New film shines light on 'terrible episode’ in Mormon history - East Valley Tribune: News

New film shines light on 'terrible episode’ in Mormon history

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Posted: Saturday, August 18, 2007 12:36 pm | Updated: 5:53 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Come Sept. 11 and the national remembrance of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2001, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will take stock of what’s called a “terrible episode” in their history precisely 150 years ago — the Mountain Meadows Massacre of Sept. 11, 1857, in southwest Utah.

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Come Sept. 11 and the national remembrance of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2001, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will take stock of what’s called a “terrible episode” in their history precisely 150 years ago — the Mountain Meadows Massacre of Sept. 11, 1857, in southwest Utah.

It’s called the first known act of religious terrorism in the U.S. That Friday, 120 men, women and children in a wagon train, heading through Utah from Arkansas en route to California, were killed by a group of 50 to 60 Mormon militia and Paiute Indians. Just 17 children, age 6 and under, were spared.

Those events are told in the film “September Dawn,” which debuts in theaters nationwide on Friday. Starring Jon Voight, it is touted as the re-creation of events examining “religious fanaticism, betrayal and subsequent massacre” accompanied by a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” love story.

Tensions had been high in the Utah Territory, where the first Mormons had settled a decade earlier to escape persecution in previous states, especially Illinois and Missouri. The territory had been at odds with the federal government, and Mormon settlers were bracing for as many as 1,500 U.S. troops, known as “Johnson’s Army,” coming to “put down perceived treason in Utah, and the Saints believed the army was coming to oppress, drive (out) or even destroy them,” according to the September issue of the church’s official magazine, Ensign. They feared the army would remove and replace Brigham Young as territorial governor.

The massacre took place southwest of Cedar City, Utah, about 35 miles north of the Arizona border, in an atmosphere of growing hostilities toward non-Mormon emigrants passing through the state.

“Emigrants became frustrated when they were unable to resupply in the territory as they had expected to do,” writes Richard E. Turley Jr. “They had a difficult time purchasing grain and ammunition, and their herds, some of which included hundreds of cattle, had to compete with local settlers’ cattle for limited feed and water along the trail.”

Weeks of bitter exchanges, complaints of public intoxication and blasphemy against settlers led to cries to call out the militia to arrest offenders. Eventually an express rider was sent to Salt Lake City with a letter to President Brigham Young, their spiritual and political leader, for his direction. But the response was not received before deadly skirmishes, then a five-day siege on the wagon train led by Fort Harmony Militia Major John D. Lee.

On Sept. 11, Lee entered the emigrant wagon fort under a white flag “and somehow convinced the besieged emigrants to accept desperate terms” to be safely escorted past Indians and back to Cedar City. The settlers agreed to leave their weapons behind and for young children to be separated. “They had been pinned down for days with little water, the wounded in their midst were dying, and they did not have enough ammunition to fend off even one more attack,” Turley writes in the Ensign.

“The procession marched for a mile or so until, at a prearranged signal, each militiaman turned and shot the emigrant next to him, while Indians rushed from their hiding place to attack the terrified women and children.” Those wounded in wagons were also shot.

Over the past century and a half, the tragedy “has deeply grieved the victims’ relatives, burdened the perpetrators’ descendants and church members generally with sorrow and collective guilt, unleashed criticism on the church and raised painful, difficult questions,” Turley notes. He makes two points: “Nothing that any of the emigrants purportedly did or said, even if all of it were true, came close to justifying their deaths. Second, the large majority of perpetrators led decent, nonviolent lives before and after the massacre.” It wasn’t until 1874 that a territorial grand jury indicted nine men on charges relating to their roles in the massacre. Most were arrested, but only Lee was tried, convicted and executed.

“The massacre became an indelible blot on the history of the region,” Turley wrote.

“Most people believe John D. Lee was the scapegoat for the church,” said Pam Jones of Scottsdale, who remembers studying the history of the massacre while in high school seminary. The sixth-generation Mormon recalls feeling sorry for her friends descended from Lee.

“I think I have compassion for everybody,” Jones said. “I realize what the Mormons were going through at that time. Johnson’s Army was coming on their way to Utah, and they basically didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Jones said one of her great-grandfathers was a Mormon missionary who was among a group killed in anti-Mormon violence in Arkansas. So, it was understandable that Utah Mormons were wary of those Arkansas emigrants.

“I think most members realize that it was an unfortunate situation,” said Don Evans, the church’s Arizona spokesman. “There were members and local church leaders in that area that were at fault. No one will defend that at all.”

“It was used as an object lesson on heeding the counsel of your leaders,” said Danette Turner of Mesa, now a graduate student in history at Arizona State University, recalling her studies in high school seminary. The Utah militia “had been asked to wait for instruction, and they panicked. That was how it was presented to our class. If they had just waited, perhaps the disaster could have been avoided.”

Turner said she hoped “September Dawn” is balanced and fair. “My church has frequently been the target of negative publicity.” She said she likely would not see the film because of its “R” rating for violence.

The independent film was shot near Calgary, Alberta. Its director, Christopher Cain, said Canada was chosen “because it isn’t Utah,” and he wanted to avoid any controversy that might come from filming it in that Mormon stronghold.

“I think all Latter-day Saints are aware” of the massacre, said Gordon Porter, director of the Family History Center in Mesa. “It is part of the history.” The history of persecution of Mormons coupled with misunderstandings between the two groups that summer led to the fatal events, he said.

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