William Grant Bagley was born to Lawrence Miles Bagley and Margene Bailey Bagley on May 27, 1950 in Salt Lake City. From the age of nine he was raised in Oceanside, California, where his father was a long-serving mayor in the 1980s. His younger brother Pat Bagley became the notable Salt Lake Tribune editorial cartoonist and they are the uncles of professional surfer Dusty Payne. Bagley attended Brigham Young University in 1967-68, and then he transferred to University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), where he obtained his B.A. in History in 1971. At Santa Cruz Bagley studied writing with Page Stegner and history with John Dizikes. He graduated from UCSC between Richard White and Patty Limerick, two of the leading lights of the "New Western History." While at UCSC he received the California State Scholar and President's Scholar awards. He considers an integral part of his education a trip he took in 1969, on a homemade raft built of framing lumber and barrels, down the Mississippi River from Rock Island, Illinois to New Orleans. After graduation he spent three years in North Carolina studying the local Bluegrass music and culture, and playing in bands.
After college, Bagley worked as a laborer, carpenter, cabinet maker, and country musician for more than a decade. In 1979 he founded Groundhog Records to release his long playing record, "The Legend of Jesse James." In 1982 he abandoned music and hard labor to take a writing position at Evans & Sutherland, a pioneering computer graphics firm. He worked in various high-tech ventures until 1995, when he started his career as a professional historian. He has written more than twenty books, and in 2008 historian David Roberts dubbed him the "sharpest of all thorns in the side of the Mormon historical establishment."
Although he was raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), Bagley is no longer a member. He has publicly stated that he "never believed the theology since [he] was old enough to think about it." However, he is friends with believers and considers himself a "heritage Mormon," valuing his pioneer lineage.
In September 2014, the Utah State Historical Society granted Bagley its most prestigious honor as a Fellow, joining "the ranks of such luminaries as Dale Morgan, Wallace Stegner, Juanita Brooks, and Leonard Arrington.". Western Writers of America gave Bagley its 2019 Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature in 2019. He said it was "an expression of affection from my WWA friends that is appreciated and humbling, for it calls to mind the words 'I am not worthy!'"
Bagley lives and works in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Bagley has published extensively over the years and is still active. He is the author and editor of twenty books and of many articles and reviews in professional journals, such as the Western Historical Quarterly, Utah Historical Quarterly, Overland Journal, The Journal of Mormon History, and Montana The Magazine of Western History. His column, "History Matters", appeared every Sunday for four years (2000-2004) in The Salt Lake Tribune.
He served as editor of News from the Plains, the newsletter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, for two years.
Continuing its hundred-year tradition of letting the people of the West recount their own history, in 1997 the Arthur H. Clark Company launched a new historical series, KINGDOM IN THE WEST: The Mormons and the American Frontier. Bagley is editor of this projected 16-volume series. The series presents essential source documents that look at the West through Mormon eyes and the Mormons through Western eyes. Published volumes describe the Mexican-American War, the conquest of California and the gold rush, the Brigham Young pioneer party of 1847, European visitors to "Zion," Mormon polygamy, the Utah War, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Fifteen volumes have appeared, most recently Richard L. Saunders' Dale Morgan on the Mormons: Collected Works Part 2, 1949-1971 and William P. MacKInnon's At Sword's Point, Part 2: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 1858-1859.
Other significant volumes include Michael W. Homer's On the Way to Somewhere Else: European Sojourners in the Mormon West; B. Carmon Hardy's Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its Origin, Practice, and Demise; Bagley and David L. Bigler's Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre; and Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West, which Bagley edited with Polly Aird and Jeff Nichols.
Will Bagley is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Utah Rivers Council, Westerners International, the Oregon-California Trails Association. the Friends of the Marriott Library at the University of Utah and the Utah Westerners. He established The Prairie Dog Press in 1991 to publish A Road from El Dorado. The press eventually expanded into a consulting business that has handled book design and typesetting, publishing, historical research, and contract writing. The press has worked with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Marriott Library, the History Channel, and PBS.
Blood of the Prophets
Bagley's book Blood of the Prophets deals with the Mountain Meadows massacre and has won numerous awards, including a Spur from Western Writers of America and best book awards from the Denver Public Library and the Western History Association. The New York Review of Books described the study as "an exhaustive, meticulously documented, highly readable history that captures the events and atmosphere that gave rise to the massacre, as well as its long, tortuous aftermath. Bagley has taken great care in negotiating the minefield presented by what remains of the historical record."
