William Grant Bagley, born 27 May 1950 in Salt Lake City to Lawrence Miles Bagley and Cassandra Margene Bailey, left us 28 September 2021 after a series of strokes. The many who will miss him include three siblings, Kevin (Patty), Pat (Kate Hahn), and Lisa (Wendell Payne); wife Laura Bayer; daughter Cassandra and son Jesse; three beloved grandchildren, Noah (Mikah), Megan Cassandra, and Maya; numerous extended family members; and legions of readers, students, friends, and fans.
Bill, as he was known through childhood and young adulthood, moved with his family to Oceanside, California, where his father served first as town planner and later as a multiple-term mayor. He graduated from Oceanside High in 1967 as class president, state debate champion, and national pullup champion. He studied for a year at BYU, which, as one of his cousins tactfully noted, may not have been the right school for the young rebel who ran for student body president on an anti-Vietnam War plank. As a sophomore he transferred to the University of California Santa Cruz, where he studied writing with Wallace Stegner’s son Paige and history with John Dizikes. While attending Santa Cruz, he arranged an independent study program to build a raft and travel from Rock Island, Illinois, to the Mississippi delta. This was the first of two trips down the Mississippi River, journeys chronicled in his last book, River Fever. Fortunately for us, he survived a near-fatal encounter with a barge. In the following years he hitchhiked, bicycled, and drove a van across country twice. He also spent time in a cabin in remote Spring Creek, North Carolina, writing, listening to traditional local musicians, playing music, and growing an epic beard, which his mother complained made him “look like a goddam hippie.”
After returning to Salt Lake City, he worked construction, played what he called ka-chunk guitar for various country bands, and recorded an LP, “The Legend of Jesse James.” When he married Janis Johnson in 1978 (divorced 2001), the required blood test revealed that he had type 1 diabetes, which he would struggle with the rest of his life. After the birth of his daughter in 1980, Will gave up the precarious music business for a series of technical writing jobs in the emerging computer industry, working at the legendary computer graphics company Evans and Sutherland and later at Dayna.
Not until the 1990s did he pick up his pen to write history. His first publication, A Road from El Dorado, appeared in 1991. Encouraged by mentors Floyd A. O’Neil and David Bigler, in 1990 he began research on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a project that culminated in the publication of Blood of the Prophets in 2002. In 1996 he teamed with brother Pat to produce an illustrated children’s history of Utah, This is the Place. In 1997 publisher Robert A. Clark invited him to serve as editor for a documentary history series that became Kingdom in the West, a project that occupied him until 2019 and produced 16 award-winning volumes. From 2000 to 2004 he wrote the popular “History Matters” column for the Salt Lake Tribune. During the decade he also served on the executive committee of the Journal of Mormon History, edited two volumes for the Utah, Mormons. and the West Series sponsored by the University of Utah’s Marriott Library and the Tanner Trust, prepared research documents published online for the Park Service and the Oregon California Trails Association, and provided information for multiple National Park Service trail maps. In 2003 he married Laura Bayer. From 2010 to 2015, he produced four major works, including Mormon Rebellion (with David L. Bigler), So Rugged and Mountainous, With Golden Visions Bright Before Them, and South Pass.
In the end, he published more than 25 books and hundreds of articles related to the history of Utah and the West. He appeared in numerous videos, including Helen Whitney’s The Mormons, Brian Patrick’s Burying the Past, and many documentaries. He won research fellowships from Yale’s Beinecke Library, the Huntington Library, and BYU’s Redd Center. In 2008 he held the Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellowship at the University of Utah. He appeared on local radio and television programs, including Doug Fabrizio’s Radio West program at KUER (26 times). He lectured regularly throughout the state and the country, even speaking in Morocco and other world locations for the Center for Study of New Religions. He enthusiastically mentored every student who came his way and generously gave advice to anyone who asked (and some who didn’t). A self-proclaimed expert on the Bear Lake Monster, he delighted in giving presentations about the mythical beast. He compiled a second music CD, The Crows Will Pick Our Bones. He wrote a one-act play for Salt Lake Acting Company’s evening of short plays related to water. He provided historical consulting for fiction and nonfiction, theater, television programs, videos, podcasts, visitor centers, museums, government agencies, and others.
Will received recognition from dozens of professional organizations. Blood of the Prophets won the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Publication Prize, the John Whitmer Association’s Smith Petit Best Book Award, a Western Writers of America Spur Award, the Denver Public Library’s Caroline Bancroft History Prize, the Westerners International Co-founders Best Book Award, the Western History Association’s Caughey Prize for the Major Distinguished Book on the History of the American West. After giving him multiple Spur Awards over the years, in 2016 WWA named The Blood of the Prophets as the 6th best book published in the association’s first 60 years. Three years later they presented him with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in the History of the West. With other Wister Award winners, he is enshrined in the WWA hall of fame in the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. In 2010 he received the Wrangler, the highest award presented by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He was also honored by the Utah Arts Council, the Oregon California Trails Associations (OCTA), Salt Lake Weekly, the Utah Historical Society, the Mormon History Association, and others. In 2013 he was elected to the Oceanside High School Hall of Fame. In 2014 he became a fellow of the Utah State Historical Society.
