at Brigham Young University is revelatory as he presents his remembrance of how the dreams of a young idealistic professor were shattered by the autocratic leadership of Ernest Wilkinson. Although Madsen demonstrated his leadership at BYU, he also experienced a loss of religious faith, in part because of his colleagues who quietly analyzed different aspects of their religion. Madsen’s anecdotes about traveling the West with LDS general authorities are enlightening and humanly delightful. In many respects, Madsen’s trial of faith came from the way others, like Sterling McMurrin and John Fitzgerald, were treated. He chose to leave BYU and join his family in the construction business for seven years. Eventually, he returned to an academic career, and he served with distinction as a teacher and administrator for more than two decades.

Madsen wrote many books, mostly since his retirement, that put him in the forefront of western historians. His several books on Native Americans are pathbreaking, as are his studies of communities, individuals, and institutions. His clear, concise style is complemented by a passion for accuracy and objectivity. Whether it is a biography of Col. Patrick Connor, a study of Corinne, Utah, an analysis of the Montana trail, or a revisionist view of the Bear River Massacre, Madsen presents history as classical human drama.

However, Madsen is still best remembered as a teacher. His intellectual disagreements with Mormon theology do not diminish his commitment to the universality of humanity as taught by Mormons. He has found his personal guideposts through a lifetime of service to his wife, family, students, and colleagues. His life is an example of the best who write history while they are making history.