According to Robert M. Utley, "[e]ver since 1857, the Mormon Church has vehemently exempted itself and Brigham Young from any complicity in this crime against humanity. Church-approved histories embrace this interpretation when they mention it at all. The official church historians and custodians of the massive church archives have carefully avoided the issue. Parts of the archives have been 'lost,' restricted, sanitized, and even manufactured. Mormon historians who probe beyond the prescribed limits face isolation at best, excommunication at worst. ... Such is the prospect for Will Bagley. ... Will Bagley has made a major contribution to western American history. Already, the church counterattack has begun. ... He is likely to take some painful personal hits, but his scholarship will withstand the professedly scholarly hits."
Work in progress
Bagley is currently working on "The Whites Want Every Thing: Native Voices from the Mormon West," Volume XVI of Kingdom in the West: The Mormons and the American Frontier, which will end the Arthur H. Clark series. He is also engaged in his most ambitious project, a projected four-volume study of overland trails and western expansion "Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails." Two volumes are now available.
The first installment, So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812-1848, appeared in 2010. It won several awards, and The Atlantic selected it as its Editor's Choice in September 2011.
With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, the second volume, appeared in 2012."As usual, Bagley delivers hard truths in shimmering prose, lifting the veil of romance that surrounds so much of the American West," The Salt Lake Tribune commented shortly after its release. "It's no secret that those who packed up their life's belongings for a new shot at life on the frontier suffered and struggled, but Bagley reveals it all through meticulous research that gives it depth and meaning."
Based on his professional experience in the computer business, Bagley has written a history of LexisNexis with the company's first general counsel. If the book is a success, he plans to write a trilogy about the computer revolution, "The Machine of Time: Chronicles of the Computer Age," which he jokingly calls his "DigitIliad."
2010 Merrill Mattes Award for Excellence in Writing, The Oregon-California Trails Association, with Rick Grunder, for "'I Could Hardly Hold the Pen': Phebe Ann Wooley Davis's Hard Road to Utah and Back, 1864-1865." Overland Journal 27:3 (Fall 2009).
Choice Magazine's Outstanding Academic Titles of 2010, So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1840-1848.
2011 Western Heritage Award (The Wrangler), for So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1840-1848.
The John Whitmer Historical Association's Smith-Pettit Best Book Award in Latter Day Saint History, 2011, for David L. Bigler and Will Bagley, The Mormon Rebellion: America's First Civil War, 1857-1858 
2012 Spur, Best Western Nonfiction Historical, Western Writers of America for The Mormon Rebellion: America's First Civil War, 1857-1858 
Utah State Historical Society, Amy Allen Price Military History Award, 2012, for David L. Bigler and Will Bagley,The Mormon Rebellion: America's First Civil War, 1857-1858 
Utah State Historical Society, Smith-Pettit Best Documentary History, for Jeffrey Nichols, Polly Aird, and Will Bagley, Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West 
2013 Spur, Best Western Nonfiction Historical, Western Writers of America for With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849-1852
2013, Members of the Western Writers of America pick Blood of the Prophets as the sixth best Nonfiction book of the last 60 years.
2015, South Pass: Gateway to a Continent Westerners International, Co-Founders "Best Book" Award, 2014; Utah State Historical Society, Francis Armstrong Madsen Best Utah History Book, 2015; Best Western Historical Nonfiction, Spur Finalist 
2017, Best Western Short Nonfiction, Spur Finalist for "Touching History: A Grandson's Memories of Felix Marion Jones and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Utah Historical Quarterly
Bagley, Will, ed. "A Bright, Rising Star": A Brief Life and a Letter of James Ferguson, Sergeant Major, Mormon Battalion; Adjutant General, Nauvoo Legion. Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2000.
Editor, with David L. Bigler, Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Norman, Oklahoma: Arthur Clark Co, 2008. Hardcover ISBN978-0-87062-362-2
Bagley, Will. So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California. 1812-1848. Volume I of the Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trials" series. Norman: The University of Oklahoma, 2010. ISBN978-0-8061-4103-9
Bagley, Will. With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849-1852. Volume II of the Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trials" series. Norman: The University of Oklahoma, 2012. ISBN978-0-8061-4284-5
Bagley, Will. '"South Pass: Gateway to a Continent." Norman, Okla: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. ISBN978-0-8061-4442-9