Throughout his career he served in many organizations, including Western Writers of America, Utah Westerners, Friends of the Marriott Library, Oregon California Trails Association, Utah Rivers Council, Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Western History Association, Mormon History Association, Utah State Historical Society, Sunstone, Mountain Meadows Association, Mountain Meadows Foundation, E Clampus Vitus, Center for Study of New Religions, and others.
The family would like to extend thanks to the staff of Legacy Village Sugarhouse and Suncrest Hospice, who gave Will excellent care in his last year.
A private family service was held; a public celebration of life will be held in the future. In lieu of flowers, we suggest donations to one of the many organizations Will worked with throughout his lifetime, including Friends of the Great Salt Lake, the Oregon California Trails Association (OCTA), the Southern Utah Wilderness Association (SUWA), the Utah Rivers Council, and Utah Westerners.
My sincere condolences to all of Will Bagley's family and friends. I greatly enjoyed his unique insights in talks at Ken Sanders Bookstore.
Will Bagley was a true original. Always interesting and diverse, he could be acerbic, gentle, tough, and a comedian in the same few moments. He always made me laugh. I met him in 2014 in his magical office where he wrote, thought and researched. I always wanted to be left alone there for about a week to open all the volumes he collected over his years of study. I was writing the biography of Esther Hobart Morris and he was generous with information and advice. More importantly he read every word of the first draft with notes for improvement and encouraged me to continue when I felt overwhelmed. Finally he wrote the introduction to the book. When I met him for lunch to give him a signed copy o f the published book, his happiness for me was reflected in his face and words. He was my mentor and my friend. The books he has written are a monumental contribution to western history and he will be missed.
Dear Pat and members of Will’s extended family,
Thank you for sharing your glorious memories and cherished thoughts of this remarkable individual.
Hugs to you all.
I was saddened to hear of Wills passing. I offer my deepest sympathy to all of Will's family.
I first met Will in 1999 in Southern Utah at the Mountain Meadows Massacre Site. Being the
great great granddaughter of John T. Baker, one of the leaders of the wagon train, we had many
talks over the years, and having loved reading about western history, I will always value the conversations we had together. When we would see each other at Mountain Meadows. Will would always say "Well,
here we are again". I have many of Will's books, but of course the one I treasure the most is "Blood of
the Prophets" and his personal words he wrote to me in the book.
What a great historian he was. I recently was at Mountain Meadows this September 11th on the 164th
anniversary of the massacre, and I missed seeing Will there, but we will all have our memories of him.
Will also attended and gave talks to the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants (MMMD)
I want to wish all of Will's family strength and comfort in the days ahead.
Best Kind Regards,
Cheri Baker Walker
My sincere condolences to those who are missing Will the most and who worried over and supported him during his last months. Will is one of the few who seemed to not only fill his potential but to constantly expand it. I worked with Will at E&S and enjoyed playing something-like-golf with him during and after that time. He never wasted a minute. He was a true original and always entertaining and illuminating company. I was privileged to be asked to read the draft of his last book, River Fever: .... , when we were at E&S and am rereading the published version now. Just as he did with most everything, he improved it.
Hugs to his family. Sad indeed.
My condolences to Will's family. We have lost a great iconoclast and humanist for our time. Bill, as I knew him, was a life-affirming human being who followed his heart and lived an "intentional" life. He was my classmate at Oceanside High School and my dear friend before he headed off to BYU in 1967 and then transferred to UC Santa Cruz. We kept in touch for a short while and then he went on to bigger things. He did not suffer fools lightly nor did he hold back his criticism of powerful politicians and theologians in the face of wrong-headed thinking. I will miss you my friend, may you always be "forever young."
Dear family and friends of Will:
With you i share sadness at what is, in our time, an untimely early death. He lived life with more vigor than most and no doubt gained extra appreciation of it through the refinement of perception and intellect that accompanies a life of reading. I always appreciated Will's clear perception and his ability to show it in words. He said what he meant clearly and i did not have to speculate what he meant. Such clarity is a gift.
I am glad to have known Will Bagley and will continue taking the gifts of his mind via his books.
Love, condolences and respect,
We are brokenhearted to hear of the passing of Will. We had the pleasure of becoming friends while at Evans and Sutherland. We can still see his smile and hear his wonderful laugh. We will be holding his family close in our hearts.
Laura, when I put my feet in your shoes, they don't fit. I was thinking a little while back that I would try to add some new friends. It used to be easy. How many would I need to balance Will? I'll start by being a better friend to my friends, starting with you. Sincerely, Mike
Will, you were a great friend to Mike and then, when I married him, also to me! You published Mike's chap book and gave him a place in your wonderful backyard, surrounded by mutual friends, for a poetry reading. He remembers the days when you were next door neighbors on C Street and shared laughs any time you crossed paths with him. He recalls those days and your blossoming love for Laura and her love for you (it was so obvious and sweet and new). Time has passed, we have all aged, and the friendship deepened. Now we get some tears whenever the thoughts, of you being gone, wave over us. We are deeply aware of Laura and of your family and always will be. Laura we love you.